Sands of time
How beach life and the art around it has changed over a century and a half
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.
ABOVE: John MoraySmith’s wonderfullyevocative semiimaginary Cromer scene
BELOW: Family on the beach photograph 1925 Photos: Norfolk Museums Service