Poet and author Owen Sheers examines our changing relationship to the sea over the last four centuries and how this is reflected in the work of many British artists.
Browse content similar to In Pictures. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
The sea has always drawn our gaze.
It's impossible not to come down to the shore
and look at the simple geometry of the horizon more intensely
and in a different way than we usually look at the land.
Being out here now, in the middle of it, it isn't hard to see why.
It's such a visually seductive environment -
it's always changing, full of oppositions.
It's beautiful and yet potentially fatal and always moving and altering.
It's no surprise then that through the generations the sea should have been such a powerful influence
upon Britain's artists and painters.
The sea has played a crucial role in our identity as an island nation -
a place of battles and acts of heroism, where our sovereignty has been defended and defined.
A place of work and industry where communities have grown.
It's also a place we can experience a sense of the infinite,
where the scale of human life is measured against the immense, majestic power of the sea.
And yet only 400 years ago the sea had very little cultural value.
It was viewed with great suspicion, rife with bad smells and rotting debris.
We perceive the sea today as a place of great natural beauty - the last true wilderness,
a destination for holidays and a vibrant part of our cultural life.
So how did this dramatic transformation take place?
In this programme, I'll chart our relationship with the sea
by looking at the work of British artists over the last four centuries
who have tried to capture her ever changing essence in the stillness of a canvass or sculpture.
Sunrise at Leigh-on-Sea on the Essex coast,
where the Thames Estuary meets the North Sea.
I'm here to meet a contemporary artist who lives
and works here, and who comes to the shore every morning to draw.
Jon Wonnacott is one of Britain's most respected portrait painters.
His commissions include some of Britain's most prestigious figures,
including the Royal Family.
But it's this coastline that he considers his main subject -
one that he constantly returns to in his work.
I've come to absolutely love being able to see a complete horizon all the way around me.
And I love the way that it's always reflecting the sky, all the time changing,
according to what the sky is doing,
and for a painter like me who's concerned with light and space,
there couldn't be a greater subject to have, you know.
It just seems to be like it was built for me.
Do you think it's a beautiful scene?
I was struck this morning that it has a tone of aftermath in it, especially when the tide's gone out.
Everything that has been left.
And at the same time we're looking over there to a power station.
It's a strange kind of beauty, isn't it?
Well, I suppose so. But then all beauty is a bit strange, isn't it?
All beauty is surprising.
What do you mean? You mean a sort of loveliness, isn't there? I think that's true.
But a loveliness I don't think I would find terribly interesting.
Would you? No, I don't think I would.
I mean, beauty for me... visual beauty is always to do with a kind of exhilaration.
I like what man does, I like what people do, I like the way that people interact with things.
I like it when they build a new cafe and I can go and sit there and make new drawings.
I like all the stuff they put up around, all the new lamp-posts and the new jetties.
They're always rebuilding these overflows.
All these are beautiful.
It strikes me that there's a theatrical note about it.
Is there an element of the beach as a stage for you, do you think?
It's pure theatre the entire time.
You've got to remember the tide is obviously going in and out twice a day, so it's changing continuously.
I mean, one moment from my window it is just sea,
another day it's pulled right back and you've got this dazzling thing
with people going down the road, people out here.
Yeah, theatre. Continuous theatre, you know.
The curtains being withdrawn four times a day.
As someone who works in light, this must be an incredible landscape to work in.
I was very aware that as we walked down the beach, the quality of the light was changing.
Light has to be at the core of painting.
I mean, it's all we've got, isn't it?
All we've got is light being reflected from up there onto different surfaces,
hitting the retina, then we've got to process that and find some ways of making images about it.
So, when you've got light that is so continuously bouncing backwards and forwards,
when you've got light that is encompassing everything and drawing the eye,
how could you not be a painter, standing among that lot?
Jon Wonnacott is part of a long tradition of painters who have made the sea their subject.
It's a tradition that started in Britain over 300 years ago
when Britain's navy was one of the most powerful in the world.
The River Thames lies at the heart of Britain's maritime history.
In the 17th century, 90% of the country's trade would have passed through the Port of London.
This was the gateway to the global markets from where ships were would sail off around the world.
It was also right here on the Thames that Britain's illustrious tradition of maritime art was born.
CLASSICAL MUSIC PLAYS
The Royal Naval College in Greenwich was built as a hospital for the relief and support of sailors.
