The Festival of Britain was a government-sponsored nationwide exhibition celebrating and promoting Britain’s excellence in design, technology, industry, architecture, science and the arts.
The Festival’s cultural heart was a purpose-built spectacular showcase on London’s South Bank, along with over 2,000 other locations round the country.
Opening 70 years ago on 3 May 1951 and lasting until 30 September, the Festival was a tonic for a drab rundown Britain, still suffering six years on from the devastation of the Second World War (1939 to 1945) – austerity, rationing, making do, and widespread bomb damage.
The Festival’s fun, colourful exploration of British ingenuity and creativity, its inspirational and optimistic look towards the brave new world of the future, helped foster a national sense of recovery.
The origins of the Festival of Britain
The concept of an exhibition of British products and good design had been mooted during the Second World War. But it was not until the end of the war that the idea of a landmark event was fully embraced to coincide with the 100th anniversary year of the Great Exhibition, held in 1851 in the Crystal Palace within London’s Hyde Park. This had celebrated British, Commonwealth and international culture and innovation. The 1951 Festival, however, would focus entirely on British achievement.
A Labour government had won a landslide victory in the post-war General Election. Herbert Morrison – Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s deputy and the former leader of the London County Council (LCC) – was put in charge of the exhibition. In January 1948, they chose the name ‘Festival of Britain.’
The Director-General of the Festival was Gerald Barry, the celebrated former editor of the left-leaning News Chronicle newspaper. He had a popularist eye, was a champion of the arts and had a strong interest in architecture. He had originally written an open letter to the government advocating a great trade and cultural exhibition, and now was its hands-on driving force. Barry coined the phrase ‘A tonic for the nation’ – a nation that had lost the ability to enjoy itself.
Planning and organising the Festival of Britain
The Festival umbrella brought together several key organisations, including the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Council of Industrial Design and the National Film Institute, as well establishing a Council for Science and Technology and one for Architecture.
The Pavilions between them – in themed displays, films, galleries and demonstrations – created a narrative autobiography of Britain and a look towards the future.
The Homes and Gardens Pavilion, for example, offered six solutions to space problems in the home. The New Schools Pavilion looked at equipment and the modern classroom, including a full-size mock-up. There were farm animals in the Country Pavilion – over 5,000 prize animals were exhibited over the 5 months, from bulls to goats to ducks.
Other Pavilions included The Land of Britain, Minerals of the Island, Power and Production, Sea and Ships, Health, the Seaside and Television.
Barry appointed architect Hugh Casson, a 38 year old rising star and future President of the Royal Academy (1976 to 1984), as Director of Architecture, who in turn put together talented up-and-coming young architects, along with textile, furniture and graphic designers, launching their careers.
Colourful, Quirky and Epic Festival Architecture
Different architectural practices were invited to produce the 22 Pavilions. The sheer number of young architects working on the Festival – most of whom had qualified before the Second World War and had had little chance to design anything until now – resulted in a quirky, colourful mix of styles and designs, scale and silhouettes. It was a nursery of new ideas.
The majority of buildings were constructed at great speed from asbestos sheets on a lightweight steel framework. Landscaping referenced the terrain and geology of Britain, using plants, mature trees, boulders and wildflowers from across the land.
The Royal Engineers built a temporary pedestrian Bailey Bridge across the River Thames to link the North Bank of the River Thames at Northumberland Avenue with the Festival site.
Dome of discovery
The Dome of Discovery housed displays focusing on Britain’s pre-eminence in exploration (the Polar Regions, the New World), scientific discovery, weather forecasting, biological research, astronomy and outer space.
Structurally, the Dome was revolutionary and a feat of engineering. At the time it was the biggest dome in the world – 365 foot in diameter and nearly 100 foot high; the largest building ever made of aluminium.
The futuristic Skylon had no practical function. It was pure and of itself; designed to amaze. Pointing skywards, with highly silvered aluminium louvres, it was a striking, uplifting symbol of hope for the future.
Royal Festival Hall
Part of the agreement with the LCC for the Festival to use the South Bank site was the building of a new concert hall. It was always planned to be permanent.
The result was the Royal Festival Hall, designed by Leslie Martin, Peter Moro and Robert Matthews of the LCC’s Architecture Department. It was built on the site of the old riverside Lion Brewery.
The Telecimema was a state-of-the-art cinema, the first in the world to be built for showing both films and television. It held an audience of 400 and was one of the Festival’s most popular attractions, with nearly half a million visitors – people in Britain were avid film-goers, but few owned a television.
Specially-made documentary films, shown every hour, celebrated British life and its traditions. The public could also watch the technicalities of the projection box through glass screens.
The Telecinema eventually became the National Film Theatre (NFT), renamed the British Film Institute (BFI) in 2007.
