Tuesday July 9 2019

The Britten-Pears Foundation has loaned 17 photographs from its collections to the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate for their Seaside: Photographed exhibition. This exhibition examines the relationship between photographers, photography and the British seaside from the 1850s to the present day and includes images of crashing waves, day trippers, holiday makers, seaside communities and hotels.

The photographs loaned by the Foundation, all black and white images from Britten and Pears’ own albums, show them relaxing on the Suffolk coast with each other and friends. These are mostly informal snaps providing the viewer with a wonderful personal closeness and immediacy with their subjects. Britten and Pears are shown having fun on the beach. Curators Karen Shepherdson and Val Williams feel that ‘Their photographs reveal the joyousness and energy of their lives by the sea’.

Britten playing on the beach with a young girl, 1940s. Photographer: unidentified.

The Foundation’s photographs are displayed in the room about ‘seaside bohemias’ illustrating the British seaside as ‘a place of innovation and experimentation’. The curators explain that ‘The idea of including the Britten and Pears material came from our interest in seaside bohemias, places where artists, writers and musicians congregate to form communities and to develop mutual interests. …It was also important for us to introduce to audiences the idea of the seaside as a place of privacy and refuge for gay men and women, away from urban centres’.

Britten lived for most of his life ‘closely in touch with the sea’ – as he wrote in the introduction to Sadler’s Wells Opera Guide for Peter Grimes in 1945 – ‘My parent’s house in Lowestoft directly faced the sea, and my life as a child was coloured by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on to our coast and ate away whole stretches of the neighbouring cliffs’

Pears on Aldeburgh beach with friends, about 1949. Photographer: unidentified.

In 1960, now settled in Aldeburgh for many years, Britten said, in a broadcast discussion with the Earl of Harewood, that ‘I’ve always felt I wanted to live by the sea. I’ve tried living away from the sea but something has gone slightly wrong, I always felt. I have needed that particular kind of atmosphere that the house on the edge of the sea provides’.

Britten and Pears playing with friends on the beach; The Earl of Harewood is on the left, late 1940s. Photographer: unidentified.

In juxtaposition to the family snaps on display are a larger number of images taken by seaside studio photographers, documentary photographers and artists. Many of the images made me smile – for example, Paul Martin’s 1892 photograph of Victorian ladies in long dresses paddling at Great Yarmouth and getting caught by a wave.

I particularly enjoyed Martin Parr’s series of photographs from The Last Resort, taken in the ‘decaying Merseyside resort’ of New Brighton, between 1983 and 1985 – colourful, ironic and brutally realistic images.

New Brighton, England, from The Last Resort, 1983–85 © Martin Parr/ Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery.

I was also amused and absorbed by a large case full of seaside portraits from the 1850s to 1920s – dark, fading images of seaside visitors in long dresses, suits and ties, all wearing hats, and of children seated in goat-drawn carts.

Seaside Portraits, c.1850-1920. Courtesy of SEAS Photography, Private Collection.

Francis Mortimer’s beautiful photographs of crashing waves and stormy seas from the 1930s reminded me of Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling’s paintings of the same subject.

I also enjoyed the ‘Seesighd (seaside)’ exhibition in the adjacent Clore Learning Studio. Evidence of some great projects by local school children – on display were fantastic photographs they had produced in response to archival photographs as well as their own experience of the seaside.

The Foundation is delighted to be involved in this exhibition which is on at Margate until Sunday 8 September and will then tour to three other UK coastal venues in 2020: John Hansard Gallery Southampton, Grundy Art Gallery Blackpool, and Newlyn Art Gallery.

By Archivist Judith Ratcliffe.