Its grandeur demonstrates the high regard in which the navy was held.
At its heart is The Painted Hall,
planned as the hospital's dining room and decorated with paintings by James Thornhill.
It was the first major commission for a British painter
and it took him a staggering 19 years to complete.
The paintings on these ceilings were designed to celebrate the prosperity and stability
that had been gained by the newly formed nation of Britain through her dominance of the waves.
It isn't surprising therefore that they're absolutely packed with maritime symbolism and iconography.
Up here above me the four corners of heaven are supported by cannons and coils of rope and anchors.
While down at the eastern end of the ceiling, we can see navigators and astronomers like Sir John Flamsteed.
Up here, at the western end of the ceiling,
there's a Man of War flying the British flag which symbolises not just the navy,
but also this youthful and recently formed nation of Britain itself.
Represented here, crucially, as a ship.
The King of Britain, Charles II, understood the importance of commanding the sea.
During his reign in the 17th century, Britain was under
threat of attack from Spain, France and the Netherlands.
He wanted the best painters to record his growing navy
and his maritime victories. And his eye soon fell on the undisputed master of the genre -
Willem Van de Velde,
a marine draughtsman who recorded real-life battles from his own first-hand experience.
Charles II invited this celebrated Dutch artist and his son
to set up their studio here at the Queens House in Greenwich.
It's remarkably detailed.
It is, yeah. I mean it's incredibly painstaking this technique.
And it's not surprising that he charged high prices for them.
We can see that there's an enormous amount of labour that goes into these images.
They're based on drawings that he produced in the battles.
So he actually sailed into these battles, and he would be among these ships making his first sketches?
That sounds very unusual.
Yes, it is. He really is the first war reporter in certainly modern times.
He's somebody who is sent into battle, you know,
given a boat, a captain is told to take him wherever he wants to go,
and he would sit in the boat with a long roll of paper drawing the battle as it happened in front of him.
Making notes, sketching incidents,
producing these documents of war.
When the British invited Van de Velde to come here, they got two artists for the price of one
because his son Willem Van de Velde the younger
turned out to be an exceptional painter.
And eventually overtook his father's reputation with a different style of work altogether.
We get a sense here of the visual drama
that he was capable of with paints,
and the way in which he could paint these very powerful images
which are fictional, on the whole.
What we're seeing here is a sort of dream of an English ship
destroying a pirate, a North African Muslim pirate ship
blowing up before us with this huge cloud of smoke coming out of it.
the reason for his painting has changed quite significantly from that that his father had?
His father was recording these battles.
In a way, his son is recording sort of the past glories of those battles and also keeping that glory alive.
Yes. He's dramatising what has been established in England,
which is this culture of maritime power.
So really maritime art was very much about contributing
to this myth that we had of ourselves,
or this story that we could tell about Britain during this period.
Yes, absolutely. It's wind and tide that helped Britain to conquer the world.
This was the beginning of Britain's reign as a supreme military power,
which would last almost unchallenged until the 20th century.
Ships were the most advanced machines man was able to produce
and crucial to the development of a powerful navy.
The British fascination with this period has led to a style of painting that celebrates
the drama of life at sea, and the precise details of ships and naval battles fought during this time.
It's a process of assembling a lot of reference material...
Geoff Hunt is one of the foremost painters of the genre today.
His work features on the covers of Patrick O'Brian's bestselling novels.
The paintings are drawn from data sourced from the original naval logs.
The starting point is the Master's log book
because the Master was the guy on the ship
who was the navigating officer, but his responsibility was also to
note down the weather and the wind conditions and the sea and all that.
So there's an enormous amount of informative detail.
So how do you then translate all of that detail onto the canvas?
Well, the easiest way of organising that material, if it's something complicated you're doing,
like a battle or an engagement, is to do a set-up like this,
which is a plotting board where you've got these little tiny ship models,
but is also flagged with the compass direction, the light direction,
the wind direction and obviously the time of day.
And you squint a bit and you try and figure out what would be a satisfactory painting,
what would work as a composition.
So you've got the factual details, but you try and reconcile those
with something that also makes an interesting picture.
Why do you think that now, in the 21st century, there is such an appetite, such a demand,
such an interest in your work, in these depictions of 17th and 18th century naval battles?
