Our Great British Seaside: a love affair celebrated in art

A photo of happy holidaymakers frolicking and posing for the camera on a Kent beach in the fifties
Beach frolics fifties style: one of the holiday snaps on show, from the South East Archive of Seaside Photography

Summer by the sea was never so alluring. Step into the first room at Hastings Contemporary’s latest exhibition, Seaside Modern: Art and Life on the Beach, and you’re surrounded by a world of luscious, sun-drenched colour: of bright young things in cloche hats; of gentlemen in panamas; and many of the women sporting newly-fashionable, daring, one-piece bathing suits.

Vintage posters advertise sun, sea and, well, sex. A world away from the reality of the British seaside, where you could only ever guarantee one of those things, well, maybe two… But that didn’t bother the rail operators in the 1920s and 30s who commissioned these Art Deco poster adverts, or the artists, who took their colour palette from the French impressionists and their social cues from the chic wealth on display in glamourous French hotspots.

The train companies increasingly targeted a very different type of punter – working class and emancipated from work for at least one week a year, a legal requirement from 1938. It didn’t hurt that the health benefits from sun exposure (all that vitamin D) and a newly fashionable tan to prove it, were also all the rage.

A vintage Art Deco style Southern Railway poster advertising cheap trips to the south coast by rail
One of the vintage posters advertising travel to the coast, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum

And so began Britain’s 20th Century love affair with the seaside. Artists were also lured to this liminal land of sea, sky and shore, where conventions of art could be re-imagined and new techniques explored.

The bright young things continued their frolics, but the British seaside quickly became more popular, rude, raucous, and democratic. Guest curator James Russell, in his brochure to accompany the exhibition, writes: “What made the British seaside truly modern were the social and political advances that enabled so many to enjoy a day at the beach.”

The exhibition also features an array of snapshots showing holidaymakers doing just that – in a screen display of photos from the South East Archive of Seaside photography (SEAS). There is also a selection of postcards, including the classic cheeky observations of Donald McGill.

Even the artist L.S. Lowry took a break from his mill towns to follow his subjects onto the beach, his painting replete with a Punch and Judy show and people strolling in their Sunday best.

The love affair lasted into the 1970s, when seaside towns such as Eastbourne, Hastings and Brighton began to be jilted in favour of newly cheap flights to the Costas, where sunshine could be guaranteed, along with greater opportunities for sex, thanks to cheaper alcohol and privately rented apartments. From then on it became easy to mock the Kiss Me Quick hats and end-of-the-pier shows, not to mention the famously terrifying seaside landladies.

But now we’re back, aren’t we? Last summer, after a long first lockdown, Brits crowded onto England’s southern beaches from Bournemouth to Brighton in what was termed a “pandemic panic”. And despite the weather not cooperating so far, this summer looks set to see record numbers of UK families opting for British seaside holidays.

By contrast, the emptiness of the seaside in the off season is also captured by many of the artists in the exhibition, particularly Eric Ravilious, who grew up in Eastbourne. He provides a luminous view of Rye Harbour. As Russell puts it: “This watercolour could be a monument to an age that revered sunlight. We see the bright summer sun reflected in the burnished surface of the water.”

The Ravilious painting Anchor and Boats is another example of light playing on objects on the shore. And fishing boats feature prominently in Mackerel Sky, a “lost” Ravilious that was last exhibited in 1939 and is now on loan to Hastings Contemporary.

A 1938 watercolour by Sussex artist Eric Ravilious called "Anchor and Boats" shows fishing boats and equipment on the seashore
Anchor and Boats: a 1938 Eric Ravilious watercolour on show at the exhibition. From a private collection and published with the permission of Hastings Contemporary
Image copyright: Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images Licensed to Neil Jennings

Ravilious’s fascination with the working life of the seaside is mirrored by the real life view, from one of the gallery’s large floor-to-ceiling windows, of modern-day fishing boats and jumble of fishermen’s shacks.

Stepping out of the exhibition onto what is known as The Stade, it feels like the world is on holiday. The funfair rides are attracting a steady stream of children. Queues are forming at fish ’n’ chip shops, while drinkers bask in the sunshine at pub tables. It could be a scene from 50 years ago were it not for the modern fashions and occasional face mask.

But it’s the British seaside all right and it never really went away.

The Seaside Modern exhibition is expected to continue until October. Bookings can be made online at the Hastings Contemporary website

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