by Roderick Conway Morris

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Art Deco by the Sea

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 17 April 2020
National Railway Museum
East Coast Joys No.2 Sun-Bathing
by Tom Purvis, 1931



When Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Waar and Mayor of Bexhill-on-Sea, spoke in January 1935 at the laying of the foundation stone of the boldly modernistic sea-front Pavilion that bears his name, his tone was almost messianic, describing the project as: 'a venture also which is part of a great national movement, virtually to found a new industry - the industry of giving that relaxation, that pleasure, that culture, which hitherto the gloom and dreariness of British resorts have driven our fellow country man to seek in foreign lands.'

De La Warr's enthusiasm was not shared by a large section of Bexhill's more staid residents, who no doubt, along with Evelyn Waugh's eponymous alter-ego in his novel 'The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold', would have no less 'abhorred Picasso, plastics, sunbathing and jazz' - all prominent novelties of the 1920s and '30s, the Golden Age of Art Deco.

In Britain at least, the style flourished in particular along the country's coasts, as is explored by Ghislain Wood and her colleagues in an evocative and richly illustrated book, 'Art Deco by the Sea', and a travelling exhibition.

The use of the term Art Deco, inspired by the landmark Exposition Internationale des Arts DÉcoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925, only dates back to the 1960s, but neatly sums up that eclectic machine-age style characterized by streamlining, geometrical patterns, circles, zigzags and primary colours.

At the time dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists and more purist modernists found common cause in deploring Art Deco as unutterably commercial and kitsch, but for the wider public, who encountered it in its most flamboyant forms in seaside cafÉs, restaurants, pavilions, hotels, holiday camps, cinemas, lidos and amusement parks, it represented a brave new world of affordable glamour and fun.

During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, thanks to the coming of the railways, there had already been an enormous increase in travel for pleasure to coastal resorts, with rail companies even building their own hotels. And in the interwar period the rail companies continued to play a major role in promoting excursions to seaside destinations where the new style was blossoming.

The London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) decided to replace their Morecambe hotel with an entirely new one, in a striking, steel-framed, stucco-clad modern style, completed in 1933. The hope was to attract a more middle-class clientèle to a mainly working-class resort, although there was a chic cafÉ-bar open not only to guests but also to non-residents, where humbler folk could sample the high life. The surrounding promenade area was modernized by the municipality - and this mixture of private and public funding in upgrading the facilities in coastal resorts was typical of the period.

In response to the new craze for sunbathing, swimming and healthy exercise, there was an explosion in the building of outdoor swimming pools, or lidos, usually on public land and financed by local borough councils. The level of investment was sometimes impressive: in the 1920s Blackpool Council spent £1.5 million on 7 miles of promenade extensions; £300,000 on indoor baths and £75,000 on an open-air pool.

The biggest pool complex of them all was the New Brighton Lido, designed in the contemporary style by borough engineer Lionel St George Wilkinson, at the end of the Wallesey Peninsula, across the Mersey from Liverpool. It could accommodate 12,000 visitors and attracted over a million the year it opened, in 1934.

An LMS advertising poster for the New Brighton Lido by Septimus Edwin Scott, features a lissom, tanned bathing beauty, reclining on a vertiginously high diving board and looking invitingly over her shoulder, above the miniature forms of the bathers in the azure blue pool below. Beyond can be seen a sandy beach, lighthouse and in the far distance, steaming across a tranquil sea, an ocean liner.

Ocean liners, indeed, were the ultimate trend-setters in style, exerting an enormous influence on the architecture, decor and furnishings of the age. When the Normandie was launched it 1932 it represented the greatest Art Deco statement ever made.

Seaside settings allowed designers to create the illusion of being on an ocean liner even on land: the curved lines of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, the Marine Court apartment block at St Leonards-on-Sea and a host of others, echoed the sleek lines of modern ship's architecture; and nautical features, such as railings, portholes and wooden sun-decks, proliferated in public and private buildings, conjuring up images of luxurious trans-Atlantic crossings and voyages to sunnier, more distant climes.

