Winter 2007

When Britannia ruled the South Bank

Festival of Britain 1951: Design

By Paul Rennie
Antique Collectors Club, £14.95

I met the delightful Ralph Tubbs just once, in the mid-1990s. Mention of the Festival of Britain still aroused in him something akin to fury. The main architectural features – Tubbs was responsible for the Dome of Discovery – were all designed to be demountable; to be removed from the site and re-erected elsewhere, a precedent set a century earlier by Paxton’s Crystal Palace. The 1951 buildings were sold, instead, for scrap: a shameful, political act by Winston Churchill’s incoming Conservative administration that Tubbs could never forgive. So we are obliged today to gain an understanding of the look and feel of the festival through the countless artefacts and ephemera that it generated rather than its transposed architecture: artefacts kept and treasured, no doubt, by the millions that experienced it.

It was a party to which everyone was invited, including both young and established architects, designers, typographers and artists. The result was an eclectic mix of Modernism and whimsy, where somehow the stunningly simple exclamation mark of the Skylon could happily coexist with the meandering eccentricity of Rowland Emett’s Battersea light railway. This was the very point at which the world seemed to turn from black and white into colour – even if it were ultimately on rather hastily applied paper over the very real cracks in the entire British infrastructure, and the still devastated capital.

As the publisher of another collectors’ society, I’m well aware that potential ‘serious’ readers might somehow be deterred by the publisher’s name; the author’s name alone should dismiss such thoughts. My one, tiny, gripe is the lack of an index. But in every respect this is a serious book, well written and presented, and illustrated not just with a procession of collectable artefacts but a pretty comprehensive photographic record of the site and its architecture, along with countless renditions of the festival emblem created by the equally delightful and much-missed Abram Games – his rather jaunty Britannia, looking constantly and optimistically to the left.

Steve Hare is the publisher of the Penguin Collectors’ Society.

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