Best in show | Fishermen and Visitors, 1931, by Joseph Edward Southall

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
Best In Show Collections
John Holt
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Fishermen and Visitors, 1931, by Joseph Edward Southall
Fishermen and Visitors, 1931, by Joseph Edward Southall Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Coates Art Gallery, Bournemouth
Sarah Richardson
Keeper of art, Laing Art Gallery

“The huge expansion of English seaside resorts in the 1920s and 30s was fuelled by the public’s pursuit of outdoor lifestyles and leisure opportunities afforded by the growing railway network and greater car ownership.

The house style of these new and improved communities was art deco. Pleasurable, playful and contemporary, the movement inspired the design of everything from the clothes worn by the new holidaymakers to the chairs in which they relaxed and the hotels where they stayed.

Those wonderful buildings with their curving lines and sharp angles transformed many of our shorelines. Their flat roofs were not always the best idea for the English seaside and its changeable weather systems, but many of them still look stylish.

This beautiful and carefully composed picture is an excellent demonstration of how art deco was the perfect complement to this new mass tourism.

Joseph Southall was involved in the arts and crafts movement before the first world war and came to art deco relatively late in his career. He was attracted to mural paintings, and the tremendous precision of his work gave his paintings a frieze-like effect.

In this picture, which captures tourists meeting fishermen on the beach, he skilfully shows, for example, the roughness of the rope edging on the brown sail. It is nicely offset by the pink and turquoise scheme of the boat’s hull. The young woman on the left is carrying a lightweight implement and it crosses with the pail held by the fisherman, giving us a brief bucket-and-spade moment.

Interestingly, the simple smocks of the fishermen complement the glamorous lines of the women’s outfits and the black hat on the left even corresponds to the design of the red hat in the centre.

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This is a watercolour with real strength and depth, comparable to the artist’s previous works in tempera. All the artworks in the exhibition highlight the move towards a more naturalistic style – and the influence of surrealism and cubism – during the interwar years.

There are also objects spanning the whole range of art deco style and design, from the curves of bentwood chairs, the cane and basketwork of the Driade company, the fashions sported on the new golf courses that changed the appearance of many of our coastlines, and the designs
of fairgrounds, amusement parks and circuses.

In addition, there are products made by seaside industries such as Poole Pottery, EKCO radios, Crysède textiles and Davidson Sowerby glass, alongside railway posters designed by the likes of Laura Knight, Septimus Scott and Edward McKnight Kauffer that emphasise the speed and comfort of the new services heading for the coast.

There’s also a photo of the local Tynemouth pool that opened in 1925 as part of the push towards healthy living and open air fun. It closed in the 1990s, unfortunately, but there have been recent moves to revitalise it.”

Interview by John Holt. Art Deco by the Sea is at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, until 27 February 2021

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