10 June 2019

The Great British Seaside

There are few things as British as the seaside: pebbly shores, piers decked out in lights and arcade games, salty fish and chips, brightly coloured bathing huts, sunburn, parasols and the whipped plume of an ice-cream cone. It is, perhaps, a dying phenomenon — seaside towns across the UK have been some of the worst hit by economic recession in recent years, and incidentally, the constituencies that dot the British coastline reported some of the highest leave voter turnout in the 2016 Brexit referendum. And as more and more people can afford to go abroad on package holidays to Spain and further afield, it looks like that the ‘great British seaside’ — and its nearby equivalents — is becoming a thing of the past. 

A new exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, entitled Seaside: Photographed, captures some of this nostalgia, but it an original and eye-opening manner. Gathering together photographs from the 1850s to the present day, the exhibition presents an electric range of images — spanning darkly tinted Victorian ferrotypes of families shrouded in heavy black clothes, to Martin Parr’s pigmented snapshots from his series The Last Resort taken in New Brighton in North West England in the ‘80s — that honour the part the seaside plays in British life. 

Elsewhere, the Italian photographer Enzo Ragazzini lenses the lazy hedonism of the Isle of Wight music festival in the early ‘70s — revellers lying in the grass, caressing a lover’s face, or staring blank-eyed from a burnt-out truck. Meanwhile, Vanley Burke captures black communities at the seaside, where Dafydd Jones turns his camera on the old-fashioned camaraderie of a Butlin’s holiday camp in highly saturated images, where the holidaymakers’ sunburn almost scorches through. Some of the most special are those by Raymond C. Lawson, who caught his family enjoying the pleasures of the sea on the beach in Whitstable in the 1950s — the photos are punctuated with cateye sunglasses, melting ice lollies, cups of tea and folded newspapers. 

But among these heartwarming images are also melancholic reminders of places stuck in time, or left behind by economic expansion. Hannah Blackmore documents the run-down crumbling facades of her coastal hometown, Ramsgate, a one time popular holiday spot in East Kent; while Henry Iddon zooms in on menus and other minutiae in seaside guest houses that reflect the jaded hospitality industry in these resorts. In this way, the beach becomes so much more than sea and sand, but a microcosm of life itself.

Seaside: Photographed runs through to september 8th at Turner Contemporary