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.



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.



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


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

Peter Laszlo Peri: The Sunbathers

See a work of sculpture newly rescued and restored to Royal Festival Hall after having been lost for decades.

dates & times

5 July – 30 August 
Open daily, 10am – 11pm


Riverside Terrace Cafe

Since making a public call for missing works of public art last year, Historic England made a remarkable discovery. Originally created for the Festival of Britain, Peter Laszlo Peri’s The Sunbathers is being rescued and restored. This summer it is once again on show at Southbank Centre, a stone’s throw away from where the figures originally greeted Festival visitors in 1951.

Most of the art created for the Festival of Britain has sadly been lost or destroyed, but with the public's help, The Sunbathers was tracked down to the garden of The Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath, London.

Part of Summertime

Modified Social Benches NY: Jeppe Hein

Based on research into ‘personal space’ and inspired by New York street furniture, Danish artist Jeppe Hein created a series of Modified Social Benches. See (and sit on) these witty reinventions of the park bench this summer, each one different from the next.


22 May – 24 September


Around our site

Their design borrows from the familiar park or garden bench, altered to various degrees to make the act of sitting a conscious physical process and challenging the amount of space that people set between themselves and others.

Distance between people is a kind of non-verbal communication that varies depending on culture and context. There’s less distance in personal situations among close family and a greater distance in public space where strangers surround us.

The Modified Social Benches NY are intended to break our ingrained behaviour in public space, transforming their surroundings into places of social activity and encouraging interaction between those seated and those passing by.

Part of Summertime

Part of Nordic Matters

Antony Gormley: Blind Light

Blind Light 2007 by Antony Gormley at Blind Light Exhibition at The Hayward 2007. Photo copyright Stephen White
A major exhibition by the leading British sculptor

Psycho Buildings: Artists Take On Architecture

The Hayward 2008 Photo Stephen White
A group exhibition of large-scale installations exploring our relationship with the built environment

Walking In My Mind

Yayoi Kusama 
Guidepost to a New World, 2004
© Yayoi Kusama 2009
Photo: Roger Wooldridge
Courtesy: Hayward Gallery, 2009
Exploring the inner workings of the artist’s mind through immersive, large-scale installations

Mark Wallinger: The Russian Linesman

Installation view of MARK WALLINGER: THE RUSSIAN LINESMAN at Hayward Gallery 2009
An artist-curated exhibition exploring borders and thresholds, navigating 2,000 years of history

Annette Messager: The Messengers

A retrospective exhibition devoted to the influential and groundbreaking French artist

Move: Choreographing You – Art and Dance since the 1960s

Move Choreographing You at the Hayward Gallery. The Fact of Matter by William Forsythe Photo Alastair Muir 2010
An exhibition exploring the relationship between visual arts and dance, from 1960 to the present day