Capturing the glories of the Great British Seaside

A major new photography exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in London reveals the unique idiosyncrasies of the British seaside, via works by Martin Parr, David Hurn, Tony Ray-Jones and Simon Roberts.

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.

Great British Seaside Photography

GB. England. Kent. Broadstairs. 1986.

Great British Seaside Photography

Brighton Palace Pier, East Sussex, April 2013

Great British Seaside Photography

Great British Seaside Photography

G.B. WALES. Porth Oer (Whistling Sands). Enjoying the beach. 2004.

Top: From West Bay, Dorset, England, 1996, by Martin Parr; Above: Broadstairs, Kent, England, 1986, by Martin Parr. Images © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Brighton Palace Pier, East Sussex, 2013 by Simon Roberts. © Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
Eastbourne, East Sussex, c. 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones; © Tony Ray-Jones/National Science and Media Museum
Porth Oer (Whistling Sands), Wales, 2004 by David Hurn; © David Hurn/Magnum Photos

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.”

Great British Seaside Photography

GB. England. New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85.

Great British Seaside Photography

A black and white pigment print photograph, entitled ‘Margate’ by Tony Ray-Jones, taken c. 1967.
This was selected from the original contact sheet by Martin Parr, and printed from the original negative in 2013.

Great British Seaside Photography

Southport Pier, Merseyside, August 2011

Great British Seaside Photography

From The Last Resort series, Brighton, 1983-85, by Martin Parr; © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Margate, Kent, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones; © Tony Ray-Jones/National Science and Media Museum
Southport Pier, Merseyside, 2011; © Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
Herne Bay, Kent, 1963 by David Hurn; © David Hurn/Magnum Photos

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.”

Great British Seaside Photography

Blackpool Promenade, Lancashire, 24th July 2008

Great British Seaside Photography

Great British Seaside Photography

GB. England. Weymouth. 2005.

Great British Seaside Photography

Blackpool Promenade, 2008 by Simon Roberts; © Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
Brighton, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones; © Tony Ray-Jones, National Science and Media Museum
Weymouth, 2005 by Martin Parr; © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Porthoer Sand Castle Competition, Wales, 1997 by David Hurn; © David Hurn/Magnum Photos

The Great British Seaside: Photography From The 1960s To The Present​ runs from March 23 to September 30 at the National Maritime Museum,

Proud Gallery London

As Proud Camden shuts up shop, Dan Carrier talks to gallery owner Alex Proud about how he made photography hip.

Proud Gallery London

The gallery was on The Strand and focused on Japanese prints. But due to its specialised nature and stormy economic conditions, art lovers were not exactly beating down the door.

It was the early 1990s. Proprietor Alex Proud had recently left university and was doing an apprenticeship with an art dealer. As he waited for visitors to pop in, a random conversation was to change his business – and the world of London photography – for ever.

“I opened Proud Central in 1994,” he recalls. “It had been a stamp shop. I got it for about half a penny from British Rail – it was during the recession. But it was a disaster. London was at a standstill.

“My colleague Isabelle was the wife of the photographer Dennis Morris, who had shot the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley. She said to me: why not do photography shows?”

It was, Alex says, a “eureka” moment.

“We featured images of the Sex Pistols, and in one week I got more press coverage then I had had in a lifetime,” he says. “It dawned on me that I had found something no one else was doing and this concept of rock and roll photography opened up.”

Alex went on to establish galleries across London, including Proud Camden. First found in a warehouse in Greenland Road, it moved 17 years ago to the Horse Hospital in the Stables Market and became both a gallery, restaurant and club.

Earlier this month, it was announced Proud Camden was closing – despite Alex offering owners Lab Tech a reported £1m a year in rent. But while Alex is now known by many as a nightclub impresario, he is first and foremost an art curator and gallery owner whose work in the 1990s reinvigorated the idea of photography as an arts medium by drawing on popular culture for its subject matter.

“There were 100 great photographers from the 1950s onwards that no one remembered existed,” he says.

The likes of Duffy, who shot David Bowie, and Terry O’Neill, whose portraits include many of Hollywood greats, were seriously under-represented when it came to shows. This niche in the market opened up for Alex.

“There were these incredible photographers and none of them were having exhibitions,” he recalls.

“With Morris, 5,000 people came to see us in one month – I’d had about 500 in two years before then.”

He met Mick Rock – known as “the man who shot the Seventies”, with a back catalogue that ranged from Blondie to Iggy Pop and The Rocky Horror Show through to Queen – and realised his work was ripe for a revival. “No one was talking to him. He was a relic from the 1970s, forgotten – so I met him in a pub and he told me incredible stories,” he adds. “He was a legend who nobody knew.”

It changed the landscape of pop photography – and vitally big firms had high sponsorship budgets and wanted to be associated with them.

“They wanted to spend on cultural events, so that opened the door to do original exhibitions,” he remembers. “You could sell these ideas to firms like Orange, Jaguar. It meant you could do fun, exciting exhibitions.”

But he says the changing nature of how content is bought and sold has wrecked the market for the creative industries.

