Victorian England embraced the ‘Seaside Holiday’ in a big way, and thus gave birth to much of the paraphernalia that has since become deeply ingrained tradition in the UK – as well as other parts of the world – such as ice creams, beach huts and bathing suits.
The late nineteenth century saw a rapid increase of working-class people wanting to go on affordable holidays to de-stress from their hard working lives, and with the arrival of the railway, travelling to the beach became easier than ever before. It was the era of donkey rides along the sand, fish and chips, seaside music-hall and variety shows, and many of the piers which extend from all around the British coastline were built during this time.
Many Impressionist painters – Walter Sickert, Charles Conder and Stanhope Forbes, just to name a few – sought to capture the energy of this newly popular English and Welsh pastime, and the results have since come to be iconic vintage images of beach life. The style of Impressionism was perfect for the ideal sunny seaside scene; with their use of bold colours and rapid brush strokes they truly chronicled the joys of sun, surf and sand. Their work also went on to inspire many artists to come, and the Impressionistic method remains a popular style for seascape paintings to this day.
Some of the most famous, and well-loved Victorian Impressionist seascapes were produced by British artist, Philip Wilson Steer. He spent a lot of time on the Suffolk coast of South-East England. Unlike some Impressionists, he focussed just as much on the people in his paintings as he did on the scenery, meaning that he not only captured the beauty of the coastal landscape but also the joy of the people experiencing it.
For families that lived in the cities, a holiday to the beach was like stepping into another world, one of waves, sand and sea gulls, where they could spend hours exploring and enjoying the beautiful coastline. Unlike today where working families have access to some of the best savings rates ever through dozens of banks, holidays were often rare, a real treat, and the growing seaside entertainment industry was geared toward amusing the family unit. Many of the paintings of this era depict families spending time together.
These kinds of paintings make it easy to imagine how children must have felt when faced with a landscape full of shells and treasures offered by the sea, to study and take home with them as everlasting souvenirs.
Just because you were relaxing didn’t mean you weren’t expected to still look good if you were a Victorian holiday-maker.
Women’s bathing suits adapted over time, from at first being rather shapeless and unflattering, typically made from flannel material, to a rather more attractive fashion statement of belted two piece costumes.
The promenade was also a perfect place to showcase your fashion sense.
Many of the paintings from this period show the beautiful dresses women used to wear on their holidays. These images are bound to add a touch of class to your bedroom or bathroom, just the right place to have something to help you feel glamorous on what can sometimes be a rather wet and windswept terrain.
Wish You Were Here!
With the increase in seaside holiday makers also came the increase in seaside postcards. Surely part of the fun of going on holiday was being able to show off to your friends and family about where you’ve been? Things haven’t changed much in that respect. If Facebook had been around back then you just know the Victorians would have posted photos of themselves eating ice cream cones as they took a ride on a donkey along the shore. Yet thankfully the internet had not been invented, and we are now still able to enjoy their wonderful postcard art.
A mixture of photographic and painted postcards became available, showing scenes of family togetherness, bathing, sandcastle building, and all the rest.
There is some delightful postcard art around. Try searching on eBay for Victorian Seaside Prints; they’re sure to add a wonderful nostalgia to your beach décor. You could even try looking for some original postcards to really add that touch of history.
Keep an eye out for vintage art prints and postcards when visiting thrift stores, yard sales, etc. They can often sell for very little, but will add something very special to your home.