Festival of Britain 1951 - part 1

The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition held throughout the United Kingdom in the summer of 1951. This also happened to be the same year they celebrated the centenary, almost to the day, of the 1851 Great Exhibition.

It was organised by the government to give Britons a feeling of recovery in the aftermath of war and to promote the British contribution to science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts. The Festival's centre-piece was in London on the South Bank of the Thames. There were events in Poplar (Architecture), Battersea (The Festival Pleasure Gardens), South Kensington (Science) and Glasgow (Industrial Power). Festival celebrations took place in Cardiff, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, Perth, Bournemouth, York, Aldeburgh, Inverness, Cheltenham, Oxford and elsewhere and there were touring exhibitions by land and sea.

In keeping with the principles of the Festival, a young architect aged only 38, Hugh Casson, was appointed Director of Architecture for the Festival and to appoint other young architects to design its buildings. The main site featured the largest dome in the world at the time, standing 93 feet tall with a diameter of 365 feet. This held exhibitions on the theme of discovery such as the New World, the Polar regions, the Sea, the Sky and Outer Space.

Adjacent to the Dome was the Skylon, a breathtaking, iconic and futuristic-looking structure. The Skylon was an unusual, vertical cigar shaped tower supported by cables that gave the impression that it was floating above the ground. Some say this structure mirrored the British economy of the time having no clear means of support.

 Another feature was the Telekinema, a 400-seat state-of-the-art cinema operated by the British Film Institute. This had the necessary technology to screen both films (including 3D films) and large screen television. This proved to be one of the most popular attractions at the South Bank site. Once the festival closed, the Telekinema became home to the National Film Theatre and was not demolished until 1957 when the National Film Theatre moved to the site it still occupies at the South Bank Centre. Another building at the Festival site on South Bank was the Royal Festival Hall, a 2,900 seat concert hall that hosted concerts conducted by the likes of Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Bould in its opening concerts.
Even before the Festival opened, the Festival was condemned as a waste of money. Many people believed it would have been better spent on housing after the destruction of many houses during the Second World War. Once opened, the critics turned to the artistic taste; the Riverside Restaurant was seen as too futuristic, the Royal Festival Hall seen as too innovative and even certain furnishings in the Café met criticism for being too gaudy. It was also criticized for being too expensive, with entrance to the Dome of Discovery at five shillings. Even with the above complaints the main Festival site on the South Bank managed to attract more than 8 million paying visitors. Always planned as a temporary exhibition, the Festival ran for 5 months before closing in September 1951. The Festival became associated with the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee and the South Bank Exhibition was rapidly demolished by the incoming Conservative administration of Winston Churchill.

Logo designed by Abram Games
 In 1948, two years after being de-mobbed, ‘Official War Poster Artist’, Abram Games (1914-1996), won the competition to design the symbol for the Festival of Britain. His ‘Britannia’ emblem was ubiquitous, versatile and memorable. This was to be a significant event in his six-decade career, establishing him as one of twentieth century Britain’s most respected graphic designers.

Poster designed by Abram Games

Guide priced at two shillings & sixpence (12 ½ p)

Guide to Festval ship Campania price two shillings (10p)

A leaflet

Guide to the Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park

Guide to the Exhibition of Science in South Kensington

The same design used on regional  guides - 'Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham'

2 ½-penny Commemorative stamp featuring Britannia and King George VI

4-penny Commemorative stamp featuring Abram Games' logo and King George VI

Festival of Britain first day cover

Festival of Britain first day cover

Transport Information poster

Pre-Festival publicity

Souvenir programme for the opening of the Royal Festival Hall

Poster for the Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park

Programme for Festival in the London Borough of Camberwell

Programme for the Festival in Southampton

Poster for the Festival in Liverpool

Festival of Britain typeface designed by Phillip Boydell 1951

Guide, Programme and Calendar, showing the Festival Star Motif by Abram Games. Illustrations by Eric Fraser

Festival Exhibtion at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh

Patons & Baldwins Festival Knitting Book front cover

Patons & Baldwins Festival Knitting Book back cover

Festival of Britain Print by Herbert Williams lithograph

Souvenir glass ashtray and enamel badge from my own collection

Designer Paul Smith limited edition Festival of Britain watch design © Paul Smith

Part 2 of this post takes a look at the Festival textiles.