by Roderick Conway Morris

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David Hurn/Magnum
Aberavon Beach by David Hurn, 1971

A Lovely Day Out


By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 4 May 2018

 

The British promoted the virtues of sea-bathing and the seaside at the beginning of the 19th century and the coming of the railways turned it into a form of mass relaxation and entertainment. Before long it had become an integral part of the nation's way of life.

When the brilliant young photographer Tony Ray-Jones returned home in 1966, after studying on a scholarship in Yale, he embarked on a two-year-long tour of the country in a camper van to record the British at leisure, especially around the coasts. He feared he was documenting a phenomenon threatened by an inexorable tide of Americanization.

But this great native institution was made of sterner stuff, as the National Maritime Museum's 'The Great British Seaside: Photography from the 1960s to the Present Day,' showcasing the work of Ray-Jones and three other leading photographers, makes clear,.

'It was the grim determination of the British to have a good time sitting on the beach staring out at a frothy sea in all weathers that attracted Tony to the subject matter,' writes Ray-Jones's widow Anna in the show's catalogue (Ray-Jones sadly died of leukaemia at 31).

One of Ray-Jones's original inspirations was the Welsh photographer David Hurn, who had already won international fame for his photographs of the likes of the Beatles, Sean Connery and Jane Fonda, but who had also begun to amass what was to become a lifelong archive of acutely observed, evocative and often touching shots of the British at play along our coastlines.

Both Hurn and Ray-Jones went on to inspire two younger photographers, Martin Parr and Simon Roberts, who have also made capturing the British seaside central to their careers. While Hurn and Ray-Jones's small format studies are in black and white, their younger colleagues have embraced colour and much larger formats, in Parr's case with a vengeance, creating narrowly focused, brightly-lit, luridly colourful, almost surreal images. Simon Roberts, meanwhile, who spent a year touring the country's seaside resorts in a motorhome with his wife and child, captures wider, landscape vistas, in which the figures are sometimes dwarfed by expanses of beach, sea and sky.

Between them, this quartet provide the absorbing and often amusing array of pictures now on show in Greenwich that hold a mirror up to our quirks and celebrate a still-thriving British tradition.

The Great British Seaside: Photography from the 1960s to the Present Day; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 23 March - 30 September


First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022