Thought to be unique in Grimshaw’s oeuvre, A Summer Phantasy is a remarkable painting almost certainly painted on the sands of the artist’s beloved Scarborough. The minute detail demonstrates a level of technical skill that is exceptional with each grouping of figures given characterisation and individuality. In the foreground on the right is a young family, the daughter holding the hand of her mother whilst her father holds binoculars to his eyes to look out to sea. The elegance of the family is reflected in the woman’s fashionable hat and parasol and the gentleman’s blue and black striped blazer.
The elegant seaside town of Scarborough was one of the most fashionable and popular resorts in the country, following the opening of the railway station in 1845. Grimshaw knew Scarborough intimately having lived there from 1876, painting the town on numerous occasions and from a variety of perspectives. He rented a house from Thomas Jarvis, a local brewer who was Grimshaw's patron as well as his landlord. The house was named 'The Castle by the Sea' after the poem by Henry Longfellow. Scarborough provided an abundance of inspiration and Grimshaw painted some of his most successful compositions during this period including a rare documentary piece Sic Transit Gloria Mundi' The Burning of the Spa Saloon, Scarborough (Scarborough Art Gallery). Although financial difficulties in 1880 forced Grimshaw to relinquish Castle-by-the-Sea, Scarborough remained important to him as the present picture bears testament.
The nineteenth century saw the birth of mass tourism as described in paintings like William Powell Frith’s Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) of 1856 (The Royal Collection) in which the sea-shore is crowded with day-trippers. By the 1870s it was not unusual for several hundred thousand visitors to be recorded on bank-holidays at the popular resorts of Brighton Scarborough or Ramsgate. By the end of the century visits to the seaside were popular with all but the most poor and made possible with the expansion of the railways. It was an opportunity to be seen and admired, to observe and be observed and the clothes worn by the adults that now seem so incongruous to us demonstrate that for the nineteenth century visitor to the seaside it was important to be seen in your finest clothes whether comfortable or not.
A Summer Phantasy predicts the northern English beach scenes painted by L.S. Lowry half a century later in Post-war Britain. He also populated his beaches with figure groups that are contrasting vignettes of social discourse. However whilst Lowry sought to depict the leisure-time of the working class, Grimshaw’s paintings depict middle class holiday-makers in an era when free-time was the reserve of the privileged.
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