Simon Roberts' Pierdom captures the personality and the journey of the British seaside pier

By Rebecca Bowe | 19 October 2015

Using a 4x5 plate camera in homage to the tradition of Victorian archives, artist Simon Roberts finds the unique personality of our piers

A photo of a family in front of a pier as part of Simon Roberts' exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Simon Roberts, Cleethorpes. From Pierdom© Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
The latest exhibition in Brighton Museum’s upstairs gallery documents a structure emblematic of our seaside town and the lifestyle of its residents: the British pleasure pier.

Local Brighton photographer Simon Roberts’ project, Pierdom, is thematically in keeping with the regular exhibitions downstairs, which chart Brighton’s history as a tourist hot spot, a pleasure town, buoyed by tides of tourists and sea merchants.

Roberts has spent three years travelling the coast for his book which takes the project’s name. Following on from his previous publication, We English, he continues to photograph the habits of the English and explore the relationship between the aesthetics of our environment and our national identity.

He has now visited all of the remaining piers in Britain, as well as a few of the ‘lost’ examples, capturing images of the sites where piers, now eroded and fallen into the sea, once stood. These photographic resurrections are particularly haunting, inviting the imagination to recall past merriments.

Roberts chose to use a 4x5 plate camera for all the photographs, in keeping with the tradition of other Victorian archives of piers. Worthing Pier provides one of the most atmospheric photos and the effect of the long speed shutter has lent the glow of ghostly wisps off the breaking waves.

The variety in his photographs is testimony to the unique personality, architecture and history of each seaside space and structure. Looking around the exhibition, you are reminded what eccentric and iconic structures our pleasure piers really are.

Another area displays donated fragments of Brighton’s first (and lost) pier, the intricate ‘Chain Pier’ famously immortalised by Turner in watercolour, alongside yellowing ticket stubs kept from the gate entry back in 1823.

These artefacts evoke the romantic nostalgia of trips to the seaside, of sweets, rides, romance, arcades and music.

A photo of the skeleton of a pier beyond people playing on a beach as part of Simon Roberts' exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Brighton's West Pier© Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
The public are also invited to share and archive their own memories of times spent at the pier. One visitor reflects on donkey rides on the Weston-Super-Mare beach followed by a toffee apple on the pier where her grandparents met.

But in the artist’s photograph of Merseyside pier, a group of donkeys await customers on an empty beach, while other photographs look desolate, empty and bleak. Often the pier serves more as a foil than the focus, with passers-by, the scenic surroundings or the turbulent weather dominating the scene.

There is a real sense of these photographs following a very personal journey along the coast, but they also portray the historical and economic journey of the British coastline.

In a video Roberts describes the pleasure pier as “a metaphor for the coastline itself.” They are now cultural icons, the subject of community funding projects and political debate.

Many are slowly falling into disrepair and disappearing from our side towns. A video loop of the decaying, skeletal West Pier in Brighton, records its demise and, like the photographs, it evokes a sense of both nostalgia and sadness – a simultaneous celebration and memorialisation.

A photo of the deck of a pier stretching out as part of Simon Roberts' exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Clevedon© Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
A photo of a pier under fog as part of Simon Roberts' exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Paignton© Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
An overhead photo of an old pier at sea as part of Simon Roberts' exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Blackpool© Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
A photo of Brighton Pier under a blue sky as part of Simon Roberts' exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Brighton© Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
  • Pierdom is at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until February 21 2016. Open 10am-5pm (2.30pm from December 24, closed Monday except Bank Holidays, closed December 25-26). Admission free with museum entry. Follow the museum and art gallery on Twitter @BrightonMuseums and on Facebook.
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