Modernism on Sea

The influence of seaside towns on our culture goes far beyond the kiss-me-quick hat, says Peter Borsay

November 5, 2009

The British seaside has rarely been treated seriously by cultural critics. All those wet and windy beaches, greasy fish and chips, dirty postcards and sleazy boarding houses, managed by their even more dubious landladies, seem to place resorts beyond the cultural pale.

A recent initiative to make Blackpool a World Heritage Site was met with barely concealed derision among much of the national press. So this volume of essays is to be welcomed for challenging preconceptions and prejudices, with the editors boldly declaring that "Modernism on Sea puts the case for a new geography of avant-gardism, acknowledging that the most intriguing cultural hubs of modern times include Swanage, Margate, Morecambe and Hythe".

As the 17 contributors, the majority with strong backgrounds in academe, make their pitch, the case for modernism's debt to the seaside seems compelling. Influenced by the emerging cult of the sun and Le Corbusier's equating of the functional and nautical, strikingly modernist structures in the form of bathing stations, lidos, hotels and holiday camps sprang up in inter-war Britain in places now as sleepy and unfashionable as Bexhill-on-Sea, Prestatyn and Morecambe.

If resorts' accommodation of the shock of the new is clear enough for architecture, the seaside exerted a more subtle influence on other forms of modernist culture. Music (Britten's Aldeburgh Festival); cinema (the General Post Office Film Unit's documentary The Way to the Sea); art (the seaside paintings and collages of Walter Sickert, Paul Nash and John Piper); exhibitions (the Festival of Britain); and horticulture (Derek Jarman's garden at Dungeness) are addressed by various contributors.

But it is literature that attracts the greatest attention, with Graham Greene, Sacheverell and Osbert Sitwell, Stevie Smith, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf receiving sustained treatment. Of the last of these David Bradshaw claims "without her Cornish past ... it is debatable whether her status as one of the great modernist writers would have been as assured as it is today". It is at this point that doubts about the volume's underlying thesis begin to creep in. Quite apart from the plausibility of this type of environmental determinism, Bradshaw goes on to claim that "neither the sea nor the seaside figure prominently in modernist literature beyond the writings of Conrad, Joyce and Woolf". Since, of these, only Woolf is examined, where does this leave the claims of the other writers discussed in this volume?

Matters are not helped by the absence of cross-referencing between the contributors, even when dealing with the same theme or artist. Even more problematic is the reluctance to address the counter-case, namely the possibility that the association between modernism and the seaside was not as strong or uncomplicated as sometimes suggested here. The essays themselves - if read together - provide grounds for doubt. Many of the contributors point to the seaside as a site of memory and nostalgia rather than novelty, and some note that the classic avant-garde structures of the inter-war years have recently been restored and reconceived as heritage icons.

Reading the book as a whole, it is clear that the authors are juggling with many different types and definitions of modernism. Piper's return in the 1930s "to an art that acknowledged place, history, memory, native traditions and the significance of the English heritage", and Britten's celebration of the tonal and local, could reasonably be called "modern", but they hardly accorded with the avant-garde visions of some of their more radical contemporaries in Britain and abroad. This volume of intelligent and attractive essays is full of particular insights, and is to be applauded for its championing of the seaside as a site of cultural creativity, but it raises as many questions as it answers.

Modernism on Sea: Art and Culture at the British Seaside

Edited by Lara Feigel and Alexandra Harris

Peter Lang Publishing

2pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781906165246

Published 28 May 2009

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