CDH member Dr Harriet Atkinson provides fresh perspectives on the Festival of Britain in a major magazine feature and podcast to mark its upcoming 70th anniversary.

The Festival of Britain opened in May 1951 and ran through the summer that year, with a mission to promote a sense of recovery, boost morale and showcase creativity in a Britain still scarred by the impact of WW2. Though the main site was on London’s South Bank – which drew 8.5 million visitors – the festival was a nationwide affair with exhibitions in towns and cities around Britain.

In addition to exhibitions, the festival also left a long-lasting legacy across the world of design – most famously through iconic modernist chairs by Ernest Race and Robin Day, posters by Abram Games, and ravishing textile designs by Lucienne Day. Far less acknowledged, however, were the many important contributions made by foreign-born creatives. These include Misha Black, Jacqueline Groag and FHK Henrion to the displays, Peter Moro and HJ Reifenberg in architecture, Siegfried Charoux in sculpture, plus the textile design work of Tibor Reich.

Dr Atkinson – Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities – has now written a nine-page feature about refugee contributions to the festival, published this week in the May issue of BBC History Magazine – Britain’s biggest selling history magazine. She has also been interviewed for the BBC’s HistoryExtra podcast, which has had over 100 million downloads.

Dr Atkinson said: “Memories of the festival have been instrumentalised by the current government to justify spending £120m on next year’s Festival UK* 2022 – popularly dubbed ‘The Festival of Brexit’. So it felt important to make the point that despite its patriotic rhetoric, the Festival of Britain also provided a platform for designers from many locations, including Hungary, Poland, Germany and Austria.

“We are lucky that a number of those designers – such as Dorrit Dekk, FHK Henrion and Willy de Majo – are represented in the collections of the University’s own Design Archives.”

In addition to her latest BBC contributions, Dr Atkinson is the author of the 2012 book The Festival Of Britain: A Land and Its People.


Image: from Festival of Britain anniversary feature by Harriet Atkinson in the May 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine.

This post is reposted from the University of Brighton’s news and events blog, originally published 16 April 2021