Our Next Show: Whitsun Tides – A British Bond with the Sea

During lockdown we’ve been digging deep into our archive to plan our next show — a mini-exhibition featuring a common but little-studied family ritual. We hope you like this preview of some of the images we’ll be featuring.

Among the many scenes that appear repeatedly in family albums are fully clothed people standing where the sea meets the shore: men with their trousers rolled up to the knee, women with their skirts hitched up, and children squinting, with or without their sunhats on. The waves rarely break much further up than their ankles. The subjects, from toddler to dowager, are invariably looking directly into the camera lens.

The outlook is never picturesque, although it always includes the horizon. This photographic moment is not saved for sun-drenched days — the skies are often overcast; on many occasions, it is raining. Scenes like this appear so frequently, each differing so little from the next, that they take on the character of a ritual.

For many people, the phrase, ‘You’ve got to go in’, is an admonishment recalled easily from childhood holidays spent along the British coast. Why one had to ‘go in’ is an open question, but for the day to be complete you had to at least get your feet wet. Many of these photographs could easily have been taken in the baptismal season of Pentecost or Whitsun, an annual event marked since medieval times and now known as Spring Bank Holiday, or perhaps on one of the long weekends known to factory workers as ‘Saint Mondays’.

Festival times and seaside culture occupy a liminal space between respectability and transgression. This can be seen most clearly in many Victorian- and Edwardian-era photographs in The Family Museum collection. Despite the men being clad in three-piece suits, bleached-out Eton collars and ties, and the women in billows of fresh white cotton and elaborate ‘picture hats’, when naked from the knees down the façade of respectability dissolves. Taken in the 1920s, one image shows a woman trying to lift up her friend’s skirt, cajoling her to show a bit more leg. In another photograph from the 1960s, a young woman kicks up her leg while holding her sunglasses and shoes aloft with a theatrical joie de vivre; another woman stands in the sea with her shoes on.

Each of these photographs has a private history. If we could speak to the people in these pictures, no doubt each would, if they could, give a nuanced answer as to why the photo was taken. The aim of this exhibition is to highlight how a common experience like this, lovingly documented by myriad families, reveals our shared humanity.

Nigel Shephard and Rachael Moloney

Published by The Family Museum

We are an archival project about amateur family photography, based in London and set up by filmmaker Nigel Shephard and editor Rachael Moloney.

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