An exploration of Seaside art – from The Open University module AA100.

‘Seaside art concentrates not on individual experiences but the experience of the group’. Based on your study of the representations of the Seaside, to what extent do you agree with this statement?

 

In order to look further into the above statement it is important to first establish what is meant by the term ‘experience’. Experience within the realms of art can refer to the experience of the subject, the viewer/listener or even the creator. There are also influential elements that need to be taken into consideration as well for example the intended appeal and audience direction the creator had in mind. The word ‘group’ can also be open to interpretation as there are many different group dynamics existing within any seaside experience for instance families and social classes.

For the purpose of this essay I will concentrate on the experiences of the subjects in Frith and Boudin’s paintings, the audience of Victorian seaside music and the changes that audience went through which led to the shift in the repertoire of Victorian seaside entertainers. I will also explore both subject and audience when it comes to looking closer at The Who’s epic album ‘Quadrophenia’. In doing this I will be able to highlight that the statement above is one that I cannot completely agree with but one that cannot be disregarded either.

During the mid to late nineteenth century seaside painting became more prevalent as painters of the time moved from the over produced ‘costume painting’ into the genre of ‘history painting’. Costume painting concentrated more on depicting historical scenes that had been sentimentalised in order to appeal to the general public. History paintings, on the other hand, were considered of a higher social standing and appreciation.

Such works as this were possessed of an elevated intellectual and moral content that was demanded by the nature of their subject matter. (Harrison, 2008, p.121)

William Powell Frith’s painting Life at the Seaside: Ramsgate Sands was painted in 1852-54 and was subsequently bought by Queen Victoria. Paintings from this genre were;

Favoured by those who saw themselves as responsible for the conduct of public life. (Harrison, 2008, p.121)

Life at the Seaside: Ramsgate Sands is a very large painting, 77x155cm, created to make a statement about modern life and the activities of groups attending the beach at this time. Frith created the painting from smaller studies of different groups and families over a period of time and brought them together as one (Harrison, 2008, p.123).

william-powell-frith

Plate 4.4.1 William Powell Frith, Life at the Seaside: Ramsgate Sands, 1852-4, oil on canvas, 77 x155 cm. (AA100 Illustration Book 2, 2008, p.98)

It is a panoramic view of many groups of social strata and a fabulous representation of life as it happened. There are separate identifiable groups, mainly families, within the painting even though the subjects are all quite closely packed on the sand. The majority of the subjects are very finely dressed, this can be seen most clearly in the group of five children to the left and also the large family group to the right of the centre, highlighting the social level of audience the painting was aimed at. All of the subjects have been painted in great detail regardless of their location in the painting and there is a substantial background view of the Ramsgate promenade. In the group on the far left, comprising of the minstrel band and their audience, each individual is recognisable as are the couple at the back right next to the bathing machines. This is evidence of Frith’s desire to bring to life the sights and sounds of the seaside in Ramsgate and draw the viewer into the various group experiences on the canvas. The viewpoint is very much one from the outside looking in and as the viewer is at a vantage point of being higher than most of the subjects and out to sea slightly the facial expressions and group dynamics are all the more evident as you move through the painting.

Eugéne Boudin’s painting Beach Scene, Trouville is of the same genre as Frith’s and depicts a similar scene but has an altogether different style and feel.

beach-scene-trouville-c-1860-1870

Plate 4.4.9 Eugène Boudin, Beach Scene, Trouville. C.1860–70, oil on wood, 22 x46 cm. (AA100 Illustration Book 2, 2008, p.106)

The image is again a panoramic view of a seaside but Beach Scene, Trouville is much smaller, just 22x46cm, giving it a far more intimate feel. The group dynamics are also alike, family groups sitting on both chairs and the sand. The main differences that can be noticed between the two paintings are the viewpoint and the overall feel in the detail, or lack of it in Boudin’s case.

Boudin was hailed as an important precursor of Impressionism. (Harrison, 2008, p.130)

Boudin’s brush style is looser than Frith’s giving the picture a lighter mood and the absence of detailed individuals allows the viewer to superimpose themselves into the image and almost feel the atmosphere of the group experience first-hand. There is also very little in the way of background and the viewpoint in Beach Scene, Trouville is lower down, parallel with the subjects, which enhances the painting’s intimacy. Both paintings embody the excitement and emotion of a seaside visit in the mid nineteenth century and epitomise the idea of seaside art representing an experience felt by a group.

Music during the reign of Queen Victoria had an extremely important impact on the experience of the holidaymaker and the clientele of popular seaside resorts. Whereas the paintings of the seaside concentrated more on the experience of the subjects, Victorian music concentrated more on the experience of the audience. With the increase of accessibility due to improvements in rail travel the mix of social classes now frequenting seaside resorts was growing.

