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Saturday 17 October 2015


Real photo postcards by George Austin and others
 “I hate to be near the sea, and to hear it raging and roaring like a wild beast in its den. It puts me in mind of the everlasting efforts of the human mind, struggling to be free and ending just where it began.”
William Hazlitt

Eastbourne: a seaside town on the Sussex coast, halfway between Brighton and Hastings, known during the Victorian era for several grand hotels and one notorious murder when a teacher, Thomas Copley, caned his student Reginald Cancellor to death. Today it has an air of shabby gentility about it. The English used to specialize in shabby gentility; the Ealing comedies were essentially about nothing else. That may be a lost art in an age of ostentatious vulgarity but Eastbourne’s waterfront in the summer, with a chill wind blowing off the coast and bringing buckets of rain with it, holds out against the depredations of venality. Those pastel greens, oranges, mauves and pinks splashed across the seafront, the colours of a stick of Brighton rock left in a shop window for a couple of decades, are a reminder that what fades and decays can still have a faint pulse beat.

The point of going to Eastbourne has always been to leave, to head inland towards the kind of villages poets and other jolly chaps declared were the soul of England, or to head west and go up to Beachy Head, along what today is called the South Downs Way but back in 1910 was merely the crusty edge of England. The late Victorians and the Edwardians, the people who really developed the seaside town, held many dubious beliefs, particularly about the state of their bodies. One did not walk out to Beachy Head to marvel at the view so much as to improve circulation of the vessels surrounding the liver. This postcard is postmarked September 25 1915 but you can bet it was taken a few years earlier. The publisher was E. A. Schwerdtfiger and it was printed in Berlin. Look closely. The distant figure closest to the cliff edge at the right has one leg and a pair of crutches. 

But we are not in Eastbourne to talk about Germany or missing limbs. Much more interesting is George Edward Austin, photographer from the 1890s to the 1920s, who studio was at 70 Seaside (thanks again to for the info on Sussex postcards) From the beginning Austin was a portrait photographer. It appears he wasn’t even vaguely interested in the kind of topographical views that people like Fred Judge and Leonard Horner were making a packet out of and never took one. So imagine spending your entire career taking photos of families like this one; a kind of spiritual death you’d think, but born in London’s east end slums in 1864 (Bromley-by-Bow; about the most depressing place for a Londoner to arrive in the world that year) Austin probably didn’t waste much time thinking about spiritual death. And no, we are not in Eastbourne to talk about George Austin’s philosophical opinions but a curious project he undertook and which we can think of as one he made his own.

Beginning sometime between about 1905 and 1910 Austin began turning up to Eastbourne’s hotels to gather the guests and staff out the front and photograph them. According to the inscription in the lower left this was taken on August 4 1913, which the calendar for that year tells us was a bank holiday in England. The women are dressed the same as those in the Beachy Head photo and if they’re not the same individuals they are the same species; people who caught the train down to the seaside on Saturday afternoon and spent the next two days taking constitutionals. On a morning like August 4 1913 George Austin would be rushing between hotels and guest houses before they set out for the cliffs above lighthouse.   

His thinking was infallible. If some photographers were making a living photographing holidaymakers on the promenade during the summer, it made sense to photograph as many people as possible at once, which logically expanded sales from one or two per photo taken to potentially dozens. He didn’t think this up himself. Earlier posts have featured ferries from the same era crowded with passengers who were expected to buy the postcard when the boat docked. Postcards from other photographers taken outside of hotels have also turned up, all of them from seaside resorts and mostly from Sussex and Kent. If the frequency with which his photos turn up in collections, Austin was the most prolific. 

If his motives were entirely to do with economics, look at several of his photographs together and something else comes into play. They become a kind of typology, Eastbourne’s version of the Mass Observation project before its time. Raise a sceptical eyebrow and point out that his images are no different to those taken of school years or sports teams but that misses one important detail. Those are always of the collective as a single unit, hence the team stand together with arms crossed, or the class wear the same uniform. These photos are the opposite; people brought together whose only common bond was that they spent the night under the same roof. They didn’t even have to acknowledge each other in the dining room. That’s why we get a better dynamic: small cells with their own internal dynamics as opposed to the school or the team photo where everyone is the same age and often enough the same gender and who line up to stare dispassionately at the camera. Study one of these hotel photos closely and you discover people who don’t fit in, or someone’s odd gesture. All that aside, they are an object lesson in the ordinariness of life. 

Let’s leave George Austin, but not Eastbourne just yet. One of the odder genres of topographical postcard belongs to scenes of the interiors of convalescent homes, sanatoriums and other institutions for the infirm. Like the photos from outside hotels, these appear to be particular to the south east of England. Here we have one from the Merlynn in Eastbourne. What makes these different is that all other postcards were for tourists but these were for people who having arrived were not always expected to leave. The sitting room became their world. My theory is that they are a direct consequence of two world wars, when hundreds of thousands of former soldiers needed full time care, the south coast with its fresh air was thought to be the best place for them and so a quiet little town by the sea with comfortable armchairs, regularly emptied ashtrays and frequent pots of tea would sound perfect.