A century ago, between the two world wars, something strange and rather wonderful happened to the British seaside. Our fusty Edwardian resorts were transformed by a cascade of bold and beautiful new buildings. Art Deco had arrived.
Art Deco and the British seaside were made for one another. The movement left its mark on our big cities, but it had the greatest impact on our seaside towns. Its relics are scattered around the country – it would take you ages to get around the lot of them – but you can see them all together at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery, in a splendid exhibition called Art Deco By The Sea. ‘It’s an exhibition to enjoy,’ says the Laing’s Keeper of Art, Sarah Richardson, as she shows me round. ‘Before Covid shut us down, this exhibition would have been on in summer, which in a way would have been ideal, but it’s no bad thing that it’s on now. It really is uplifting. It’s a feelgood exhibition, with some really interesting and significant art.’
Art Deco was all about glamour and sophistication, and its 1930s heyday coincided with the British seaside’s golden age. As the horrors of the Great War receded and the economy picked up again, Britain’s seaside resorts became boom towns and Art Deco made them fashionable.
These chic hotels and dance halls were the places to be seen in. As the sign outside Butlins proclaimed, ‘Our true intent is all for your delight.’ For ordinary families, foreign travel was unaffordable, and anyway, why bother to go abroad when these thrilling destinations were only a train ride away? Even getting there was a pleasure. What fun to ride in a restaurant car like the one in Leonard Campbell Taylor’s 1935 painting, with crisp linen tablecloths, and a waiter in wing collar and bow tie!
The railway companies played a leading role in the Art Deco revolution. In an era when cars were still a rarity, they provided quick and comfy transport from the big cities to the coastal towns, and they commissioned some of Britain’s best commercial artists to promote their wares. OK, so the pictures that these artists produced were probably a bit fanciful (Did these places ever look quite this good? Somehow, I doubt it) but in the end, who cares? They’re exquisite artworks, and seeing the original paintings is a rare treat. Often dismissed as mere advertisements, they’re just as good (if not a good deal better) than an awful lot of so-called fine art.
So what exactly was Art Deco? Sure, it was a style of architecture – but it was also a state of mind. These buildings were fit for purpose, but they were also ornamental. Everything was smooth and streamlined, like being on an ocean-going liner. They were made with modern materials (glass, concrete, stainless steel) but they weren’t brutalist – they were graceful.
Until I saw this show, I thought Art Deco mainly applied to architecture. I didn’t realise this sleek aesthetic influenced every avenue of the applied arts. From furnishing to furniture, from leisurewear to tableware, Art Deco was an abrupt break with Victoriana. Its serene cinemas and aerodromes were the landmarks of a brave new world. If it hadn’t been for the Second World War, who knows how it might have evolved? The show’s finale is a colour film of holidaymakers in Clacton, shot in the summer of 1939. It’s strange to see these families relishing the simple pleasures of the seaside, little knowing that a few months later a good many of these dads would be huddled on the beaches of Dunkirk, while their wives and children huddled in air raid shelters. The Second World War brought the curtain down on Art Deco, just as the First World War brought the curtain down on Art Nouveau.
In the 1950s the British seaside trade picked up again, but in the 1960s and 1970s it was dealt an even bigger blow. Cheap flights to sunny Spain stole away its core customers. Folk who used to go there for a week or a fortnight now merely went for a day out or a long weekend. These grand Art Deco buildings became impractical and unfashionable. Some of the best ones were demolished. Many more became dilapidated and rundown.
These resorts will never be what they once were, but after a long period of slow decline, some of them are on the turn. Hastings has been revived by hipsters; Brighton and Bournemouth have become thriving university towns; Southend has become a dormitory town for commuters who can’t afford to live in London; Blackpool has been rejuvenated by the gay pound… Morecambe’s Midland Hotel is one of the finest Art Deco buildings in the country. For years, it lay derelict. It’s now been lovingly restored. Some of my favourite exhibits in this show are the plans for Art Deco buildings which were never built: a luxurious casino in Morecambe; an exclusive hotel in Frinton… Instead of putting up more of the soulless structures we delight in nowadays, wouldn’t it be marvellous to build these things anew?
Now Coronavirus has made foreign travel so tricky, the time has come to rediscover these unsung destinations. And if you’re anywhere near Newcastle, do try and make it along to Art Deco By The Sea. As the days grow colder and the nights grow darker, and that beastly Covid business drags on and on, this happy, hopeful show feels like a sunny summer afternoon. It’s the perfect winter pick-me-up. It really cheered me up.
Five Art Deco sites to visit by the seaside
De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-sea (1935)
‘Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last,’ declared George Bernard Shaw, ‘but I shall not give it a clean bill of civilisation until all my plays are performed there once a year at least.’
Jubilee Pool, Penzance (1935)
Saltwater lido built for George V’s Silver Jubilee. After your dip, don’t miss Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, or the paintings in Penlee House.
Marine Court, St Leonards-on-sea (1936)
Striking fourteen storey apartment block, shaped like a Cunard liner (hence its nickname, The Ship) in a prime seafront site in the posher part of Hastings.
Midland Hotel, Morecambe (1936)
Built by the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (RIP). Look out for Eric Gill’s playful seahorses outside and his Odysseus relief within.
White Tower Casino, Blackpool Pleasure Beach (1937)
One of the most spectacular Art Deco buildings in Britain, now a restaurant, with superb views along the prom towards Blackpool Tower.
Art Deco by the Sea is at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (www.laingartgallery.org.uk) until 27 February 2021