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Beachlife: the eternal cycle of sand and sea

About the authors
Mike O’Brien is a part-time music producer, and bass player for Great Bear

Listen to part two of Mike O’Brien’s soundscape: ‘A Very British Seaside’, while you take a grand tour of beachlife past and present.




From this to this?

1 mudskipper-baywatch

Humankind’s love of the beach started pretty early on. About 400 million years ago, or thereabouts, when our slimy forebears made the first step (or wriggle) from sea to shore. The rest – from Babylonian sun-worship, via Victorian bathing machine to Bardot’s string bikini – is history…

2 birth of venus
Birth of Venus (detail), Sandro Botticelli, c.1485

It doesn’t get much better than this: a perfect 10, the über-bathing beauty...

No, darlings, she’s out of your league...

3 USA beauty queens
USA beauty queens of 1949

Halo, sailor! Sun gods and parasols, the missing link?

4 sungod montage
LEFT and RIGHT: Sol and Shamash, Mithraic and Babylonian sun gods
CENTRE: “The gateway to the mountains”, front cover Rhyl brochure

Ra, ra! Go Egyptians! Go! This is one ancient sun-god who knew a thing or two about the perma-tan. Still bronzy after all these years.

5 ancient Egyptian montage
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Taperet praying to the sun at its zenith, and also to the setting sun
Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping Aten the sun god
Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection.
It was he who opened the mountain passes,
who dug wells on the flank of the mountain.
It was he who crossed the ocean, the vast seas, to the rising sun,
who explored the world regions, seeking life.

From The Epic of Gilgamesh

A fourth century BC theory of the sea’s perpetual motion; or, how to DIY your waves, Aztec style.

6 churning the ocean
Churning the ocean, 386 BC

And then God created woman... is this what he had in mind?

7 god created woman
Brigitte Bardot

Civilising the sea? By the 1700s, Japanese women were anticipating Coco Chanel’s shoreline chic by two hundred years.

8 japanese montage
LEFT: The sixth month, from ‘Minami juni ko’ (detail), Kiyonaga ga
MIDDLE: A fashionable young man emerging from a bath-house (detail), Shunro ga
RIGHT: From ‘Twelve months of the south’, a view of the Tenno (raft) festival (detail), Kiyonaga ga

9 A beach at sunrise
A beach at sunrise, Hyakurin Sori

The autumn breeze rises

Sugawara Michizane

The autumn breeze rises
on the shore at Fukiage –
and those white chrysanthemums
are they flowers? or not?
or only breakers on the beach?

Sugawara Michizane (845-903) was a Japanese scholar and poet of Chinese verse.

10 women's bath house
Interior of a women's bath-house

Private pleasures: stripping off, Victorian-style, was a complicated business.

11 bathing machine montage
TOP: Bathing machine at Ostend
CENTRE: Beach at Trouville, Eugene Boudin, 1863
BOTTOM: Girls bathing in Wilson Beach, USA, c.1910s

12 George III
George III at Waymouth, 1789

sport montage
TOP: La partia di cricket sulla spiaggia, Franz Charlet, 1890
CENTRE: Playing ball on Wilson beach, USA
BOTTOM: Healing sport, Tim Hetherington

Near contemporaries: fully clothed, or au naturel in Tahiti?

14 monet-gauguin-picasso-renoir
TOP LEFT: The beach at Trouville, Claude Monet, 1870
TOP RIGHT: Fatata te miti (By the sea), Paul Gauguin, 1892
BOTTOM RIGHT: Bather, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1882
BOTTOM LEFT: Le bagnanti, Pablo Picasso, 1918

15 seurat-sloan-eugene
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: South Beach, John Sloan, 1907
Untitled, Georges Seurat, 1886
Etretat, Eugène le Poitevin, 1840

And soon enough, it started to catch on…

16 atlantic city-coney island-tunisia
TOP: Atlantic City, 1870
CENTRE LEFT: Coney Island, George C. Miller, 1932
CENTE RIGHT: Weegee, Coney Island, 1960s
BOTTOM: Beach at Ratraf, Tunisia, Mark Affeldt

‘Move over Dali!’ Finding your patch on the beach ain’t easy.