“That pipeline stopped because greedy corporations take ownership of the photographers’ copyright. Photographers cannot make a living any more,” he says. “It was unique and will never happen again.”

And Alex’s idea of sourcing photographers from the world of rock and roll has been grasped by big institutions.

“You now have Bowie at the V&A. People used to be snobs about it before we showed it worked,” he says.

Alex grew up in Brighton. His father was a stamp collector, historian and author of more than 60 books.

“I collected Penny Reds as a kid,” says Alex. “I grew up in a political household. We had the Encyclopedia Britannica on our kitchen table and we’d spend hours discussing the world. We were brought up to be liberals – and to question everything.”

Passionate about politics, he studied the subject at York and in 1990s worked for Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy.

Proud Camden, he says, tapped in to the area’s rock and roll culture.

“I realised there was a Generation X who understood and appreciated the multi-faceted idea of what culture means – that it isn’t just opera or classical music or figurative or abstract art,” he says.

“We gave them something they recognised, a culture they owned, and it resonated enormously with them.”

But photography today worries him. “The money to pay picture editors and photographers has completely disappeared,” he says. “Magazines and newspapers are not doing well and you simply cannot make a living selling pictures.”

He claims social media firms who are not considered publishers or pay for content are one of the causes for this decimation of photographers’ income. “It is so popular, but a lack of protection over image rights means the great artistic photographers are struggling,” he says. “It is doing badly for the same reasons as other arts are – everyone thinks it should all be free.

“It means there will be fewer artists. It is the same with live music. We are destroying the eco-systems that create it.”

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Unseen Photographs of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s

These images of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s might be black and white — but they’re bursting with vibrancy, and colourful characters.

Unseen Photographs of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s

Unseen Photographs of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s

Unseen Photographs of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s

Unseen Photographs of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s

Unseen Photographs of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s

Unseen Photographs of Notting Hill and Portobello Road Market in the 1950s and 60s

Rook Gallery in Newmarket has released the collection, which was taken by amateur photographer, Norman McCaskill — a jazz musician by night and keen photographer by day.

His favourite area was Portobello Road Market, Notting Hill, where wealthy and working class worked alongside one another to sell their antiques, bric-a-brac, fruit, vegetables and jumble.

McCaskill’s work shows a fascinating and intimate portrait of life back then and of a forgotten working class that made west London so vibrant.

Says Rook Gallery, “Norman was an observer of the streets and had a wonderful eye to create images at a decisive moment. There are many photographic exhibitions now on that nostalgic era, that we thought this is the right time to release his work.”

McCaskill’s daughter, Norma, remembers walking the streets of London with him later in the 60s where he always had his Leica slung over his arm to create a moment. She grew up watching him develop his 35mm film in his darkroom and was fascinated by the process.

Norma holds over a 1,000 negatives of her father’s work. As well as Notting Hill, there is photography on Brentford Docks, Chiswick, Crufts and more.

Norma would love to know if any of the children are still alive and living in London today.

If you liked this post you might be interested in Hackney in the 1970s and East London 1960s

Giorgi’s Cafe, Bethnal Green Road, London, 1971 by Neil Martinson

A photograph of Hackney in the 1970s by Neil Martinson, who has been documenting the area for almost 50 years.

London Photographer Neil Martinson

Neil Martinson was just 17 years old and still at school when he began taking photographs of Hackney, east London, where he was born and raised. “It was 1971. I bought myself a Zenit-E, a Russian-made camera, which was the only one I could afford, and I started to explore the streets, the shops, the factories, the bomb sites,” he recalls. “I was a nervous kid. Being behind the lens made me feel more confident.”

This shy schoolboy soon co-founded a radical photography collective, Hackney Flashers, and went on to take thousands of images of working lives and street scenes in Hackney in the 70s and 80s, many of which can now be seen for the first time at East End gallery Stour Space.

This photograph was taken on Bethnal Green Road on a Sunday, market day at nearby Brick Lane. “Looking at the people, their clothes, those prams, the way they stand, the relationship between them – it could have been taken in the 1950s rather than the early 70s,” Martinson says. “The whole area was effectively recovering from the slum clearances of the 70s and from the second world war. There were still bombed-out buildings everywhere. It was very impoverished.”

For many, a visit to Brick Lane market was a highlight of the week. Not only could you buy anything from clothes and food that was “seriously past its sell-by date” to live animals, “it was also an outing for locals, in much the same way that it is now for hipsters and tourists”, says Martinson. Giorgi’s Cafe, now long forgotten, was in a prime position. “This was in the days before there was a coffee bar every two shops, so it was incredibly popular.”

Martinson has never moved from the Hackney area but now prefers to take landscape photographs in remote locations, such as South Uist. “The reason I called the exhibition Another Time Another Place is that Hackney has changed so profoundly,” he says. “I grew up in a period when you had a lot of people doing manual jobs. There was a huge amount of manufacturing going on in the borough, which helped to make it diverse and vibrant. Now many of the local people are employed in the service industry, cleaning and so on, while others are making money out of thin air, in the digital world.”

More of the same Phil Maxwell’s photographs of London’s East End 1980s