Selling the dream stimulated a brilliant generation of British graphic designers to ambitious new heights of artistic endeavour. In 1926, the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) contracted five artists to work for them exclusively for an initial three-year period, renewed until 1932, even holding regular public exhibitions of their works.

Tom Purvis, who specialized in seaside subjects, was responsible for making some of the most memorable works to come out of LNER studio, fashioning a distinctive Fauvist-inspired style, the evolution of which he described in a lecture in Bradford in 1929: 'In working out my patterns I found I had gradually and logically reduced everything to complete silhouettes in spots of colour; and did not need features at all except where they affected the shapes and masses.'

One of Purvis's masterpieces was East Coast Joys, a 1931 set of six posters that could stand alone but viewed together formed a polyptych, representing a continuous scene beginning with two ramblers looking down on a sandy bay, sunbathers, toddlers playing and paddling, swimmers around a boat, a dinghy with fishermen and a speed-boat sweeping out to sea. The visibility of such posters was guaranteed by print runs of between 1,000 and 5,000 copies. In 1926 Purvis was one of the founders of the British Society of Poster Artists and a decade later he was the first commercial artist to be appointed as one of the Royal Designers for Industry.

The posters produced by Tom Purvis, Septimus Edwin Scott and their fellow artists now constitute some of our most abiding images of the interwar period. And their allure unquestionably helped encourage many people to head for our coasts. In the summer months of 1935 alone, the railway companies sold 50 million day, half-day and evening tickets.

A number of local industries in seaside locations were established or received a new lease of life during this period, supplying domestic and international markets with what are now recognized as some classic, collectible Art Deco products - the subject of a section in the 'Art Deco by the Sea' book and exhibition.

In Newlyn and St Ives in Cornwall, Alec Walker, the son of a Yorkshire textile family, recruited the expertise of the local artists' colonies and a workforce trained in hand-crafts to manufacture hand-printed fabrics in the modern style, for CrysÉde Ltd. In 1926, the company moved into a disused fish-processing factory in St Ives, remodelling the building, installing electric lighting and using the pilchard tanks for dyeing fabrics. By 1933, CrysÉde had twenty-two shops across the country and a thriving mail-order business.

Three other well-established companies successfully moved with the times. Carter & Co., originally founded in 1873, and their new offshoot Carter, Stabler & Adams in Poole, Dorset, produced both industrial and domestic tiles and ceramics. Poole Pottery, as it became know, was sold through up-market shops such as Liberty's and Heals. And Carter & Co.'s tiles were hugely in demand, adorning countless shops, pubs, hospitals, the Hoover and Firestone factories in Perivale, the London Underground, the Savoy and Claridge's hotels and the first-class swimming pool on the Queen Mary.

In the North-East, Sowerby's Glassworks and George Davidson & Co. in Gateshead proved themselves remarkably willing to experiment with manufacturing techniques and adaptable in keeping up with contemporary tastes. Sowerby's Art Deco glass was exported to Belgium, France, Germany and the US. And when the Queen Mary was launched in 1936, the liner was equipped with a range of the firm's wares.

Among Davidson & Co.'s inventions was its heavy, durable, pressed 'Cloud Glass', offered in multiple shapes and colours, including amber, brown, purple, blue, green, orange and red. An alarming innovation, manufactured by both companies, was green and yellow uranium glass that glowed under ultraviolet light, the production of which was banned after the dropping of the atomic bomb.

In 1926, an electrical engineer, Eric Kirkham Cole, and a teacher and journalist, William Verrells, started E.K. Cole Ltd (EKCO) in Southend-on-Sea, with capital provided by the owner of the Peter Pan Playground on the seafront. Their modernistic architect-designed wirelesses, produced in a purpose-built Art Deco-style factory that eventually employed 7,000 workers, became one of the most ubiquitous Art Deco products in the nation's homes. ECKO's moulded casings for their radios also pioneered the use of plastics in this country.

Art Deco by the Sea, edited by Ghislaine Wood, Sainsbury Centre (£30)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023