Certainly from a British viewpoint, that period was the golden age of the Royal Navy
and what they did was just phenomenal.
It was so resourceful and courageous.
But I think the other thing that people like so much about that period
is that it was just about the last time when you could understand what was going on.
I mean, if you gave me 20 tons of wood, I'd have a crack at building a ship.
And it was that last period when science and technology and culture
and everything could be sort of grasped by one person. That's the appeal of that period.
What do you think it is about the sea that draws you so powerfully, personally?
I think the thing that concerns me about the sea is that it's very scary.
It's just this natural thing, but it's an alien element.
I think the sea is a very beautiful thing, but it's also a rather unsettling, scary thing.
And ships are really a very clever trick, particularly sailing ships,
you figure out you can get the wind to take you wherever you want to go.
The British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805
confirmed the nation's maritime supremacy.
Britain had defeated the French and Spanish fleets and removed the threat of Napoleonic invasion.
But in the midst of this celebration,
a nation mourned over the death of the British fleet commander, Admiral Nelson,
struck by a French sniper as he strode the quarterdeck of his flagship Victory.
One artist who depicted this battle
is one of the most brilliant and influential of all British painters - JMW Turner.
This is such an unusual painting for Turner in so many ways.
I mean, the first thing is just the scale of it.
This is by far his largest painting,
and then also there's the fact that it's a scene that he wasn't actually naturally given to painting.
He wasn't really normally someone who would be up for painting battle scenes like this.
And he wasn't even particularly keen on painting the human form,
so you can appreciate what he was having to tackle here, because he's painting the Battle of Trafalgar,
so you can't avoid these thousands and thousands of men.
But what I find really fascinating about this work
is that here he is depicting one of the most important naval victories in our history
and yet the ship at the centre of it, The Victory, is not in the foreground.
It's here, it's in the centre,
and you can appreciate the grandeur of it, but in the foreground there's this incredibly harrowing scene
of these sailors clambering onto the lifeboats, drowning.
Here we've even got a solitary hand as someone goes under the waves.
And also very powerfully you've got the Union Jack which is down and in the water,
so what this seems to say is that whilst Turner is acknowledging the grandeur of this battle,
he's refusing to turn away from the darker side of it,
and the very real tragedy of individual loss.
Finished in 1824, the image remains a powerful, uncompromising depiction of war.
A controversial artist in his day, Turner would go much further,
breaking the rules that bound many of his contemporaries.
A daring innovator, his experimental approach was incomprehensible to more conventional painters.
During a career spanning more than 50 years,
he left behind the literal tradition of maritime painting like that of the Van de Veldes.
Although Turner was interested in human activity on the sea,
he increasingly found his subject in the elemental power of the sea itself.
In these later paintings, he leaves out discernable forms,
concentrating on the radiance of light on water and enveloping skies.
So this would be one of Turner's later works, am I right in saying that?
Yeah, this was the picture he exhibited when he was already 67
and by this stage his art was seen as eccentric by his contemporaries.
They said things like,
in previous years he'd thrown chocolate and cream at the canvas,
and this year he'd thrown the whole kitchen utensils at the canvas.
But just in terms of the way he composes the picture,
it's so radical - there's no regular horizon line,
we're looking at a place you can't really gauge where you are or what you're standing on even.
Would you say that at this stage in his painting life, Turner is more interested in evoking
the feeling than any kind of historical accuracy, really?
I think for him there was a sense of accuracy there.
This was how he saw the world and so that was enough.
But he wanted to create a much more passionate sense of the vision of the world, what it felt like for him.
How does this compare to how other painters of the same period would have been painting a similar scene?
Exactly how radical was he?
I think if you look at any of the pictures of nautical tradition from the 1840s, there's nothing like this.
I mean, Turner has disrupted all of those conventions
of painting the rigging with that kind of very detailed precision
or showing weather effects in a very stylised way.
For him, it's all this churning motion - that's what he wants to convey.
What struck me standing here is how that light shines from the back of the canvas. How did he achieve that?
What Turner did was to prepare his canvases and the mill boards he was using
with a white ground which was different from, or completely the opposite of, conventional practice.
So instead of working from dark up to the lights on the top of the canvas,
he would work from this brilliant white.
It guaranteed this greater luminosity and the more vibrancy of his colour.
Turner often made studies in the open air, sketching and painting at the shore.
