Bexhill on Sea: a place of contradictions. Actually, a place of one contradiction.
For those unfamiliar with this small seaside town on the English South Coast, it is the (unlikely) home of one of Art Deco’s undisputed gems: the De La Warr Pavilion. With its long, clean lines, white-washed facade and sweeping sea views from perfectly restored deco windows, this wondrous building seems lost in the Bexhill of 2012.
It appears to gaze out to sea, looking for a time when its home might have been worthy of its majestic presence. If I were to give the Pavilion advice, it would be to carry on searching the waves and never look the other way; to look behind itself at the town would be to confirm its isolation in melancholia itself.
Such is the pull of the De La Warr’s architectural and cultural heritage that it can still count on staging major exhibitions such as the ‘Warhol is Here’ one which I went to see last week. I cannot deny that it was insanely pleasurable to be able to view his Marylins, Maos and Campbell’s Tins almost entirely alone. I think I counted three or four other visitors. These are amongst the most famous Pop Art images created and in almost any other location the space would be mobbed, even towards the end of the exhibition’s run.
Sadly, what will stay with me longer than the repeated printed images of twentieth century icons, longer than the Polaroid self-portraits, longer even than the intensely erotic nude photographs, is the sheer down-at-heel, melancholic drabness of the place. I’m sorry Bexhill, but it needs to be said. There are architectural and intellectual blasphemies being committed in this town, some of which are enough to make me weep.
For example, the seafront is home to a terrace of Edwardian-era houses, built in a Moghul-esque style with requisite domes and Eastern detailing.
Odd, yes, but seen as a whole, interesting and, a century or so later, it comes with a narrative of its own. And these houses were intended to be seen as one, with repeated details binding them together, giving the street meaning and context amidst an alien environment. They even featured in the wonderful Art Deco advertising of the time.
So what has been allowed to happen? A number of residents have removed the original, black framed, latticed windows and bastardised the terrace with white, plastic frames. Not content with this mere vitrinal crime, some have gone a step further and knocked out bricks to make the windows bigger. All so they could have a larger view, uninterrupted by those pesky, annoying Edwardian windows. Never mind the poor souls who have to look at the houses from the outside. To my mind, a distinctive building, well-proportioned with its intended and original features intact, is a thing of beauty for a passer-by to behold, even in the midst of Bexhill’s long-ago-faded grandeur. A butchered property, cosmetically unenhanced by ignorant (yes, I said it) owners, simply reinforces the sense of irreversible decline which plagues towns like this. And no amount of Art Deco enshrined Pop Art can disguise it.
I know I’m stepping into the risky territories of personal freedom and taste; not to mention recession-era necessities, environmental concerns (draughty, those lovely windows), and so forth, but these things are important. The soul needs nourishment too.
Which brings me to this. In the (futile, as it turned out) search for a coffee worth sipping on the seafront, (and yes, I know I should have gone to the Pavilion cafe), I came across a small place offering food and drinks. The coffee’s aftertaste lingers still in my memory a week later. However, it was on the outside of said establishment that true despair and melancholic gloom descended. I think I might have seen the funny side of this had the windows not been haunting me, and I sincerely hope to be able to at some point.
Read it again if you missed it.
And if this isn’t enough to fill all you grammar/spelling fiends with horror, just around the corner they were offering ‘handmaid’ dumplings in the chicken casserole. Has Margaret Atwood’s terrifying vision of dystopian reproductive hell reached Bexhill? I have visions of thousands of blue (or was it red?) clad women, rolling identical dumplings, to be fed into the waiting mouths of surrogate diners. No. Believe me, never was such slop served up in the kitchens of The Republic of Gilead.
Am I right to feel like this? I don’t know. Do I sound self-righteous and elitist? Yes, probably. But I can’t shake the feeling that THESE THINGS MATTER.
I wonder what Warhol would have thought. I have an idea that uniformity and ‘doing the right thing’ might not have featured at the top of his list and that subversion, maybe even perversion, were probably more his thing. However, I’d like to think that he would not have approved of the ignorant (and willful) destruction of architecture and language as witnessed in Bexhill last week.
It’s over to you. Shoot me down in flames if you must.