Pandemic Objects: The Sea



December 10, 2020

Reflections on A Daily Sea by Simon Roberts

The V&A has recently been gifted the portfolio A Daily Sea by British photographer Simon Roberts. A Daily Sea is a meditative and dynamic series of 56 seascapes taken daily over the course of the first Covid-19 lockdown in the United Kingdom between the 19th of March and the 13th of May 2020. This portfolio joins two others by Roberts held in the V&A photographs collection, Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island and We English, both acquisitions that were funded by the V&A Photographs Acquisition Group.

Simon Roberts, Day 1, 19.03.2020, 43 deaths (158 cumulative), from the series A Daily Sea, 2020. Gift of Jim and Ruth Grover
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.
– e.e. cummings extract from maggie and milly and molly and may
Simon Roberts, Day 13, 31.03.2020, 382 deaths (2425 cumulative), from the series A Daily Sea, 2020. Gift of Jim and Ruth Grover
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is a society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
– Lord Byron
extract from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

As much of England emerges from yet another period of lockdown, this series offers a thought-provoking point of reflection on what Roberts remarks is ‘this most significant time in our shared history’. Looking back at the events of 2020, the ocean represents an enviable level of independence and invincibility. Humans have always sought solace at the sea: the mysteries that exist beyond the horizon and below its surface seem to provoke in us an endless capacity for personal reflection and metaphor. Roberts is among them, stating in an interview with photographer Jim Grover that, ‘for me, water provides a great sense of release…emotionally and physically’. It was a natural instinct that brought Roberts to the sea at the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak when much of the world felt overwhelmed by the uncertainty that lay ahead. Driven by the need for personal respite from the world’s woes, and a practical use of his daily hour of permitted exercise, he began photographing the sea once a day from Brighton beach, a mere 200 metres from his home, and sharing the images on his Instagram page.

Screen capture of Simon Roberts Instagram page, Day 43, 30.04.2020, 674 deaths (26771 cumulative) “I don’t mind admitting that I’ve been in a foul mood all day. No reason, just woke up that way. Perhaps it’s the feeling of groundhog day, maybe the moon cycle, perhaps the frustration of lockdown is beginning to show. Tomorrow is another day. On the plus side, the National Theatre is about to live stream Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein.”
I looked upon the sea, it was to be my grave.
– Mary Shelley extract from Frankenstein

Comments on these Instagram posts reveal that the seascapes resonated with audiences. For many, myself included, they offered a delightful break in my scroll from the monotony of upsetting news and examples of home baking. Instead, these posts offered a moment to consider life outside the confines of my living room – a relative pin prick on the giant concrete map of London – and ruminate on the vastness of Covid-19’s impact. It was this response from his audiences, paired with a desire to do something meaningful that Roberts conceptualised the series in its print form. With help from his wife and children, every day for the duration of lockdown, he selected one from multiple photographs of the sea taken that day and sold the signed editions online. Funds earned from these sales went to support the NHS Covid-19 Urgent Appeal, and the photographs brought a snippet of the outdoors into the homes of those who followed his daily encounters with the sea.

Simon Roberts, Day 22, 09.04.2020, 1103 deaths (9608 cumulative), from the series A Daily Sea, 2020. Gift of Jim and Ruth Grover
You are the moon, dear love, and I the sea:
The tide of hope swells high within my breast,
And hides the rough dark rocks of life’s unrest
When your fond eyes smile near in perigee.
But when that loving face is turned from me,
Low falls the tide, and the grim rocks appear,
And earth’s dim coast-line seems a thing to fear.
You are the moon, dear one, and I the sea.
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Moon and Sea

Each photograph is accompanied by a sea-related text and cumulative Covid-19 mortality figures from the Office for National Statistics. Roberts notes, ‘I consider the portfolio box of all 56 prints as a kind of memorial piece. In between each photograph I include a sheet of paper which has the quote I used [on the Instagram post], and the official daily Covid-19 death rate because I want people to consider the emotional significance of this time for those families who’d lost loved ones. The work isn’t just about these bucolic scenes, it’s also rooted in a significant national moment’.

Simon Roberts, Day 36, 23.04.2020, 727 deaths (21787 cumulative), from the series A Daily Sea, 2020. Gift of Jim and Ruth Grover
Look at that sea, girls–all silver and shadow and
vision of things not seen. We couldn’t enjoy its
loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars
and ropes of diamonds.
– Lucy Maud Montgomery
extract from Anne of Green Gables

Although no two photographs are the same, they are unified by the ever-present horizon. Though at times obscured, it acts as a hopeful symbol of continuity. Roberts acknowledges that the horizon line is, ‘a compositional thread uniting the series’, but more than that, it offers us a place to ground ourselves. Despite no day and no seascape ever being the same, the eternality of the point where the sea touches the sky acts as a hopeful reminder that these circumstances will improve.