The collection of his sketchbooks here at Tate Britain includes many revealing drawings.
You can see inside Turner's mind as he's working towards those great masterpieces.
That's the advantage of sketchbooks.
You feel you're looking over the artist's shoulder and are part of that thought process.
It's interesting actually how many of these sketches do have people in them,
compared to the paintings where you feel, especially this period - 1830s, 1840s -
he's beginning to pare the human form out of his work, isn't he?
To really concentrate on the sea and the action of the sea.
Now, these are the notebooks I imagine he would have travelled around with.
Would that also have been the case for something larger, like this?
It seems he's going on to that next level and adding a lot more colour to those early sketches.
I think in a sketch like this he's actually sort of working directly on the spot.
There's no evidence of pencil under drawing the way you get in the early sketchbooks.
I do find this one especially powerful cos you get a very strong sense that you can already tell
that this is working towards a Turner painting.
There's something about the concentration of the blue up here
-and just this dash of the yellow and the red.
-The way the paint flickers across the surface.
The visual experience of being at sea fascinated Turner.
He took boats into the Thames estuary to study the effects of light.
His field of vision immersed in swathes of sea and sky.
Having seen Turner's notebooks and some of his process
and really spent some time up close with his paintings, you can't help but start to sense he was an artist
who was really born to paint the sea because of his preoccupation with light at sea.
One of the most interesting things he does in this respect is to simply remove the horizon.
He takes away that seam between the sea and the sky which usually anchors us in a seascape.
And in so doing, of course, he's also removing other horizons and boundaries in art itself.
He's making it a lot more possible for the artists who follow him to be original and radical.
Today, the Turner Prize is awarded to artists for new developments in contemporary art.
A former winner, Anish Kapoor, is one of Britain's most influential sculptors.
In his South London studio,
I asked him why Turner's seascapes remain so powerfully resonant for artists today.
Whatever you do when you look at the big view of the sea, you've got the frame divided in the middle,
and it seems to say heaven and earth, it seems to say
all these things about the most simple geometry.
Which of course is actually one of the things that Turner
eventually ends up taking away. He takes the horizon away.
Yeah. And then it's blurred, fogged over.
And what that seems to do is to put a kind of mist between the viewer and the deep distance.
It causes you to go into the picture.
They don't throw the question of interpretation or meaning at you.
What they do is leave the question open
and look for a response.
It's almost as if there's no longer any need to look at the sea,
but it's an internal project and I think that's its real beauty.
You've spoken about the experience of viewing a piece of art
as being more of a process than an experience.
Do you think that's the case with Turner, one of his achievements?
You know, intention in art matters so much.
I don't somehow feel that it was his intention.
But somewhere we all have to look at what Turner did as being one of the...
places that that kind of relationship begins.
It's almost like an acting out of an idea
where the stuff of paint almost stops being stuff
and turns into this religious idea, let's say.
The way that light represents Christianity or God or whatever.
It's as if these paintings are allowed then to just become truly the ineffable.
There's no other word for it.
Walking through your studio now I couldn't help seeing the curve of the waves in some of your work
and all of these lit interiors which are somewhat reminiscent of shells, I suppose.
Am I seeing things because I've been infused by the sea, or has the sea been an important influence for you?
My father was a hydrographer, so he made maps of the ocean.
And maps of the ocean, of course, are of this invisible floor, really,
so they're rather mysterious things in a way.
I'm deeply interested in organic form, or form if you like that's involuting in one way or another.
And shells play quite a big role in that inhabited space
that many of my works in a sense allude to.
What artists have been able to tap into especially powerfully
isn't just the visual world of the sea, but also our experience of it.
Just as we look in a different way when we're at the sea
because of the space, the light, the elemental movement,
so we think and feel differently here, too.
This is central to the work of British artist Maggie Hambling.
In her studio on the Suffolk coast,
her paintings and sculptures depict the movement and form of breaking waves -
alive with the energy and power of the sea.
Wow. What a wonderful studio.
Do you think there's something about remembering the sea that begins the process of interpretation?
I think it's quite possible because when you're there with the subject,
the subject is completely overwhelming in front of your eyes.
And the subject, obviously, is still overwhelming to me.
I'm obsessed by the sea, I dream about it, I see it every morning, and this is a very angry sea.
It is. I was going to say, you feel almost overwhelmed by this painting.
