How Photographers Have Captured the Dissonant Spirit of the British Seaside

In pictures: contrasting visions of one of the most clichéd symbols of the nation

The British seaside must be amongst the most clichéd symbols of the nation. Along with red telephone boxes and the royal family, the seaside is part of a picture-postcard of kitsch Britain marketed and sold to tourists from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. And yet, for a symbol so ubiquitous, its precise meaning evades a one-line definition.

A new exhibition at Turner Contemporary in the southern seaside town of Margate and a book published by Thames and Hudson, look closely at how photographers have captured contrasting visions of the 11,000 miles of coastline that wrap around the British Isles. In these images, utopian modernist structures are captured alongside haphazard beach huts, derelict shops and tacky arcades. Herds of stags and hens suit the seaside scene as much as elderly couples reclining on candy-striped deck chairs. Rather than a unified vision of Britain, what photographers since the 19th century have captured is a varied and contradictory spirit of a nation.

Danielle Peck, from ‘Many Original Features’, 2019, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Danielle Peck, from ‘Many Original Features’, 2019, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Photographer and filmmaker Danielle Peck documents the interior of the Cecil Hotel, Margate. Interested in the phenomenon of the decline of seaside town, Peck captures what was once a fashionable hotel in the 1960s. The interior of the Cecil Hotel has not changed with the times: chintz fabric and garish carpets remain intact. 

Enzo Ragazzini, Isle of Wight Festival, 1970, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Enzo Ragazzini, Isle of Wight Festival, 1970, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

 

 

Vince Petersen, Rave Car, Kent, 1990s, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Vince Petersen, Rave Car, Kent, 1990s, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Located, often quite literally, at the end of the line, the seaside has long been associated with the fringes of society. Photographers like Vinca Petersen and Enzo Ragazzini have depicted emerging youth cultures who came of age at the coast.

Shirley Baker, Love on the Beach, Abersoch, Wales, 1968, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist and Shirley Baker Estate

Shirley Baker, Love on the Beach, Abersoch, Wales, 1968, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist and Shirley Baker Estate

 

 

Anne Braybon, Sweater Weather, Brighton, 1969, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Anne Braybon, Sweater Weather, Brighton, 1969, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Shirley Baker, Anne Braybon and many other photographers have candidly captured the public intimacy of beaches, a site where the social conventions of day-to-day living are put on hold.

Vanley Burke, from ‘Day Out’, 1974, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Vanley Burke, from ‘Day Out’, 1974, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist

Vanley Burke captures the ecstasy of arriving at the seaside for a day out. His photographs, depicting the British-Jamaican population of Handsworth, Birmingham on day-trips in the 1970s, offer an alternative to the coastal melancholy that other photographers have depicted.

Seaside: Photographed by Val Williams and Karen Shepherdson is published by Thames & Hudson

Seaside: Photographed’ is at Turner Contemporary, Margate, from 25 May to 8 September

Main image: Reginald Slader, Isle of Wight, Shanklin Beack, 1965, photograph. Courtesy: the artist

Figgy Guyver is editorial assistant of frieze, based in London, UK. She is co-founder and editor of CUMULUS journal. Follow her on Twitter: @FiggyGuyver.

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