Festival of Britain 1951 – Post War Morale Builder

Artist’s view of the Festival on London’s South Bank

The Festival of Britain (FOB) was seen both as a public morale booster and an opportunity to remind the world of Britain’s contribution to civilisation, history, and technological development in the past, present, and future. It took place on the South Bank of the River Thames. The Council of Industrial Design (COID) provided an essential stage for promoting well-designed British products in its national push for economic recovery in the post-Second World War era, especially on the main South Bank, London, more specifically in terms of design.

Several Exhibition Sites

However, the Festival was not merely a London-based exhibition. There were also locations in the capital at Battersea Pleasure Gardens and Lansbury and large exhibition venues in Glasgow (the Industrial Power Exhibition) and Belfast and the South Bank (the Ulster Farm and Factory Building). Also, a Land Traveling Exhibition toured the major industrial centres of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and Nottingham, the key features of which were concerned with industrial design and production technologies. A Sea Traveling Show mounted on the Festival Ship Campania, visiting ten major ports across Britain, complemented this.

The Idea of the Festival

Abram Games’s festive illustration of a stylised Britannia in red, white, and blue, which appeared on a wide variety of Festival posters, magazines, and souvenirs, greatly enhanced the Festival’s patriotic flavour. The idea of the Festival was first mooted by the Royal Society of Arts in 1943, followed in 1945 by a letter to The Times from the design authority and change campaigner John Gloag and an open letter to Stafford Cripps at The Times from News Chronicle editor Gerald Barry. Initially, it was also envisaged as an international exhibition, an idea approved in 1946 by the Ramsden Committee. Nevertheless, while intended as an exhibition that would show Britain’s recovery from the Second World War, the uncertain economic climate in Britain in the late 1940s contributed to the downgrading of the Festival from an international exhibition to a national one.

Political Football

In the late 1940s, particularly at the hands of the right-wing press and the Conservative Party, which saw it as economically imprudent in a time of rationing, labour, and shortages of materials, it also became something of a political football. However, it captured the public imagination with hopeful notions of a potential world brought on by developments in science and technology, with better planned domestic and urban landscapes, when the Festival finally began, a vision far removed from the contemporary constraints of austerity wartime and ongoing rationing.

Eight and a half million visitors flocked to the site of South Bank alone. The design was an essential factor from the outset across the official Festival sites, with design selection authority assigned to the COID, which was well represented on the central Festival committees.

The Stock List

The collection of all industrially manufactured goods on display was one of the critical tasks of the COID. Starting in 1948, a photographic index of all products—the Stock List, later renamed the Design Review—selected by the selection panels representing particular industries was launched. It had to be built and assembled in Britain and current production to apply for selection goods.

Homes and Garden Pavillion

The Homes and Gardens Pavilion on the South Bank, where many furnished rooms were on display, displaying modern domestic furniture, furnishings, ceramics, glass and metalware, and household equipment, was one of the key venues where the public could see how design could influence their lives. Part of the display was (following the modus operandi of many architectural reform organisations in Britain) a show house at the Living Architecture Exhibition in Poplar in East London, furnished for less than ÂŁ 150 with objects authorised the COID.

Landsbury Site

Lansbury visitors could also see a model shopping centre and primary school as part of a wider urban environment in the future. Over the following decade, other environmental architecture elements at the Festival-street furniture, lighting, concrete flower planters, signposts, and architectural lettering-exerted a significant effect on townscapes and shopping precincts in Britain.

Science & Technology

Through the activities of the Festival Pattern Group, organised by Mark Hartland Thomas, Chief Industrial Officer of the COID, the COID also tried to harness design to developments in technology and science, also exhibited in other Festival sites such as the Science Museum, London, and represented in the striking Dome of Discovery of Ralph Tubbs and the tapering Skylon of Powell and Moya.

Presentation drawing showing a perspective view of a display area in the Plastics section of the Festival of Britain, George Fejér, 1951, UK. Museum no. E.770-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Influence of Cyrstallography

Crystallography was a field in which Britain led the world. Its diagrammatic representations of various substances inspired carpet, cloth, ceramic, glass, and many other types of applied surface patterns by the Festival Pattern Group. Twenty-six manufacturers, including Josiah Wedgwood, Warner & Sons, Warterite, Chance Brothers, and Goodearl Brothers, were ultimately involved. Visitors to the South Bank were able to experience many of the Festival Pattern Collective designs in the Regatta Restaurant designed by Misha Black firsthand.

But the complexities of ‘inventing’ a contemporary style, especially if produced by a state agency, proved to be troublesome for both producers and buyers, and Festival Trends had only a fleeting market appeal. Nevertheless, as Michael Frayn suggested in his seminal essay on ‘Festival’ in 1960, the new designs seen in many of the South Bank displays symbolised the educated middle classes’ social democratic ideals. The latter was known as ‘Herbivores’ and their opposite, as the right-wing upholders of an imperial Britain’s traditional values ingrained in the pre-war years, the much more conservative ‘Carnivores’.

Likewise, the Festival’s modern design perspective was offset by the audience’s enjoyment at the Pleasure Gardens Festival in Battersea. These ranged from Osbert Lancaster and John Piper’s Regency pastiche settings to the period glamour of costumed Nell Gwynne orange-sellers and Roland Emmett’s spoof of the Industrial Revolution’s pioneering steam locomotives in his eccentric, widely advertised Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway.

Sources

Woodham, J. Festival of Britain. In A Dictionary of Modern Design. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 31 Jan. 2021, from https://www-oxfordreference-com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780191762963.001.0001/acref-9780191762963-e-287.

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