You feel as though you're in the sea, rather than looking at it.
There's something about these sea paintings which makes things much more free and open and edgy
for people to see what they want to see in them. It's much more...
There's nothing between the person looking at it and the paint.
I'm just wondering if you could tell me about your choice of colour in this painting?
Well, there are sudden glimpses of this high turquoise - almost whatever the sky is doing.
And as you watch the sea your eye is always moving, moving with the wave going along the shore.
Moving with the wave as it comes towards you.
It's all about trying to catch the action, catch the movement,
and so it's very much about the power of the sea, right?
When the waves are really, really crashing you, it is terrifying and it is beautiful
and it's trying to capture - I hate the word - but it's a state, you know.
The action, the energy, the energy of the sea is really what I feel very much and is what I try to paint.
On the beach at Aldbrough, Maggie's work The Scallop is a personal response to the sea,
but also a monument to the composer Benjamin Britten.
It was this stretch of coast where Britten set his most famous opera,
Peter Grimes - the story of a socially-isolated fisherman -
and where Britten walked and listened to the voices of the sea.
These words that have been cut into the shell, "I hear voices that will not be drowned,"
-they're from Peter Grimes, is that right?
-Yes. I thought they would appeal to everyone.
It has a sort of universal meaning cos we all have voices in ourselves
that we talk to and I thought it would be understood by everyone in a lot of different ways.
It was very important they were cut through the steel,
so that you read them as if in the sky.
It also made me think, the fact that it's a shell, the idea that we hold shells to our ear to hear the sea.
-Was that in your mind as well?
-That was the very beginning of the conception of it -
the childhood memory of holding the shell and hearing the sounds of the sea,
which is the first bit of magic of the thing.
And then I chose the scallop shell as a nice classical symbol of the sea,
and love, you know, the cradle of Venus.
And then you've split it. You've broken it. Why is that?
Well, I think that's what Britten did with music.
I mean, he took classical music and turned it upside down, if you like. Split it, recreated it.
And here, I mean, this portion almost looks like the fin of a fish.
I certainly wanted that to suggest a fish swimming
and these great rafts I think echo the wings of a bird.
What I love is the surprise of the sculpture. As you come around here,
it actually has this interior, this kind of shelter, as if you're inside the bow of a wave.
Yes, but I wanted it to refer to underneath the waves if you like.
I mean, the light catching the top of it, as the light catches
the top of a wave, then the darker underneath, you know.
Do you have any idea, or any theories, about why artists, people who work in still lifes,
are continually drawn to this, this horizon, this constantly moving, changing seascape?
I suppose I have a love affair with the sea.
I think the sea is very sexy.
As a wave approaches gradually, and then that action, that split second,
like the moment of falling in love, you know, it can happen very, very quickly.
That moment of becoming almost solid at the crest of a wave
before it smashes, dissolves into nothing - it's very orgasmic.
I mean, it's really... The sea as a subject for me has got everything going for it.
I mean, it's life and death and sex - all at once.
Which British artist do you think has most successfully captured the sea?
Constable was such a great painter.
He didn't often paint the sea.
He was rather taking care of the sky and I'm taking care of the sea.
But, I mean, Constable for me every time over Turner
because you feel that he has in a much more physical way sensed every mark that he makes.
It's somehow very particular, which art always has to be, and very precise,
and very exciting paint.
John Constable's is one of the greatest of all British landscape painters.
His seascapes are often overlooked,
but the sea was central to his interest in the effects of movement and light in nature.
"Of all the works of the creator,"
he said, "none is so imposing as the ocean."
As well as exquisite, detailed paintings, he did sketches in oil directly from the beach.
This one, painted in 1824, captures the drama of a sudden rain shower over the sea.
When Constable painted these images of Brighton in the early 19th century,
it was a time of great change in our relationship to the seaside.
The Industrial Revolution had brought about a dramatic cultural shift in Britain
with public holidays and the possibility of affordable travel.
The sea was no longer a place just for fishermen or fighting battles,
but for health and holidays and an ideal escape from the smoke-filled cities.
The West Pier in Brighton, opened in 1866, was once England's finest seaside pier.
Now dilapidated, it has survived as a curious and enduring monument
to 19th century seaside England and remains a prominent feature of the Brighton seafront.
