Bevis Hillier

1951 and all that

The author of this book and I both visited the 1951 Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank as schoolboys.

The author of this book and I both visited the 1951 Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank as schoolboys.

The author of this book and I both visited the 1951 Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank as schoolboys. He was 13, I was 11. We were both old enough to remember the war. We were both enduring the post-war austerity. Much was still rationed. Everywhere there were bombsites. From his generally commendable account, I know we both had a similar reaction to the Dome of Discovery, the Skylon and all the other attractions: there was a sense of renewal, lightness, colour, modernity and excess, in contrast to the drabness and penny-pinching we were used to.

In 1976, 25 years after the Festival, Mary Banham and I organised an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum to commemorate it. It was opened by the Queen Mother, who had opened the show in 1951 with King George VI. By an irony, Mary was the wife of the architectural historian Reyner Banham, who had had a part in the Festival but was severely critical of it.

You might imagine that forming an exhibition of things from only 25 years back would be much easier than assembling a show of things from two centuries earlier. But Mary Banham and I found that was not the case. If you want to put together a show of, say, Reynolds paintings or Chelsea porcelain, all you need do is write to galleries and museums with a sort of ‘bring out your dead’ message. Everything is likely to be well catalogued and well restored. But relics of 1951?

Few museums had made any attempt, by 1976, to hoard Festivalia. And it didn’t help that the Festival was seen as a Labour-initiated show, and that the succeeding Conservative government, under Churchill (who had always loathed the Festival) had ripped down its chief monuments, except for the Royal Festival Hall, as soon as they could.

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