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The Festival of Britain

The National Archives has a wealth of documents, photographs and art work collected during the planning and running of the influential 1951 Festival of Britain.

Colourful illustration of the festival site from above

A panorama of the Festival of Britain by artist Eric Fraser (catalogue reference: WORK 25/209)

Organising the Festival

The Festival of Britain was a nationwide series of events, exhibitions and festivities with a main site on the Southbank in London. It took place at a time when Britain was still feeling the effects of the Second World War, and it offered a vision of what the future could be – celebrating British industry, arts and science.

The buildings, art works, exhibitions and events for the festival were commissioned and organised by a specially created department called the Festival Office. The National Archives has the records from the Festival Office, and they include photographs of buildings under construction, posters and leaflets advertising events and exhibitions, and minutes from committee meetings. There are also some unexpected items like paint swatch cards and textile samples for uniforms.

A building under construction with the London skyline in the background

The Dome of Discovery under construction (catalogue reference: WORK 25/201)

A plan of an exhibition titled The People of Britain with a walking route marked

A page from the guide to the Festival of Britain (catalogue reference: ZLIB 17/129A)

A woman stands pointing to a picture of the festival site. She wears a dark suit with a large collar

An example of the uniform for female guides (catalogue reference: WORK 25/201 (2266) )

Opposition

Not everyone was in favour of the festival. Some people complained that Britain couldn’t afford it and that it wasn’t a good use of labour and materials, which were in short supply.

A cartoon of men in bowler hats carrying placards with slogans like 'Festival? Can't afford it!'

This cartoon by German-British political cartoonist, Victor Weisz (Vicky), depicts opposition to the festival (catalogue reference: WORK 25/208)

But others believed that the austerity and political uncertainty of the times made it even more important to show how Britain was recovering from the war and moving forward.

Architects, artists and designers were given an opportunity to use new materials and to create a vision of post-war living for a nationwide audience.

Buildings

A number of new structures were designed for the Southbank site, including the Royal Festival Hall which still stands today, and the Dome of Discovery which later influenced the design of the Millennium Dome (now The O2 Arena).

The Skylon was designed following a competition for a ‘vertical structure’. The design was futuristic and left people wondering how it stayed upright. It became the source of a popular joke that, like the British economy, it had no visible means of support

Visitors looking at the Skylon - a thin, upright structure towering into the sky

The Skylon on the South Bank (catalogue reference: WORK 25/208)

Across the UK

The festival opened officially on 3 May 1951 and was a great success. As well as the main site on the Southbank, people could visit the pleasure gardens in Battersea, and the exhibition of Architecture in Poplar.

Outside London there were exhibitions in Glasgow and Belfast, various travelling exhibitions and many locally organised events.

Visitors look at displays on a wall. In the foreground two children look at a robot

Part of the exhibition inside the festival ship, Campania, which toured Britain’s coast.

Legacy

The festival had a lasting impact on design and architecture, with many young professionals establishing their names through their contributions.

Graphic design with a pale blue background, a helmeted figure in profile and decorative triangles

Original artwork for a leaflet featuring the festival emblem designed by Abram Games.

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