Southwold Art Coast


Southwold Art

The team journey around the shoreline of East Anglia. Mark Horton investigates the state of seaside piers, while Alice Roberts tries to capture Southwold on canvas.


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Transcript


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Lowestoft is the most easterly point of our islands.

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Every morning, the sun hits this bit of the country first.

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And when you actually get out here, you want to go out and greet the sun.

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Being at the seaside, the easiest way of getting

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that little bit closer, is by going to the end of a pier.

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For the last 150 years,

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they have been a vital part of our seaside architecture.

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But we are losing them fast.

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Since the 1970s, 11 piers have been lost completely.

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While others, like Lowestoft's Claremont Pier, still struggle on.

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To find out exactly what state it's in, the owner, David Scott,

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-offered to give me a guided tour. Hello, David.

-Hi.

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-Can we go inside your pier?

-Come on in.

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How many generations has it been in your family?

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Three generations, Mark, actually.

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-A real responsibility.

-Huge responsibility.

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Surely these machines make sack-loads of money?

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Not bags of money. It used to be bags of money.

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THEY LAUGH TOGETHER

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-It's mad!

-It's coming into life!

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'While David's arcade is still open for business,

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'the pier itself has been closed to the public since 1982.'

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It's wonderful to be out here.

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It's an unusual experience, isn't it, having the sea below you like this.

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-It's just fantastic.

-But so sad.

-Very, very sad indeed.

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It's a shame. It's not always been like this.

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What was this pier like in its Edwardian heyday?

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Absolutely wonderful, Mark.

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There was a sense of occasion coming onto a pier.

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Everyone dressed smartly, there was theatres.

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-The punters would promenade backwards and forwards?

-It was absolutely packed.

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-Coming to collect the steamer, there.

-How can a steamer dock there?

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It obviously used to be a lot longer than it is now. That's the trouble.

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With a T piece on the end as well, to moor up against. I can show you

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-some archive photographs.

-There it is.

-The steamer would stop

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on the end, on the way down to London, and ferry people back.

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It wasn't just a pleasure pier, it had a commercial function?

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-Absolutely.

-So, what happened to the T piece?

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Time and tide have taken it away, unfortunately.

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Seeing Claremont like this, it is easy to forget that it,

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like many of our piers, had a real working past.

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Like the Victorian equivalent of an airport,

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they were arrival points for passengers visiting the seaside.

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But, unlike an airport, piers combined function with fun.

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The saucy shows and funfairs

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meant that they soon became leisure destinations in themselves.

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No self-respecting seaside resort could be without one.

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In the 50 years between 1860 and 1910,

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78 piers were built around the country.

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But today, many of the 54 that still stand are in as bad or worse condition then Claremont.

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Without the revenue from paddle steamers and their passengers,

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many piers ended up as endangered buildings housing arcade games and little else.

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But there are glimmers of hope. Just down the coast in Southwold,

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over £1 million has been spent renovating their pier,

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and the visitors are coming back.

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With the cost of air travel likely to increase over time,

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more of us may choose to holiday at home.

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So, let's just hope that some of that new tourist cash

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gets spent on Britain's piers.

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Keen amateur painter Alice Roberts is in Southwold

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to discover how artists have tried to capture the ephemeral nature of the coast.

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Like many other places on the coast,

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Southwold has a reputation for attracting artists.

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It's quite amazing to see

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the volume and quality of the work that has been produced here.

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But rather than go for another scientific analysis

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of why people are drawn to the coast,

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I'm going to look at the work of two very different artists

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at the end of the 19th century

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to try and discover a little bit more about the magic

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that so many of us feel when we're by the seaside.

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120 years ago, Southwold was the inspiration for two very different artists.

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English Impressionist painter Philip Wilson Steer captured

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the magic and movement of being by the seaside,

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while early photographer Peter Henry Emerson

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documented the lives of East Anglians.

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To discover more about the Southwold that inspired them, local writer

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Ian Collins is taking me to the best vantage point in town.

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Here we are in the centre of the lighthouse.

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-Oh wow, it's completely open.

-Isn't it an amazing space?

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Built in the middle of the 1880s, so it coincides with the arrival of Steer and Emerson.

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I'd like to picture them coming up here, if they could bear the climb.

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It really is the way to see Southwold.

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-Now, here the steps get extremely steep, Alice.

-Oh, yes.

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-This is a treat, is it not?

-Wow!

-Wonderful. Typical Southwold day.

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It would have been quite a lot smaller in Wilson Steer's day.

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There were farms in the town here. Very much a working fishing town.

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I think that's one of the things the artists liked,

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it was very much a working community.

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Did Southwold have the same sort of cachet, was it as smart

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-as it is today?

-No, it was very poor. One of the attractions

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of Southwold to the artists would have been that it was cheap.

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Quite a few of them would have stayed

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with fishing families in streets like this one down here,

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which is now very desirable, but then was very simple.

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Philip Wilson Steer came to Southwold to paint for the first time in 1884.

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One of his most famous works depicts children paddling at the mouth of Southwold harbour.

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And to really understand the inspiration behind it, I want see the place itself.

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Here we are standing by the scene of the painting, as close as we can get.