Towns like Brighton were endorsed with Royal Family visits and seaside homes,
but a crucial change came with the creation of the railways,
enabling easy and affordable access to the beach.
In 1837, 50,000 people a year would come to Brighton in the whole year,
but in the 1850s, after the coming of the railways,
it would be 70,000 in a week.
So there was a huge growth in numbers of people coming to the seaside,
and then there was also the development of annual holidays from the 1860s and the 1870s.
So then the nature of the seaside changed.
Artists would paint pictures of the waves, people would read poetry about the sea,
people would see paintings of waves in the Royal Academy exhibitions
and that would affect the way they behaved at the seaside.
Frith's painting, Ramsgate Sands, was the really crucial one cos it's a big painting.
It's five feet wide, it has lots and lots of figures in it, and it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1854.
Ramsgate Sands captured a portrait of contemporary life,
revealing how people with different social backgrounds
were forced into close proximity on the beach.
The resulting encounters are depicted in a series of interlocking scenes.
A gentleman reads the list of marriages from a newspaper to his eagerly attentive three daughters.
A widow proposes to a young man.
A young girl hides herself in her mother's skirt,
afraid of the older woman's approach.
And a man looks through his telescope towards the part of the beach reserved for bathing,
despite his wife's disapproving glances.
All part of the bustle and life of the beach.
The painting was bought by Queen Victoria, giving this type of art
the stamp of Royal approval and led to an increase in works, both narrative and comic,
that depicted the new-found British fondness for the seaside.
When you were looking at a painting of holidaymakers on the beach, you'd find yourself laughing at them,
because they were very closely connected with things like John Leech's cartoons in Punch.
And so there'd be interesting situations where you get people from different social classes
mixing on the beach and feeling uncomfortable in that situation.
And suggestions too of the sort of sexual frisson that people would feel on the beach
because there was the possibility of seeing people bathing and men would try to bathe with nothing on at all,
although resorts would try and bring in by-laws which meant they had to wear drawers.
But apparently the wealthier visitors to resorts didn't like that
because they felt that swimming naked was really important for the health-giving effects of sea-bathing.
The coast was now available to everyone, irrespective of class or wealth.
The dramatic social changes that were taking place here
led to an explosion of interest in the beach as a destination for all.
It was increasingly people that made the sea such fertile territory for artists and it still is today.
Photographer Martin Parr has been documenting life at the British seaside for over 30 years.
I guess it's Britain concentrated, if you like.
So you go to the coast and everything about Britain is there. All behaviour is almost accentuated.
It's full of energy.
When you go on a bank holiday, there's all the people there trying to enjoy themselves,
there's queues for this and that.
There's a lot of people and energy and that's what I'm attracted to.
His series of photographs The Last Resort were taken in the mid-80s
in the seaside complex of New Brighton, near Liverpool.
These images reveal the highs and lows of day trippers in bright, saturated colours
and with an unflinching eye for detail.
Was there anything specific that you were actually trying to say or to see in those photographs?
No. There was definitely a political element in those photographs.
Insofar that Mrs Thatcher - this is the 80s, the decade of Mrs Thatcher -
was telling us what a great country we were,
and yet the backdrop to New Brighton was very shabby.
One of the things I really tried to explore was the contrast
between this domestic activity and the rather run-down backdrop.
So all the things like litter and everything else that contributed to the photographs were to be welcomed.
The seaside continues to be an important subject for Martin Parr.
No smiling. Just look.
OK. Great. Thanks.
As part of an ongoing project on cold-water swimming,
he's photographing a group who bathe in the sea every day,
whatever the weather. Even on this cold afternoon in December.
The thought of actually swimming on a day like today is quite amazing.
So, I really take my hat off to these people who want to go and swim when it's so cold.
There's something of "a collector's eye", if you like, in your photography at the seaside.
Almost as if you are hoarding these snapshots of what Britain is like at certain points in time.
You're right. I'm trying to think about how to interpret the times we live in through photography.
I'm trying to think of the images I will collect and make this a lifetime archive.
So, of course, the British seaside has to be an integral part of that.
There's rumours of hot chocolate. Is that right?
THEY ALL SPEAK AT ONCE
Over all the time that you've been photographing the British seaside,
how do you feel it's evolved over the last 30 years?
I'd say, you know, the seaside here still is in somewhat of a permanent decline.
And decline is very attractive for photographers.
