Art Deco by the Sea | Sainsbury Centre

What a moving exhibition this proved to be. Of course, when the Sainsbury Centre was planning a show about Britons taking their holidays at the seaside in the far-off inter-war years, they can’t have known that so many people would be “staycationing” this year. That includes me: I could visit because I was housesitting in Norwich, glad of the change of scene, with a holiday in France cancelled due to the new quarantine restrictions.

This show is about Brits enjoying new kinds of leisure in the period when paid time off for all was passed into law but before the war, and, after that, the rise of low-cost package holidays on the continent. It was a time of Brighton Rock and Butlin’s holiday camps, of whooshy seafront serviced flats and hotels, gleaming white in the sunshine. Of new fairground thrills - dodgems and big dippers. Of expensive advertising campaigns from newly-consolidated train companies, promising holiday pleasures in gleaming Gill Sans.

east coast joys East Coast Joys - ad campaign for LNER, designed by Tom Purvis

The show makes the argument that the abiding aesthetic style for this confluence of societal and cultural events, driving Brits to the seaside, was Art Deco. More broadly, that the style, in its clean lines and abstraction, represents fun as well as modernity; the people’s choice, rather than the avant garde.

Though some of the designs of these times seems pretty out-there, from the sexy bakelite curves of Ecko radio sets (made in Southend-on-Sea), to Marion Dorn’s abstract-patterned rugs, laid resplendent in a new hotel in Morecombe, to the tight and sexy bathing suit styles that so many women must have saved to buy to wear during their planned trip to Butlin’s, the cost of staying there was equivalent to a week’s wage for the average Briton.

I found a page of the Butlin’s brochure describing their on-site pool one of the most moving pieces of the show, speaking as it did of hard-up 1930s city-dwellers finally finding a holiday destination in which to take their ease. “It’s one of those pools you dreamed about where you can dive without a feeling you might take a couple down with you on the way.” An accompanying photo of a factory trip to the camp, featuring rows and rows of young people beaming their faces off, underlines the point. No wonder an iconic amusement park opened in the 30s in Margate was simply called Dreamland.

four streamliners

Many people made their way to the seaside by train, designs for which had also been influenced by the Deco movement. Tom Purvis, the ad agency art director who was signed exclusively to the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), made both of the posters illustrating this post. There’s something irresistibly innocent about The Four Streamliners, the sense that technological progress, expressed in this new aesthetic, is a force for untrammelled good.

Within a decade, and following the most mechanised war of all time, Purvis chucked in the graphic design work and painted only portraits. And, despite our pandemic-induced staycationing, I’m sure we will get back on flights to anywhere just the moment the risks become acceptable. The world portrayed in Art Deco by the Sea is irretrievably lost, then. Which makes all those beaming faces, all that go-ahead design, all the more poignant to look at and enjoy.

Art Deco by the Sea is at the Sainsbury Centre (Norwich). 09 February - 20 September 2020