Minstrel Mermaid of a Town: Dylan Thomas and the Festival Of Britain

International Dylan Thomas Day is celebrated on May 14th, commemorating the life and work of the Welsh poet. To mark this, Andrew Dally of dylanthomasnews.com introduces us to Dylan Thomas’s link to the Festival of Britain.

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The plaque, in memory of Dylan Thomas, laid in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey

In the spring of 1951, at the height of his broadcasting career with the BBC, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was invited to record a talk about the Festival of Britain. Thomas, known for poems such as Do No Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Fern Hill, and And Death Shall Have No Dominion, made over 140 broadcasts for the BBC, culminating in the seminal 1954 recording of his ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood, starring Richard Burton. Under Milk Wood was to be Thomas’s final piece for the BBC, only broadcast posthumously following the poet’s untimely death in New York in 1953 at the age of 39.

Thomas accepted radio producer Aneirin Talfan Davies’ invitation in April 1951 and made his visit to the South Bank exhibition the following month. The talk was broadcast on the Welsh Home Service on 19 June 1951.

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Dylan Thomas by John Gay © National Portrait Gallery, London

“I’d be delighted to do a Festival talk for the Welsh Service; and I think the Festival Exhibition on the South Bank – or the Festival Gardens and Funfair (what is the official title) in Battersea – would be grand”.[i]

The festival, originally planned to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, took the form of a showcase for the arts, architecture, science, technology and industrial design. Described by Festival Director Gerald Barry as “a tonic to the nation”, the summer-long event came to represent Britain’s emergence from the dark days of the Second World War, an exuberant celebration of Britain’s post-war optimism.

Fobstamps
Used British postage stamps commemorating the Festival of Britain

Thomas’s sometimes tongue-in-cheek broadcast gently pokes fun at the exhibition and it’s visitors, whilst perfectly capturing the festival’s joyous mood and spirit of inventiveness.

“But what everyone I know, and have observed, seems to like most in it is the gay, absurd, irrelevant, delighting imagination that flies and booms and spurts and trickles out of the whole bright boiling ; the small stone oddity that squints at you round a sharp, daubed corner; the sexless abstract sculptures serenely and secretly existing out of time in old cold worlds of their own in places that appear, but only for one struck second, inappropriate ; the linked terra-cotta man and woman fly-defying gravity and elegantly hurrying up a w.c. wall; the sudden design of hands on another wall, as though the painter had said: ‘Oh, to the daft devil with what I’m doing,’ and just slap-slap-slapped all over the ochre his spread-out fingers and thumbs, ten blunt arrows, or as though large convict-birds, if there are any such, had waddled up the wall and webbed it as they went. 

You see people go along briskly down the wide white avenues towards the pavilion of their fancy – ‘Our Humbert’s dead keen on seeing the milk-separators’ – and suddenly stop: another fancy swings or bubbles in front of their eyes. What is it they see? Indigo water waltzing to music. Row after row of rosy rolling balls spread on tall screens like the counting beads of Wellsian children fed on the food of the gods. Sheets of asbestos tied on to nowhere, by nothing, for nothing is anchored here and at the clap of hands the whole gallimaufry could take off to Sousa and zoom up the flagged sky.”[ii]

The Festival of Britain - London - 1951
Photograph of The Sunbathers on the north wall of Station Gate at the Festival of Britain, 17 May 1951. Image credit PA Images

Thomas’s eye had been caught by the bold concrete sculpture ‘hurrying up a W.C. Wall’. This was The Sunbathers, a work by Peter Laszlo Peri, the Hungarian born pioneer in concrete sculpture, and a work that was until recently believed to have been destroyed.

In December 2015, Historic England issued an appeal to find missing public art, an appeal that included Peri’s The Sunbathers. The appeal bore fruit when a visitor to the recent Out There: Our Post-War Public Art exhibition at Somerset House, reported that Peri’s work could be found languishing unloved in the garden of a Blackheath Hotel. This set in action a series of events that should see the lost artwork restored and returned to public view for the first time in over sixty years.

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Visitors to the Festival of Britain in front of the Dome of Discovery. (Southbank Centre Archive/Mrs Holland)

The audio recording of Thomas’s Festival broadcast is sadly lost, but happily the script survives and has been published in Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts. Thomas’s literary legacy is in good health, perhaps the best known Welsh writer, he remains a key figure of 20th century English literature. His life and legacy are celebrated annually on May 14th, International Dylan Thomas Day.

We’ll leave you with Thomas’s beautiful tribute to London:

“This is the first time I have ever seen that London whose sweet Thames runs softly, that minstrel mermaid of a town, the water-streeted eight-million-headed village in a blaze. This is London, not the huge petty mis-shapen nightmare I used to know, as I humdrummed along its graceless streets through fog and smoke and past the anonymous unhappy bodies lively as wet brollies. This Festival is London. The arches of the bridges leap into light; the moon clocks glow; the river sings; the harmonious pavilions are happy. And this is what London should always be like, till St Paul’s falls down and the sea slides over the Strand”[iii]

Andrew Dally runs the blog www.dylanthomasnews.com and is social media manager for the Dylan Thomas estate.

[1] Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas (Edited by Paul Ferris)

[1] Extract from The Festival Exhibition (Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts edited by Ralph Maud)

[1] Extract from The Festival Exhibition (Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts edited by Ralph Maud)

Help us to Save the Sunbathers

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

We’re crowdfunding to restore Peter Laszlo Per’s The Sunbathers and put them back on public display. We’ve already had an overwhelmingly positive response from the public– thank you to everyone who has got involved. If this is the first you’re hearing about it, there’s still time to find out more and donate. Together we can Save the Sunbathers.

Further Reading

3 responses to Minstrel Mermaid of a Town: Dylan Thomas and the Festival Of Britain

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