diamond geezer

 Monday, June 16, 2008

Seaside postcard: Bexhill
To celebrate Sussex Day (which is today), I've just taken a day trip to this fine and historic county. To Bexhill-on-Sea, no less, an Edwardian resort on the south coast between Eastbourne and Hastings. Two hours from London by train, it's not anywhere you'd visit without good reason. But, thankfully, there's a damned good reason perched on the seafront...

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill (and bandstand)

The De La Warr Pavilion was the result of a civic competition to build a brand new entertainment venue on the Bexhill shoreline. 230 entries were received, and the winning design came from architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. They came up with an elegant modernist solution, all bold horizontal lines and curving glass stairwells. The pavilion was the very first major building in Britain to have a welded steel frame, and when it opened in December 1935 it was the talk of the nation. Unfortunately wartime bomb damage cut short its cultural life, and the building wasted away until recently revived by an £8m Arts Council grant. The De La Warr Pavilion finally reopened in 2005 as Bexhill's cultural heart, and it's gorgeous. Running that competition was the best money the town council ever spent.

Southern staircase, De La Warr PavilionOn entering the building through the main entrance I made a fundamental and embarrassing error - I asked to pay for a ticket. Er no, it turned out that admittance is completely free. Oops. And hurrah! Obviously it costs to see a show in the main auditorium, but I wasn't joining the elderly audience for an amateur dramatics matinee, I was here to see the architecture. Starting with the main staircase. It's the staircase that makes this building special, spiralling up inside a glass cylinder with a series of silver discs suspending a lampshade at the centre. There's a silver plaque at the bottom commemorating the opening of the building by its main benefactor, Earl De La Warr, and also some red seats where you can sit and read the paper. The entire staircase just begs to be photographed (with or without mobility scooter) which is why several of my Flickr contacts have already had a go. I could have walked up and down all day, but probably best that I didn't.

On the first floor there was a choice of culture or cappucino. There were definitely more people in the cafe/restaurant than there were sitting in the dark watching a multimedia presentation about mental disability. I, as usual, went for the cheaper option. Up on the second floor landing the options were fewer - essentially either returning to earth down the northern stairwell or strolling out onto the roof terrace. This is a mostly-featureless open space, hard to convey in a photograph, where you can imagine Thirties socialites standing around sipping martinis during the interval of a summertime concert. Look south towards the sea and there's the striking winged bandstand, a marvellous 21st century addition, looking more like a pair of ivory lips than a performance space. Really, it's hard to to justice to the De La Warr Pavilion in words, so I took lots of photos instead.

www.flickr.com: my Bexhill gallery
(25 pavilion shots plus 7 others = 32 photos altogether))

Unpopular Culture (curated by Grayson Perry)
Unpopular CultureAnd on the ground floor, in the gallery which used to be the restaurant and dance floor, another treat. The Arts Council have asked potter Grayson Perry to flick through their archived collection and pick out a few of his favourite works. He's done so by selecting an unsung period in British art (from the 1940s to the 1980s) and curating a fascinating little exhibition of nostalgic austerity. There's quite a bit of brown and grey on show, be it a dour watercolour of some industrial heartland or the lumpen bronze of a misshaped humanoid figure. Plenty of evocative photographs too, recalling the less than glamorous side of living on an estate, the bleak optimism of a seaside holiday or just general low-key grittiness. There's a pleasing mix of image and sculpture, and no one artist dominates - just the one Lowry and only a couple of Frinks. One wall is taken up by what looks like a striking photo of a net-curtained tower block, but on closer inspection turns out to be clever brushwork. And Grayson himself has contributed two signature works, one a pierced bronze skull embellished with symbols of Britishness, the other a large glazed urn emblazoned with portraits of the artist in a fetching headscarf. He likes headscarves almost as much as dresses, does our Grayson, which is why there's also a limited edition silk headscarf available from the pavilion shop for (cough) £45. This is a refreshingly down-to-earth exhibition, reassuringly retro and rather more accessible than many. It's open at the De La Warr until July 6th, and then touring the UK (Preston, Durham, Southampton, Aberystwyth, Scarborough, Wakefield and Bath) until 2010. For once, it's Londoners who are missing out.

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