This summer sees the 70th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, the celebration of our arts and sciences which occupied London’s South Bank from May to September 1951.
Launched by the post-war Labour government, the Festival’s aim was to promote the nation’s recovery from the devastations of World War II. The main site attracted over eight million visitors, and its bold structures and vivid colours had a lasting impact on design in the UK. The whole thing cheered people up enormously.
The British public had been promised a ‘summer of gaiety and good looks’, and this was triumphantly achieved. Years later Londoners in their 80s loved to reminisce about the nights they’d spent by the river, dancing to jazz bands under the stars.
But in October 1951 Labour lost a snap general election. Never an enthusiast for the Festival, the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the clearance of the South Bank site as one of his first acts. Only the Festival Hall survives today to remind us of the architectural inventiveness which the celebration inspired.
So in Fitzrovia we’re lucky to have a visual reminder of the Festival within easy walking distance. Reliefs showing some of its most striking features were incorporated into the facade of a commercial development at 219 Oxford Street, built towards the end of 1951. This is on the south side of the Street, on the corner with Hills Place.
Now Grade II listed, it’s a little gem of art deco design by architects Ronald Ward and Partners. Its sculptures — by David Trussler — are a joy. They show, in ascending order:
1) The Dome of Discovery, an exhibition space designed by Ralph Tubbs, who was also the architect of the Indian YMCA on Fitzroy Square; and the Skylon, a cigar-shaped tower which appeared to float above the ground.
2) The Festival logo, a compass-and-bunting design that incorporates a head of Britannia.
3) The Festival Hall and the Lambeth Shot Tower, demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
I’ve lived in Fitzrovia for 46 years, and must have walked past this building hundreds of times. But it was only last month that I learned to look up at it. Thank you Wikipedia for this revelation.
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com