Art Deco by the Sea
By Sarah Richardson, Keeper of Art, Laing Art Gallery
In the Laing’s Marble Hall, the visitor is greeted by a hoopla stall and funfair rides, a taster for the major new exhibition of Art Deco by the Sea (17 October 2020–27 February 2021). Art Deco, a style of escapism and fun, was ideally suited to the seaside. The 1920s and ’30s were boom years for the seaside, and the influence of Art Deco style was felt everywhere, from housing, cinemas and amusements to fashion and seaside decorative industries. This major exhibition has come to the Laing from The Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, which has developed the show. Art Deco pictures from the Laing’s collection are already in the exhibition, and we’ve added more exhibits with a North-East character in the adjoining watercolour gallery (accessed from the exhibition only). These range from beachwear to glass and ceramics and images of local architecture. This space is also showing a charming film of beach-goers in the 1930s.
Art Deco signalled modernity, efficiency and comfort, and transport companies adopted the style. The exhibition has a lovely range of evocative railway posters promoting the delights of resorts from Whitley Bay to Cornwall. The suite of six posters titled East Coast Joys, which together make up an extended view of sunbathing and sailing, is an outstanding example of the striking images developed by Art Deco graphic designers.
In the ’20s and ’30s, resorts were updated, and new lidos and pools were built, including Tynemouth outdoor pool, which opened in 1925. An ambitious lido set is an appealing part of the exhibition, with swimwear-clad figures diving or wading in the water. At this time, visitors to resorts increased as more people had paid holidays. New types of holiday experience became available at holiday camps such as Butlin’s. Blackpool Pleasure Beach was also notable for its wealth of attractions, ranging from children’s rides to a casino, all influenced by Art Deco style. As well as private developers, local authorities invested in the development of entertainment complexes and indoor winter gardens. Amusements were available day and night.
Paintings in the exhibition hint at the big changes that were taking place with the expansion of seaside resorts. A clash of cultures is captured in Joseph Southall’s lovely little painting Fishermen and Visitors, with its meticulous depiction of modern holidaymakers alongside traditional fishermen. The holiday makers descending on the seaside wanted amusements, like the fair shown in Ernest Procter’s lively and colourful picture. The response of artists was varied. Many sought the tranquillity of coastal landscapes that were seemingly untouched by modern changes. Some, like Edward Wadsworth showed their awareness of movements such as Surrealism, while others adopted a stylised, decorative realism in their pictures of the seaside.
The holiday activities of sunbathing and swimming were part of a new culture of health, exercise and outdoor activities that developed in the 1920s and ’30s. Golf was fashionable, and new golf courses were built on the coast. Sailing was also a popular activity, and railway companies marketed resorts with posters of well-dressed golfers and attractive young people on boats. At the same time, low-cost activities like camping and hiking became increasingly popular. The Women’s League of Health & Beauty typified the large-scale physical-fitness organisations of the period, appealing to a wide range of women. Mass exercise activities became a popular feature at beaches and holiday camps, as well as the many lidos built in the 1930s.
Britain’s resorts provided a rich programme of events and entertainment that required elegant evening wear. The straight-seamed flapper dresses of the 1920s, with their rich decoration of sequins, embroidery and beading, gave way to figure-skimming and draped designs of the 1930s. The dresses on display, worn in the resort of Southend, show how British styles followed the top French designers, using glamorous materials such as silk, satin and velvet. Evening accessories worn by fashionable North-Easterners are also on display.
Pictures and photographs in the exhibition explore the architecture of the seaside, exemplified by the impressive Midland Hotel, with a gleaming white façade and curving architectural lines. Casino and cinema architects also enthusiastically embraced Art Deco style. In the Watercolour Gallery, we’ve added a selection of photographs of northern cinemas like the Paramount, subsequently the Odeon, which survived until relatively recently in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. There’s also a fascinating group of photographs focusing on the North East Coast exhibition, a major event of 1929, which featured a very large site in Exhibition Park, built in Art Deco style.
Interior design also reflected the new trend, and the show includes furniture by leading designers, including Gerald Summer’s bentwood chair with striking curved lines. In fact, the whole range of Art Deco furniture styles is included, from a steel and leather chair by Serge Chermayeff to a tubular metal table from Blackpool casino restaurant, as well as a comfortable tub chair and a charming armchair in wickerwork, which was still popular at this time. Metal and bentwood materials were seen as particularly appropriate for seaside leisure environments — practical, hygienic and symbolic of modernity.
Some of Britain’s most successful design manufactories were located by or near the sea, and produced striking contemporary products that were exported around the world. Ceramics made by Poole Pottery, which originated on the Dorset coast, became emblematic of the Art Deco style. One of the most successful electronics companies of the period, EKCO Radio, was established at Southend-on-Sea. For Cryséde Silks, the artistic community at Newlyn in Cornwall provided the inspiration and a skilled workforce for a new approach to textile manufacture, which combined hand-craft skills with factory production. As well as these southern companies, striking ceramics and glass from the local firms of Maling, Sowerby and Davidson’s represent decorative industries from the North East coast.
The exhibition demonstrates how Art Deco became synonymous with pleasure and leisure, transforming coastal resorts and associated with new freedoms. The sheer joie de vivre of the era and the glamour of Art Deco ensures its appeal endures to this day.
Take a virtual tour of Art Deco by the Sea in this short YouTube film here.
Learn more about the North East Coast Exhibition of 1929 via this short film on YouTube here.