Serving the Empire: P&O, Design, Identity and Representation, 1837 to 1969.

Lead Research Organisation: Kingston University
Department Name: Sch of Art and Design History


This project will support the work of one doctoral student to investigate the archives of the shipping company, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (renamed P&O in 1840), and its subsidiary companies, during the period of its operation. The main focus of the research project is to analyse how P&O used artists and designers to represent its corporate mission and identity. Using the wealth of archival sources held in the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum and at P & O, the student will interrogate links between the history of British Imperialism and visual culture. The company makes an ideal case study, as it served the British Empire in the East, transporting mail, goods and passengers between Britain, Africa, India, the Far East and Australasia throughout the time of the British Empire and into the period of the New Commonwealth.

It is not only the geographical and temporal spread of P&O which makes it a unique and important company; the ships it commissioned were not the stereotypical, luxury ocean liners seen on the transatlantic route, but smaller scale ships with modernist as well as historicist interiors. Hence the accepted history of ocean liner design, which is still dominated by studies of the 'floating hotel' will be challenged, with a study of more modest vessels. The studentship will involve an analysis of the 1929 'Viceroy of India', the first whose interiors were designed by a woman and incorporating the English country house style. Why was this appropriate for the journey to India? By contrast, the 1936 'Orion' used modernist designers to accommodate passengers on the journey from England to Australia. Why was this felt to be more appropriate? The research project will then investigate the links between the ships' interior design and the graphic design commissioned by the company to communicate an appropriate corporate identity. The National Maritime Museum holds an important ephemera collection, which comprises a rich source of menu cards, advertising material, and other examples of graphic design, many originating directly from P&O. The Museum also holds important collections of manuscripts, business records, and material culture that relate specifically to the company. To complement this research, the student will also investigate the P&O Heritage Collection, based in London, which includes posters and artwork commissioned by the company as well as holding primary research material relating to the company's internal and external business affairs and transactions. The project will also investigate the P&O Art Collection to explore how the company's values, aspirations, corporate ambitions and corporate identity strategies were supported by the patronage of the arts and of artists, and in the commissioning of art for its ships and buildings.

The project will analyse visual and written sources to ascertain how the company saw itself, how artists and designers were commissioned, how P&O presented itself publicly through visual means and how this relates to the broader context of British Imperialism and post-colonialism.

Year one will be spent mainly at the National Maritime Museum, investigating the P&O Archive, and relating this to the history of the company and of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Time will also be devoted to researching secondary sources including company histories and recent research on Imperialism.

Year two will be spent partly at P&O's London Headquarters, undertaking research into the art and design collection there. This will be supported by the continued exploration of secondary sources. Work will begin on ascertaining what the most salient aspects of P&O in relation to representation and design during the Victorian period and into the last century.

Year three will be spent further assimilating the research findings and relating these to t

Planned Impact

The history of the ocean liner and its relationship with social, political, economic and design history is currently the focus of much attention. There is a large scale, international exhibition planned for 2014 on the subject and the BBC recently produced a three-part documentary on the history of the ocean liner, to which Anne Massey and John Graves contributed. So there is a broad interest in the subject amongst the general public, and this project will provide further new research for this audience. Also, the building of cruise ships is presently at its zenith, and the popularity of ocean-based holidays has never been greater. Therefore, this research will add to the knowledge and understanding of contemporary designers and naval architects. The use of design to represent corporate identity is key to this kind of work, as different companies compete to attract the passenger. For example, Anne Massey has consulted with the Chief Naval Architect for Carnival Cruises and Phillips Design with regard to the future of the cruise industry and ocean liner interior design at an event held at Kingston University. With the challenge of globalisation and the culture of diaspora, research into a leading British shipping company, whose length of service has spanned British Imperialism and the Commonwealth, will add to the knowledge and understanding amongst the public sector and beyond.

In order to convey the outcomes of the doctoral research to as wide an audience as possible, the National Maritime Museum is anxious for the student's findings to firstly be incorporated into its collections database - this is currently being made more accessible to the public in time for the opening of the new archive and library - the Sammy Ofer Wing - in 2011. The Museum has also successfully incorporated academic research of partner institutions onto its website - for example, much of the raw data that has been collated through the Leverhulme-funded research project on victualling the Navy (with Greenwich Maritime Insitute) is currently being made available in electronic form to academics and in a more accessible version to the general 'visitor'. The highly visual aspect of the 'Serving the Empire' research will make it peculiarly suitable for this type of online work. The Museum is also in the early stages of planning two exhibitons to which the student's research would be able to contribute: a large, temporary exhibition on liner interiors that is being developed with the Peabody-Essex Museum for 2014, and a permanent gallery on ocean travel, which is planned to open after 2014. Work will be commencing on these exhibitions in mid-2010, and early-2011 respectively. Both projects will have associated online and learning programmes, while the large, temporary exhibition will also have a catalogue, to which the studentship will be able to add considerable academic value. Therefore, the student and the supervisors engaged on this doctoral programme will acquire high level, academic skills, but also gain knowledge and understanding of the broader impact of historical research into this field of national importance.


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AH/I024704/1 01/10/2011 30/09/2012 £60,250
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