Compilation of all 56 photographs from the A Daily Sea series, 2020

The images are spectacular when seen together. Through the variations in stark and subtle hues and weather patterns, Roberts’s series enables us to relive the changing seasons, the shifts from morning, to afternoon, to night; all measures of time that somehow blended together as days began to feel increasingly the same. The photographs function as a visual record of time, providing us with a means to reflect on, and distill this period in a way that was nearly impossible amid the tedium of the lockdown.

A comparison between A Daily Sea and the other two portfolios by Roberts held in the V&A’s collection, Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island and We English, provides a deeper understanding of the significance of these seascapes. Merrie Albion and We English explore depictions of people and place, focusing on Britain’s cultural, political, as well as physical landscapes. Roberts’s scenes of leisure and social interaction are framed within characteristic settings, including the now familiar Brighton seafront.

Simon Roberts, Edmonton Church of Christ Bank Holiday Picnic, Brighton, East Sussex, 30 August 2010, from the series Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island, 2007-2017.
Purchase funded by the Photographs Acquisition Group

In contrast, the lively, people-filled scenes of Merrie Albion and We English reinforce the feeling of emptiness present in the daily seascapes. Exaggerated by this difference, the photographs in A Daily Sea depict an energetic nation gone quiet to protect their neighbours on this small island. Roberts says, “In such moments of collective and personal upheaval, the sea represents one of the few ever-present, physical constants. It’s also symbolic of life: tranquil one moment, turbulent the next. I think [A Daily Sea] is about offering some pause for thought…so that in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time we can look at these pictures and gain some sense of time and acceptance of what was going on.”

Simon Roberts, Day 52, 09.05.2020, 346 deaths (31586 cumulative), from the series A Daily Sea, 2020. Gift of Jim and Ruth Grover
Break on the lovebeds of the weeds;
The weed of love’s left dry;
There round about your stones the shades
Of children go who, from their voids,
Cry to the dolphined sea.
– Dylan Thomas
extract from Where Once the Waters on Your Face

With the first, and now, second lockdowns not far in our collective rear-view mirror, we are only just able to look at the A Daily Sea series with clear notions of hindsight and retrospection. Roberts has now raised thousands of pounds for the NHS, and has continued photographing for the A Daily Sea series throughout the second lockdown. Further, he is creating a video piece to accompany the series which uses audio from the Government’s daily press conferences relaying pertinent Covid-19 information. Over the last several months he has also created a striking series of cyanotypes of the skies titled, The Celestials, once again responding to nature’s changes amidst the pandemic.

Roberts joins many great photographers who have turned their cameras toward the sea, including: Charles Stanton Breese, Francis James Mortimer, Gustave Le Gray, Hiroshi Sugimoto, among many others. As we gradually emerge from the second lockdown, the mystical and contemplative seascapes photographed by Roberts and other artists of the past and present, remind us that there is beauty in stillness and times of trouble, and that a day at the sea in the company of our friends and family is on the horizon.

Simon Roberts, Day 56, 13.05.2020, 494 deaths (33186 cumulative), from the series A Daily Sea, 2020. Gift of Jim and Ruth Grover
Now, voyager – once resigned
Go forth to seek and find
The hazy days you left behind
Right there in the back of your mind
Where lucid dreams begin
With rolling dunes and rattling shale
The shoreline then a swollen sail Picked out by a shimmering halo
That’s where the sea comes in…
– Dr John Cooper Clarke extract from Nation’s Ode to the Coast

All photographs © Simon Roberts

Further Reading:

‘Photographer Simon Roberts – A Daily Sea’, (short video), YouTube, 28 July 2020.

‘A Daily Sea – Interview with Simon Roberts’, Marianne Stenger,Bob Books, 31 July 2020.

‘A Daily Sea’, website of Simon Roberts.

‘The Celestials’, website of Simon Roberts

Related Objects from the Collections:

‘Seascape’ (photograph), Francis Mortimer, 1930s (V&A: RPS.3153-2018)

‘Seascape’ (photograph), Francis Mortimer, 1930s (V&A: RPS.3153-2018)

‘Solar Effect in the Clouds – Ocean’ (photograph), Gustave Le Gray, 1856-1859 (V&A: 67996)

‘Solar Effect in the Clouds – Ocean’ (photograph), Gustave Le Gray, 1856-1859 (V&A: 67996)

‘Evening’ (stereoscopic photograph on glass), Charles Stanton Breese, Great Britain, ca 1850-1875 (V&A: E.1960-1992)

‘Evening’ (stereoscopic photograph on glass), Charles Stanton Breese, Great Britain, ca 1850-1875 (V&A: E.1960-1992)
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