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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Art for Social Spaces > Case Studies > Festival of Britain
 
FESTIVAL OF BRITAIN

Introduction

The Festival of Britain (FOB) involved a nationwide programme of events. ASS 187 shows the official programme map with events and exhibitions around the country. This case study focuses on sculpture sited on and around the South Bank Festival exhibition site in London. Independently, you will need to consult texts and weblinks for further information and discussion. The study aims to raise questions about the role of sculpture in the FOB and, in particular, asks you to explore its relationship to the (re)construction of national identity.

You will need to refer to the official map below as you work through the following sections. Texts from the official FOB programme publication are included in the Image Bank at ASS 192, ASS 193, ASS 194 and ASS 195. You should read these pages now.
 
Festival Of Britain; map of South Bank Exhibition site
ASS00192 Festival Of Britain; map of South Bank Exhibition site

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Overview

Background
 
Display title from New Schools Section; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00237 Display title from New Schools Section; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Planned in 1947, in the austerity years of the Atlee Labour government, the Festival of Britain promised to provide a cultural counterpart to the social benefits of the Wefare State. Directed by Gerald Barry, editor of the left-wing broadsheet The News Chronicle, and guided through Parliament by Herbert Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister and former leader of the London County Council, the Festival was concerned with the same egalitarian principles as Labour’s far-reaching programme of social and economic reform.
R. Burstow, Symbols for ’51, the Royal Festival Hall, Skylon and Sculptures for the Festival of Britain, (ex. cat.), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2 March – 21 April 1996, p. 5.
 
In his essay, Symbols for ’51, Burstow identifies the aims of the Festival with the social programme of reform implemented by the new Labour government. The organisers envisaged the Festival as a country-wide celebration of Britain’s history, achievements and culture – a popular event that would help Britons forget the trauma of war and contribute to the post-war ‘re-construction’ of morale. Gerald Barry, the Festival Director, summed up the hopes of the organisers by referring to it as a ‘tonic to the nation’.

A few years earlier, the Britain Can Make It exhibition, addressed itself to re-building the nation’s ‘spirit’ by focusing on the best of British design and industry. Billed by the Council of Industrial Design as ‘the first post-war national exhibition’, it opened on 24th September 1946 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the accompanying catalogue, considerable emphasis was placed on overcoming the difficulties caused by the transition from war to peacetime. Dudley Ryder, the Chief Exhibitions Officer, described how the exhibition aimed to highlight,
 
... the creative originality of British manufacturers, to demonstrate the power and ability of British industry to take a lead in postwar markets and to emphasise the importance of industrial design.
Dudley Ryder, Design ’46, (ex. cat.), 1946, p. 11.
 
Britain Can Make It ‘War to Peace’ ASS00189 Britain Can Make It ‘War to Peace’

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Britain Can Make It ‘ War to Peace’ ASS00191 Britain Can Make It ‘ War to Peace’

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The Festival of Britain provided a more extensive opportunity to showcase the collective and individual ‘achievements’ of Britons. Events dealt with history, industry, science, the arts and explored various aspects of cultural and everyday life at mid-century.
 
Exhibition of Industrial Power, Shipbuilding section, Glasgow ASS00246 Exhibition of Industrial Power, Shipbuilding section, Glasgow

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Exhibition of Industrial Power, Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, Festival of Britain ASS00251 Exhibition of Industrial Power, Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, Festival of Britain

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It put forward an optimistic and progressive view of Britain’s future. The Festival played a part in attempting to endorse and re-construct national identity through the exploration and re-affirmation of ‘Britishness’. It did so through events and exhibitions, structures and objects, directly referencing nationhood through, for example, The Lion and the Unicorn pavilion.
 
Lion and Unicorn Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00234 Lion and Unicorn Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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The architects for this pavilion were R V Gooden and R D Russell. It was built to a high standard of craftsmanship, featuring a ‘lamella’ roof constructed in English oak. The official FOB catalogue commented that the title of this pavilion,
 
serves to symbolise two main qualities of the national character : realism and strength on the one hand, and, on the other, independence and imagination
Festival of Britain, Catalogue of the Exhibition, 1951, p.117.
 
Aspects of Britishness were also embodied and signified in a host of printed and manufactured memorabilia including posters, publications and, of course, the ubiquitous Festival logo itself.
 
Lion and Unicorn Pavilion by night, Epstein at front; Southbank Exhibition, Festival of Britain ASS00247 Lion and Unicorn Pavilion by night, Epstein at front; Southbank Exhibition, Festival of Britain

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Modern – and modernist - architecture was at the forefront of the Festival. The Royal Festival Hall, the only permanent building erected on the South Bank site, was one of Britain’s earliest post-war public buildings. Alongside architecture, the Festival showcased the best in contemporary design.
 
South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain 1951 ASS00973 South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain 1951

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Transport Section; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00232 Transport Section; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Kiosk in Information Block, Festival of Britain ASS00249 Kiosk in Information Block, Festival of Britain

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South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain ASS00260 South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain

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Festival sculpture
 
Homes and Gardens Pavilion, Epstein figure; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00240 Homes and Gardens Pavilion, Epstein figure; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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The visual arts were a prominent feature of the Festival. In London, major exhibitions were staged at various galleries, including the Arts Council’s Sixty paintings for ’51 at the RBA Galleries.

