A Mysterious Painting: ‘Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium’

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C19th Painting / Historical feature / Painting / Photography / Portrait / SarahCoggrave / Solitude / Victorian Painting

This article is about a painting that is owned by Scarborough Art Gallery. Part of the larger Scarborough Museums Trust collection, it has not so far been possible to locate the name of the artist who painted it, or the year during which it was created. All that we know is listed on the BBC Your Paintings website – it measures 60 cm x 90 cm, is an oil painting, and the artist is (or rather was) British.

This article will attempt to narrate the story behind the painting, with reference to local history and the former existence of a long gone attraction – the Scarborough Aquarium.

The scene is one of architectural opulence – smartly dressed Victorian visitors stroll through vast archways and ornate corridors lined with the shadowy forms of sea life specimens. Those familiar with Scarborough’s history will know about the Scarborough Aquarium – an ambitious attempt to create an enduring underground attraction in, what was then, one of the UK’s premier seaside resorts. The first seaside resort in fact.

I first came across the painting whilst working on an archive project – Stories From Scarborough. You can read more about the aquarium and other former Scarborough attractions by visiting the website.

Eugenius Birch (1818 – 1884) is the man behind the palatial design in the picture. Inspired by Hindu temples and the general Victorian preoccupation with everything Eastern, Oriental and exotic, Birch added to his growing portfolio of seaside architecture (which included piers and buildings at places such as Margate, Blackpool and Brighton) by giving Scarborough a subterranean fantasy world.

Birch was also behind Scarborough’s former North Bay Pier, which opened in 1869 (and closed after storm damage in 1905), suggesting his relationship with the town began a number of years before the aquarium was built. The latter, fortunately, fared slightly better than the pier, which suffered considerable monetary losses and frequent damage.

The aquarium design is very similar to that of Brighton Aquarium, which Birch also designed – this opened in 1872 – a mere five years before its Scarborough counterpart. It was hoped that Brighton’s success could be emulated and even surpassed in Scarborough, and as the former’s aquarium welcomed its first visitors, businessmen from the latter were drawing up plans for a bigger and more impressive version.

The board of the Marine Aquarium Company consisted of numerous colourful characters – a fossil collector, a father and son architect team from Sleaford and Northern Railway’s one-time chief engineer. Two colliery owners from Wakefield, a succession of wealthy ‘gentlemen’ and later even a druggist from Brighton all signed up. Men from across the country (and later several women also) became invested in the lofty dreams that constructed the scene depicted in the painting.

The grand opening occurred on Whit Monday, 1877 (in some historical books mistakenly reported as 1875), with music from Leeds Harmonic Glee and Madrigal Union. Tickets cost one shilling, and Scarborough residents attended a private viewing (and concert from the Yorkshire Militia Band) the previous Saturday. Consequently it can be confirmed that the painting must have been completed either in 1877 or later. Perhaps it was even commissioned by Aquarium officials? It certainly bears all the hallmarks of a publicity image – awed (and smartly dressed) visitors, beautifully lit interior and a tantalising hint at the exotic sea life in the ornamental tanks.

If this was an early example of PR, then it was ultimately an ineffective one. Scarborough’s new aquarium certainly didn’t lack presence (at least in an architectural sense), but holidaymakers and locals were seemingly less impressed. Losses were soon being reported, and the attraction was failing to draw in the necessary visitors.

However, there is no reason to suggest that the painting was not initiated at the artist’s own whim. Artists have long been drawn to Scarborough to paint its impressive views – the aquarium similarly offered beautiful scenes to paint, and a well executed interpretation would no doubt have been of great interest to potential buyers, particularly during the aquarium’s more optimistic years.

Indeed, 1886 brought a new lease of life to Scarborough Aquarium, courtesy of William Morgan – who also managed Blackpool Winter Gardens and became Mayor of Scarborough during his successful and varied career. By then an experienced entertainments manager, Morgan famously argued that people “would rather see a juggler than an uncooked lobster”. He rightly predicted that by bringing in live entertainment, reluctant audiences would return in droves. And they did, to begin with.

Umran The Armless Wonder, Zasma The Acrobat and Ada Webb, Empress Of The Sea, were some of the bizarre acts that graced the stage. The aquarium doubled up as a theatre, and many of the tanks were replaced by tearooms, seating areas and later, spaces for wild animals, such as lions and tigers.

By the early 1900s business was struggling again, and the aquarium closed in 1914. It was used for military training during WWI and re-opened as Gala Land in 1925. However, these times were yet to come, judging by the scene in the painting.

This article has briefly considered ‘Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium’ in relation to the historical context surrounding its subject matter. Although much is still a mystery, it is possible to speculate that it was painted before 1900, possibly during the aquarium’s successful years (either early on or during the initial years of Morgan’s tenure) or perhaps to showcase the venue (with the aim of increasing visitor numbers). Either way, when the aquarium (or Gala Land as it was then known) was demolished in 1968, Scarborough lost an incredible venue. The dingy underground car park that replaced it would arguably have horrified Eugenius Birch, his successors and former visitors, and above all, the artist who created this spectacular painting.

Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium, oil on canvas, date and artist unknown. Image.
Blackpool’s North Pier, designed by Birch. Image.
Scarborough North Bay Pier. Image.
Brighton Aquarium. Image.
Aquarium entrance, close to Scarborough’s Cliff Bridge. Image.
Another illustration of the aquarium interior. Image.

Sarah Coggrave, 12th August 2014.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Yorkshire Art Journal Feature | Stories From Scarborough


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