Few railway stations can offer a grander view of the town that they serve than Margate. As you step out of the station, the full sweep of the bay opens up before you: the low waves ebbing over flat sands, a great line of amusement parlours, shops and hotels following the leftward curve of the beaches to the far point with a cluster of buildings which ends with the Turner Contemporary gallery looking out to sea and to the epic, ever-changing display of clouds and sky that drew J.M.W. Turner to paint here so often. It may only be a humble seaside town, but human and natural design combine as art. And so you are drawn down the hill and along the curving sands to that far gallery which now completes the picture.
I have many happy memories of Margate. Living as we did on the north Kent coast, it was a short car drive away and a place full of excitement for children in the summer holidays. There were the endless sands, the beach entertainments, the long parade clinging to the beach with its seemingly endless line of slot machines, candy floss machines and ice cream parlours, and of course Dreamland, the gaudy amusement park with its slides, rides, hall of mirrors and crowds of screaming children. Margate was a special place.
Margate then became a sorry sight. The crowds flew off to Alicante instead, the sands became deserted, Dreamland fell into disrepair and then disuse, and the recession turned the town into a DSS Mecca, the epitome of decline. Shops were boarded up, rows upon rows of seaside hotels stood empty, poverty bred more poverty. The place became a metaphor for commercial and social failure, all the more potent for being in the supposedly prosperous south-east. The grim social history behind those gaudy amusements was laid bare by the personal story told by its most famous (and loyal) former resident, Tracey Emin. Films and programmes set in the town, such as Last Orders (based on a Graham Swift novel), Exodus and The Last Resort, suggested a place at the end of its, and the nation’s, tether.
A regeneration programme began in the late 1990s, and at the centre of the plans was the building of an art gallery, the Turner Contemporary. This opened in 2011, and is generally recognised to have an unqualified success. Despite some local scepticism while it was being built, the gallery has drawn the crowds, has succeeded with some imaginative programming that marked it out as a venue of national significance, and has started to draw in new business into the town. Margate once again has some reasons for optimism.
I came to the town to see the Mondrian & Colour exhibition. This is a fine exhibition showing the development of Mondrian’s art, from realism through to symbolism and finally abstraction, with emphasis on the place of colour in his art. It serves as a useful primer for the development of modern art in general, as one can readily see that even in his early works of rural and villages scenes, supposedly in the realistic manner, that he is drawn to significant shapes and colour, drawing out the abstract from the ordinary. One sees the grids emerging before ever the grids were there. The legends that introduce each stage of the exhibition make much of Mondrian’s theories of art and the significance of colours that he learned from Goethe. None of this really matters. Mondrian may have believed in such theories, but I think they were simply attempts at rationalisation after the fact. Mondrian responded to a world that was changing from within, a world in which – over the period from the late 19th to early 20th century – things were seen differently, as the literal was supplanted by the symbolic, the view for its abstraction.
An adjunct to the exhibition is a delightful one-room exhibition of work by the American artist Spencer Finch, entitled The Skies can’t keep their secret. This playful and illuminating show continues the themes of colour and observation highlighted in the Mondrian show. There is a grid of bright colours taken from The Wizard of Oz which fade as the natural light in the room fades as evening falls, reflecting the changing light patterns that make Margate’s skies so visually entrancing. A row of photographs taking one second apart of a passing fog fills the length on one wall. Seemingly white drawings on close inspection show meticulous capture in greys and yellows of waves patterns and the effect of sunlight on a white surface. Above hangs a plastic sheet bunched up in flounces held together by clothes pegs to create a cloud inspired by the art of Constable. In the corridor, Finch has selected some favourite Turner watercolours, several showing Margate, but including the entracingly mysterious ‘A Wreck, Possibly Related to ‘Longships Lighthouse, Land’s End’ (c.1834) which for Finch seems exemplify the tension between abstraction and representation which binds these two shows together.
And then it is out through the gift shop and to Margate once more. The effect of the Turner Contemporary on the old town area clustered by the gallery is obvious to see. There are bijou art and antique shops, eating places and drinking places, which make best use of the charming brickwork buildings and warren of short streets. There are clear similarities with Whitstable, another town on the north Kent coast which has successfully promoted itself as a combination of arts haven, culinary attraction and quaint working seaside town, attracting regular London visitors.
Margate has some way to go before it matches the success of Whitstable, however. It is that much further away from London, albeit that it is now connected to the metropolis by the High Speed railway line. Away from the excitement surrounded the Turner Contemporary, the rest of Margate in a work in progress. On a sunny day in June the long beaches were almost empty, a few figures dotted among the stretches of sand and the low, gently incoming sea. Two bored attendants sat by a crazy golf and trampoline venue on the beach that had no takers. The amusement parlours had a only few hardened visitors seated at the one-armed bandits, their signage faded and broken, the paintwork peeling. The high street that leads up from the seafront looks desperate, with boarded-up shops, money-lenders, and the forlorn look that comes of having little to sell to people with little money to spend.
The next stage in the regeneration plan is to rebuild Dreamland as an amusement park featuring traditional entertainments. This idea has proved controversial, with competing ideas for how best to rebuild on the space, but the local council recently served a served a Compulsory Purchase Order, and eventually a new Dreamland will presumably arise, built on memories of the old. The overall strategy seems to be to make the most of Margate’s heritage while reinventing perceptions of it at the same time. This will be tricky to achieve. The grand view is there, but the life to fill it is only partially in place. Perhaps with the growth in housing along the Thames gateway, combined with the High Speed line, then Margate will seem closer to more people.
Meanwhile the skies above remain glorious, ever-changing, nature’s own abstraction of itself.