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Festival of Britain and its Art Legacy

The Festival of Britain was designed to be a tonic for the nation. Did it work?

The Festival of Britain was one of the first occasions where many women artists and designers had opportunities to take part. The famous sculptor Barbara Hepworth received two important public commissions; Turning Forms which was a motorised abstract piece, made of reinforced concrete, painted white and 84 inches (just over 2m) in height was commissioned by the Festival of Britain authorities. In 1952 it was moved to Marlborough Science Academy, in St Albans and in October 2020 was moved to a sculpture conservation studio for major conservation work.

Contrapuntal Forms which is a sculpture made out of Irish blue limestone. It was 120 inches (just over 3m) in height and was installed at the Dome of Discovery on the South Bank and commissioned by the Arts Council. In 1953 the Arts Council presented Contrapuntal Forms to the new town of Harlow in Essex. It is sited at Glebelands in Harlow.

One of the centrepieces of the festival was a new commission by the Arts Council for the artist Henry Moore. It became to be known as one of the great triumphs of his career. It was called ‘Reclining Figure” and was the first large reclining figure Moore had made in bronze. It now resides at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

The original plaster sculpture from which the bronze was cast was given as a gift after Moore’s death to the Tate Gallery in 1978, along with 35 other sculptures.

 

‘London Pride’ (1950-51, c1987) by Frank Dobson

Commissioned by the Festival Design Group, the sculptor Frank Dobson created a work on the theme of leisure titled ‘London Pride’. He developed full-scale clay models at the Royal College of Art, London assisted by his students. The budget did not run to bronze, so the models were cast in plaster and finished in gun-metal. The finished work was originally erected at one of the entrances to the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank site.

At the end of the Festival ‘London Pride’ remained in storage until 1986 when, at the behest of Dobson’s widow, the Arts Council arranged for them to be re-cast in bronze for a permanent public siting.

The sculptures were unveiled again on the South Bank in September 1987 on a new slate platform on Queen’s Walk, adjacent to the National Theatre so perhaps is the piece of art closest to its original spot.

 

Not far away is Sunbathers

Artist Peter Laszlo Peri was commissioned to create the sculpture ‘The Sunbathers’ for the Festival of Britain’s South Bank Exhibition site. It was located on the wall at the Station Gate, welcoming visitors to the Festival as they arrived from Waterloo station.

The sculpture had been considered lost but was rediscovered at a London hotel. The hotel’s owners had bought it at an auction in the 1950s and its significance as a rare survival from the Festival of Britain was forgotten. Historic England launched a campaign to restore ‘The Sunbathers’ and get it back on public display which saw them unveiled in 2020 at Waterloo Station, close to its original home.

Learn more about the Festival of Britain on our London History Podcast Episode 54: The Festival of Britain.

Hazel Baker is an award-winning London Tour Guide and qualified CIGA guide who delivers guided walks and private tours in London. View all of Hazel’s walking tours.

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