The jolly song “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” was running through my head as I approached the National Maritime Museum to visit their Great British Seaside photography exhibition on a crisp but sunny morning in London.
This exhibition features four of our great British photographers: Toby Ray-Jones, David Hurn, Martin Parr and Simon Roberts and shows their work from the 1960s to the present day. The posters are full of summer imagery and sunshine and I was ready to fast forward through spring and dive into summer.
We are treated to 102 brilliant work by these four artists, bringing their own interpretation of the British seaside over the decades. What struck me was the commonality of experience over the decades while the faces and fashions changed, what people were doing changed little. Groups having fun together, usually fully clothed against the weather, sitting on deck chairs and often hiding behind a windbreak – a very British invention allowing us to sit on the beach even in a howling gale! The shared experience shone through, the fun of the picnic with friends and family and the enduring challenge of building a sandcastle.
Learning about the photographers was fascinating but with sadness I read that Toby Ray-Jones died so early aged 30. There is a seaside cinema where short films about each photographer give you great insights into their work in their own words, except for Toby whose work and legacy are described by the other three artists.
One of the greatest treats was the opportunity to talk with David Hurn who was wandering around the preview day. He was funny and charming and told us about his background and how that influenced his work. He was born in 1934 into a working-class Welsh community and talked about workers all taking their holidays together, getting on the train to Barry Island to enjoy the seaside. One of his pictures shows a large group, sheltering in a circle surrounded by a large windbreak on an otherwise empty beach, and he told us they were all from the same street. It’s an experience so far from my own life that I found the idea fascinating and was beautifully captured in his photographs.
The exhibition design is fun, with deck chairs instead of benches and beat huts forming the seaside cinema.
We were lucky enough to meet Simon Roberts who gave us some background to his wonderful photographs. He told us how his approach to seaside photography differed from the other artists in that he takes his pictures from above, stepping back from the action. He uses an old-style camera, one of those where you put a hood over your face to get the shot lined up, with a large tripod. He’ll be there up on his ladder for an hour so people get used to him being there, finally ignoring him and therefore his photos are unstaged and natural. He likes to bring us the beach scene as a theatre set, setting people in this landscape. He has completed a project to document every seaside pier in Britain, all 56 of them, giving us a chance to look at these familiar structures anew.
Martin Parr’s work includes a commission from the National Maritime Museum which consists of 20 new photographs taken during the summer of 2017 on the beaches of Essex. We were all struck by the diversity of the people enjoying the seaside experience in these pictures, enjoying everything the seaside has to offer although in some shots celebrating festivals originally from other lands.
One top tip for taking great photos you will pick up is to have good shoes! David Hurn told us this, remarking that photographers will often walk 12 hours a day to get the shot they want and it’s a tip that Simon Roberts has picked up and thanks David for it.
I have chosen not to put any close-ups of the photographs into this blog so why not go and see them in person and enjoy their impact seeing them for the first time!
At the entrance and exit there is fun to be had with deck chairs, silly hats, lobsters, selfie sticks and comedy sunglasses, to make a seaside scene of your own. And yes, that is a ‘kiss me quick’ hat!
What could be more appropriate on your way out of the museum than to grab an ice cream from a vintage ice cream van? Never mind the weather, have a 99 anyway!
For information about ticket prices and opening hours check the National Maritime Museum’s website: www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/great-british-seaside
Full disclosure: I was invited to preview this exhibition by the National Maritime Museum. My views, however, are all my own.