The 1951 Festival of Britain remembered

Southbank Centre’s origins date back to the 1951 Festival of Britain. One of the landmark UK cultural events of the 20th century, it celebrated arts, science, industry and design, and marked the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition. More than eight million people paid to visit the festival site located on the south bank of the Thames throughout its five-month run, but thousands of other events were held all over the country under the Festival of Britain banner.

Today, the only building that remains from the main festival site is our largest auditorium, Royal Festival Hall. Throughout its foyers, however, you can find some fascinating artefacts from the festival, which are well worth a visit (especially as it is free to do so!).

The Story of 51

It’s hard to stress the importance of the 1951 Festival of Britain on everything from urban architecture and interior design to the regeneration of London’s South Bank. If your curiosity is piqued, we suggest you take a look at our small but perfectly formed exhibition The Story of 51.

There you can find some really interesting photography of the Festival of Britain site along with a 3D model, loads more information about its origins and realisation, and memories of some of the visitors who were here in 1951.

There’s also a couple of cabinets giving you an idea of the vast range of memorabilia inspired by the Festival, from homewares to toys and a silk scarf.

The remains of the original Festival Star are also displayed at the exhibition, along with birds that were suspended from the ceiling of one of the domes. The Story of 51 exhibition was created by Hemingway Designs and you can find it in the Level 2 Foyer, Blue side at Royal Festival Hall near the Southbank Centre shop.

Patchwork of the Century

Located near the Ticket Desk in the Level 2 Foyer of Royal Festival Hall, this incredible piece of history features 100 individual, hand-sewn patches, commemorating an event or achievement for every year from 1851 – the year of the Great Exhibition – to 1950.

Among the patches is one about women’s suffrage, one about the advent of television and another to mark the opening of the Forth Bridge.

Eighty women from the Twickenham area created the work in just two months, using recycled materials including old uniforms and blackout fabric. It was designed and assembled by Lilian Dring, an artist and illustrator who also created works for London Underground, as well as children’s books.

Click here for details of every patch

The Sunbathers

Peter Laszlo Peri’s striking sculpture The Sunbathers adorned the exterior wall of the Waterloo Station exit of the Festival of Britain for five months in 1951, and then all but disappeared for six decades.

In 2016, Historic England asked Brits if they had any idea where certain lost artworks might be found and sure enough, someone recognised The Sunbathers as a sculpture they had seen in a hotel in Blackheath.

After extensive restoration, Peri’s sculpture has now come back home – indoors this time – and can be seen near the Ticket Desk in the Level 2 Foyer of Royal Festival Hall.

Find out more

The Foundation Tablet

From The Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, head down the Blue Side stairs and stop on the landing, where you’ll see the exact spot where King George VI stood on 3 May 1951 to declare Royal Festival Hall open. The external doors you can see from the landing were originally the main entrace to Royal Festival Hall, with a box office located outside.

And one object you won’t see. . .

Ever wonder why the restaurant on Level 3 of Royal Festival Hall is called Skylon? It comes from the name of a striking sculpture created for the Festival of Britain, which was situated on the south bank of the Thames, soaring nearly 90 metres (300 feet) into the air.

Although a popular feature of the festival, the Skylon was deemed too costly to preserve and move and was therefore taken away in 1952 with the rest of the exhibition. Its fate remained a mystery for almost 50 years until the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row discovered that the sculpture had been bought by a west-London scrap metal dealer, with a few fragments turned into souvenirs.

The Museum of London has in its collection a brass ring plate featuring the names of Skylon’s creators – Architects Powell and Moya, Consulting Structural Engineer F.J. Samuely. It was originally mounted beneath the sculpture. The sculpture’s wind cups are the only other bit known to have survived, but they are owned by a private collector.

take a tour

If you want to find out more about our history or our architecture, why not book a place on one of our fascinating tours, led by an expert guide.

uncovering our archive

Southbank Centre is in the process of digitising its vast archive of materials as well as making it available to the public for the first time in our Archive Studio.

The Sunbathers return to Southbank Centre

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.

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Born in Budapest at the turn of the century, Laszlo Peri spent the formative years of his career in Germany, before emigrating to Britain in 1933, becoming a British citizen six years later. A trained architect, Laszlo Peri pioneered the use of concrete as a material for sculpture, initially through building reliefs, including a series of commissions for Lambeth County Council in the late 1940s.

The Sunbathers was Laszlo Peri’s first sculptural commission, for which he chose to use his own adapted form of concrete, a colourised version which he’d dubbed Peri-crete. Depicting relaxed male and female characters, 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.

‘...the linked terra-cotta man and woman fly-defying gravity and elegantly hurrying up a W.C. wall’.
Dylan Thomas, describing The Sunbathers in 1951

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.

Festival of Britain Closes - 1951 | Movietone Moment | 30 September 16

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.

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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.

I remember The Sunbathers as a child, climbing on them in our sunken garden at the front of our hotel; I used to call them Adam and Eve.
Josephine O'Donnell, daughter of Joseph and current owner, The Clarendon Hotel

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.

The Sunbathers: help bring a lost piece of the Festival of Britain back home

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.

Installation of The Sunbathers, July 2017
The Sunbathers are returned (photo by Pete Woodhead)

The Sunbathers by Peter Laszlo Peri can be seen at Southbank Centre until 30 August, as part of Summertime.

see The Sunbathers

Historic England are crowdfunding to find a permanent home for The Sunbathers to remain on public display once Summertime ends.

support the campaign

 

Kalle Mustonen: Gnome King

See sculpture from a Finnish artist who reimagines modern culture in monumental and mythic terms.

dates & times

5 July – 30 August
The interior of the structure is open Friday – Sunday, 11am – 8pm
You can view the exterior daily between 10am – 11pm

location

Blue Display Space 2 - Level 2, Royal Festival Hall

Kalle Mustonen’s work often plays with the idea of kitsch, bestowing mythic status on everyday objects. In doing so, he explores their underlying commonality with ancient monuments and places of worship.

In this exhibition, Mustonen showcases his intriguing large-scale wooden sculpture Gnome King, which visitors are invited to view inside a shed-like hideaway. The Gnome King is both based on a story from Finnish folklore and reminiscent of a certain variety of garden ornament.

Part of Nordic Matters

Part of Summertime

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