From 1870s onwards there was a tension between the two main market sectors that developed at the Victorian seaside: the middle-class holidaymakers […] and the new working-class day-trippers. (Herbert, 2008, p.109)

Resort owners soon realised that there was a need to provide entertainment for both ends of the social spectrum. In order to profit from this sudden inflow of different classes, and draw even more people to the coast, re-segregation was required.

Different resorts, and indeed different venues at these resorts, purveyed repertoires in spaces that were designed to project a particular social tone. (Herbert, 2008, pp.109-110)

Music to suit the middle-classes was still being played by orchestras and small woodwind bands in the more upmarket seaside resorts such as Brighton and Bournemouth.  In an attempt to retain their reputation as a respectable destination for the middle-class holidaymakers the predecessor to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was created, led by a well-known military band conductor, Dan Godfrey. Meanwhile, the influx of the working-classes was entertained by brass bands and music hall style shows (Herbert, 2008, pp.109-111).

This demand of entertainment to suit the lower classes led to the creation of popular Seaside songs such as ‘Oh! I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’, written by John Glover-Kind in 1907.

Everyone delights to spend their summer’s holiday

Down by the side of the silvery sea

I’m no exception to the rule

In fact, if I’d my way

I’d reside by the side of the silvery sea

But when you’re just the common or garden Smith or Jones or Brown

At bus’ness up in town

You’ve got to settle down.

You save up all the money you can till summer comes around

Then away you go

To a spot you know

Where the cockle shells are found

Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside

 

I do like to be beside the sea

I do like to stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom!

Where the brass bands play:

‘Tiddley-om-pom-pom!’

So just let me be beside the seaside

I’ll be beside myself with glee

And there’s lots of girls beside,

I should like to be beside

Beside the seaside!

Beside the sea!

(Herbert, 2008, pp. 107-108)

Glover-Kind’s seaside anthem is synonymous with a trip to the English beach and contains evocative lyrics and melodies which appealed to the masses. The title is a huge indication to the content of the song and the melody that goes with it is an easy syllabic match to the lyrics (Herbert, 2008, p.107). Even without the jaunty tune that drives the song forward into the hearts and minds of the listener, the lyrics themselves give great insight into the activities one expected to take part in while at the seaside: for instance strolling along the Prom while listening to brass bands playing in the bandstands along the way. The verse opens with a light positive affirmation that everyone loves the sea and also contains reference to quite common family names such as Smith, Jones and Brown. This gives the listeners the chance to identify with the subject of the song and apply it to their own experiences of the seaside creating a group affinity of the typical beach holiday amongst the audience.

Moving onto an altogether more modern genre of music, The Who’s Quadrophenia is a work of art that crosses the boundaries of the individual experience and the group experience. It is written from the perspective of a lone young man trying to establish his fit within a specific widely identifiable social group, the Mods, yet as an album it is written to appeal to the masses. The Who’s music of the mid to late 1960s was hugely influential in the culture of the experiences of the Mods and Rockers, although the Rockers did not form part of the fan following, their virulent conflict with the Mods was rooted in the different musical tastes of the two groups (Danson Brown, 2008, pp.190-195). Quadrophenia was written in 1973, this was a few years later than the 1964 clash between the two gangs in Margate and Brighton but it is certainly intrinsic with this period of social history.

The record memorialises a particular moment in time when […] The Who embodied the style and aspirations of their youthful following. Quadrophenia elegises both the Mod movement and The Who’s early career. (Danson Brown, 2008, p.191)

Written as a Rock Opera the album was considered almost a high art form within the rock industry, it was not only a compilation of music tracks but also had a book containing the story and the lyrics as well as a set of photographs depicting images of the boy’s journey through the story.

It’s an elaborate artefact which aims to stimulate the listener on a range of levels. (Danson Brown, 2008, p.191)

It is a lyrical story following a teenage boy struggling with mental illness as he becomes disillusioned and disappointed with various aspects of his life. With the lead character only ever referred to as Mod Kid in the album story booklet and cover notes it may be written from an individual point of view but can be related to by many teenagers suffering the same anxieties as the subject has no definitive identity (Danson Brown, 2008, pp.190-195). This means that the album not only concentrates on the group experience of the Mods and fans of The Who but also allows a parallel concentration on the experience of the individual, be that the subject or the listener putting themselves in place of the subject.

To conclude seaside art is representative of both group and individual experiences. On the surface it would seem that it is purely concentrating on the experience of the group but when you delve deeper more questions arise. Both types of experience are essentially intertwined, a group experience can be influenced by an individual, for example Glover-Kind’s anthemic song, likewise an individual experience can be influenced by a group, such as The Who’s Quadrophenia. I therefore both agree and disagree with the statement given in the question; all art is subjective and can be interpreted differently by the viewer/listener.

 

Bibliography

The Open University, (2008), AA100 The arts past & present, Book 4, ‘Place and Leisure’, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

The Open University, (2008), AA100 The arts past & present, Illustration Book – Plates for Book 3 & 4, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

 

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