Sands of time

How beach life and the art around it has changed over a cen­tury and a half

EDP Norfolk - - ARTSMITH -

Well, here we are in sum­mer, the warmth, the sun and the feel­ing of optimism. A feel­ing that ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble... if I can just get around to do­ing it.

I was think­ing about artists’ vi­sions of sum­mer, the beach, how we think of sum­mer­time ac­tiv­i­ties and how this has changed over the last 150 years.

If we go back to the late 19th cen­tury, peo­ple did go to the beach, but it was to prom­e­nade and per­haps sit on the beach fully clothed and have a pic­nic or sim­i­lar. Swim­ming was pos­si­ble, but not without very con­strain­ing and mod­est swim wear.

Artists paint­ing beaches dur­ing the mid to late 19th cen­tury looked for a work­ing beach, a very Vic­to­rian ethic. It was fish­er­men re­turn­ing from the sea with their catch, work­ers un­load­ing the fish and tak­ing it to mar­ket.

The scene was one of no­bil­ity found in hard, phys­i­cal labour and the artists of­ten used this as sub­ject mat­ter. Ship­wrecks too

were a com­mon sub­ject.

What wasn’t de­picted was the beach as an es­cape, a playground, ex­cept by one; Gau­guin in French Poly­ne­sia. His idyl­lic ex­is­tence in­flu­enced artists to look at these trop­i­cal par­adises well be­yond their home shores.

Search­ing through records, pho­to­graphs and paint­ings, it would ap­pear that our re­la­tion­ship with the beach changed sub­stan­tially dur­ing the years be­tween the First and Sec­ond World Wars.

The beach took on a more re­lax­ing char­ac­ter, a place to go to re­cu­per­ate and en­joy the warmth of the sun.

How­ever, the most dra­matic change oc­curred af­ter the Sec­ond World War. Sud­denly, the world be­gan to change and peo­ple looked to the beach as a place of fun, for phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, swim­ming, surf­ing, ball games, even ro­mance.

Artists be­gan to look at the beach through con­tem­po­rary eyes and saw that it was no longer a place of work, apart from ven­dors and life­guards, but was rather a haven for re­lax­ation and these healthy pur­suits.

These artists, in­clud­ing pho­tog­ra­phers, be­gan to cap­ture not only the phys­i­cal as­pects of the beach and beach life, but also the feel­ing of be­ing on a beach. The ex­otic sands of Hawaii, Tahiti, the Greek is­lands or south­ern Italy were seen as the ideal.

Think of the movie South Pa­cific and the fic­tional is­land in the movie, Bali Hai, as well as other Hol­ly­wood movies fea­tur­ing beaches in Cal­i­for­nia or Hawaii as back­drops, or the movies fea­tur­ing Elvis Pres­ley or even the Bea­tles and of course James Bond. These all had huge im­pact and in­flu­ence on their au­di­ences.

So as we go to the beach this sum­mer, swim­ming, walk­ing, play­ing games or sim­ply chilling, its in­ter­est­ing to think how our vi­sion and that of artists has changed over the last 150 years.

I would like to thank Es­ther Mor­gan and Liz El­more at Nor­folk Mu­se­ums Ser­vice for these images and also for their tire­less as­sis­tance in lo­cat­ing works in our lo­cal col­lec­tions for many of my ar­ti­cles.

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ABOVE: John Mo­raySmith’s won­der­ful­lye­voca­tive semi­imag­i­nary Cromer scene

BE­LOW: Fam­ily on the beach pho­to­graph 1925 Pho­tos: Nor­folk Mu­se­ums Ser­vice

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