STEPHEN LEWIS is enthralled by a new exhibition of seascapes at York Art Gallery

TO BE honest, the weather this summer hasn’t been great for a trip to the seaside.

But what if you could take in the best the coast has to offer without ever having to set foot outside?

Well, now you can, thanks to York Art Gallery’s new Coast to Coast exhibition.

The gallery has decided to take advantage of the summer months by bringing some of its finest seascapes out of storage. Many of the paintings on display in the Upper North Gallery until next March won't have been seen in public for years. But there are also some well-loved favourites - including Paul Nash’s powerful Winter Sea, painted between 1925 and 1937 - which are back by popular demand.

For the children, there’s even a ‘sea cave’, complete with crashing waves sound effects, a painting of mermaids meeting a sea monster - and an activities table fitted with light boxes where they can construct their own seascapes.

The sheer quality of some of the artwork on show at this new exhibition is breathtaking: it is astonishing to think that so much of it has been languishing unseen in the gallery's stores for so long. It has been long overdue a 'sea airing'.

One of the works brought up from the stores is a remarkable 1850 painting by John Wilson Carmichael, showing a ship bearing Queen Victoria arriving in harbour at Edinburgh.

The ship is a Victorian man-of-war, sailing rigged, the black-and-yellow striped hull boasting a row of gunports. Smaller boats bob and duck in the waves all around it, those on board clearly cheering the queen's arrival. Victoria's ship is firmly centre of the picture, however, and bathed in a diffuse, almost divine glow of golden sunlight, as if to emphasis the importance of the royal passenger.

The painting captures a significant moment in time. "And it has just been sitting in the stores!" says curatorial assistant Fiona Green.

For lovers of the Yorkshire coast, there is also a wonderful 1873 painting by the Scarborough-born landscape painter Edward Henry Holder entitled simply... 'On the Yorkshire Coast'. It's not exactly clear where on the Yorkshire coast the painting was made: but wherever it was, you want to go there.

The sun glows off jagged coastal cliffs, gilding them to something close to gold. Below, the sea crashes on the rocks, while in mid-air gulls wheel and dive, giving a palpable sense of movement. "You feel you can hear them!" says Fiona. And so you do.

Other paintings, too, are filled with movement. An 1867 work by John Callow, entitled with glorious understatement 'A Fresh Breeze', shows two small ships, their sails billowing, scudding before a brisk wind across a choppy, deep-green sea. In Eugène-Gabriel Isabey's 'Boat in a Storm', meanwhile, the boat in question seems about to founder, it's deck awash with waves.

The Victorian York-born artist Henry Moore (no, not the sculptor) has two paintings in the exhibition. One, entitled Calm Before the Storm, depicts a small boat becalmed on a tranquil, silvered sea that seems to recede into infinity. The second, an 1873 work entitled 'Crossing the Bar', is quite different.

The term is an old mariner's phrase referring to the moment when a ship crosses the sandbars that protect a harbour and moves out into the choppier, wilder waters of the open sea. Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous poem used it as a metaphor for his approaching death. Tennyson's wonderfully calm, reflective poem concludes with the lines: "I hope to see my Pilot face to face when I have crost the bar' - his pilot, of course, being the God he longed to find.

There's no sense of that philosophical acceptance of death in Moore's painting, however. It is a far simpler work than that, but powerful nevertheless, showing a ship under sail butting through choppy waters, presumably after having 'crossed the bar' on its way out to sea.

There are many formerly unseen treasures like this in this wonderful new exhibition. Probably the star of the show, though, will be a work that has been seen before - and in fact, is a popular favourite. Paul Nash's Winter Sea is abstract, sombre and formal in the company of some of the other works on show. Fragmented, triangular forms repeat, stretching towards the horizon, while a setting sun hangs in a gloomy sky.

The sea was a frequent motif in Nash's work, the information board that accompanies this work informs us. "Its bleakness here is informed by his experiences in the First World War as both soldier and artist." Suddenly, the fractured, jangling lines make sense. Any soldier who has suffered PTSD might recognise it...

Stephen Lewis

Coast to Coast runs in the Upper North Gallery at York Art Gallery until next March. Entry to the exhibition is included in the gallery’s entry price.