John Gay's Photographs Of Blackpool At The Grundy Gallery

By Richard Moss | 03 July 2006
a black and white photograph of an older couple - a man in a flat cap and a woman in a headscarf - asleep together on a beach

John Gay: Blackpool 1949 © English Heritage National Monuments Record

The Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool is currently hosting an exhibition of the evocative photographs of John Gay who recorded Blackpool holidaymakers during the summer of 1949.

John Gay: Blackpool 1949 runs at the gallery until September 16 2006 and shows English holidaymakers thronging the beaches of Blackpool at a time when British seaside resorts were at the beginning of their post-war heyday.

This is a world of flat caps and Brylcream, an era when adults merely rolled up their trousers and skirts for a paddle in the sea.

a black and white photograph of people paddling in the sea a man in the foreground wears a sports jacket and has his trousers rolled up as he looks at a toy boat a small girl stands next to him

John Gay: Blackpool 1949 © English Heritage National Monuments Record

Images range from a remarkably tender portrait of an old couple taking an afternoon nap on the sands to the familiar site of children frolicking in the sea - with the famous Blackpool Tower looming in the distance.

Taken by Gay for Country Fair magazine, the photographs offer a remarkable insight into the social history of Blackpool as well as a glimpse into a world that would have been familiar to millions of British people in the late Forties and Fifties.

Were it not for the clarity and ease of composition, some of the photographs could almost have been taken from any family album of the period such are the familiar scenes they depict.

a black and white photograph of a life ring on a pier which frames a crowded beach scene with Blackpool tower in the distance

John Gay: Blackpool 1949 © English Heritage National Monuments Record

Yet the pictures are full of life and reveal a photographer as much at ease capturing the lives of ordinary English people as he was taking portraits of the rich and famous.

Gay actually carved out quite a niche for himself as a photo-portraitist, snapping the likes of Terence Rattigan, Dylan Thomas and Vita Sackville-West for Strand Magazine from 1947 to 1949. .

He was also renowned for his work in national advertising campaigns, magazines and books and a passionate photographer of architecture.

a black and white photograph of a crowd of children with a tower in the background

John Gay: Blackpool 1949 © English Heritage National Monuments Record

His second book, Prospect of Highgate & Hampstead (1967), established his career as an architectural photographer and in 1972 he published London’s Historic Railway Stations with Sir John Betjeman.

In 1984 he published his most well known book, Highgate Cemetery, with Felix Barker. It was a subject close to his heart having been actively involved in its rejuvenation, which followed years of neglect after World War Two.

Born in 1909 at Karlsruhe, Germany, his interest in photography first became apparent after he left school and attended art college in Paris. He worked as a professional photographer in Germany before leaving for a new life in England after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.

a black and white photograph of boys in swimming trunks jumping from a traoiler which is on the shorline of a beach. People paddle in the sea and a large tower is visible in the background

John Gay: Blackpool 1949 © English Heritage National Monuments Record

Once he had settled in England he changed his name from Hans Gohler to John Gay, after the famous British playwright.

The photographs in the exhibition form part of the English Heritage National Monuments Record; a public archive containing eight million images, relevant to archaeology, architectural history and the social history of England.

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