And, of course, when I think of Britain - when I think of this once great powerful country -
I always think that the decline you can experience here to this very day of the seaside is poignant.
And, as a photographer, I'm always looking for that little bit of vulnerability, that contradiction,
ambiguity - that's the thing that drives me.
So I can find out, with lots of cream on, and a cherry as well, at the British seaside.
There is a long tradition of documentary in British art about the coast.
In the late 19th century, many artists wanted to reflect social realism in their paintings.
And in particular to show the sea as a place of hard work and honest toil
by focusing on the fishing communities who relied upon the sea for their livelihood.
Winslow Homer, one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century,
travelled to Cullercoats in 1881 on the north east coast of Northumberland.
Here, he found the struggles and perils of life at sea
and the people of this small fishing village an ideal subject for his painting.
It proved to be a turning point, grounding his skill as an artist
in powerful and evocative themes, and providing him with a lifetime's subject matter -
the elemental struggle of life at sea.
At the same time, on the south coast of Cornwall,
a group of British painters formed in the fishing village of Newlyn.
Here was a place they could live simply and cheaply.
The light had a distinctive quality
and they had a rich source of inspiration -
the working lives of the fishermen and their families.
These artists were Britain's impressionists.
They went to Newlyn specifically in search of a rural community.
They wanted to be face to face with their subjects, working outdoors in vivid colours,
depicting the heroism, tragedy
and everyday life of this small fishing village.
The nearby town of St Ives on the north Cornish coast
plays an even more crucial role in the story of British art of the sea.
The artists who came here in the '20s, '30s and '40s
were not so much in search of a subject, but rather came here seeking refuge and a place to work.
And, in the years that followed, they had a profound influence on modern art.
These artists shared an intellectual outlook,
but their art took many different forms.
From figurative to abstract, in both painting and sculpture.
The group included such diverse artists as Ben Nicholson,
one of England's most pioneering modernist painters.
Terry Frost, whose work combines abstract and figurative images.
And Christopher Wood, who developed a primitive style inspired by this coastal location.
There were many others - influential and pioneering artists
such as Peter Lanyon...
..and Patrick Heron.
The modern artists of the St Ives school mostly came here to escape
the ravages of the Second World War in London, but in coming here they soon gained
an international reputation for their distinctive abstract approach towards their physical surroundings.
Although many of their ideas might have been drawn first from European, and then later American influences,
the work they produced here would also be profoundly influenced by the native Cornish landscape itself.
By the quality of its light and, of course, the sea.
Not all the artists were incomers - some were locals, such as Alfred Wallace,
a former cabin boy and rag and bone merchant, who took up painting in his 70s after the death of his wife.
His work was discovered here in 1928 by two artists - Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood -
when they passed his house and saw images on old bits of card through an open doorway.
These paintings surprised and delighted them,
for they captured an authenticity and freshness that they both sought in their own art.
His work seemed to them to be
a kind of authentic primitive spirit of painting,
which is what they were trying to get back to in their work.
So they were absolutely enthralled by what Wallace was doing and took his work,
managed to buy a couple of pieces off him for one and six, 7.5p -
they're not really art world prices, are they?
Took them back to London, showed them around to their friends
and Wallace became a kind of avant-garde celebrity for a while.
And there was this buzz about Wallace and St Ives
and I think their judgement has proved right, you know.
You look at Wallace's work today and it still has that clarity
and freshness and impact that they saw when they first encountered it.
One of the things that is especially striking about Wallace is that he works with a restricted palette,
which is something that you feel an artist such as Nicholson was certainly picking up on.
Very much so.
I mean, Wallace's attitude to his materials was very interesting.
He said at one point, when someone asked him what he used to paint with,
cos he used yacht paint, or house paint, he said, "I use real paint, not paint like artists use."
So he felt that his materials were, you know, that was important to him that they were real.
Wallace had worked at sea and lived here for most of his life,
so he painted the sea as he'd always known it.
But other artists came here from London and elsewhere,
bringing an international reputation that was central to establishing the town as an artistic centre.
One of the key figures was Barbara Hepworth.
She moved to live near St Ives at the outbreak of war in 1939
and soon developed a strong affection for the sea and the coastal landscape here,
which had a profound influence on her work.
Hepworth had been living in St Ives for 10 years
when she bought this studio and garden, which is now a museum.
"Finding it," she wrote, "was a sort of magic.
