“August Bank Holiday – a tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water. A tuck of dresses. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys. A silent hullabaloo of balloons.
I remember the sea telling lies in a shell held to my ear for a whole harmonious, hollow minute by a small, wet girl in an enormous bathing suit marked Corporation Property.”
– Dylan Thomas, 1946
With over 11,000 miles of coastline, Great Britain is famed for its beaches. Only 72 miles separate the furthest person from the beach, resulting in the majority of the population having experienced the sand between their toes and the crashing on the waves. Nearly everyone has memories of paddling in the sea, donkey rides, buckets and spades, picnics on the beach, fish and chips by the pier, searching for crabs in rock pools, and running wild and free. With this in mind, the National Maritime Museum‘s summer exhibition is The Great British Seaside: Photography from the 1960s to the present, a display of over 100 images by four British photographers taken in 42 different seaside locations.
Beaches differ throughout the world, for instance, the Mediterranean photos seen in Travel Brochures, with perfect white beaches and no sandcastle in sight. The Great British seaside experience is a totally different, unique affair. Nowhere else will families be seen putting up multicoloured windbreaks, stubbornly sitting in deckchairs determined to enjoy the so-called summer despite the nippy wind.
Children run around wearing only a pair of shorts, whilst young women sunbathe in their swimsuits and elderly gentlemen daringly roll up their trouser legs as they settle into their seats with a newspaper, sweating in their shirts and ties. Regardless of what people are doing or wearing, everyone is fully occupied by their own activities to notice or judge one another.
As the photographs in this exhibition reveal, everyone behaves differently at the seaside. Away from the offices, schools and everyday life, families and individuals can be themselves and enjoy some uninhibited fun. Children reveal their innocence and adults become nostalgic, remembering their childhood holidays.
Seaside holidays have always been popular in Britain; not only are they easy to get to, they are relatively cheap. In some ways, British beaches are stuck in a time warp where, except for the changes in fashion, photographs from different eras all look the same. Buildings are not modernised as they are in the city, walls are painted bright colours, and the decay caused by the salt in the water and air only adds to the character of the seaside town.
The four photographers featured in this exhibition: Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72), David Hurn (b1934), Martin Parr (b1952) and Simon Roberts (b1974); aim to reveal the idiosyncrasies of the population that define a day at the seaside. From 1960 until the present day, the photographs reveal the timelessness of the beach experience, the humour and joy it brings, as well as the more uneasy emotions of humankind. Displayed on the walls of fake beach huts, with deckchairs or seaside-type benches to rest on when needed, photographs in The Great British Seaside perfectly sum up beach culture around the isles and evoke happy memories of past holidays and day trips.
“My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and their way of life, the ironies that exist in the way they do things, partly through their traditions and partly through the nature of their environment and their mentality. For me there is something very special about the English ‘way of life’ and I wish to record it from my particular point of view before it becomes Americanised and disappears.”
– Tony Ray-Jones
The exhibition is set out in an almost chronological order, beginning with the two oldest photographers and ending with the youngest. Although Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) was not the eldest of the four, the first twenty photographs displayed were taken by him. Born Holroyd Anthony Ray-Jones in Wells, Somerset, Ray-Jones developed a passion for art, later studying graphic design at the London School of Painting. At 19, he won a scholarship to study at the Yale University of Art, where his talent for photography was discovered. From here on, Ray-Jones was never without a commision from one magazine or another.
Ray-Jones prefered the non-commercial side of photography, capturing the emotions of the world, the unseen and the underappreciated. When he returned to Britain in 1966, he embarked on a two-year journey around the country in a campervan taking photographs of “the sadness and the humour in a gentle madness that prevails in a people.” His beach scenes reveal the “gentle madness” that people reveal when away from the constraints of everyday life.
Although the fashion and hairstyles have changed since the 1960s, many of Ray-Jones’ photographs reveal similar scenes that could be observed at the seaside today. People are relaxing in deckchairs, lying on beach mats or listening to music, although with a portable record player rather than an iPod. No matter what scene Ray-Jones captured, everyone is completely focused on their own activities, making the photographs seem casual and unplanned.
One particularly spontaneous photograph was taken in Broadstairs, Kent in 1968, showing a few children walking alongside a man playing a pipe. The man was Peter Butchard (1909-2009), famed for his Punch-and-Judy performances during the 60s and 70s. On this occasion, he began playing a tune as he walked along the beach. Children nearby stopped what they were doing and followed him, skipping, dancing and running – reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Tony Ray-Jones’ career was cut short by leukaemia, for which he lost the battle on 13th March 1972. Despite this, Ray-Jones continues to influence many photographers, including the remaining three in the exhibition. In 2013, The Guardian wrote that “in his short life he helped create a way of seeing that has shaped several generations of British photography.”
“Life as it unfolds in front of the camera is full of so much complexity, wonder and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities. There is more pleasure, for me, in things as-they-are.”
– David Hurn
David Hurn (b1934), a British documentary photographer and member of Magnum Photos had the opportunity to meet with Tony Ray-Jones. He admired Ray-Jones’ photography skills, which inspired his own work. Hurn has also been spurred on by images by later photographers, including Martin Parr.
Born in Surrey in 1934, Hurn’s family soon moved to Wales where he spent his entire childhood. Suffering from dyslexia, the young Hurn took to photography, teaching himself to use a camera. Hurn gained his reputation working in photojournalism in London, however, in the late 1960s, he returned to his beloved Wales and spent a year living in a van photographing the country in a similar vein to Ray-Jones.
Wales may be relatively small in comparison to the rest of the island, however, it has 746 miles of coastline, providing Hurn with plenty of opportunities to take photographs on the beach.
