Every year - probably around about May, knowing the English weather - they would have been taken out of storage, brushed up and carried out to a pitch: it might be the Sun Deck at Margate, the promenade at Ramsgate or Broadstairs beach. For decades they served as props for seaside photographers from the Sunbeam company, who worked the Thanet coast in Kent. There was a donkey, a horse, a moth-eaten cow, a tiger, two lions (one roaring, one smiling), Donald Duck and Muffin the Mule, a cat, a dog, an elephant – and generations of children (and not only children) clambered on their backs or stood to attention at their sides.
Even when almost every family-owned a camera, a commercial photographer would still be paid to take a snap as a souvenir, which could be picked up from the kiosk the next day. These pictures, known as “Walkies”, often showed a couple, a family, or a gang of friends walking along the prom.
Sunbeam ceased trading in 1975 but its collection of more than 20,000 negatives (not only seaside pictures) is held at Canterbury Christ Church University. Over the past two years, the South East Archive of Seaside Photography (Seas), which is based there, has been encouraging people to return their Sunbeam pictures via collecting points and collection days when people can drop them off. Now they have organised a summer exhibition which opens next week.
Looking at these pictures now, lots of us will recognise our parents or our grandparents, even ourselves. Surely one of the reasons we love poring over old family snapshots like these is because, along with the past, they’re often where we see the earliest incarnations of the people we’ve become.
‘Beyond the View: Reframing the Sunbeam Photographic Collection’ is at the Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury, July 11-August 22.