In the summer of 1951, over eight million people descended on London’s South Bank for The Festival of Britain. Described as ‘a tonic to the nation’ by its director Gerald Barry, the Festival sought to inspire a population still scarred by the Second World War with a celebration of British industry, arts, culture and science that looked towards a brighter future.
In keeping with this forward-looking vision, the Festival site had been designed in the International Modernist style by architect Hugh Casson and complemented with specially commissioned contemporary sculpture. For those visitors leaving the exhibition via the Waterloo Station Gate, it would be one of these sculptures that gave a last taste of the festivities, a semicolon between the Festival and the future; The Sunbathers, by Peter Laszlo Peri.
Born in Budapest at the turn of the century, Laszlo Peri spent the formative years of his career in Germany, making his name as a leading constructivist artist, creating angular lino cuts and ‘space constructions’. It was during this time that he pioneered the use of concrete as a material for sculpture. In 1933 he emigrated to England, becoming a British citizen six years later. A trained architect, Peri continued working with concrete, initially through building reliefs, including a series of commissions for Lambeth County Council in the late 1940s.
Peri was commissioned to create The Sunbathers, which greeted visitors as they made their way to the South Bank Exhibition from Waterloo station. Depicting relaxed male and female characters, Peri wanted to bring his experience as an abstract constructivist artist to human figures. The sculpture was made from the artist’s own recipe of ochre-coloured ‘Pericrete’ and built outwards from a scaffold on site.
The sculpture’s prominent position ensured it made a lasting impression on visitors, including the poet Dylan Thomas, who referenced the sculpture in his essay on the Festival.
But the Festival had only ever been conceived as a temporary exhibition, and after 21 memorable weeks the last of its visitors exited by Laszlo Peri's sculpture. Within a year the site would be empty again, its buildings demolished, save for the Royal Festival Hall, and its exhibitions dismantled. Gone too would be the site’s many sculptures, including The Sunbathers, presumed lost for good.
Or so it was thought. In 2016, Historic England hosted their first exhibition at Somerset House. Out There: Our Post-War Public Art celebrated the explosion of public art from pioneering artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Elisabeth Frink and Henry Moore, that coincided with the rebuilding of England’s cities after Second World War. As well as showcasing this sculptural public art, the exhibition also considered its legacy, and featured a wall of ‘lost works’, including The Sunbathers, in the hope someone may be able to help identify their whereabouts.
A number of visitors to the exhibition recognised Laszlo Peri’s sculpture from its original site, but one couple recognised it from somewhere else entirely. To them it was not The Sunbathers of Waterloo Station Gate, but an old centrepiece from the garden of The Clarendon Hotel, Blackheath. Historic England followed the trail, and in a forgotten corner of the hotel garden they came across a lumpy tarpaulin. Beneath it, though crumbling, shy of a limb, and covered in peeling layers of paint, lay the unmistakable figures of The Sunbathers.
The sculpture, it would transpire, had been bought at auction in the 1950s by the hotel owner Joseph O’Donnell, who had been looking for a feature for the Clarendon’s gardens. With their significance and origin unbeknown to him, O’Donnell laid the figures on a patio, where they would go on to be enjoyed by generations of hotel guests.
Though rediscovered, The Sunbathers were still in need of significant restoration before they could be returned to public display. To help fund the work - including Peri-crete repairs to the broken limbs and removal of the layers of paint added during their time at The Clarendon, and - Historic England launched a crowdfunder campaign for the statue. Remarkably, the target was reached in just five days.
So now, after 66 years in the wilderness, The Sunbathers are back in their original home on the South Bank. On Monday 3 July, Peter Laszlo Peri’s restored work was lifted into position in our Royal Festival Hall, the last remaining structure of The Festival of Britain. Here it will stay for the duration of the summer, a symbol of the post-war optimism of the original Festival, and the British public’s continued passion for art.