Selling the seaside – British holiday posters

For over a century, we've flocked to the coast in search of sun, sand and sea – the essential ingredients for a summer holiday. Explore the pleasures and pastimes of the British seaside through these classic posters, charting the history of holidays at home.

The idea of taking a seaside holiday goes back to the 18th century, when the health benefits of sea air and bathing in seawater were first recognised. The excursion to the coast quickly became popular with all social classes, thanks to the expansion of the railways which linked coastal towns to the wider network. The railway companies were keen to attract customers by promoting leisure travel, so seaside posters where often produced by the companies whose trains served the holiday resorts. The early posters were often reproductions of paintings, but poster design soon evolved under the influence of professional art directors, and designers such as Tom Purvis, Frank Newbould and Edward McKnight Kauffer, who introduced Modernist styles such as Art Deco and Surrealism to their representations of the British seaside.

Skegness is SO Bracing, John Hassall, designed 1908, printed 1925, England. Museum no. E.1326-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By the early 20th century, the railway companies were promoting seaside resorts for both day trips and longer holidays. Some advertising campaigns – for example, John Hassall's jolly fisherman paired with the slogan 'Skegness is SO bracing' – were so memorable and effective that they were adopted for all kinds of promotional merchandise. The poster design, first issued by the London and North Eastern Railways in 1908, was reissued in 1925, and the company continued to use it for years. It epitomises John Hassall's style, which combined broad humour with strong colours and very limited text. In his view a good poster design had to be strong enough to attract attention and get the message across, with "the less writing the better".

While Skegness made a virtue of its 'bracing' sea air, other resorts on the east coast of England were promoted with the slogan 'the drier side', to differentiate themselves from the rainier west coast. Climate was a key selling point for seaside holidays, and many advertising campaigns chose to focus on this aspect of a town or the larger region. From the early years of the 20th century, posters promoting the south coast of England promised sunshine and sea breezes, and claimed that 'the South Coast is the Sunny Coast'.

Brighton & South Coast Railway, unknown, about 1910 – 15, England. Museum no. E.1056-1919. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other campaigns focused on the landscape itself, its history and associations. In an early advertising poster the Cornish Riviera (so-called because of its balmy, almost Mediterranean, climate) was promoted by the Great Western Railway (GWR) as 'the land of legend and romance' in an attempt to draw visitors to coastal attractions such as castles. Cornwall had developed as a popular tourist destination thanks to the coming of the railways, and by the 1920s the sandy beaches and mild climate had established it as a favourite with British holiday makers. Various poster campaigns promoted the county as wild, romantic and remote.

In the early 1930s, GWR commissioned six posters promoting Devon and Cornwall from the influential American-born artist and designer Edward McKnight Kauffer. Some of these were uncompromisingly Modernist, adopting a bold Art Deco style for dramatic scenes pictured from unconventional vantage points. Even Kauffer's more straightforward naturalistic designs appeared consciously 'arty' when compared with the more conventional pictorial posters by other designers of the time, and they did not meet with universal approval from critics and the industry – though today Kauffer's style is celebrated for its exceptional skill and originality.

Left to right: Go Great Western to Cornwall, Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1932, UK. Museum no. E.1044-2004. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Go Great Western to Cornwall, Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1932, UK. Museum no. E.589-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Beaches, and their amenities and entertainments, were popular subjects for posters, especially those aimed at families. Donkey rides were a firm favourite, as in this poster promoting Great Yarmouth as a place for 'Happy Healthy Holidays', picturing donkey rides for children on an expanse of clean golden sand.

Great Yarmouth & Gorleston on Sea for Happy Healthy Holidays, Septimus E. Scott, about 1925, UK. Museum no. E.1366-1927. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
East Coast It’s Quicker By Rail, Dorothea Sharp, about 1934, UK. Museum no. E.2250-1934. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Children often featured in holiday posters, enjoying the simple pleasures of paddling, splashing around in rock pools, peering at sea anemones, scooping up crabs or gathering seaweed. Dorothea Sharp was an artist who specialised in painting scenes of children at play, several of which were reproduced as posters in the 1930s. Douglas Mays' poster for Rhyl promotes the north Wales resort as the 'Children's Paradise', with an eager audience of curious children watching a Punch and Judy performance (a traditional pantomime-style slap-stick puppet show), a familiar feature of British beaches at the time.

Sunny Rhyl. The Children’s Paradise, Douglas Lionel Mays, 1952, UK. Museum no. 274-1952. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Frank Newbould's series of posters, 'East Coast Frolics', pictured various cartoon-like creatures – including a dolphin, a frog, and a rabbit – enjoying seaside fun and games, from water sports and fishing to golf. Newbould was one of a number of artists employed by The London and North Eastern Railway company (LNER) on an exclusive design contract. His bold colourful style, paired with a jaunty type face, emphasised the idea of playfulness.

East Coast Frolics No. 5 ‘The Drier Side’ Scores Again, Frank Newbould, 1933, UK. Museum no. E.320-1933. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Above all, the seaside was promoted as the place to sunbathe and swim. Since the 1920s sunbathing had been encouraged, and a suntan became a fashionable sign of wealth and leisure. The swim-suited women enjoying the sunshine in Andrew Johnson's poster for the Southern Railway have the stylish elegance of a fashion plate. Like many holiday posters of the period this does not advertise a named resort, but simply pictures the generic pleasures of a holiday at the seaside.

The South Coast is the Sunny Coast, Andrew Johnson, 1933, UK. Museum no. E.197-1935. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In this most famous design by Tom Purvis for LNER, the sun-drenched colours and the stylish sunbathers, shaded by a parasol, bring a flavour of the French Riviera to the English east coast. Purvis designed several seaside posters using bold, simplified blocks of clear colour. His designs had an Art Deco sophistication that made an immediate visual impact, and the elegance of a Japanese print.

East Coast by LNER, Tom Purvis, 1925, UK. Museum no. E.744-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Outdoor swimming pools, known as 'lidos' (from the Italian for beach), featured heavily in the posters of the 1920s and 30s, reflecting contemporary opinion that there was no healthier form of exercise than swimming while open to the sun and air. At the time many seaside visitors preferred to swim in the safe, calm confines of a lido rather than in the sea itself, and several resorts built their own outdoor pools. Frank Newbould's poster for LNER shows off the bathing pool at Dunbar, known as "the largest swimming pond in Scotland", alongside other amenities including golf and tennis, modern hotels and boarding houses.

Dunbar, Frank Newbould, about 1923, UK. Museum no. E.3999-1923. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By the 1950s the British seaside holiday was in decline as package holidays to Spain and the Mediterranean became more popular and affordable. However, British Railways, the newly nationalised body which took over from the private railway companies, continued to use poster advertising to promote seaside holidays. John Barker's poster for Ramsgate sets out all the charms of a holiday in the Kentish resort in a series of vignettes – the elegant Regency terraces (many then serving as boarding houses), the harbour with its lighthouse, the beach, the promenade with night-time illuminations, a Punch and Judy show, a child's bucket and spade, and a stall selling shellfish. The nostalgic nature of this catalogue of seaside pleasures is emphasised by Barker's use of 19th-century circus-style lettering to spell out the name 'Ramsgate'.

Ramsgate, John Barker, 1954, UK. Museum no. S.5073-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Background image: East Coast by LNER, Tom Purvis, 1925, UK. Museum no. E.744-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London