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The Festival of Britain

A Land and its People


Harriet Atkinson


London: I.B. Tauris, 2012

Paperback. xxix + 242 p. ISBN 978-1848857926. £17.99


Reviewed by Elizabeth Darling

Oxford Brookes University



Since the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain was closed down in the October of 1951, there has been a consensus about its historical significance for the development of modernist culture in Britain. John Summerson, for example, writing in the 1959 study, Modern Architecture in Britain, noted how, ‘After a near vacuum of twelve years it raised the whole question of modern design to a plane of seriousness and importance from which there could be no descent.’ I have long included it in my teaching on the history of 20th-century British architecture, focusing particularly on its main surviving monument, the Royal Festival Hall, now sadly vandalised by the commercialised replanning of the South Bank in the early years of this century.

Yet, despite this consensus, there remains a relatively narrow literature on the field. There is an excellent monograph on the Festival Hall itself (John McKean’s 2001 study for Phaidon), the well-known twenty-fifth anniversary study, A Tonic to the Nation, edited by Mary Banham and Bevis Hillier, as well as a handful of more recent studies by Becky Conekin and Barry Turner among others. We still know comparatively little about the individual buildings and events which made up, not just the South Bank site but the Festival’s many manifestations up and down and across the British Isles. As a very useful amplification of the current state of knowledge about the Festival, Harriet Atkinson’s book, The Festival of Britain : A Land and its People, is, therefore, very much to be welcomed. In its eight chapters, she produces a valuable documentation of the Festival, taking an approach derived more from historical geography and cultural history than architecture or design history. In so doing she has had access to some privately-held sources, such as its main instigator’s Gerald Barry’s papers, as well as a range of ephemera which shed light on the everyday experience of this phenomenon; the result is what she describes as an attempt ‘to show the Festival’s deep relationship with wider cultural sensibilities…’ [p.203, n.6].

The book’s eight chapters are preceded by an introduction by Mary Banham and a very useful section on the major Festival exhibitions; a good way of reminding readers of the multiple locations of an event often associated solely with London’s South Bank. The Introduction outlines Atkinson’s concern to show the imagination which created the Festival. This she firmly locates in a particular vision of Britain and its landscape, deploying the concept of topophilia [5] ‘a love of place informed by the memory and history of that place’, which was signalled very clearly in the decision to organise the South-Bank site around the theme of the ‘Land and People of Britain’.

Thus the Festival was a series of experiments in what it meant to be modern and British, manifested in what she calls ‘spatial stories’ formed from the combination of buildings (exhibitions and so forth)  ‘inextricably bound up with words and texts’ [2]. The chapters themselves then explore different aspects of these stories in which Atkinson synthesises references to the practicalities of organising the exhibition with discussions of the use of English language, the projection of British technologies, the British worker, and debates about the nature of home, inter alia.

As a whole, the book offers a rather different way of seeing the Festival of Britain than has hitherto prevailed. Its emphasis on cultural sensibilities means that we are encouraged to understand the event as a series of negotiations about British identity at the historical moment when the country was itself having to negotiate its place in an increasingly post-colonial and US-dominated world. Atkinson very usefully reminds us of the advent of the Korean War in this period and the beginnings of the Cold War, which formed an increasingly ominous background to life from this time onwards. In its determination to explore a wide range of cultural sensibilities, from the highbrow attitudes of Barry and the team who organised the Festival, to those who experienced it, the book is perhaps not as cohesive as it might have been, and the quality (although not the choice) of illustrations and lack of bibliography is frustrating (the fault of the publisher not the author of course). Nevertheless, the book is a very good addition to the literature on the Festival of Britain and will enable students to think more broadly around the theme of post-war British reconstruction.


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