35 Dali
Bagnanti, Salvador Dali, 1924

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

John Tranter

Sunbathing on deck’s the done thing,
but it makes the Brylcreem run
and stain the collar of your poplin
beach shirt. Palm trees drift by
as though your sins had turned vegetable
and semaphore. Sins of the laboratory, I mean,
not the confessional . . . yes, the engine room
looks suitable, and through the porthole
a wise old man waiting patiently
in the wavering water - that’s no priest!
Captain! But the Captain’s a gutless
foreigner, drinks gin, and never shaves.
You pity the girl in the bathing suit
she may be a palæontologist, but
sure as eggs she’s going to get
a terrible fright. And the ethnic extras,
they have to die on our journey
towards the knowledge that shimmers behind
the South American façade. The priest
turns his scaly back: that creature,
rising like a new disease from the gene pool,
why should we pity him? Deracinated,
maybe, but what a guy! No, it’s wrong,
don’t kiss him! I can feel it,
soaking through the blood-brain barrier...
he’s never known the touch of a woman’s...whoops!
Here’s the nut with the speargun on a hunting
spree - Duck, Tabby! Duck and cover! Here comes
the bolt from the blue, to shut up sorrow,
to stop up the barrel of fun like a dead king.
And what colour is the blood, Doctor? Red?
Can you explain that? And what of the offspring?

John Tranter is editor of Jacket magazine.

24 moses levy
The beach, Moses Levy, 1919

Bathing beauties, sur la plage

21 plage montage
TOP: Wallace Levison, Narragansett Pier, New York, 1889
BOTTOM: French postcard, 1900

22 plage montage
TOP: Wilson beach, USA, 1920s
BOTTOM: Italy, 1940

Help me! I’m drowning! The unsung heroes of the sands!

17 lifesavers
TOP: Dieppe, 1843
BOTTOM: Lifeguards testing a motor lung on a female bather, Clarendon beach, USA, 1929

Fast track to the seaside: the golden age of train travel opened up the beaches for a generation.

18 whitby

19 travel montage

Coco Chanel launched her career in Deauville, 1913, with a shop selling pillbox hats. After the extravagances of Edwardian millinery, she announced: ‘How can anyone think with those great things on their heads?’ Then she got herself a tan, and brown became the new white.

20 coco chanel
Coco Chanel, Paris, 1959

‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside...’ Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemmingway, Virginia Woolf to Scott Fitzgerald, or Tennessee Williams in his deck chair...

25 Tennessee Williams
Tennesse Williams, Italy, 1956

Lights, camera, action! The sea shore became a ready-made movie-set for starlets and matinee idols. And where Hollywood paddled, the world followed…

23 hollywood montage
TOP LEFT: Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in Two for the road
TOP RIGHT: Lolita, Stanley Kubrick, 1962
CENTRE: Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe
BOTTOM LEFT: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity
BOTTOM RIGHT: Poster for The Little Hut, starring Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger and David Niven

Some like it hot: ‘Shell Oil!’ Was Marilyn the first globologger?

34 some like it hot
LEFT: Tony Curtis as ‘Junior’
RIGHT: Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon from ‘Some Like it Hot’

‘By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea…’ Beachlife and the body beautiful: striking a pose, perfecting your swallow dive, or making like a salamander, and just lying comatose…

26 body builders
ABOVE: Body builders, 1950s
BELOW: The lagoon at the American University of Beirut (AUB) beach, Dr. Adib Abou-Haider, 1946

27 swallow dive montage
TOP LEFT: Dorothy Poynton Hill
TOP RIGHT: Rimini, 1960
BOTTOM: Florida, 1950

For the more dictatorially challenged, spanning the shorelines became a point of pride (and propaganda).

28 dictators
LEFT: Benito Mussolini, 1926
TOP RIGHT: Saddam Hussein
BOTTOM RIGHT: Mao tse-tung

29 bikini
Louis Reard, Paris, 1946

The first Bond movie. Ursula swaps scallop for conch, and does a latter day Botticelli Venus.

30 bond
Ursula Andress aka Honey Ryder in ‘Dr. No’

From ‘Bobby’ to ‘Baywatch’: iconic Hindi film of the sixties, to Malibu beach kitsch.

31 bobby-baywatch
LEFT: Dimple Kapadia as Bobby
RIGHT: Yasmin Bleeth, Pamela Anderson, David Hasselhoff

From Hyundai, South Korea, to Brits at the beach, England. Photographs by Jin Kwon and Bec Wingrave.

33 Jin Kwon

32 Bec Wingrave


John Masefield

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

John Masefield was English Poet Laureate from 1930-1967.

36 image 3
The sea, Chile, Alejandra Millan Larivera

Until next Summer, kids, wherever you are. There’s nothing like sand between your toes and a clear view of the ocean. See you on the beach!

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