The Last Resort by Martin Parr

Rich portrait of our island nation

Le Brun has written a study of Britain imagined, Britain as it recently was, and of Britain becoming

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Looking to Sea: Britain Through the Eyes of its Artists, Lily Le Brun (Sceptre, £25)

Some say the answer is the village of Coton in Derbyshire. Others reckon that Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, is the furthest you can get from the sea. Whatever the answer is, we in Britain are sort of sea people. The ocean unites us, just as it separates us from the rest of the world — but there is so much more to it than that.

In the final chapter of her elegant and endlessly interesting debut, Lily Le Brun writes that in John Akomfrah’s acclaimed film installation Vertigo Sea, a roaring collage of water and land, the ocean comes to represent “migration, conquest, travel, and flight”. In the nine chapters that precede her exploration of Akomfrah’s work, each of them considering a piece of art that captures the sea and the artist who created it, Le Brun adds loneliness, war, social ostracisation, patriotism and motherhood to the many meanings of the sea.

Le Brun, an arts journalist currently living in Paris, is clearly fascinated by the lives of those who created the great works that explore the sea around our shores. One of her strongest chapters is “Seascapes — Ships Sailing Past the Longships: Alfred Wallis”, which paints a troubling picture of the way the art world interacts with and potentially exploits “primitive” artists. Le Brun quotes Wallis — who had been a fisherman himself — as saying, in reference to his depictions of the water, “I do not put collers wha do not belong I Think it spoils the pictures.”

Ships Sailing Past the Longships by Alfred Wallis

His words are striking in a book that explores so many different notions of the sea and so many different artistic interactions with it, from Tracey Emin’s Beach Hut to Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach. The remarkable thing about Le Brun’s book is the way that it gives validity to them all and creates a sense of the sea as an endless canvas where all “collers” exist. It is both a constant in our collective British consciousness and something that is forever changing.

The great challenge of writing a book like Looking to Sea is striking a sort of balance — it is as much a rich compendium of social history as it is a hard consideration of art itself. We learn, for example, both about the techniques Bridget Riley used to create her work, putting shapes “through their paces”, as well as about the extraordinary number of ramblers in the 1930s who used to get night trains out of London to walk in the wilds, their wanderings being a sort of antidote to the urbanisation of England. Le Brun walks the tightrope well, without either the art as an act or the context in which it was created blotting out the other.

Beach Hut by Tracey Emin

There are, it’s true, many young writers who do first person ramblings badly. We don’t always want to hear about how it made them feel and whether that trip to the country made it all better again, but Le Brun is good at the first person. There is a light saltiness about her rainy trip to Dymchurch that I wanted more of. “I take shelter in an empty fish-and-chip restaurant on the high street until the downpour eases. When I emerge hardly anyone is around. I soon begin to feel self-conscious. What was I expecting to find?” Those flashes of wry honesty are very welcome.

Most of the works she considers chronicle a moment. Martin Parr’s The Last Resort captured Liverpool’s New Brighton in 1986, but what is it like today? According to the Wirral Globe anyway, dogging there is now so prolific that it is putting people off their fish and chips. It would be interesting to hear it, though, from Le Brun.

Studland Beach by Vanessa Bell

In a sense Le Brun’s simple structure — ten paintings by ten artists you’ve probably heard of — obscures the complexity and intrigue of Looking to Sea. At points, it’s almost nature writing, and the way it considers art’s role in engaging with the environment crisis is fascinating. Artists for whom the sea is a subject have found themselves with a subject that is very sick. The range of Le Brun’s forensic gaze is remarkable. She writes very perceptively about T.S. Eliot, and then we’re on to the emergence of the agrarian Right, and then it’s notions of Cornish masculinity, and a couple of chapters later, we’re into Charles Saatchi and the power of artists as brands.

The effect is to build, little by little, a picture of the creation of Britain’s patchwork soul. What Le Brun has written is a study of Britain imagined, Britain as it recently was, and of Britain becoming. In her chapter on Wallis, Le Brun mentions H.V. Morton’s In Search of England. This is a book that goes in search of the same subject and finds it to be a complicated, dark and wonderful country.

It is fashionable to talk Britain down, but the art it has inspired is remarkable and reading Le Brun’s book will give you a renewed love for this place that sits apart.

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