Besides being a major public feature on the South Bank site, contemporary British sculpture featured in gallery exhibitions. In 1948, Henry Moore had been awarded the International Sculpture Prize at the Venice Biennale. A major retrospective exhibition of Moore’s work was staged at the Tate Gallery in Festival year. Moore could be viewed as an artist who was both ‘modern’ and ‘accessible’. Increasingly, through British Council touring shows, it might be argued that Moore’s work became a ‘cultural export’.

The South Bank site provided an essentially modernist space/environment with the Festival Hall (ASS 247) and riverside providing a modern backdrop for contemporary sculpture. The London County Council and Arts Council commissioned sculpture for various locations and artists were largely given a free hand in what they produced.

On the South Bank, sculpture was placed in prominent positions and, in many cases, formed the focal point in temporary displays, water features and on buildings. Artists were commissioned to produce various artworks including sculpture and murals. The Arts Council, for example, commissioned work from Robert Adams, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Frank Dobson, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth, Karin Jonzen, F E McWilliam, Bernard Meadows, Henry Moore, Uli Nimptsch and Eduardo Paolozzi. Some commissioned work was sited at Battersea Park in the open-air exhibition of sculpture running concurrently.

Moore’s large bronze Reclining Figure was given a prime location near the main entrance to the South Bank site. Contemporary commentators remarked on a public bemused by the modernity of many of the large sculptures on show. In Studio International, the reviewer was sceptical about the success of Moore’s figure, arguing that it had no meaningful relationship with its surroundings,
 
One suspects that Moore has conceived this work purely as a sculptural object, not as an image, because the forms, considered as signs, are either conventional or arbitrary. The head is just as much a cliché as are the heads in official portraits by Royal Academicians.The legs have no connexion with the structure…This latest addition, then, to Moore’s long series of ‘opened-out’ reclining figures has too little contact with life to carry the imaginative conviction and dramatic power of its predecessors. And, after all, it is not surprising that his handling of this theme should have reached the stage of empty, if impressive, virtuosity, since he has been exploiting it now for twenty years.
A.D.B. Sylvester, ‘Festival Sculpture’, in Studio, September 1951, Vol. 142, No. 702, p. 75.
 
In Symbols for ’51, Burstow divides the sculpture on the South Bank into two types: thematic or decorative. Although work was dominated by the human figure, he describes a diverse range styles,
 
... a considerable diversity of styles was in evidence, from Jonzen’s informal Naturalism or Peter Peris’ Realism, to the many different guises of modernism typical of the period : for example, the Primitivism of Frank Dobson, Heinz Henghes and Anna Mahler, the moderate Expressionism of Georg Ehrlich and Daphne Hardy, the Surrealism of Reg Butler, F E McWilliam and Moore, and the Constructivism of Hepworth’s rotating sculpture.
Burstow, ibid., p. 11.
 
Hepworth made two pieces for the Festival : Contrapuntal Forms, consisting of two monumental abstract shapes and later re-located to Harlow – and Turning Forms, a motorised piece which slowly rotated outside the Thameside Restaurant.
 
Blue limestone carving by Barbara Hepworth ASS00486 Blue limestone carving by Barbara Hepworth

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'Contrapuntal Forms' by Barbara Hepworth, 1951 ASS00945 'Contrapuntal Forms' by Barbara Hepworth, 1951

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In contrast to Hepworth’s abstract organic forms, likened to ‘coffins’ by Sylvester, Jacob Epstein’s gilded bronze Youth Advancing stood rather majestically in front of the Festival Hall.
 
In Symbols for ’51, Burstow refers to the debate, amongst contemporary modernists, as to what constituted a ‘socially progressive style’. Capturing the ‘spirit’ of the Festival was also debated. Consider these issues in relation to the images provided.

Ironically perhaps, it is notable that a considerable amount of work sited on the South Bank was produced by artists who had sought exile from Fascism and had settled in England, mainly in London. The most prominent piece was The Islanders by Siegfried Charoux, a Viennese sculptor. The huge stone relief might be read as a symbol of the struggle and resilience of the British people. A temporary work, it was mounted on the side of the Sea and Ships Pavilion and later probably destroyed. Work by other émigré artists included Peter Peri’s Sunbathers, a wall mounted horizontal relief made of concrete, sited on the north wall of Station Gate near Waterloo.
 
‘Sunbathers’ by Peter Peri ASS00495 ‘Sunbathers’ by Peter Peri

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Many of the pavilions also included sculpture, models, murals and other artworks in displays or as an integral part of the decorations. Much of the work was only meant to be temporary. Study the photographs of various displays in pavilions including the People’s Pavilion, Transport Pavilion, Homes and Gardens Pavilion, Sea and Ships Pavilion.
 
