Along the Shore by Joseph Edward Southall

Along the Shore

by Joseph Edward Southall 1910

At the age of 13 I fell in love. I remember the sudden rush of emotion, of feeling lifted from the ground and a shudder of joy that shook my shoulders. But it was not with a boy it was with a painting.

Southall, Joseph Edward; Along the Shore; Gallery Oldham; 

I was walking up the stone staircase at the entrance, in 1980, to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and there on the wall at the top of the grand staircase hung Along the Shore by Joseph Edward Southall. I stopped dead in my tracks and gazed in wonder as people passed me by. I’d recently become intrigued by art and had begun to pop next door to the Gallery when visiting the Central Library. I’d wandered around the opulent rooms of artworks but until that day I’d had no idea that paintings could over-whelm you as this one had. I didn’t understand why but I knew I loved this image (which heralded an exhibition of Southall’s work). I bought a poster of it in the Gallery shop. I had it framed and studied it nightly.

I’d thought that this experience of “revelation” might perhaps be a one-off (teenage hormones?) but over the years it happened again – Bellini, Caspar David Friedrich, Giambologna…..sometimes in exhibitions selling the work of novice art students. The power that art could wield became a fascination for me and I eventually went on to Nottingham University to take a degree in Art History.
It felt like the selfish pursuit of a private passion rather than “work” and in the company of analytical minds I learned to de-code and reference, to speak about art it in an erudite way. In some ways it helped me discover why I loved “Along the Shore” so much.

Southall’s masterpiece captures a moment in time (painted in 1910 when a Kodak Brownie was fast enough to record holiday moments on film). It is a snapshot of three Edwardian ladies walking along the sea shore, one of whom holds the hand of a little girl holding a bucket. The girl looks brightly at her guardian. Is this lady her mother? The two other women carry a spade, a toy boat, coats – friends, an aunt, the nanny perhaps? Its a blustery day; Mother holds onto her hat, her scarf caught in the wind as the sea breeze catches the blond curls of the happy little girl.

The colours are vibrant yet tonally restrained, they energise without overwhelming. It is serene yet alive with movement. There in the graceful turn of a leg is the lyricism of Raphael, the dramatic foreshortening of Caravaggio as a stepping foot emerges towards us. Each character moves forward at a different angle so that the scene opens like a fan, a flower, in front of us. But as dynamic as it is, for me there has always been a frieze-like quality to the painting. There is a beautiful flatness to it, like a slice of life has been squashed between two glass plates for a microscope. It reminds me of a classical frieze, ancient Egyptian tombs and medieval tapestries. All these thoughts occur to me when I look. Random, unconnected, mine. I see those references now but they don’t explain why I fell in love with “Along the Shore” all those years ago. That was all 13-year-old me and not a jot of Art History.

No study of Art can ever match the power that Art can have over us. It forces us to ask questions of ourselves and helps us understand who we are and what we feel. We instinctively know if we are drawn to certain images and forms whether or not we understand anything about them or what an artist was trying to express. You’ll often overhear people in exhibitions saying “I wonder what the artist was trying to say?”. Perhaps another question we should ask is “What do I want to hear?” Ask yourself why you are held by an image or object. What does that say about you? What truth about yourself has been revealed?
That day in Birmingham was 37 years ago. Now I have a 7 year old daughter. We go to galleries together often. We don’t waste time looking at everything. We dart about looking for the artworks that capture and excite us. We pause to think about why they do, no matter how crazy our ideas may seem (and the ideas of a 7 year old can be insightfully crazy!). We buy the postcard (if we can) and we leave a little of ourselves behind. That sparks of life when we felt something new. I hope that my daughter grows up to hold these moments dear and through the perpetual cycle of worldwide exhibitions she can visit old friends again when they turn up on display. Maybe she’ll remember me too and the depth of my feelings, a part of me, will still be alive in front of a painting that I’ve loved.

Art is one of the ways we know we are alive – whether we express ourselves on canvas or in clay or simply stand in wonder.

So please….take your children to galleries; encourage teenagers to go alone to un-muddle their minds. You need no special knowledge or tools. Just let life and the power of Art begin. You may start something wonderful and revealing that lasts them a lifetime.

Amie Berkovitch, Art Historian

Along the Shore is our curator selected ‘Feature Collection’ on the wonderful Art UK website. A framed print can be purchased and more information on Joseph Southall can both be found by visiting Art UK.