Transatlantic travels at the Peabody Essex museum in Salem

Anila Quayyum Agha, “All the flowers are for me” is a brilliant installation

My first visit, when I am in Marblehead in the summer, is always to the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Ma. Founded in 1799 by sea captains who wanted to preserve their discoveries from Cape Horn and other exotic Asian and African countries, it was enriched by local merchants and moved into its own building in 1825. George Peabody, one of the founders of the future J.P.Morgan bank, who was born in South Danvers (now Peabody),  was one of its main philanthropists in 1867. He is buried in Salem. 

Moshe Safdie’s atrium in the new wing is a brilliant meeting place

Extended in 2003 by Moshe Safdie, extraordinary architect of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Peabody Essex owns the only complete Qing Dynasty house outside China, Yin Yu Tang which draws many visitors. It also has a whole room of boat figureheads, more colourful one than the other and holds a fine collection of ship models and paintings from the 17 th to 19 th centuries. The collections of Chinese and Japanese porcelains is unique in America. And its glass atrium is a beautiful meeting place for all art lovers from the Boston East shore.

Herbert Davis Richter, View of the first-class dining room on Queen Mary, about 1936

This year I made two discoveries: one of Pakistanese artist Anila Quayyun Agha, whose installation of lighting and design « All the flowers are for me » was quite overwhelming and playful for adults and children alike ! I tis made of a central lightbulb which spreads out light through a magical lantern on the four walls of the room.

And the beautiful « Ocean liners, glamour, speed and style » exhibition, a perfect fit for this museum devoted to naval explorers! It will move to the Victoria and Albert museum in London in February 2018.

Louis Rochefort, The disaster to the Great Eastern State of the Grand Saloon during the gale, about 1860

There is a dreamlike quality to a show about ocean liners and transatlantic crossings and when you see a painting of the first class dining room of the Queen Mary, you are transported to art deco years, romantic encounters and dangerous crossings. What is particularly great about the show are the decors which are like stage sets. One had to entertain passengers for a week and nothing therefore was too luxurious or ornamented for their critical eyes.

Wood or glass panels and furniture, sculptures and dining room armchairs were of superior quality and it’s really fun to discover the glass bar tables or the ballroom murals, the Duke of Windsor’s Goyard luggage and the decoration of Marc Simon’s suites on Ile de France in 1927. Posters from travel companies are also spectacularly well designed.

Gaston Suisse, Six panels depicting Intercontinental transport from a mural created for Palais de Tokyo in 1937, came from the Boulogne Musée des Années Trente

« The steamship is the first stage in the realization of a world organized according to the new spirit » said le Corbusier and the ocean liner became a symbol of human progress and globalization in the twentieth century. Liners captured the imagination of artists, engineers, architects and they also conveyed popular entertainment.

William de Morgan, Tile panel designed for the saloon on Sutlej, 1882, Victoria & Albert museum

French, American and British liners are all represented here and there are films and photographs of the decors and service on board. If you can’t make it to Salem before October 9, plan a visit to London next February !

The gift shop of the museum is one of the best places for shopping in the Boston area and the catalog can be ordered on line. The show is jointly curated by Daniel Finamore from the Peabody Essex museum and Ghislaine Wood from the V&A where the show will be from February 3, 2018.

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