Swimming pools have a tendency to elicit waves of different emotions. They easily conjure idyllic days in the sun. Their blue water asks you to forget life for a splash or two. They can also seduce and taunt. Their gleaming surfaces tempt you to explore what lies beneath.
There has been a great deal of iconic imagery in art, cinema and architecture that has involved pools. Slim Aarons, the society photographer and chronicler of the privileged life, practically created his entire oeuvre around swimming pools – such as his enduring and highly collectable photograph of CZ Guest, her son and their two dogs in their Grecian-style pool at Villa Artemis in Palm Beach, or the hedonist’s ideal of a luxury summer holiday – poolside at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc.
The 1972 David Hockney painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which shows two men – one swimming underwater, the other looking down at the figure mid-stroke — fetched a commanding US$90.3 million at a Christie’s sale in November 2018. And there’s the oft-copied and one of the greatest Hollywood photographs ever of Faye Dunaway poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel the morning after she won her Oscar. The golden statuette resting on the patio table next to a breakfast tray and the day’s papers strewn all over while Dunaway in a silk robe and high heels contemplates her victory.
In the 2013 movie version of The Great Gatsby, the swimming pool provides the mise en scène for Jay Gatsby’s arrival (via a lavish pool party with acrobats and flappers) and his departure (he’s found floating in the pool, dead). Recently, the swimming pool at the Bondi Icebergs Club in Sydney has become Instagram gold, with its lap pool meeting the crashing waves of the ocean in picture-perfect accuracy.
A new book celebrates all this glory and the timeless appeal of swimming pools. Splash: The Art of the Swimming Pool by Annie Kelly, with photographs by Tim Street-Porter, takes readers on a tour of some of the most beautiful, elegant and awe-inspiring pools throughout the world. There’s the resplendent pool of tastemaker Carolyne Roehm that graces the cover, replete with neoclassical and chinoiserie touches, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Norman Lykes House in Arizona, where the pool is integrated into the architecture. And there are historic swimming pools that conveyed wealth and power, like the Roman bath-inspired indoor pool at Hearst Castle, with its maximalist mix of statuary and mosaic tiles and colour and motifs ad infinitum.
In her text, Kelly traces the earliest incarnation of the swimming pool and its evolution centuries later. She goes back to the third millennium BCE in ancient Pakistan, where early versions of the swimming pool were first recorded. Travelling through the centuries, she notes similar rock pools in fourth-century BCE Sri Lanka and in the baths of the Roman Empire. In the 1700s, pools became all the rage in fashionable parts of Europe as summer bathing became à la mode. The 1896 Olympic Games and the swimming events also added to the popularity of swimming pools, and it wasn’t long until the wealthy wanted pools in their homes. Decades later, and with the advent of new technology and construction techniques, swimming pools no longer became the sole domain of the ultra-rich – have room, have pool.
Street-Porter’s lush photographs invite us to take a dip into the bamboo-lined pool of Jonathan Adler, or to laze in the Greek Revival-style pool houses of Bunny Williams and Richard Shapiro, or to admire the rainforest from an infinity pool in Bali. Go ahead – take the plunge.
Photography: All courtesy images