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Art Deco by the Sea at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery

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Art Deco by the Sea at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery

Art Deco by the Sea 17 October 2020 – 27 February 2021 

Art Deco by the Sea at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery’s is very much about unfaded seaside glamour, celebrating a time when this distinctive style of art, architecture and design transformed the British seaside.  

During the 1920s and 30s, Art Deco became synonymous with leisure and pleasure, especially as existing coastal destinations and transport networks were modernised, while new resorts were established to meet the needs of the dawn of mass tourism.  

Consisting of more than 150 works drawn from public and private collections across the UK, including paintings, posters, brochures, drawings, photographs, fashion, furniture, ceramics and textiles, Art Deco by the Sea was originally created by The Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. In Newcastle, the show has been redeveloped to include works from the Laing collection. 

The exhibition will celebrate iconic examples of seaside architecture, from the Midland Hotel in Morecambe to Edinburgh’s famous Portobello Lido. Posters produced for several railway companies will show the relationship between these companies and the destinations they were promoting. In The Four Streamliners (Tom Purvis, 1937, National Railway Museum) – depicting a group of aerodynamic trains and the cities that they were destined for, including Newcastle – the tagline readsAll For Your Further Comfort’ but the greater inference is, arguably, speed.  

Travel during the 1920s and 30s was indeed becoming more comfortable but it was also offering the opportunity to undertake much greater distances more swiftly. Hence, the LNER poster not only mentioning its destinations but also the journey times from London to Edinburgh (6 hours) and Newcastle (in just 4 hours).  

Posters and photographs also bear testimony to the burgeoning culture of body-confidence and the pursuit of healthy or sporting activities, including swimming and sun-bathing. This is exemplified by the poster promoting Wallasey and New Brighton, using an image of the New Brighton Bathing Pool with the rather seductive figure of a tanned, rosy-cheeked young woman in a swimsuit glancing over her shoulder at the viewer, while sitting atop a high-diving board (New Brighton and Wallasey, Septimus Scott, c.1934, National Railway Museum).   

As the exhibition’s title suggests, much of the focus of Art Deco by the Sea is on the lure of the beach and reveals how destinations such as Whitley Bay in the North East, Helensburgh on Scotland’s Clyde coast and Filey in Yorkshire marketed themselves as both sophisticated and family-friendly destinations, lit by glorious sunshine and fronded with verdant, beautiful coastlines and clear blue waters.

The appeal of swimming – in the sea and in pools or lidos – also sparked a boom in the swimwear industry and the exhibition has two examples of a man’s and woman’s bathing costume. In the style of the times, the male costume has a vest-style top and what makes it notable, is that it was made with the then-revolutionary new material of elastic wool jersey, which initially clung to the body when dry, but unfortunately had the flaw of becoming heavy and unglamorously baggy when wet. The two costumes are accompanied by a charming little brochure by Jantzen – an American swimwear brand that had a UK manufacturing base in Whitley Bay – in the shape of a bathing tent, with a line of swimwear-clad figures tumbling out of it.

The exhibition also looks at entertainment with watercolour scenes of the huge local fair, known as the Hoppings, by Newcastle artist Byron Dawson (1896-1968), Eric Hesketh Hubbard’s (1892-1957) depictions of a travelling circus and an angular, Modernist Wall of Death by Harry Epworth Allen (1894-1958). A dizzying spectacle in real life, these hugely popular dare-devil fairground attractions involved a motorbike driven round a circular, almost vertically-banked track, with the rider reaching an almost-horizontal position at the top of the ring. Only the speed kept it in position. Again, this combination of modern machinery and speed proved a heady mix for holidaymakers to Britain’s coast. 

Art Deco by the Sea also bears testimony to the Jazz Age, as it was at the same time that the American music and dance craze crossed the Atlantic and into Europe. Although jazz records were, at first, quite rare in Britain and mainland Europe, the arrival of jazz bands and musicians, who toured venues around the UK, and the inclusion of jazz in BBC radio broadcasts, all helped its burgeoning popularity through the 20s and 30s.  

Being able to move comfortably also had a huge influence on day and evening wear of the time, with the famous ‘Flapper’ dress cut straight and loose, with the arms bare and hip-level waistline freeing women from the buttoned, laced and corseted restrictions of their Victorian forebears.  

Cinema, magazines and newspapers all fuelled the appeal, so that cloche hats, feathered fans and beaded hemlines were just as much normal accoutrements for female holidaymakers in Cleethorpes, Cullercoats and South Shields, as they were for Hollywood screen sirens such as Louise Brooks, Clara Bow and Tallulah Bankhead. 

The sheer scale of how much the Art Deco movement influenced British taste is revealed in the collection of beautiful objects in the exhibition. From a hexagonal ‘jazz’ pattern teapot complete with solid triangular handle,  and a round-footed conical vase featuring a gold-printed oriental-style dragon set against a lustrous purple background – both made by Newcastle company Maling – to a ‘jade’ streamlined Art Deco bowl by Davidson’s of Gateshead, the exhibition also demonstrates the sheer artistry of designers, craftsmen and manufacturers located in the North East, complementing designs from coastal manufacturers elsewhere in Britain.  

Much as Art Deco became synonymous with monumental, skyscraping architecture, as exemplified by New York’s  Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, it also became a familiar part of the UK’s urban landscape, often giving style and grace to more prosaic structures; including the bus station on Seaton Carew’s seafront, the iconic Rendezvous Cafe in Whitley Bay and that other great expression of Art Deco culture, moving picture houses – beautifully represented by Newcastle’s historic Tyneside Cinema. 

Sarah Richardson, the Laing Art Gallery curator for the exhibition, says: Art Deco by the Sea explores how this artform transformed the British seaside during an era of burgeoning mass tourism. It looks at how traditional resorts were modernised and new ones established, and explores how the seaside became a site for innovative modern manufacture, featuring companies such as PoolePottery, EKCO radios and Crysède textiles, all known for their striking designs. Such companies as these produced popular Art Deco products which were exported all over the world.

Visitors will also discover coastal amusements and activities, including the more ephemeral, popular culture of the seaside such as circuses, fairgrounds, pleasure parks, fun fairs and illuminations. In addition, a significant group of paintings will explore how a fashion for realism underpinned much imagery of the seaside during this period.”

Julie Milne, Chief Curator of Art Galleries, says: “The exhibition demonstrates how Art Deco became synonymous with pleasure and leisure, transforming coastal resorts and ultimately symbolising the rapidly changing values of people experiencing new freedoms in the inter-war years. The sheer joie de vivre of the era stands in marked contrast to the horrors of the turmoil that preceded and followed it but it is the glamour and accessibility of Art Deco that makes its appeal endure to this day.” 

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