‘It’s the people who matter’: The Post-War Public Art of Peter Laszlo Peri

Peter Laszlo Peri, the émigré artist, lived a most extraordinary life. By his death in 1967, he had left an innovative body of work that was characterised by the social awareness of his life and the spirit of the post-war years. He is even said to have been the inspiration behind a character in John Berger’s 1958 novel, A Painter Of Our Time.

Peri’s most famous work, The Sunbathers, created for the Festival of Britain in 1951 was thought to be lost, but last year it was miraculously discovered in a hotel garden in London.  We’re crowdfunding to secure its restoration and return to public display – find out more here.

The Festival of Britain - London - 1951
Peter Laszlo Peri’s sculpture The Sunbathers on the north wall of Station Gate at the Festival of Britain, 17 May 1951. Image credit PA Images

Lead image: Peter Peri working outdoors with some of his sculptures around him
watched by onlookers over the garden gate, Tate Archive ©Tate, London 2017.

Early Life

Peri was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1899 into a large working-class Jewish family. His working life began as a lawyer’s clerk but he soon changed careers after developing a passion for art at evening classes.

Politicised from an early age, Peri’s communist leanings and socialist principles would feed into his later work. Aged just 20, he toured with a political theatre group until the climate soured, forcing him to seek refuge in Berlin. He left Germany in 1933 after the rise of Nazism and settled in England where his work continues to add colour to our public spaces.

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Following the Leader, Darley House, Laud Street, Vauxhall Gardens, Greater London Authority © Historic England Archive DP164326

It’s the people who matter

Much public art created in the years after 1945 was made for community spaces: our schools, hospitals, housing estates and civic areas. Artworks were commissioned to enhance the public realm as emblems of civic renewal and social progress.

After the war, Peri was increasingly commissioned to produce decorative artworks for social housing or educational buildings. London County Council (LCC) commissioned him to produce three architectural reliefs for housing estates in South Lambeth and he created these with the intention of brightening up the environment for the estates residents.

Following the Leader (grade II listed) was the first of Peri’s LCC social building commissions. It is a poignant dedication to the children who lost their lives in the Blitz, and all the more affecting on a building created to house those whose lives had been devastated by bombing raids.

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Relief of Boys Playing Football by Peter Laszlo Peri, 1951-2. Wareham House, South Lambeth Estate, Fentiman Road, London. © Historic England
Mother and children P1000620
Relief of Mother and Children Playing by Peter Laszlo Peri, 1951-2. Horton House, South Lambeth Estate, Fentiman Road, London. © Historic England

Peri was a pioneer in the use of concrete in his sculptures and came to specialise in architectural reliefs in coloured concrete, developing his own recipe for ‘Pericrete’, a mixture of concrete with polyester resin and metallic powders. The two architectural reliefs on the South Lambeth Estate are Grade II listed.

The Sunbathers, 1951

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The Sunbathers at the Festival of Britain © Historic England Archive AA51/06841

The Sunbathers was created for the extraordinary 1951 Festival of Britain,  which endeavoured to lift the spirits of an embattled post-war nation in the seemingly endless austerity years. The surprising pink concrete figures greeted visitors bristling with anticipation, as they approached the Festival from Waterloo station. The Festival captured the imagination and inspired a nation with its outlandish innovations, bright optimism and visual symbols of a hoped-for future.

On seeing the figures, the poet Dylan Thomas was inspired to remember them in a broadcast as “the linked terra-cotta man and woman fly-defying gravity and elegantly scurrying up a w.c. wall.”

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Detail of Peter Laszlo Peri’s 1961 wall-mounted sculpture ‘The Preacher’ on the west exterior wall of Forest Gate Methodist Church © Historic England Archive DP164328

In Forest Gate in London, Peri’s striking figure clasps a prayer book and preaches out to the world. Made of Pericrete the figure is known as a ‘diagonal sculpture’ and is the only one of its kind in London.

Public art and the legacy of Peter Laszlo Peri

Much public art created in the post-war years has sadly been lost, destroyed or is under threat. Artworks created by some of the most acclaimed artists of the 20th century, from Henry Moore to Barbara Hepworth, have already been destroyed.

But last year, something incredible happened. We asked the public to help track down lost pieces of public art and Peri’s piece, The Sunbathers, was tracked down to the garden of The Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath, London.

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The Sunbathers at the Clarendon Hotel, Blackheath, in February 2017, Copyright Historic England

Countless hotel guests have enjoyed the piece over the years, but now the sculpture needs some care and attention. We’ve launched a crowdfunding appeal to restore this remarkable and rare survivor from the Festival of Britain and get it back on display for the public to enjoy.

“For him, the most important thing was to have his art in public places so everyone could pass by and appreciate them. In 1966 he held an exhibition called ‘It’s the People who Matter’ which summed up his philosophy, he would have been very moved to know that it’s the people who will save this marvellous piece of public art for future generations to enjoy.” Jean MacIntyre, granddaughter of Peter Laszlo Peri.

Further reading

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