"Here was a yard and garden where I could work in the open air, and space."
The result of that new found open air and space can be seen not just in the scale of the sculpture
that Hepworth produced here, but also in the open and expansive nature of their forms.
She's internalising the landscape, she talks about the landscape
being to do with "what I saw, but also what I was."
So it's not just what she's seeing out there, it's part of what she feels she's about.
She's comparing the way the elements work to the way a sculptor works,
so she looks at the water coming over the sand and shaping the sand.
So there's a comparison there between the way the elements work
on the natural landscape here, and the way she works as a sculptor.
The legacy of this movement was to make St Ives a thriving centre for artists and galleries.
Some of the artists here today are based at the Porthmeor Studios
where many of the earlier St Ives artists also worked.
Built for the fishing industry, artists moved in to the upstairs rooms in the 1880s,
leaving the ground floor for the fishermen.
And they have shared this building ever since.
A unique arrangement that has existed for over 100 years.
The place we're living in at the moment is the old cooperage, where they used to make the barrels.
Next door is the salt, because everything in those days was salted.
And in the big loft is where the pilchards were pressed.
When the artists first came, St Ives was quite a religious town
and nobody was allowed to do anything on a Sunday.
-When I was a young man, boats never went to sea on a Sunday.
There was a little bit of friction, shall we say, at the time,
but since then people are a bit more liberal and things have moved on.
They used to sit on the harbour and paint and draw.
Didn't have a lot of money, the artists, though.
Instead of paying with money they used to take a picture in and that's the way they paid for their beer.
Working in the studio upstairs, Sax Impey is an artist and yachtsman
who spends long stretches of time at sea.
An experience that has inspired much of his painting.
Like Wallace, Hepworth and many of the artists who have lived and worked in St Ives,
Sax is also influenced by the unique atmosphere of this coastal town,
which still provides an ideal location for contemporary artists.
The beach is part of the fabric of life here
and certainly summer evenings, for as long as there have been studios here,
the ladders go out and life takes place on the beach.
And a beer at the end of the evening is part of life here.
So working form here is not so much about painting that view out there
as really using it as a trigger, I suppose?
Standing here know you can here the wind beating against the building,
so do you think when you are here working on your canvasses
all of this is feeding into your paintings about the sea?
-Not just the visual quality, but the sound out there?
-Yeah, I think you're probably right.
It's an immersive experience being in the studio.
It's elemental. The whole building starts to shake.
I've had waves breaking on these windows.
The odd pain of glass will go in the middle of the night.
-It is almost like painting from a boat.
Every time I come in here and I look out,
I am inexorably drawn back to certain experiences at the sea.
And, of course, it wasn't until spending a great deal of time at sea,
being immersed in that world, rather than looking at it from the shore,
that it became part of my work.
One of the things about it was...
..actually getting away from the cacophony of the 21st century.
The inanity, you know,
the babble of the 21st century.
And actually having time to think, time to directly experience, you know.
You're also directly kind of engaging in a world that your ancestors knew.
You'd have felt the night sky unencumberedby any kind of light pollution whatsoever.
You're seeing the same stars, you know.
It's kind of a more direct link with an earlier age.
I suppose I'm trying to bring some of that back.
Having spent this time looking at the sea through the eyes of artists,
I've certainly come to a much better understanding of exactly why a scene such as this
has always been such fertile territory for our painters and sculptors.
It's an environment comprised of light, which has the capacity to be so many things at once -
an ancient wilderness on which much of our history has been played out.
A place of work around which communities have formed,
a democratic space available to all.
It's figurative and yet lends itself to abstraction, with a basic visual constancy that is always changing,
which offers sweeping vistas of space
and yet is always framed by the sky, the horizon, or the land.
Britain is distilled and defined on its shores and this is where art of the sea can really gain its potency,
with an artist's ability to tap into the story of our changing relationship with the sea,
to draw upon the sea as both a personal and yet shared experience.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
As an island nation the sea has exerted a powerful influence on some of Britain's best known artists. It has led to some of the finest British paintings from the likes of Constable and Turner and continues to be fertile territory for prominent artists today.
Poet and author Owen Sheers examines our changing relationship to the sea over the last four centuries and how this is reflected in the work of artists who have tried to capture its ever-changing essence in the stillness of a canvas, sculpture or photograph.