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“A Tonic to the Nation”: The Festival of Britain, 1951

  • F. M. Leventhal

No event of the post-Second World War decade in Britain is recalled as affectionately or enveloped in such an aura of nostalgia as the Festival of Britain, a five-month series of cultural events and exhibits, with its centerpiece at the South Bank in London. But the Festival dear to the recollections of those growing up during and after the war diverged sharply from the original conception of its progenitors.

In 1943 the Royal Society of the Arts, partly responsible for the Great Exhibition of 1851, suggested to the government that an international exhibition along similar lines be staged in 1951 to commemorate the earlier event. To propose a celebratory occasion in 1943 was an act of faith that the war would not only end successfully, but that Britain would have recovered sufficiently by 1951 to warrant such a demonstration. In September 1945, with the war over and Labour in power, Gerald Barry, the editor of the News Chronicle, addressed an open letter to Stafford Cripps, then President of the Board of Trade, advocating a trade and cultural exhibition in London as a way of commemorating the centenary of the Crystal Palace. Such an exhibition would advertise British products and display British prowess in design and craftsmanship. He favored a site in the center of London, such as Hyde Park or Battersea, either of which would provide ample space for such an exhibition. What prompted these suggestions was the need to provide practical help to British commerce at a time when it was clearly under pressure shifting from wartime controls to peacetime competition.

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1 News Chronicle, 14 Sept. 1945.

2 “Excerpt from the Report of the Ramsden Committee,” PRO/EL 6/1.

3 “Proposals Regarding the 1951 Exhibition: Draft Memorandum by the Lord President of the Council” (June 1947), PRO/EL 6/1.

4 Text of Statement by the Director-General, Mr. Gerald Barry at a Press Conference on Thursday, October 14, 1948,” PRO/EL 6/21.

5 Barry, Gerald, “The Festival of Britain,” The Adelphi 27 (1951): 205.

6 Barry, Gerald, “At Home to the World,” in Come to Britain: A Survey by The Times in Cooperation with the British Travel and Holiday Association (January 1951).

7 Barry, Gerald, “Purpose and Approach to Theme” (May 1948), PRO/EL 6/23. Also see Barry, Gerald, “The Festival of Britain 1951” (Three Cantor Lectures), Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 100 (22 August 1952): 676.

8 The Story of the Festival of Britain, 1951, p. 16.

9 Barry, , “The Festival of Britain 1951,” p. 670.

10 Taylor, Basil, “The Festival of Britain,” Current Affairs 131 (28 April 1951): 5.

11 Barry, , “Press Conference,” 14 October 1948.

12 “Statement by Mr. Gerald Barry at the first Council Meeting, 31 May 1948,” PRO/WORK 25/7/A1/B8.

13 Transcript of Broadcast Interview with Ian Cox, Jan. 1950, PRO/WORK 25/40/A2/R7.

14 Barry, , “Press Conference,” 14 October 1948.

15 Gerald Barry to Ian Cox, 26 April 1949, PRO/WORK 25/21.

16 Time and Tide, 5 May 1951.

17 Architectural Review 110 (August 1951): 7375.

18 Black, Misha, “Architecture, Art and Design in Unison,” in Banham, Mary and Hillier, Bevis, eds., A Tonic to the Nation: The Festival of Britain 1951 (London, 1976), p. 82.

19 Forty, Adrian, “Festival Politics,” in A Tonic to the Nation, pp. 26, 38.

20 Time and Tide, 5 May 1951.

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  • ISSN: 0095-1390
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