Chagall, Emin and the joys of Sussex
The South-East has plenty of good art … and you can combine it with the seaside
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery: showcasing Sickert, Gertler and other artists in a new exhibition
The genteel seaside resort of Easbourne may be an unlikely setting for world-class modern art, but its Towner Gallery is one of Britain's best. So good, in fact, that within a year of reopening in a new building, this excellent institution has already been shortlisted for the nation's top museum award, the national Art Fund Prize.
Seeing is believing: inside an unpromising-looking concrete building which is somewhat at odds with the elegant Victorian architecture of its surroundings, lies a treasure-house of British art. The Towner is particularly strong on Sussex landscapes and the work of local artist Eric Ravilious. Apart from its excellent permanent collections, the Towner is now a venue for world-class temporary exhibitions, and also has an enticing little shop.
The whole of Eastbourne is a hive of culture these days. The posh people's favourite retirement town, now revitalised by an influx of families and young people, boasts four theatres, a symphony orchestra and what must be Britain's most active bandstand. Its annual April festival this year features low as well as high art.
Events include a burlesque cabaret, a can-can troupe and a mandolin orchestra, as well as dance workshops led by the respected Rambert and Stomp companies.
Although Eastbourne has a dedicated "art hotel", the Da Vinci, whose large ground-floor galleries show work by local painters year-round, the resort is also home to probably the poshest seaside hotel in Britain, the Grand, with its top-rated Miraebelle restaurant.
Double room with breakfast from £150 at the Grand (01323 412345; www.grandeastbourne.com); from £80 at the Waterside (01323 646 566; www.watersidehotel.eu); from £59 at the Big Sleep (01323 722 676; www.thebigsleephotel.com); Newick Park (01825 723633; www.newickpark.co.uk) from £165; from £75 at the Continental (01227 280 280; www.hotelcontinental.co.uk). Hotel du Vin Tunbridge Wells (01892 526 455; www.hotelduvin.com) room only from £140. Programme information: www.eastbournefestival.co.uk; www.brightonfestival.org; www.charleston.org.uk.
Also worth considering is the chic, contemporary Waterside boutique hotel, right on the prom, as is the funky, affordable Big Sleep, part-owned by the actor John Malkovich.
Okto, in an alley behind the station - which, bizarrely, has become a hive of cool bars and restaurant - is the place to eat; the chef is a highly-accomplished fish cook, and the home-made houmous and olive oil bread are to die for.
Brighton, just along the Susex coast, has its own, more famous festival running in May, this year with musician Brian Eno as its curator.
Less well-known is Brighton's municipal museum and art gallery, which backs on to that magnificent, must-see Regency folly, the Royal Pavilion.
The museum is particularly strong on fashion, puppets and masks, and has a new exhibition of Sickert and of Jewish artists, including Gertler, collected by Bobby and Natalie Bevan for their home, Boxted House.
Down the road is the Hove Museum and Art Gallery which, like both its Eastbourne neighbour and the Towner, is free and has a magical toy collection and some fine decorative craft items. Brighton, once famous for naughty weekends, has become quite built-up and urban, and its big seafront hotels are more suited to the convention crowd than leisure travellers. But boutique hostelries have sprung up in response to an influx of hip travellers, and there is plenty of good eating, including the award-winning vegetarian restaurant Terre a Terre.
Another highlight of May is the Charleston Festival which takes place just down the coast from Brighton, based at the fabulously decorated Charleston Farmhouse, which was home to the Bloomsbury Set.
The house and garden are worth visiting at any time, but never more when there is a rare chance to hear Alan Bennett read from his work, as well as other top writers including Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver and Bill Bryson. Wannabe novelists will enjoy the writers' workshop weekend which is a highlight of this literary fest.
A pleasant place to stay within an easy drive would be Newick Park country house hotel, which is also convenient for nearby Glyndebourne, whose summer opera season is yet another reason for culture vultures to head for the South Downs.
While many artists and musicians have settled in coastal East Sussex, there is also a lively art scene in the neighbouring county of Kent, both on the coast and inland.
This is the unexpected home to one of Marc Chagall's most spectacular artworks, the stained glass windows he made for All Saints Chapel in the tiny hamlet of Tudeley, which is the only church in the world to be entirely fitted out in glass by the artist.
One window was commissioned by Sir Henry and Lady D'Avigdor-Goldsmid in memory of their daughter Sarah, who died in a boating accident in 1963.
When he saw the space, Chagall felt inspired to create a full set of windows, the last of them installed in 1985, the year he died.
Tudeley is within a short drive of Tunbridge Wells, a handsome town whose spa made it the height of fashion in the 18th century.
No longer a place to take the waters, it does have several good galleries and some fine shopping and architecture. The tumbledown house where the author Thackeray once lived is now a notable restaurant, and the town has its own, Hotel du Vin.
There is an excellent day spa at Chapel Place, at the end of the High Street, which has some nice individual shops, and beyond are the famous Pantiles, site of the original spring which made the town famous. There, along a pleasant brick avenue, and on the opposite side to a beautiful run of colonnaded buildings, is what many consider the town's finest shop, the kitchen emporium of Trevor Mottram.
The north Kent coast will become a serious focus for art once the ambitious new Turner gallery is completed at Margate. Meanwhile, they are busy enticing the art crowd to the faded resort with an exhibition starting in May of the town's most famous living artist, Tracey Emin. I Never Stopped Loving You is described as a pink neon love letter to Emin's hometown which will stay in situ, marking the countdown to the opening of the new gallery in 2011.
Next year will be a huge one for art in Kent, when the Triennial - which was described as the best show of public art in Britain when it made its debut two years ago - returns to newly-revitalised Folkestone. Needless to say, this is another south-east coastal town which now has a designated Creative Quarter.
Margate and Folkestone will no doubt acquire their fair share of boutique hotels catering for arty visitors, but for the moment the most salubrious accommodation and dining is further west along the coast at Whitstable. Here, The Continental is a charming hotel right on the beach, which has its own lively bistro with plenty of fresh fish choices. As, indeed, does its sister establishment, the Whitstable Oyster Company, which - despite its name - purveys all sorts of fine, fresh catch as well as the native treif molluscs.
Close by is the Sportsman at Seasalter, another fish restaurant which has won endless accolades since opening more than a decade ago. Look for specialities like roasted red mullet or braised brill with a herring roe sauce.