Celebrating the Festival of Britain

In Uncategorized on September 4, 2011 at 21:21

Today is the day that the ‘summer of smiles’ ends on the Southbank. Celebrating the Festival of Britain 1951, the Southbank Centre announced a season of ‘happy days, big nights all summer long’,  and chose to achieve this with a ‘retro funfair’, ‘foodie treats’, an ‘urban beach’ and a festival museum in the Royal Festival Hall.

To mark the end of the celebration, a fantastic event was held today at the Festival Hall, organised by Harriet Atkinson (author of soon-to-be-published book on the festival and Fellow of Brighton Design Archives)  in collaboration with the 20th Century Society. The day consisted of a number of talks from designers, artists and architects who were involved in the 1951 Festival, or in some cases their children. This included some insights from Charles Plouviez, Clifford Hatts, David Gentleman, Carola Zogolovitch, Dinah Casson and Naomi Games. A second half of the day then focused on the ‘aftermath’ of the festival, its architectural legacy and the archival or commemorative material that survives from it.

A big theme, in keeping with the whole tone of this ‘summer of celebrations’, was nostalgia. Most interestingly, this was as true for those who were at the festival and remember it first hand, as it was for the speakers whose interpretations were informed from archive work or second-hand memories from their parents. Memories of the Festival of Britain, this shining moment for British design, have become a significant part of our cultural memory. The act of remembering the Festival highlights and celebrates those same qualities of British-ness as the stories of ‘Blitz Spirit’. Again and again, speakers made reference to the British characteristic of ‘muddling through’ and paid tribute to the post-war pragmatism and determination to ‘just make it’, with minimal fuss.

David Gentleman spoke of the ‘brightness’ and particularly visual quality of his memory of the Festival. Listening to each of the speakers, it became clear what an intense experience it was for them as designers and what an formative role it played in their subsequent careers. The role of the RCA and its teachers- Robin Darwin, Misha Black, Abram Games, Edward Bawden- clearly provided a key network for these young designers. Each speaker also described the festival as an incredible opportunity to work alongside a hero- James Holland, R.D Russell, Barbara Jones, Gordon Russell. Another dominant theme was the sense of disappointment associated with the Millenium Dome, in comparison with the sense of excitement and enthusiasm at the F.O.B. Memory is a powerful thing but as rose-tinted as nostalgia might be, I doubt if we will be gathering in 60 years time to celebrate that event as a shining moment in British design. 

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