Nearly half a century ago as a little boy I would walk to the end of the longest pier in the world at Southend and board the Daffodil Steamer and travel across the Estuary to Margate. The beaches were wider, deeper and sandier. The seaside entertainment, louder, more garish and seemingly endless. The rough and ready locals were brash, red faced and cheery. When Tracey Emin appeared on the scene as part of the new British Art Movement in the 80s she seemed to emblemise my memories of Margate. Open all hours, brutally honest, yet friendly for all that.
Half a lifetime later, the seaside day-trippers have largely disappeared. The Cockney bolt-hole of Margate has been busy re-inventing itself. Yet, even in our wildest dreams we could not have expected nearly £20 million of grant money to have been invested in the best of modern art amidst the whelks, mussels and ice cream of Margate.
The Turner Contemporary, opened on the 16th April this year with the declared intention of re-awakening the faded Victorian splendour of Margate. The Gallery, designed by award-winning British architect David Chipperfield, is spacious with exhibition rooms lit by soft northern light and by super porthole style windows overlooking magnicent Estuary views that drew JMW Turner back to the town over and over again.
Turner first came to Margate in 1786 as a child and returned there to paint often, motivated by what he described as the best light in Europe. Later in his life, he stayed in a slightly seedy guest house run by Sophie Booth, a widow 25 years his junior, who, according to local gossip was his lover. The Turner Contemporary occupies the very spot on Margate beach where Mrs Booth’s guesthouse stood and where Turner painted his epic sea and skyscapes of Thanet.
One piece of Turner’s work will always be on display, but the mainstay of the Gallery is contemporary work. For its opening show, “Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens”, ‘The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains on the Island of St. Vincent’, on loan from Liverpool University, is on display along with a poem that Turner wrote about the work.
The opening exhibition at the new contemporary art gallery is limited to a few works by a handful of artists, three of whom were specially commissioned for the opening. The first show was designed to show off the light and space of the Turner Contemporary.
Afterwards, my son Callum and I walked the same walk that Turner took all those years ago, across the seemingly endless sand into the afternoon sun. Margate is cultivating bohemian back streets and almost Provencale-like squares that sit hazily in the sun, populated by locals and tourists mingling in street bars and cafes, cars parked erratically in off-street spaces, for all the world like Aix-en-Provence.
We sat idlyon the seafront overlooking the two hanging colussii of the twin Turner buildings, allowing the light, the space and the sun to bathe us gently as we felt ourselves dissolve and re-emerge blinking into a new era of Margate. We took pictures of the sand, the light and the sun. Turner would have been proud of us.