Take your time, look around, and we hope you enjoy our virtual exhibition. A selection of images of the art and objects displayed within our exhibition at the Scottish Fisheries Museum is available here on this page.
The term “blue space” refers to all visible water sources, like oceans, rivers, lakes, and lochs. Blue space has had the ability to deeply touch our lives for centuries and continues to do so. While a significant connection between humanity and water has always existed, initiatives such as the BlueHealth project have begun delving further into this phenomenon. In recent years, projects in the UK, Spain, and Greece have investigated how the blue spaces around us result in psychological and physical benefits.
Researchers have also explored the benefits that living near and visiting the coast have on physical and mental health. A BlueHealth project study led by Dr. Lewis Elliot of the University of Exeter found that visiting the seaside twice per week resulted in a greater sense of well-being. Those living within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of the coast also appear to benefit from improved mental and physical health.
Similarly, a 2013 study on happiness in natural environments asked 20,000 smartphone users to record their sense of well-being and immediate environment at random intervals; the results showed that marine and coastal areas were ranked as the happiest locations overall, scoring six points higher than urban environments. The overall monetary value of the health benefit arising from engaging with marine environments was estimated to be £176 million in 2016.
The perceived interconnectivity between blue spaces and human health is nothing new.
Even in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the benefits of life by the seaside were lauded as the trend of taking a beach holiday starkly rose in popularity in the late eighteenth century. Around this time, cold bathing in sea waves was prescribed to alleviate “melancholy,” believed to be caused by an excess of black bile. The discovery of oxygen in 1778 by Antoine Lavoisier also drew visitors to the seaside as theories began to emerge about the specific health benefits of sea air, which was thought to be more oxygenated and pure. Humans have relied upon water throughout history to bring about well-being through bathing pools, convalescing by the sea to reap the benefits of “sea air”, cold-water therapy, wild swimming, and more.
Water has many positive impacts on the human body and mind. It has been known to lower stress levels, improve mood and sociability, encourage physical activity, and benefit brain health. Interestingly, in 2020, BlueHealth researchers discovered that even virtual simulations of blue spaces can decrease sadness and boredom.
Sources of water can have a democratizing influence, and being near blue spaces is a beneficial pastime with no price for admission. Therefore, it is important to consider who has access to this nourishing life source. Recent studies have found that the benefits of coastal living are strongest for people living in the poorest areas. Access provisions planned under the UK’s revised Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 ensure that all people be given equal access to blue spaces so that seashores do not become sites of gentrification and exclusivity in the years to come
Motifs of waves and water have arguably been some of the most prevalent thematic elements throughout the entire history of art, appearing in ancient myths and folklore, Romantic and Impressionistic paintings, sea shanties, and sonnets. Perhaps most famously, Virginia Woolf’s wave imagery looms large in To the Lighthouse while Melville and Hemingway craft daring tales of humanity’s struggle with the sea as well as the wonder at its harshness and beauty. Scottish author Neil M. Gunn’s The Silver Darlings does the same, exploring the lives of villagers in northern Scotland as they fight to survive as herring fishermen and balance hope and despair. This combination of fear and awe is prominent in the works of the British Romanticist painter J.M.W. Turner, for whom the sea was a frequent muse. Downie’s Gale Force Nine captures this same electric atmosphere of “the sublime”.
Some creative individuals repurpose items from the sea itself, such as seashells and driftwood, breathing new life into these forms in order to create art. This practice serves as an innovative way of expressing a personal link to blue spaces while also allowing individuals to interpret broader cultural movements and trends in art. The KY12 model ship in a bottle seen below is a wonderful example of creating a personalised miniature. Mythology and folklore, like the inspiration behind William Rackham’s Rhine Maiden Lamenting, is another means of this collective cultural distillation, with tales passed from generation to generation and evolving with each storyteller’s flair and imagination.
Aquatic leisure takes many forms, including water polo, surfing, wild swimming, sailing, and countless other beloved activities. Though the sea can be fierce, it is also playful and often evokes this sense of carefree enjoyment in others. As William D. Henderson depicts in Swimming Pool, the water is widely seen as a place to relax, peacefully coexist, and release inhibitions.
For years, locations such as Aberdour, Anstruther, St Andrews, and Peterhead in Aberdeenshire have received flocks of visitors seeking Scottish sun, recreation, and delicious fish and chips. The East Neuk area of Scotland in particular has a rich history in sea-related leisure activities and as a holiday destination; old photographs capture the bathing huts, adults lounging in the sun, and atmosphere of cheery camaraderie. Model boat sailing, swimming, and fishing were all extremely popular pastimes, and an open air pool in Cellardyke, Anstruther was created in the 1930s for leisure purposes.
As time progressed, conventional seaside fashion drastically evolved. The flowing bathing costumes of the early 1900s eventually shed their ostentatious collars and skirts. Necklines fell and hemlines rose, leading to a series of arrests beginning in the 1920s for “indecent exposure” which raised questions about the policing of women’s bodies. The bikini was popularised in the 1940s and, by the 1950s and 1960s, women’s swimsuits were often colourful and form-fitting—as seen in Swimming Pool.
The image seen above is courtesy of University of Dundee Museum Services, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design Collection.
Thanks for joining us by the seaside. Check out our virtual exhibition, blog, wellbeing resources, and more! 🏴🐟🐳