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Summers past: why the British do like to be beside the seaside

Martin Parr’s 1996 image of West Bay, Dorset, is typical of his colour-saturated work and attention to the unsettling ‘frayed edges’ of the seaside.
Martin Parr’s 1996 image of West Bay, Dorset, is typical of his colour-saturated work and attention to the unsettling ‘frayed edges’ of the seaside. Photograph: Martin Parr/Magnum

Over many decades the distinctive British beach experience – pebbles, wind, deckchairs, seagulls and chips – has come close to a national badge of pride for a stoic nation. This spring the salt-lashed island story of that love of our shoreline is to be celebrated through the work of four photographers: Martin Parr, Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn and Simon Roberts.

From 23 March to 30 September the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south-east London, will look at the key elements of a visit to the beach and show how our many coastal resorts have altered over the years.

In 102 displayed images – some classics and some never seen before – the exhibition, The Great British Seaside, will chart the shifting view from the promenade between 1963 and 2017. It will include images from the archival collections of each of the photographers, new films and new work by Parr.

“We chose these artists because their work resonates so strongly with each other,” said Kristian Martin, curator of the show. “Their photographs speak to one another about the changes to what is basically an unchanging British seaside experience. With some of the pictures in the show, you could look at them and not really know in what era they were taken. So there is a timeless quality to this exhibition as much as a nostalgic factor.”

The selected images, taken from Brighton to Blackpool and shared with the Observer, focus on the customs and eccentricities of beach behaviour. Among 42 black-and-white photographs from the work of the late Ray-Jones are several memorable shots, including five vintage prints. Others are fresh prints made from negatives that have never been seen before. A posthumously published book, A Day Off, was put together from images taken while Ray-Jones travelled across Britain in a camper van in the 1960s with his wife, Anna.

Several of Roberts’s photographs in the exhibition come from his own English motorhome journey with his wife and child, taken in homage to Ray-Jones in 2007 and 2008, which resulted in his book We English. Roberts is particularly interested in how people spend their private leisure time in a such a public arena. Images from his most recent book, Merrie Albion, are also included in the show.

And no exhibition of seaside work would be complete without Parr, an acknowledged master of the subject. The museum will be showing 20 images from his back catalogue alongside 20 newly commissioned ones of the Essex coast, including landscapes from Shoeburyness, Walton-on-the-Naze and Southend-on-Sea.

Also featured will be the work of Hurn – described by Martin as “a doyen of British photography over six decades” – including his images of the Welsh beaches near to where he grew up, as well as scenes of Herne Bay in Kent.

This article titled "Summers past: why the British do like to be beside the seaside" was written by Vanessa Thorpe, for The Observer on Saturday 13 January 2018 02.34pm

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