Exploring the art of the traditional British seaside holiday

A focus on ‘staycations’ in in Britain for holidays this year has stimulated renewed interest in the history and heritage of traditional domestic tourism and leisure, and in particular its art, advertising, postcards and culture.

This is being manifest in a number of exhibitions and events celebrating the related iconic posters and postcards produced in connection with British holidays from earlier days, and the artists and designers behind them.

Postcards at the Postal Museum in London

The Postal Museum is celebrating the Great British postcard with its new exhibition, Wish You Were Here, opening in London on 20th May.

The exhibition aims to take people through the history of the British postcard, showing audiences how its use has been adapted by a changing audience over the last 150 years, exploring the stories of human connection these postcards can tell through their images and messages.

The postcard first appeared around 1870, and thus 2020 marked its 150th anniversary. An innovation of its time, the postcard meant a new, simpler and faster way to send messages between friends and families with an accompanying image through the post.

The postcards on display at the exhibition showcase some contemporary, embroidered designs that are reminiscent of the multicoloured beach huts still dotted across British beaches and proving particularly popular this year.

Wish You Were Here, explores the many uses of postcards, including sending them to loved ones to show off where you are and that you are thinking of them.

“Everybody associates postcards with the seaside, so we had to include that” said Georgina Tomlinson, exhibition curator.

The exhibition includes a display of postcards made by Bamforth & Co, a major producer who were based in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, and a design by artist Donald McGill. Bamforth & Co were huge producers of postcards in the early-to-mid 20th Century, and Donald McGill was one of the most prolific artists producing designs for postcards, deploying affectionate, sometimes risqué, caricatures of people enjoying their holidays and getting into embarrassing, and amusing situations. The selection on display showcases their role in establishing the idea of the great British seaside and demonstrate how tastes have changed.

Wish You Were Here: 151 Years of the British Postcard opens on 20th May 2021 and runs until 2nd January 2022. Admission at £16 per adult (under 24s £11), includes unlimited access to the full Postal Museum and its exhibitions for a year, and one ride on the historic Mail Rail underground line on your first visit. Visit www.postalmuseum.org/visit-us for more details and to book your tickets.

A discounted rate of £13.50 per person is offered for groups of 8 to 40 people. Visit the group booking page to submit a booking request.

Saucy Seaside Postcard museum on Isle of Wight

You can also explore more of the great British postcard with a visit to the Donald McGill Saucy Seaside Postcard Museum in Ryde on the Isle of Wight. The museum pays homage to McGill, known as the King of the Seaside Postcard. McGill created over 12,000 postcards in his time, depicting anything and everyone in the 20th century, from the Suffragette movement, Transport, and two World Wars, all with a humorous twist. 

The Donald McGill Museum offers groups of 12 and over a discounted price of £1.50 per person. For groups of 20 or more, you are able to book the entire museum and cafe exclusively for your visit. An additional speaker is also available to book for your group, who will give a talk on Donald McGill in full period dress! Visit the website for more details.

Travel Posters and Seaside Delights in Pontefract

To enjoy British holidays and travel posters, there’s a good choice available. The Travel Posters Of Charles Pears is a brand new exhibition at Pontefract Museum, opening 22nd May and running until 4th June 2022. It explores Charles Pears’ career as a commercial artist and celebrates his work in the town where he grew up and began his initial training at East Hardwick and Pomfret College. Bustling beaches, bathing belles and bold Art Deco design were his hallmarks. The exhibition will transport you back to the heyday of rail tourism, day trips and the British seaside holiday. The museum offers free entry to visitors, visit the website for more information on the exhibition.

John Hassall’s iconic seaside image in Pinner

From 22nd May to 29th August, the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, London will be running an exhibition dedicated to another of Britain’s best-known and most high-profile artists, John Hassall.

John Hassall made his name with his illustrations for travel companies, alongside political causes, theatre and well-known brands, which earned him the title, The Poster King in the first half of the 20th century. He is most known for his iconic seaside poster encouraging tourism to Skegness, “Skegness is SO bracing”. This exhibition explores the key aspects of John Hassall’s work and celebrates the life of this extraordinary artist. The museum reopens its doors on Saturday 22nd May 2021, adult tickets cost £6 and it’s suggested visitors book in advance to secure a timeslot.

Travel posters at the National Railway Museum

The National Railway Museum in York has a permanent collection of over 10,700 posters and other railway artwork on display, dating from 1804 to the present day. Last year the museum reimagined some of its most iconic travel posters into Covid-19 themed travel warning posters, due to the travel restrictions that were imposed in 2020. The 10 vintage travel posters, as featured in the summer 2020 GTO Staying Local magazine, show the iconic artwork, along with government travel advice. Encouraging people to “view online” or “come back later”. Now its again possible to actually see the Railway Museum’s posters in situ, as the museum reopens on 19th May 2021, visit the website for more information.

Seaside art for sale in Folkestone

If you’re looking to own your very own vintage travel posters, you might head for the Kent coast, and Rennies Seaside Modern gallery in Folkestone. The vintage shop has a collection of original vintage posters and graphics for sale, including a 1970’s tourism poster for Hastings & St Leonards and original prints designed by Eddie Pond for British Rail that were used across Network Southeast trains. You can view the full selection of vintage posters for sale here, Rennies Seaside Modern is open by appointment only, visit the website for more details.

Art and Life on the Beach in Hastings

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Amongst other British holiday theme exhibitions isSeaside Modern: Art and Life on the Beach, a new exhibition at the Hastings Contemporary, running from 27th May to 31st October 2021. Art historian and curator James Russell has taken a look at the popularity of the British seaside in the first half of the 20th century. This exhibition features work by major modern British artists including Paul Nash, LS Lowry, Eileen Agar and Laura Knight, as well as advertising posters and archive photographs that celebrate the Great British seaside.

Hastings Contemporary will reopen on Thursday 27th May 2021.Visit the website for more information on opening hours and booking.

Also in Hastings, the town’s Museum and Art Gallery has a very nice display of relating the town’s role in the ‘Mods & Rockers’ battles of the 1960s, when rival scooter and motorbike riders clashed on the seafront in the East Sussex town. There are photos and memorabilia and even bikes on display.

and Scarborough’s seaside heritage exhibition

In the North, Explore Scarborough’s seaside heritage is being put in the spotlight in Scarborough: Our Seaside Town, an exhibition at The Scarborough Museums Trust, running from 18th May to 12th September 2021, and the exhibition displays seaside objects, paintings, photographs and postcards, shown through the eyes of the Scarborough Museums Trust team, and gives visitors the opportunity to share their own stories about living in or visiting Scarborough.

Artefacts in the exhibition include an original Di Placido’s ice cream cart from the 1940s/50s which used to operate on Scarborough’s South Bay beach, and the town’s original ‘Pancake Bell’, rung to signal the start of the unique tradition of skipping on the seafront on Shrove Tuesday. Entry to Scarborough Art Gallery costs £3 and gives you unlimited entry to both the gallery and the Rotunda Museum for a year. Visit the website for more details.