As with all activities that might hinge on the weather, the British have a rather complex relationship with going to the seaside. On the rare occasion of an out-and-out sunny day, the beaches across the country will be packed to the gills, but even a forecast of mixed weather will be unlikely to put many off during the summer months.
There is a tenaciousness in the Brits’ determination to enjoy a day at the beach, and this was especially evident in the years before cheap package holidays made it possible to pop off to Spain for some genuinely sunny weather. Add in the distinctive UK seaside architecture of piers, arcades and funfairs, and a series of iconic images of a day at the beach spring easily to mind.
Many of these scenes will likely have been captured by the four photographers featured in the National Maritime Museum’s new exhibition. The British seaside has long proved a draw to photographers, offering the chance to capture the British in (often awkward) repose. And in turn, the images they have taken have helped shape our idea of what we want from the seaside, which in many parts of the UK has changed little over the past five decades.
The National Maritime Museum show contains work going back to the 1960s by four photographers: Martin Parr, Simon Roberts, Tony Ray-Jones and David Hurn. All have captured moments on British beaches – from Margate to Brighton, Blackpool to Southport – that have crystalised our image of a UK summer, in all its ice-cream laden, slightly over-dressed glory.
Probably the most contentious images have come from Parr, whose colour-saturated shots of quirky beach habits have at times been accused of being critical of their subjects. Yet Parr has photographed the British seaside for over four decades now, first drawn to it as a subject in 1983 when he began The Last Resort, a three-year project documenting the working-class seaside resort of New Brighton.
“The seaside has to be one of the most fascinating places for people-watching,” says Parr. “It is a place where we relax and lose our inhibitions, and that’s when true personalities come on display.”
Tony Ray-Jones and David Hurn’s photographs of the UK beaches of the 1960s and 70s reveal generations of beach dwellers who were uncomfortable stripping off in the sun, sitting instead on deckchairs in full suits and ties. “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,” says Ray-Jones.
While these older images may speak of fashions long changed, part of the allure of the British seaside is the qualities that have endured. We are drawn to the nostalgia of the UK beach culture, and of how little it changes (for better or worse) over the decades. This can be seen clearly in one of Simon Roberts’ photographs of Blackpool, which was taken in 2008, but could just as easily be a shot from the 1960s.
The British seaside is unlikely ever to be hip or steeped in contemporary cool, but that is perhaps the reason we love it most, and are so drawn to images of it: it is open to all and everyone is welcome. “The seaside is a place for uninhibited fun,” says Hurn. “It is cheap and very democratic, full of laughter, tenderness, ridiculousness but basically a way of having a good time.”
The Great British Seaside: Photography From The 1960s To The Present runs from March 23 to September 30 at the National Maritime Museum, rmg.co.uk