Festival of Britain exhibition

Front cover of the Festival of Britain South Bank exhibition guidebookThe Festival of Britain was a national exhibition which took place in London and around Britain between May and September of 1951. Organised by the British government, the event was intended to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and also to provide ‘a tonic to the nation’ after the Second World War and more than a decade of conflict, austerity, rationing and shortages.

The Festival was also an attempt to promote a higher standard in British art and design. This exhibition includes a number of examples of publications and other items produced to celebrate the Festival from the University of Reading archive and rare book collections (including the Great Exhibition Collection), the library of the Museum of English Rural Life and loans from private collections.

The Festival was a celebration of the history, achievements and potential of the British people, and included festivals and exhibitions on a wide range of themes including science, industry, agriculture, literature, music and art. Although viewed with suspicion by some politicians, and unpopular with commentators of the time, the event had considerable popular appeal, as the number of commemorative events serves to testify.

The main venue for the Festival was the South Bank of the Thames in London, with related events taking place across the country. The main exhibition featured modern and forward-looking architecture such as the Festival Hall (which remains on the South Bank today), the ‘Skylon’ and the Dome of Discovery, and was intended to showcase Britain’s new place and role in a modern world that was becoming driven by science and technology.

The exhibition will be on display at the Special Collections Service until 6 August 2010.

List of exhibits

The South Bank exhibition : a guide to the story it tells, by Ian Cox. London : HMSO, 1951. GREAT EXHIBITION COLLECTION--11/08

The festival of Punch : 1851-1951. [London : Punch Office, 1951] GREAT EXHIBITION LARGE--03/23. A special issue of Punch (Apr. 30, 1951) to celebrate the Festival of Britain.

Festival of Britain : the Exhibition's opening - special number. London : Illustrated London News, 1951. PRIVATE COLLECTION

The Festival of Britain : exhibition of books, arranged by the National Book League at the Victoria & Albert Museum. London : Published for the National Book League by the Cambridge University Press, 1951. GREAT EXHIBITION COLLECTION --10/19

Two examples of the About Britain guides. GREAT EXHIBITION COLLECTION—11/19 & 15. A series of thirteen regional travel guides edited by Geoffrey Grigson and published by Collins as a joint venture with the Festival of Britain Office. The guides were intended to foster an exploration of the British regions and an enjoyment of their varied countryside, and continued a tradition of illustrated guides that had begun with John Betjeman’s Shell County Guides prior to World War II. The University Special Collections holds a complete set of the guides.

GPO postage stamps commemorating the Festival of Britain. PRIVATE COLLECTION.

Correspondence from the records of the publishers George Allen & Unwin concerning the loan of their publications for Festival of Britain book exhibitions at the South Bank and in Glasgow. MS 3282/AUC 514/3, 449/17

The use of standardized lettering in street and transport signs. [London : s.n., 1951] GREAT EXHIBITION COLLECTION—10/13. The letter forms and examples illustrated in this booklet were chosen to assist those responsible for directional signposting in connection with the Festival of Britain in order to promote consistency in both style and colour. The recommended lettering, known as Gill Bold Condensed, had been designed by the sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill.

[A selection of Festival of Britain souvenirs]. PRIVATE COLLECTION. These items include a tobacco tin, glass dish, enamel badge, match case, Festival bus tickets, maps and other ephemera.

Article on the Country section of the Festival of Britain South Bank exhibition from The Farmer’s Weekly, May 4, 1951. MERL LIBRARY PEROA - PER

Antelope outdoor metal chair, designed by Ernest Race for use at the Festival of Britain on the South Bank, 1951. PRIVATE COLLECTION.

Also on display are two original designs by artist Michael O’Connell (1898-1976) for a large wall-hanging in the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. Each panel showed farming in a different part of the country. The designs are for Panel V entitled ‘Northern Ireland : the family farm’ (MERL 63/18/6) and Panel VI & VII entitled ‘Scotland and Wales : upland stock farming’ (MERL 63/18/3).

A further four panels are on show in the Museum of English Rural Life. The hangings were designed to show the diversity of British farming which was the main theme of the Country Pavilion’s exhibitions. The actual wall-hanging itself is also in the Museum’s collection, but the seven sections each measure 6 x 4 metres and are too large and fragile to display.

For more information on the wall-hangings visit this online exhibition.

The National Needlework Archive are overseeing a project to conserve another of the Country Pavilion wall-hangings, entitled 'Country Wife'. For more information, visit the NNA website.

Further reading

Festival of Britain : design 1951, by Paul Rennie. Woodbridge : Antique Collectors' Club, 2007.

Available for loan on the 2nd floor of the University Library at 606.4-REN and for reference at the Special Collections Service 745.20942109045-REN.

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