Sculptures and murals, from Hepworth to Paolozzi
Director-General Gerald Barry wanted the Festival to host: ‘The widest possible use of mural decoration and sculpture’. Architect Misha Black was keen to ensure to ensure that: ‘…painters and sculptors could work with architects, landscape architects and exhibition designers to produce an aesthetic unity.’
As a result, visitors would see more than thirty sculptures and fifty murals as they walked around the Festival site.
The celebrated heavyweights of the sculptural world, such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein, were commissioned by the Arts Council.
The Festival Design Group – which included Hugh Casson and Misha Black, well versed in modern art – had a populist ethos and tended towards commissioning emerging young talent. Some Festival sculptors became highly acclaimed artists, including Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Laszlo Peri, Victor Pasmore, Feliks Topolski, John Piper and Lynn Chadwick.
At the end of the Festival, most sculptures were dispersed across the country, including to museums, art galleries, Harlow New Town, schools or returned to the artist. Some were lost or destroyed.
‘The Sunbathers’ was discovered, dilapidated and broken, in a hotel garden in London’s Blackheath. Restored by public crowd-funding in 2017, it is now on display at Waterloo Station.
The birth of a new design aesthetic – ‘Festival Style’
The Festival became a catalyst for a new design aesthetic – Modernist, joyful, experimental – dubbed ‘Festival Style’. Its influence was felt throughout the 1950s in the design of New Towns, offices, coffee bars and the rebuilding of city centres. Established designers, as well as those younger and lesser-known, received Festival commissions.
Lucienne Day was one of the most influential. Her radical fabric and wallpaper designs, showcased in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, were light years away from the traditional floral prints available at the time.
Lucienne Day’s husband, Robin Day, was furniture consultant to the LCC. He designed all the seating for the Festival Hall, from auditorium to restaurant. His ‘Lounge Chair’, one of the most famous and long-lasting Festival designs, went into regular production.
A Festival Pattern Group mixed design with science, commissioning designs for domestic items, exhibits, fabrics and wallpaper based on molecular and atomic structures.
The Festival elsewhere in London and nationwide
As well as the South Bank, the Festival of Britain was celebrated in other London locations:
A new wing was built on the Science Museum to hold the Exhibition of Science.
A new housing estate, the Lansbury Estate, was built in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, as a ‘live architecture exhibition’ with buildings for local residents’ use. The Estate incorporated the latest ideas about town planning, architecture and neighbourhood living, and was a model for future New Towns.
A pub on the Estate, the Festival Inn built between 1951 and 1952 to the designs of leading architect Frederick Gibberd, has been listed Grade II. It was the first permanent, modern pub of the post-war period.
The Festival Pleasure Gardens were also created in Battersea Park.
The Pleasure Gardens were about pure enjoyment; an amusement park inspired by Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and harking back to the former 18th century Pleasure Gardens in nearby Vauxhall.
The Pleasure Gardens offered everything from a funfair, beer gardens and a tree walk, to theatres showing music hall and ballet, eating places and shops selling a range of goods from fountain pens, jewellery and make-up, to toys, electric razors and cameras – balm for a public still experiencing austerity. A 25 foot high elaborate Guinness Clock played Three Blind Mice every quarter, accompanied by automata – spinning acrobats, a town crier, the Mad Hatter.
The Festival of Britain permeated British life for five months.
In towns and cities across the country there were exhibitions and festivals of art and design. Glasgow hosted the Industrial Power Exhibition, and Belfast the Ulster Farm and Factory Exhibition.
The ship, the Campania, became a floating exhibition, reflecting some of the main Festival themes. She visited ten ports round the country, staying up to two weeks in each. There was also a Land Travelling Exhibition that visited four cities.
The Festival of Britain, although subject to some contemporary criticism – too costly (the money would have been better spent on re-building Britain), too futuristic – had been hugely popular, as well as making a profit.
The Conservatives, led again by Winston Churchill, were returned to power in October 1951, just one month after the Festival’s closure. The government ordered a wholesale demolition of the site, except for the Royal Festival Hall. It is thought perhaps that the Conservatives viewed the Festival as Labour propaganda for a Socialist society. The site stood largely derelict for a decade.
The Festival’s legacy is the development and continuing success of the South Bank as a centre of culture and the arts, as well as its enduring contribution to Modernism in architecture and design.
Written by Nicky Hughes
Banner image: Illustration of the 1951 Festival of Britain site on the South Bank of the River Thames, with the railway line over Hungerford Bridge to Charing Cross station running through it, and Waterloo Bridge beyond that. Among buildings and structures pictured is the Royal Festival Hall located by the former 1826 Shot Tower (where lead shot used to be made and the only existing structure incorporated within the Festival site), the tall needle-like shape of the Skylon and the vast circular Dome of Discovery. © The National Archives. WORK25/64/25.