Beside The Seaside

National Maritime Museum

I didn’t know this was on until a leaflet fell out of my copy of Time Out. This keeps happening. It drives me nuts that I have to find out about a local exhibition through a London-wide advertising strategy, when I walk past the place virtually every day.

Admittedly once I knew about it and had already decided to go, there was a poster for the show just outside the entrance – but most locals don’t make a habit of walking right up to the entrance of the museum. I know they have a limited budget – and they need to direct most of it at tourists, but it’s our museum too and a poster outside the gates where people actually pass wouldn’t break the bank, surely? (If there is one, I haven’t seen it…)

Beside the Seaside is an exhibition of photographs in the little exhibition area that used to house the Titanic stuff. It doesn’t quite deliver what it promises, but is still worth a visit, if only to see just how similar to each other British resorts looked around the turn of the last century.

The bulk of the pictures come from the Frith collection – when the company ceased trading in 1971, a large number of negatives found their way to the museum and this is an attempt to show a small fraction of them.

It’s billed as “snapshots of British coastal life, 1880 – 1950,” which I took rather literally – that it would actually be ‘snapshots,’ probably by amateurs, of holidays and fishing, piers and seaside rock, spread over that whole period.

Instead, it tends to be landscapes and portraits, almost certainly by professionals, mainly, it would seem, taken around the Edwardian period. And there’s no denying it’s interesting with some of the shots stunning indeed.

The pictures are grouped in geographical areas, usually one photo per resort/coastal town, and do really tell a tale of another world – grizzled fishermen mending their lobster pots, grizzled women, probably much younger than they look, gutting fish, ladies in long black skirts and crisp white blouses, gigantic hats perched on their heads, taking the sea air in groups, their nannies following at an appropriate distance with perambulators.

There is much to enjoy. I particularly liked the dapper gent in blazer and straw boater, drinking-in the exotic air at Torquay, surrounded by palm trees and cacti. And I definitely have to take a trip to Gravesend now, to find out what happened to that gigantic white castle of a building on the promenade.

There’s some fuzzy footage of newsreels and a couple of train posters – presumably to keep to the promise of the period reaching to the 1950s – and a case containing some Punch and Judy puppets for no other reason than, it seems, they were worried the pictures alone wouldn’t be enough of a draw.

But I don’t get the feeling that hearts were particularly in this exhibition. For a subject that should be uplifting and joyful – everyone loves the seaside, don’t they? – to me it has a curiously downbeat feel. It is neither a wholly photographic piece, nor a proper ‘exhibit.’ Was cash tight? I find that hard to believe – the NMM has to be one of the richest museums we’ve got. It is a temporary exhibition, of course, but it has the feel of a temporary exhibition. That it’s just filling in while they’re waiting for the main attraction.

And what is the main attraction? Don’t ask me. You’ll just have to wait for a leaflet to fall out of Time Out…

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