Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dinner at Eight en Paquebot France

Consider this. The 530 or so passengers in First Class on the France spent an average of 3.5 hours each day enjoying lunch and dinner. Dinner in the First Class Dining Room (Salle a Manger Chambord) was always a black tie affair and was not only a feast but a fashion show, a parade of beauty and a display of opulence overpowering enough to make a sultan faint with envy. Beginning at 8:00pm, a stream of ladies dressed to the nines and weighted down with diamonds entered the Chambord, stood for a moment at the top of its golden staircase, then descended the 19 steps to meet their escorts and then their gustatory nirvana.

The Chambord was located amidships (to negate any sort of rolling while dining) and accommodated the majority of all first class passengers in a single sitting. The intention in designing this room was that it should be the visual equivalent of the excellent food served within, and that it was!

Designed overall by Madame Darbois-Gaudin entry was via a majestic 19 step golden staircase designed by Baptistin Spade, with railings by Raymond Subes. On all French Liners from the Ile de France to the Normandie one always descended into the dining room. The French always knew how to make an entrance!

The centre of the space rose to a circular dome to create an illusion of a round room in a square space.. The dome painted midnight blue contained an assortment of recessed pot lights imitating the stars in the night sky. This all rested within a circular band of translucent, fluorescent-lit panels, all on a truncated rotunda of gold aluminium.

The room carpeted in rich hunter green Rilsan, then glowed with Jean Mandaroux’s continuous mural painted on 17 lacquered aluminium sheets. Entitled “Les Plaisirs de la Vie” (The Pleasures of Life), it drew the eye out to contemplate the whole room as a whole. My maritime historian described the mural as such, “A lengthy mannerist mural predominated…. “It offered an arrangement of primitive stick figures with odd triangular heads, like interplanetary aliens. They were incised across bronzed aluminium panels……… glimpsed upon entry, the figures read badly, seen close-up, individual panels seemed overbearing.’ The only good thing he says about the panelling was its indestructibility. Now this is where I strongly disagree! The mural was stunning and captured the spirit of the decade perfectly. These were the sixties after all and the French Line was at the top of their game when choosing this for the dining salon. By night the mural shimmered in warm tones of gold and brown, serving as a stunning backdrop to the elegantly attired passengers dining within its confines.

Angular Monochrome chairs upholstered in red, orange, and cream seemed to dominate the room, however I believe that they create a nice visual contrast to the rest of the room. Of an archetypal sixties design, my marine historian didn’t like them.

His overall summing up of the space was not good, lighting was criticised and the walls were vapid in his opinion. Oh how I disagree! On the liner’s later incarnation as the S.S. Norway this was one of the few rooms to be left untouched in the subsequent renovation with only the chairs changed. The chairs chosen were totally wrong and diminished the impact that this wonderful room had.

On scrapping in Alang India in 2006, the walls and panels were still intact, however what has happened to these wonderful panels I do not know!

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