We Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside: A Look At Art Deco By The Sea At The Laing Art Gallery

Fairground Scene printed by Wilsons' Show Printers

“Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside…” and so you shall my dear when you take a trip to Art Deco by the Sea at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne. No bucket and spade required, as you walk around and bathe in elegance personified. In what can be described a sweeter-spot of time, in the 20s and 30s, re-generation and modernisation after the war re-shaped our coastline, enabling the tourism industry to thrive. 

There are over 150 pieces to praise and an extensive span at that of paintings, posters, brochures, drawings, photographs, fashion, furniture, ceramics and textiles, including works borrowed from their usual pride and place in the Laing and curated by Sarah Richardson. What the exhibition celebrates is how immense an effect the period had, spirits felt lifted again - fun was able to unfold - and how it mastered the deed of being entirely modern, with style in profusion. 

Marine Court in St Leonards-onSea by Raymond Myerscough

Photographs of redeveloped hotels and cinemas display the unmistakable curved edges, with linear, set back facades, smooth in texture with geometrical decorative elements; they scream glamour, or should that be a whisper in a dignified manner. Shown in the painting of Marine Court in St Leonards-on-Sea by Raymond Myerscough, this magnificent sea-view residential building, built in the shape of an ocean liner, owned east-end balconies similar to the RMS Queen Mary in particular.

Entertainment was a spectacle and a thrill for the senses. Funfairs were prominent attractions, and in Ernest Procter’s All the Fun of the Fair from 1927, it was strange for me, because of our current state, to observe a high number of folk packed tightly together. The choice of bright shades in his oil painting featuring the village fair gives a sense of action and vitality. 

At Newcastle’s famous Hoppings fair, which still operates to this day, you could discover the Wall of Death. In a black and white photograph from 1929, a dare-devil motorbike rider is gathering speed and riding horizontally around the drum. Where we still have this act today, it has developed to metal cages with several bikes at times interweaving in all directions. 

Fashion played its alluring part in this era with a ritual that we still uphold. The idea of getting dolled up on your vacation for your evening out is a long-held British tradition. The five breathtaking dresses on show in this exhibition were worn at the resort of Southend and influenced by French designers. Luxurious fabrics of silk, satin and velvet give a sense of quality. With no access to fast fashion available, one had to make clothes last. They were also cut straight and loose for practicality leaving the restriction of Victorian corsets behind. 

Image from The Laing Art Gallery

The swimwear on display look grand but was not helpful to bathing whatsoever as, soon as a drop of water hit, the woollen-mix numbers would transform into a heavy, baggy and unattractive garment. However, the female body in swimwear became a representation of the British seaside. Capturing their form once again is bronze floor lamp Clarté by Max L Verrier. Its fashionable cropped hair and athletic figure promoted health and strength, and reproductions could be found a great number of homes across the globe. 

North Bewick design Poster by Andrew Johnson

As technology advanced, travel became quicker and increasingly comfortable, providing an easy route to the destinations of jolliness, and the styling delivered the impression of extravagance. Buses were affordable, and ownership of cars swelled, still decades away from boarding a plane and heading abroad. Posters produced for railway companies that cemented their relationship with holidays were works of art in themselves and still adorn the walls of many households presently. Shown in a variety of images here, Andrew Johnson's North Berwick piece is included. 

EKCO AD-76 circular radio, Coates, 1935

Southend-on Sea's electronic firm EKCO became renowned throughout the world in the 30s, and designers Serge Chermayeff and Wells Coasts created the most attractive radios, of differing sizes, I have ever seen, as presented in a viewing cabinet for this show. Also in glass display units is pottery and glassware, including local firm Davidson and Sowerby, situated near the Tyne, who experimented with cloud glass in Art Deco colours and shapes. 

Although closed at the moment, Art Deco by the Sea runs until February 27th 2021 and is a perfect antidote to the harsh light of our current world; do not miss, and take a relaxed stroll one day. The coastal edges of the UK are covered well, but you can also take in a charming section devoted to our canny North East to discover how much the era was present. From West Monkseaton Metro Station to Whitely Bay's Rendezvous Cafe, many premises are still functioning today. My mind wandered as I did and I thought, wouldn't it be luverly if a brass band concert could be held in this very space. Deckchairs, fish and chip cones and some bubbles? Stop me, I am getting carried away, but a gal can only dream, "I'll be beside myself with glee". 

Article by Beverley Knight