Historian Lucy Jane Santos reviews Art Deco by the Sea, an exhibition at the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre, transferring to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle in the summer.
The term Art Deco, coined in the 1960s, refers to the decorative modern style that spanned the boom of the roaring 1920s and the bust of the Depression-ridden 1930s.
It was a style of pleasure and escape and reflected the plurality of the contemporary world, embracing all forms of design, from art and architecture to fashion and funfairs. The style drew on tradition and yet simultaneously celebrated the mechanised, modern world.
In a new age of mass tourism, triggered by the right to paid holidays for all brought in by the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, coastal resorts were established (or revitalised) and transport networks modernised to meet the needs of holiday makers. Art Deco hotels, apartment blocks, cinemas and lidos changed the vista of seafronts, while the style permeated the ephemeral world of seaside fairgrounds, pleasure parks, ice cream parlours and illuminations.
The 1920s and 30s witnessed the advent of the healthy body culture, when sunbathing, swimming, and a host of other outdoor activities became fashionable. Pleasure gardens, lidos and golf courses changed the look of seaside resorts, while holiday camps such as Butlin’s provided new types of holiday experience. Municipal authorities invested in the development of entertainment complexes and winter gardens, which provided amusements by day and night.
The government-backed programme of lido construction saw the creation of some of Britain’s grandest outdoor swimming pools. Most were built in the Art Deco style, with streamlined buildings and diving structures evocative of ocean liner design.
Art Deco by the Sea cleverly explores the transformational nature of Art Deco by breaking up the exhibition into five sections: Fishermen and Visitors; Depicting the Seaside; Travelling to the Sea; Designing the Seaside; Seaside Industries and Amusements by Day and by Night.
There are over 150 works in this exhibition – many of which have never been exhibited before and are drawn from private and public collections – and over the course of the space we are presented with paintings, photos, fashion, furniture and textiles.
There are some great pieces here, and I really enjoyed the painting Summer by Thomas Martine Ronaldson, which had me yearning for better weather and a small cove in Cornwall.
Above all, Ghislaine Wood, acting director of the Sainsbury Centre and curator of this exhibition, is a master of the tableau vivant, and treats the visitor to a glamorously furnished leisure space of armchairs, sideboard and figure lamp as well as an outside swimming pool with mannequins in exquisite bathing costumes and caps.
If this style of exhibit seems familiar, it is worth noting that Ghislaine was also the behind the masterful Ocean Liner exhibition at the V&A in 2018.
Overall Art Deco by the Sea does a fabulous job at evoking the glamour of the past but also – poignantly – reflects on the legacy of Britain’s seaside Art Deco heritage.
I highly recommend saving to last the small screening room showing photographs of many of the Art Deco buildings and resorts today. Where once they spoke of optimism, progress, glamour and escape now they serve to emphasise the steep decline and poverty of British seaside resorts. Hopefully the value of this heritage will be properly appreciated and re-evaluated soon.
Art Deco By the Sea by Ghislaine Wood
A Day in the Sun: Outdoor Pursuits in the Art of the 1930s by Timothy Wilcox
Designing the Seaside: Architecture, Society and Nature by Fred Gray
Modernism on Sea: Art and Culture at the British Seaside by Lara Feigel and Alexandra Harris (ed)
Art Deco Britain: Buildings of the Interwar Years by Elain Harwood
The British Seaside Holiday by Kathryn Ferry
The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century by John Walton
LNER posters: © Sonee Photography
Interior with armchairs, sideboard and figure lamp: © Sonee Photography
Summer by Thomas Martine Ronaldson: © Manchester Art Gallery