On 23 March the National Maritime Museum (NMM) opens a major photography exhibition celebrating the nation’s love affair with the seaside. Featuring over 100 works by four of Britain’s most celebrated photographers – Martin Parr, Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn and Simon Roberts – the exhibition explores our changing relationship with the seaside over the last six decades.
The Great British Seaside documents a quintessentially British experience. It covers the country’s beaches from Brighton to Blackpool, and captures the traditions, customs and eccentricities associated with them. Through the work of some of Britain’s most celebrated photographers, each sharing a mutual love and fascination of the seaside, the exhibition will showcase photography from their archive collections, as well as negative contact sheets and video footage.
The exhibition will feature 20 new works by Martin Parr, arguably Britain’s favourite photographer, which were commissioned by the NMM for The Great British Seaside. Taken in the summer of 2017, the new photographs focus on the thriving and diverse resorts of London’s ‘local beaches’. The commission includes photographs from Southend-on-Sea, Shoeburyness, Leigh-on-Sea, Frinton-on-Sea, Clacton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze.
With endearing scenarios well-known to us all, the exhibition will take visitors on a nostalgic journey featuring the iconic beach huts, deck chairs, fish ‘n’ chips and donkey rides synonymous with a trip to the seaside. Whilst the fashions and styles of each era give tell-tale clues of the decade, the activities and traditions are amusingly consistent, reappearing throughout the six decades covered in the exhibition, alongside the familiar sight of Brits determined to enjoy their day out, whatever the weather.
From the 1960s, when documentary photography in Britain gained greater attention, through to the modern day, each photographer brings their own distinctive approach to capturing both the changing and unchanging nature of the British seaside experience. Through recurring themes of place, tradition and class, the exhibition holds up a critical, yet affectionate and often humorous, mirror to a great British tradition.
Martin Parr’s ability to capture archetypal ‘Britishness’ has made him one of the world’s most popular and important photographers. His bold, colour saturated, often unflinching photography can be divisive, but shows an extraordinary attention to detail, making his documentary photography open and honest. He came to worldwide attention through his breakthrough series The Last Resort (1985) which captured exploits in the working class seaside resort of New Brighton, Merseyside, in the 1980s.
Parr’s skill for taking ordinary situations and making them extraordinary is best seen through his seaside photographs: he is a self-proclaimed ‘aficionado of the British seaside’. His fascination comes from the apparent separatism and a preserved lifestyle that the coasts of Britain have from the rest of the country, which produces the quirks of Britishness replicated in few other places. His photos, often amusing and sometimes uncomfortable, offer the viewers a glimpse at the peculiarities and absurdities of British beach culture.
It was Tony Ray-Jones’s fear that England was losing its cultural identity to encroaching ‘Americanisation’ which made him turn his camera to the beaches of England. It was a place, he believed, where the nation could relax and one where he could capture his subjects spontaneously and off-guard. With his wife Anna, he travelled across the country in a camper van, making it his mission to record the English traditions that fascinated him so much and which he saw as a disappearing way of life.
Ray-Jones’s work offers the viewer both melancholic and amusing observations of the British beach experience of the late 1960s. His most famous body of work, A Day Off: An English Journal was published posthumously, following his untimely death from leukaemia at the age of just 30. A highly influential photographer, Ray-Jones has inspired the work of many of today’s documentary photographers, including both Martin Parr and Simon Roberts.
David Hurn’s diverse and exemplary career has seen him photograph pop-culture icons, stills for major films, fashion shoots and even international conflicts, after accidentally falling into photojournalism in the 1950s. His true passion is documentary photography, an area in which Hurn found his niche by focussing on the sublime moments in the mundane, through ordinary people living ordinary lives.
Hurn’s remarkable body of work shows both the changing and unchanging face of the English and Welsh coasts through meticulously observed black and white photographs. From a collection spanning from the 1960s and still growing today, his work reveals his own love for the subject, with images of different generations and cultures brought together through the laughter, tenderness and absurdity associated with the British seaside experience.
The collective national identity and what it means to be British are key themes in the work of Simon Roberts, a photographer who has spent the past decade capturing the British landscape. His photographs explore the relationship between people and place, a subject that is of great interest to Roberts and can be clearly identified in his catalogue of seaside photography. The idea that the beach, a very public and open area, can be occupied by multiple private groups is recorded beautifully in his work, which shows the viewer how different people can use the same space in completely separate ways.
Like Tony Ray-Jones before him, Roberts’s dedication saw him travel around the country in a motor home with his wife and child in order to record pastimes on Britain’s coast for his series We English (2007–08). For his series Pierdom (2010–13), he emulated the 19th-century photographer Francis Frith by documenting the last remaining British pleasure piers using a large-format field camera. Images from both collections, along with photographs from his most recent book Merrie Albion (2007-2017), show our changing relationship with the seaside, both socially and economically, and feature as part of the 21 works by Roberts in the exhibition.