Homes and Gardens Pavilion, mural in Garden Cafe ; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00242 Homes and Gardens Pavilion, mural in Garden Cafe ; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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The People of Britain display; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00243 The People of Britain display; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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General View of the People’s Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition
ASS00244 General View of the People’s Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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General view , “New Schools” Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition
ASS00235 General view , “New Schools” Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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“New Schools” Pavilion, display “Choice Before Children”; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00236 “New Schools” Pavilion, display “Choice Before Children”; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Homes and Gardens Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00238 Homes and Gardens Pavilion; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Objects and buildings were photographed as if they were sculptural objects.
 
Farm and Factory Exhibition, Festival of Britain ASS00252 Farm and Factory Exhibition, Festival of Britain

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Farm and Factory Exhibition, Festival of Britain ASS00253 Farm and Factory Exhibition, Festival of Britain

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Farm and Factory Exhibition, Festival of Britain, Northern Ireland ASS00254 Farm and Factory Exhibition, Festival of Britain, Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland, Farm and Factory exhibition; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00245 Northern Ireland, Farm and Factory exhibition; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00229 Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Homes and Gardens Pavilion, plate glass fence ; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00241 Homes and Gardens Pavilion, plate glass fence ; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain 1951 ASS00973 South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain 1951

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Some of the most sculptural structures were architectural features. The Dome of Discovery and the Skylon dominated the South Bank site.
 
Dome of Discovery; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00231 Dome of Discovery; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Dome of Discovery; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00230 Dome of Discovery; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Questions / Discussion

Study individual works of sculpture in Festival settings in the Image Archive. The following artists contributed work to the South Bank site - Siegfried Charoux, Peter Peri, Georg Ehrlich, Karin Jonzen, Karel Vogel, F E McWilliam, Henry Moore, David McFall, John Matthews, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Huws, Daphne Hardy, Heinz Henghes, Keith Godwin, Jacob Epstein, Frank Dobson, Mitzi Cunliffe, Geoffrey Clarke, Lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler, George Fullard, Ernest Adsetts, Sydney Birnie Stewart, Maurice Lambert.
Look at examples of other work by these artists – either in the Image Archive or elsewhere.

How did ‘Britishness’ feature in the FOB?

What role did sculpture play?

What part did institutions play?

What criteria might have been brought to the debate about the success or failure of works?
 
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Images
 
The following images directly relate to the FOB :
 
Festival Of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00193 Festival Of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Festival Of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00194 Festival Of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Festival Of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00195 Festival Of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Festival Of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00196 Festival Of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Map of Programme- Festival of Britain ASS00187 Map of Programme- Festival of Britain

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Transport Pavilion from the Fairway; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00233 Transport Pavilion from the Fairway; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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Homes and Gardens Pavilion, “Safety in the Home” section ; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition ASS00239 Homes and Gardens Pavilion, “Safety in the Home” section ; Festival of Britain, South Bank Exhibition

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The Shot Tower; Southbank Exhibition, Festival of Britain ASS00248 The Shot Tower; Southbank Exhibition, Festival of Britain

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Exhibition of Architecture, Lansbury, Poplar, Festival of Britain ASS00250 Exhibition of Architecture, Lansbury, Poplar, Festival of Britain

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Festival of Britain, Exhibition of Architecture, Lansbury, Poplar. ASS00255 Festival of Britain, Exhibition of Architecture, Lansbury, Poplar.

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Exhibition of Architecture, Lansbury, Poplar ASS00256 Exhibition of Architecture, Lansbury, Poplar

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Live Achitecture Exhibit at Lansbury, Festival of Britain ASS00263 Live Achitecture Exhibit at Lansbury, Festival of Britain

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You might also want to search the Image Archive for other work by sculptors who showed on the South Bank site.
 
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Texts

M. Banham and B. Hillier, (eds.), A Tonic to the Nation, The Festival of Britain 1951, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976

R. Burstow, Symbols for ’51, the Royal Festival Hall, Skylon and Sculptures for the Festival of Britain, The Ballroom, Main Foyer, Royal Festival Hall, London, 2 March – 21 April 1996

R. Burstow, ‘Modern Sculpture in the South Bank Townscape’, Twentieth Century Society Journal, Vol. 5.

P. Calvocoressi, ‘Public Sculpture in the 1950s’, British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, S. Nairne and N. Serota, (eds.), Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1981

M. Frayn, ‘Festival of Britain’, The Age of Austerity, P. French and M. Sissons, (eds.), Hodder and Stourton, London,1963

M. Garlake, New Art New World – British Art in Post-War Society, Yale University Press, New Haven, U.S.A.,1998

J. Glaves-Smith, ‘Sculpture in the 1940s and 1950s’, British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, S. Nairne and N. Serota, (eds.), Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1981

S. Nairne and N. Serota, (eds.), British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1981

A.D.B. Sylvester, ‘Festival Sculpture’, in Studio, September 1951, Vol. 142, No. 702, pp. 72–77.

Sculpture for a New Europe : Public Sculpture from Britain and the 2 Germanies 1945-1968, (ex. cat.), Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, December 1999. In particular, see ‘Henry Moore, Reclining Figure : Festival, 1950’.

Also see www.packer34.freeserve.co.uk/index.html – Festival of Britain Society website for extensive information, images, weblinks.

www.c20society.org.uk/
 
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