See sides you missed

Jenny Steele didn’t go to galleries as a child, but she did go to the seaside. The artist tells Antonia Charlesworth why she loves it still

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British seaside holidays are far from a new concept but this summer our coastal towns are set to draw a crowd usually bound for more exotic climes – freedom-seekers who may not have visited since childhood, if perhaps ever.

Places like Blackpool and Scarborough are set to see a surge in visitors following national crisis, and not for the first time. While the Victorians were the founders of these seaside destinations, they received huge development in the interwar years as the government touted their ability to facilitate recovery and restoration – of both Britain’s economy and its citizens.

“During the 1930s the government put a lot of public funding into seaside towns, and also that was the first time people were given holidays with pay, so everyone was given that time to look after their bodies,” says Jenny Steele, an artist whose practice is informed by seaside moderne architecture and design, which typifies the period. “After the First World War there was a lot of ill health and death, so the government were really conscious about giving people time to rest so they could be well and contribute to the economy.”

Publicly funded lidos, pavilions and entertainment venues sprung up alongside privately owned pleasure buildings such as hotels and casinos, all in the seaside moderne, or nautical moderne, style. Inspired by the long, sweeping curves of ocean liners and influenced by the international modernist movement, the architectural trend sought to reflect a new, non-traditional order in a style free of the more decorative aspects of art deco, reflecting the austerity of the time but also its optimism.

For Steele, a Scottish artist who only lived at the seaside as a baby, it has always been a holiday destination. As an artist who has since lived in Edinburgh, London and Manchester, she revives elements of its optimistic, restorative qualities through site-specific artwork, textiles, sculpture, printmaking and events in the North West and Scotland’s seaside towns.

One of Steele’s biggest works to date aptly took place at Morecambe’s Midland Hotel, perhaps the most famous example of seaside moderne architecture, built by Oliver Hill in 1933. The imposing white building was left to ruin during the seaside decline of the 1960s onwards, when air travel became more accessible to the British holidaymaker, and was restored by Urban Splash in 2006.

“I made temporary sculptures within the building and around it, as well as a 56 metre-long piece along the promenade, a window piece that was lit from inside and some prints on the walls,” explains Steele. “They were really good to work with. They just fight really hard for it. They understand the Midland is a piece of history and that building being restored has really helped the town, in a very slow way.”

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Steele is constantly drawn to Blackpool, where she has hosted a solo show in recent years and where one of her most accomplished pieces is on permanent display in the new
Art B&B. Each room of the hotel, on Blackpool’s North Promenade, has been designed by a different artist, with many of them drawing on seaside themes. But even guests who pop into the café-cum-cocktail bar will be greeted by original art – initially, by Steele, whose seaside moderne-inspired carpet runs up the staircase.

“Often my work takes on the form of art and design but this was the first time a carpet was going to be properly used as a permanent piece, so the architect obviously had to make practical considerations – it wasn’t just about my artwork. We had to think about how it fits in with the rest of the interior,” says Steele, holding up an early prototype of the carpet
with an array of multi-coloured, inter-connecting shapes. “This was seen as being just a bit too visually stimulating, so we had to simplify it down.”

The final design is a repeat motif that draws on aspects of three pieces of Blackpool architecture – the Tower Ballroom’s steps, the Winter Gardens’ arched glass façade and the decorative red wheel on the front of the Pleasure Beach Casino. Built by Joseph Emberton in the seaside moderne style in 1937-1940, the casino emulates a ship with its funnel-like spiral tower.

Steele is happiest when her work takes on this kind of practical purpose, just as architecture does.

“I’m quite interested in work that sits in between art and design, which is quite similar to the interwar period. There were a lot of artists and designers like Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth who designed textiles and things for commercial use and I quite like the idea of working in between the two and not having a hierarchy between them.

“It’s just so exciting that the carpet can actually transform the space in one way and also be used in a practical, accessible way.Not everybody goes to galleries – they can be quite intimidating places, or I used to find that because I don’t come from an artistic family.”

The optimism of the seaside moderne period, of course, wasn’t to last and during the Second World War much of the pleasure architecture of seaside towns took on utilitarian war roles. The Midland Hotel became a hospital, for example, and the New Brighton Palace, built in 1939, began life as a munitions factory employing 200 Wirral women, rather than as an amusement arcade as intended. It’s a theme that’s been paralleled during the Covid pandemic. In Blackpool, for example, the Winter Gardens has become a vaccination centre and the famous Tower a food bank.

But as Blackpool and other seaside towns prepare to open once again, there is characteristic optimism. Despite the current government not necessarily pinning its hopes for a full British recovery on them, there is still much to be said for inhaling a lungful of fresh sea air.

It’s an area of research Steele has had the opportunity to dig into during the pandemic and she cites a study by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health which suggests blue space – by large bodies of water – can be more restorative and relaxing than green space because of its all-encompassing sensory pleasures. Closer to home she mentions a study in Morecambe by University of Central Lancashire academic David Jarratt, who found people had almost a spiritual connection with the seaside – in the presence of something so much bigger than themselves, they find themselves more carefree.

“The papers that I’ve been reading have been validating for me,” says Steele. “Obviously when I go to the seaside, I love it. I have all these nostalgic feelings and it makes me feel really free. But actually, reading the reasons behind it, I’m like, oh, right, that’s why.”

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