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In this week’s blog Assistant Curator, Victoria Howarth, peers inside our Book of the Month, Lara Feigel and Alexandra Harris’s Modernism on Sea: Art and Culture at the British Seaside.

Modernism on Sea: Art and Culture at the British Seaside
RRP: £25 (10% off for Jerwood Gallery Members)

Editors Lara Feigel and Alexandra Harris have collected sixteen essays focusing on different aspects of British coastal modernism in this beautifully presented book.  This is very much an academic study, throwing light on a fascinating aspect of social and cultural history and its impact on artists and wider society in the 1930s and beyond. 

Peter Borsay, reviewing the book for Times Higher Education, wrote ‘this volume of intelligent and attractive essays is full of particular insights, and is to be applauded for its championing of the seaside as a site of cultural creativity’. John Carey reviewed the book as ‘an immensely enjoyable feat of cultural beachcombing, fresh, diverse and enlightening’.

The book is structured into six parts: ‘Seaside Holidays’, ‘Sand and Stucco’, ‘Seaside Poetics’, ‘Nautical Style’, ‘Social Change on the Promenade’ and ‘Modernism and After’.  Part I features essays on the aesthetics of excess, Morecambe, and the pull of the sea, by Lara Feigel, Michael Bracewell and Andrew Kötting.  Part II includes recollections of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Stevie Smith, and the Camden Town Group at Brighton beach by Nicola Moorby, Deborah Parsons and William May. 

Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath are the subjects of essays in Part III, written by David Bradshaw and Ben Morgan.  Part IV explores ocean liners and the avant-garde, coastal architecture, and John Piper’s preoccupation with the sea, by Frances Spalding, Bruce Peter, Philip Dawson and Fred Gray.  The Festival of Britain, saucy seaside postcards, and Elizabeth Bowen prompt discussions on social change by Edwina Keown, Svetlin Stratiev and Paul Rennie in Part V.  Finally, Alan Powers and Alexandra Harris investigate Benjamin Britten and seaside ceremonies in the concluding Sixth Part of the book.

I particularly enjoyed reading Bradshaw’s essay ‘The Purest Ecstasy: Virginia Woolf and the Sea’, with its focus on Woolf’s characters’ physical and psychological engagement with the sea, and Fred Gray’s ‘1930s Architecture and the Cult of the Sun’, which discusses the social implications of open-air swimming pools, focusing on the old bathing pool in St Leonards on Sea.  This book will be especially engaging for readers living by the sea, and features discussions of the seaside culture of East Sussex, including Hastings, St Leonards, Rye, Dungeness, Bexhill on Sea, Brighton, Saltdene and Hove. 

On page 4, editors Feigel and Harris introduce the particular significance of our modernist, coastal heritage, and why it may have been overlooked: ‘It is true that the greatness of the British seaside is not the greatness of Mann or Proust: its aesthetics are different.  But if we pay closer attention to those unique aesthetics we will find a rich literary heritage, a continuous tradition of painting and sculpture, and some of the most innovative architecture in Europe.’

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07 October, 2015
Written by Victoria Howarth