The legendary photographer Tony Ray-Jones once called this country’s passion for the beach a “gentle madness” and the quote greets you as you enter the National Maritime Museum’s latest exhibition, The Great British Seaside. It is printed on the wall next to a series of sensational pictures taken by Ray-Jones in the 1960s, the starting point of this show which features four cameramen whose names are synonymous with this island population’s determination to enjoy the seaside even when an icy gale is blowing. One of the best of Ray-Jones’s pictures is of a middle-aged man in jacket and tie sitting in a deckchair on Blackpool seafront with his eyes covered by a white handkerchief – underneath his glasses. Another, taken at Broadstairs in Kent, shows a group of kids following Punch & Judy Man Peter Butchard, who later moved to Deptford where he died aged 99 in 2009. Ray-Jones – killed by leukaemia in 1972 when he was just 30 – spent the last years of his life touring UK resorts in a campervan on his restless search for subjects, always shooting in black and white. Monochrome is also the preferred medium of the exhibition’s oldest contributor David Hurn, now in his mid-80s, who continues to take seaside pictures in his native Wales. The absence of colour makes even his 21st century work look as timeless as Ray-Jones’s – yet neither of them ever becomes nostalgically twee or maudlin. That sense is exemplified by a shot of a girl in a bikini which looks as though it could have been taken yesterday. In fact it’s one of the earliest pictures on display. There’s a particularly fabulous photo of a Welsh beach deserted but for a distant lone surfer and, in the foreground, a large group surrounded by windbreaks. Hurn told me they were all neighbours from the same mining village street. His ration of 20 photos also includes an amazing shot of a woman snoozing in front of what appears to be a smoke-filled war-zone but which is in fact a crowded shore partially obscured by sea-mist. The exhibition, which neatly includes esplanade paraphernalia like deckchairs, resort benches and a cinema disguised as a beach-hut, then moves into full colour with two rooms of photographs by the best-known of the artists, Martin Parr. These pictures capture the garishness that continues to characterise the British seaside experience but also follow the lead of Ray-Jones and Hurn in stressing its timelessness. There is a brilliant picture of a woman in warm cardie and headscarf carrying a deckchair across the chilly-looking sand in Margate which encapsulates our never-say-die spirit. And as part of a commission by the museum of 21 new pictures taken at Essex resorts there is a great shot of a girl in a hijab larking about in the sea at Southend while close by is a man in Union Jack swimming trunks. In many ways it’s a perfect symbol for Britain today. The show finishes with a selection by the youngest of the four photographers, Simon Roberts, who gives us a series of wonderfully detailed deep-focus panoramas as well as close-up looks at that most archetypal seaside attraction, the pier. I can’t imagine the museum will ever surpass the photographic magic of its Ansel Adams’ exhibition of five years ago. But this fabulous survey of the British at play by the seaside sure comes close.
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