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The boat coming in is just in front of the fishing boat we see here.

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-This bank here, is that what we can see?

-Yes, it's lost its hut on the end and its capstan,

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but it is very much that arm of the harbour.

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Was he actually out here on the beach painting away,

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was he doing it "plein air", like the French Impressionists?

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To an extent. He went round taking lots of lightning sketches

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in pencil and crayon, and then he would take them back

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to Chelsea where he was living, and over the winter, he would then

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build them up into paintings. So, it's very much a recollection

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and it's an artist's impression.

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I really want to find out for myself how Wilson Steer's technique

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of making lightning fast sketches as the basis of a bigger painting

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changes the way you look at the coast.

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The sketching is as much about getting images fixed in your mind

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as it is about actually creating the sketch.

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What I'm going to do is take these away and try and do a painting

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which is more to do with the flavour of Southwold,

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a bit more thought put into it than just a snapshot.

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Like Wilson Steer, I am going to get some distance from my sketches

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before I work them up into a painting.

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'At the same time Wilson Steer was working here,

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'the photographic pioneer Peter Henry Emerson was using

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'an entirely different technique to capture this stretch of coast.

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'To understand how he took photographs, John Bengerfield

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'has promised to give me an insight into the world of early photography.'

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We are so used to being able to take quick and easy digital photographs today.

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-Presumably it wasn't all that easy in his time?

-That's right.

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Today, digital work is about that editing rather than taking, isn't it?

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And in those days when cameras were much larger and much more cumbersome,

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extremely heavy to carry and to set up on a tripod,

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every image that you took, took a fair amount of time to set up and expose.

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And if you were Emerson, you would become involved in the community

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for a long time. He got their respect before he started working there.

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But for Emerson, getting close to his subjects was only the first part of the equation.

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As important was the actual process of taking the photograph.

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Sue Andrews and her husband, Damien,

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have offered to show me how he did it.

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-Do you want to have a look through the button?

-I'd love to.

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We probably need to put the cloth over our heads if we're going to have a look at the image.

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-So, this is going to be our photograph?

-Yes.

-It's upside down!

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-And back to front!

-What you're looking at is a full colour image.

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Of course, what Peter Emerson would have been looking at

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-is the tonal range rather than the colour.

-Also his depth of field,

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he was quite keen to mimic the way the eye sees,

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so he would have had a little bit that was very sharp,

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and the rest would be slightly less sharp.

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That effect which Emerson described as naturalistic,

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was central to much of his work.

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Here, the reeds at the edge of the photo are out of focus,

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encouraging the eye to the figure in the centre of the frame.

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-I'm intrigued to discover if we can create the same effect in our photograph.

-There we go!

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You slide this slide out here.

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-The film is now just sitting there at the back of the camera?

-Yes.

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When I press this button...

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-It will open the lens and take the picture.

-Right.

-Go!

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With our image captured,

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Sue can begin developing the final photograph.

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Emerson would have used a glass plate instead of film.

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But he, like Sue and Damien, would still have had to develop it before the finished print was made.

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Next morning, the wait for Sue to bring the photograph is surprisingly nerve-racking.

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-Here we are.

-Wow! There's Damien sitting at the table.

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You can see he's nice and sharp, as are these beach huts,

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and you can see the drifting focus we were talking about.

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I think you captured that really well, Sue.

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The focus is in the centre

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and you have softened it out as you go to the edge of the image.

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That was the essence of naturalistic photography

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as far as he was concerned.

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I think what is quite important is not just the actual technique,

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but the whole process makes you look at things differently.

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By taking your time, by looking, by being careful about everything,

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you make a different image.

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I am really pleased with our Emerson-style photograph,

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but now I want to go back to the sketches I made yesterday.

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So, like Wilson Steer, I'm going to get away

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from my source of inspiration and paint Southwold

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purely from my sketches and the memories they evoke.

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I think I want to get all these different bits of Southwold in,

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like the lighthouse, but I don't want to be looking inland

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and not at the sea, so I've got to try and work that out.

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I want the pier in it as well.

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Taking the photo with Sue, so much of the decision was where

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to put the camera, so it captured exactly the image we wanted.

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But painting like this, the camera's in my mind. I can put it anywhere

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and include anything I want,

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even if in real life the view I'm painting doesn't actually exist.

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I think that's it.

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It's interesting because it's so different from sitting outside

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with your sketchbook and doing sketches initially

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or doing a whole painting initially. It's much more thoughtful.

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It's putting something together

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from all the different bits and pieces you've seen.

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There's nowhere in Southwold that looks like this

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and yet it looks like Southwold.

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It's my Southwold.

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I've really enjoyed being here at Southwold and spending time to experience the place

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because the painting and sketching have made me slow down and look around me.

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You get a real feel for the investment that artists and photographers put in,

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so that they have captured their own idea of the coast to take away with them.

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The team journey around the breathtaking shoreline of East Anglia. Mark Horton investigates the perilous state of the seaside piers, including the pier at Lowestoft, which has been closed to the public since 1982. By contrast, the pier at Southwold has been renovated and the visitors are now coming back. And self-taught artist Alice Roberts tries to capture the unique beauty of Southwold, which has inspired generations of painters.


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