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The Seaside by William Roberts Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Estate of John David Roberts courtesy of the William Roberts Society. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor.

The Seaside by William Roberts, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Estate of John David Roberts courtesy of the William Roberts Society. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor.

A missing treasure found at the seaside

Museum and galleries have reopened, yippee. Culture is being introduced back into our lives. Hastings Contemporary is welcoming the public back with, potentially, a very popular show about the seaside – Seaside Modern. The one-time popular music hall song, Oh I do love to be beside the seaside, Oh I do love to be beside the sea, gives a  vague flavour of it, though not  in a popcorn and slot machine sort of way. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths found it an enticing exhibition to celebrate  art after this long hard year of lockdown.

Guest curator James Russell has been wide-ranging in his scope. His intention was to create an exhibition to reflect the fun of the seaside: artists’ reactions to the coast as well as relationships between each other; and the delight that visitors have to activities the beach has to offer.

In casting his net wide – in subject matter and artists – he was rewarded with a thought-to-be-missing Eric Ravilious painting.

Mackerel Sky Eric Ravilious, not seen for 80 years and thought to be lost. as not seen snce it sold at auction in 1939 for 15 guineas.

Mackerel Sky, Eric Ravilious, not seen for 80 years and thought to be lost. as not seen snce it sold at auction in 1939 for 15 guineas.

The result of  an article calling out for ‘missing’ Ravilious’ because many had long disappeared down a rabbit hole of private collectors. He was richly rewarded when a collector came forward with Mackerel Sky, a painting of fishing boats  that had been considered ‘missing’  like many of his paintings that had been thought lost or destroyed during World War II. It had been bought at auction for 15 guineas in 1939, the year after it had been painted, and never been seen again. Not lost, simply  happily residing on its owner’s wall for over eighty years. Today’s estimated value would be £250,000 but it is not for sale; it is a much loved member of the family.

Even though a beach scene, rather than his familiar   south downs views, it is unmistakably a Ravilious. Fishing boats are a favourite subject for many artists, but the details that mark it out are the colours and the terrain; there  is a distinct similarity of the rolls of the beach to his much loved rolling South Downs.

Ravilious went to Eastbourne School of Art and the Royal College of Art where he studied under Paul Nash and served as a war artist during the Second World War. He died in 1942 on an Royal Air force air sea mission off Iceland. His plane never returned. He was only 39 years old.

Russell is  thrilled to be bringing Seaside Modern to Hastings Contemporary: the perfect venue for an exhibition celebrating art and life on the beach. “During the 20th century the seaside inspired fabulous works of art by LS Lowry, Eric Ravilious, Barbara Hepworth and countless others. But this exhibition also celebrates the social revolution that gave millions of people the opportunity to enjoy their day at the beach. As we emerge from lockdown, Seaside Modern will serve as a timely reminder that life really can be fun”.

Photograph of a beached tree. Taken in Perros-Guirec, France. ,1936 All images are copyrighted to Tate, London and must be credited © Photo ©Tate. Artist: Agar, Eileen

Photograph of a beached tree. Taken in Perros-Guirec, France. ,1936
All images are copyrighted to Tate, London and must be credited © Photo ©Tate.
Artist: Agar, Eileen

In the exhibition there are paintings, drawings, sculptures, railway posters and some photographs – many by the usual local suspects Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, John Piper as well as other less well-known artists. One I particularly liked was a painting by William Roberts of a busy family beach scene, sun tan lotion being applied, children kicking up against being taken for a swim, a panting dog. Or Edgar Ainsworth 1945 pen and ink drawing of a crowded beach, doing what people still do today – children with bucket and spades, men snoozing in deckchairs,

What is gratifying is that seaside activities have not changed hugely over the decades. Donkey rides are probably not so popular now, but building sandcastles, playing, running, resting, snoozing, ferreting around in rock pools, cold sea swimming.

The sea, the light, the beach, the holiday crowds have always drawn artists to the edge of the land.  The sea side is a leveller, you can’t pull rank in the sea or on the beach.

Wilhelmina Barns-GrahamPhotography by Simon Cook

Wilhelmina Barns-GrahamPhotography by Simon Cook

The exhibition spans paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures from 1920s to 1970s. I am always attracted to photographs. Particular favourites were black and white Bill Brandt sculptural images – close-ups of clasped fingers, knees and elbow resembling a Henry Moore stone carving. There is something for everyone, even a L.S. Lowry with his familiar stick people, suited and hatted, on a crowded beach in 1943 rather than hurrying past industrial landscapes.

Russell has included social history photographs – the sort of holiday pictures that we all have:  cricket, piggy back races, family beach scenes. There is  one of  Ben Nicholson, Mary Jenkins, Irina and Henry Moore in the buff playing a game. And would any seaside exhibition be complete without some postcards – and those are there too. Amongst them some saucy Donald McGills, I know he is very un-PC but they always raise a smile (from me, anyway).

Seaside Modern is at Hastings Contemporary, Rock-a-Nore Rd, Hastings TN34 3DW until 31 October 2021. Open 11am–5pm Thursday–Sunday but check times on website. Booking is required. 

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Posted 17:35 Wednesday, Jun 2, 2021 In: Visual Arts

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