“The seaside is a place for uninhibited fun. It is cheap and very democratic, full of laughter, tenderness, ridiculousness but basically a way of having a good time.”
– David Hurn
Curious as to how people enjoy themselves, Hurn spent a lot of time on the beaches taking photographs of different activities. Since everyone is fully occupied in their own activity, Hurn was able to take photographs of people unawares, thus revealing natural holiday scenes, unlike the posed versions in many family albums.
The exhibition displays some of the negatives from Hurn’s camera films, revealing that he often took several photographs of the same scene. In each one, someone had moved, creating a slightly different picture and atmosphere. From these, Hurn chose the ones that worked best compositionally to develop and blow up to larger proportions.
“In New York, you have the street; in the UK, we have the beach. I end up being like a migrating bird, being attracted to it.”
Martin Parr (b1952) is one of Britain’s most popular photographers. After studying the subject of photography at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1970s, Parr began recording life in the north of England. Later, in 1982, he turned to colour photography, which he continues to use to the present day.
Like Ray-Jones and Hurn, Parr considers the seaside somewhere people can be themselves. Through his photographs, he studies the varied reactions people have to the beaches. He captures the “craziness of the British beach” through close-ups and landscapes, providing different perspectives of the seaside experience.
“The British beach experience is unique: it is slightly wet or humid, down-at-heel and past its best – literally fraying at the edges – and of course full of ironies and contradictions.”
Unlike his predecessors, Parr is able to reveal slightly more about the seaside through the colour in his photographs. The typical bright colours expose a timeless world; people’s lives may be moving forward with the many contemporary inventions, but return to the beach and it is as though nothing has changed. The wear and tear of the buildings and landscape only add to the uniqueness of the Great British seaside.
“I see the British seaside as a series of landscapes through which we can trace part of our national history.”
– Simon Roberts
Although Simon Roberts (b1974) has had the chance to meet Hurn and Parr as well as study the works of Ray-Jones, he takes a different approach to photographing the British seaside. Roberts also travelled the country in a motorhome but his focus was more on the landscape of the coastal areas rather than the people who frequent them.
Printed in large-scale, Roberts’ photographs attempt to explore the collective relationship between people and landscape, preferring to stand at a distance rather than producing close-up shots. Roberts believes the British landscape is central to British identity and the changing times. Landscape photography reveals the changes in architecture, the habits of different races and cultures compared with the nostalgia the seaside represents in people’s memories.
“There are several things I believe the photographs convey, from the psychological – how the British seaside is closely linked to our changing habits as a nation – to the physical – whereby they record vanishing forms of vernacular architecture. The photographs contain elements of faded romance and nostalgia for the quirkiness, and they project some of the innocence that the seaside inhabits in our sense of place.”
– Simon Roberts
Whilst Ray-Jones, Hurn and Roberts have roughly 20 photographs each in the exhibition, Martin Parr has an additional 20, which were commissioned by the National Maritime Museum for The Great British Seaside. Subtitled The Essex Seaside, 2017, Parr visited two coastal areas of Essex: Leigh-on-Sea to Shoeburyness; and Clacton-on-Sea to Walton-on-the-Naze. These photographs aimed to observe the behaviours and activities of beachgoers today, comparing the outcomes with those of the past.
Looking at the other photographs in the exhibition, it appears little has changed between Ray-Jones’ earliest snap and Roberts’ latest images. Yet, the cultural diversity of Great Britain has changed significantly in recent years, which can be seen in Parr’s latest project.
In Leigh-on-Sea, Parr photographed the typical beach scene that all four photographers managed to capture over the past five decades, however, further down the road in Shoeburyness, an elderly Sikh man was observed taking gentle exercise on the promenade. In Southend, languages from all over the world could be heard, including, Arabic, Polish, Mandarin and Italian, which goes to show how diverse the seaside town has become.
Over in Clacton, the standard beach photographs were taken alongside those that would never have been witnessed in the 1960s and 70s. At the end of August, Parr came across a large group of Hindu women commemorating the last day of the Holy month of Shravan, making offerings to Lord Shiva, wetting their feet in the sea and laying out candles. In the same week, Parr saw a group of Sikhs relaxing on the beach as well as day trippers from St Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church in Stratford, East London.
“The seaside has to be one of the most fascinating places for people watching. It is a place where we relax and lose our inhibitions, and that’s when true personalities come on display.”
– Martin Parr
As Parr’s photographs go to prove, the seaside is a place for everyone. Free from discrimination, multiples of different cultures can enjoy the same beach, whether relaxing and enjoying themselves or taking part in something more special.
Looking at all the photographs in the exhibition as a whole, the seaside comes across as a safe, happy place where people can leave their troubles behind in the city and relax and unwind. The seaside allows people to just be; no one knows nor cares whether someone is CEO of a major company, a bank clerk, a cleaner, a bus driver or unemployed, everyone is equal.
In a world where discrimination causes so many problems, where people are caught up in their careers, where people lose their human-ness, it is gratifying to know there are areas of Great Britain where people can go to be themselves.
The Great British seaside is a unique concept that no other country can replicate, and for that reason alone it ought to be celebrated. Through the photographs of these four photographers, the happy experiences are captured forever, proving that we, as a nation, have something special, which should not be taken for granted.
From the abandoned piers to the dazzling arcades, celebrate the British seaside through the lenses of Britain’s most popular photographers, featuring Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn and Simon Roberts and new work by Martin Parr at the National Maritime Museum. Open until 30th September 2018, tickets cost £11.50 for adults and £5 for children. Various concessions are available.
Don’t forget to photograph your friends and family on the pretend beach outside the entrance to the exhibition! #GBseaside