The London Group and the Festival of Britain

Archivist David Redfern LG transports us back to 1951 to take a look at the significant role the Group played in the Festival of Britain.

Cover for February exhibition catalogue

The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition and fair that attracted millions of visitors throughout the United Kingdom in the summer of 1951. Historian Kenneth O. Morgan claimed that the Festival was a “triumphant success” during which people, “flocked to the South Bank site (in London), to wander around the Dome of Discovery, gaze at the Skylon and generally enjoy a festival of national celebration. Up and down the land, lesser festivals enlisted much civic and voluntary enthusiasm. A people curbed by years of total war and half-crushed by austerity and gloom, showed that it had not lost the capacity for enjoying itself.”

To that end the Arts Council of Great Britain organised an exhibition, “60 Paintings for ‘51”, showing from 1st January to 1st December 1951 at the Suffolk Galleries, Suffolk Street, London W1. They invited 60 important contemporary painters to exhibit, even providing some with canvases for them to paint on as art materials were in short supply after the war. It was stipulated that paintings were to be not less than 45 x 60 inches (114 x 152 cms). For various reasons only 54 artists exhibited and 36 of the 54 (67%) were, at some point in their careers, members of The London Group. The Arts Council purchased five prize-winning paintings for £500 each, a considerable sum in the 1950s. The winners were Lucian Freud, William Gear (elected to The London Group in 1953), Ivon Hitchens (1931), Robert Medley (1937) and Claude Rogers (1938). Three of the five prize-winners were current members of The London Group and William Gear was to be elected two years later. Only three paintings in the entire exhibition were abstracts, those by Peter Lanyon, Victor Pasmore (1934) and William Gear (1953) which neatly demonstrates how The London Group were supporting progressive, contemporary painting. Gear’s prize-winning abstract “Autumn Landscape” caused quite a furore, the invective led by Sir Alfred Munnings the then President of the Royal Academy. Questions were literally asked in the House and cartoonists and the newspapers, especially the Daily Mail, had a field day. ‘Twas ever thus!

Autumn Landscape by William Gear © the artist’s estate, photo credit: Laing Art Gallery.

On the Festival of Britain Southbank site itself a large number of murals were commissioned and painted in the many restaurants and pavilions. Keith Vaughan (1949) painted an enormous mural for the Dome of Discovery, Victor Pasmore (1934) and John Tunnard (1934) painted huge murals for restaurants on the site, F. E. McWilliam (1949) made a massive installation symbolising the four seasons for the Agricultural Hall and Joseph Herman (1953) made a study for a mural but it was not realised. Perhaps the most impressive mural was John Piper’s (1933) “The Englishman’s Home” exhibited on the southern façade of the Homes and Gardens pavilion. At 50ft long and 16ft high it is a genuinely mighty example of his output.

Further down the river in Battersea Park the London County Council in association with the Arts Council organised “Sculpture”, an open-air sculpture exhibition from May to September, 1951. There were forty-four exhibits from both British and international sculptors, the British sculptors being Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick (1952), Frank Dobson (1922), Eric Gill, Alfred F. Hardiman, Barbara Hepworth (1930), Karin Jonzen (1948), Gilbert Ledward, F.E. McWilliam (1949), Bernard Meadows (1951), Henry Moore (1930), John R. Skeaping (1930), Havard Thomas and Charles Wheeler, 8 of whom (58%) were at some point in their careers members of The London Group. Amongst the international exhibitors were Jean Arp, Ernst Barlach, Max Bill, Alexander Calder, Jacob Epstein (1913), Alberto Giacometti, Heinz Henghes (1973), Maurice Lambert (1930), Jacques Lipchitz, Aristide Maillol, Marino Marini, Antione Pevsner, Auguste Rodin, Willi Soukop and Karel Vogel. International artists who were members of The London Group were often refugees fleeing Nazi oppression and settling in London. Jacob Epstein (1913), Barbara Hepworth (1930) and F. E. McWilliam (1949), all at some point London Group members, served on the Advisory Panel for the exhibition and John Piper (1933) along with Osbert Lancaster designed most of the pavilions and buildings in Battersea Park.

In the Festival year of 1951 The London Group itself organised two massive open submission exhibitions at the New Burlington Galleries, Old Burlington Street, London W1, one in February and the other in November. Arts Council prizewinner and soon to be London Group president Claude Rogers was on the organising committee for both exhibitions working alongside, amongst others, Victor Pasmore, Ceri Richards and Julian Trevelyan. Just as Rogers’ work was selected by an Arts Council jury, so Rogers and his colleagues selected works submitted by non-member contemporary artists in the London Group’s open submission process, an opportunity the Group continues to offer to artists to this day. A total of 355 works, that is paintings, drawings, sculpture etc., were shown in the February exhibition and 373 in November, a massive undertaking. The New Burlington Galleries comprised of four large galleries and a ‘vestibule’, the sort of large, hireable, affordable London gallery space exhibition organisers can only dream of today. The February exhibition made a small profit from submission fees, entrance fees, catalogue sales and sales commission, but unfortunately the November exhibition showed a loss of £30.5s.2d, a loss exacerbated by “the party” which cost £10.16s.6d!

This June The London Group will be collaborating with St. John’s Church, Waterloo in support of the Waterloo Festival 2021, exactly 70 years since the Festival of Britain. St. John’s was largely repaired and rebuilt in 1951 as the Festival’s official church, it being situated on the Southbank festival site. The Waterloo Festival of 2021 expressess a parallel with the 1951 Festival of Britain as the country emerges from two bleak periods in its history 70 years apart.

David Redfern LG, 2021

F. E. McWilliam, “Head in Green and Brown”, Hornton Stone, 1950
Cover for November exhibition catalogue


Further articles by David Redfern written for the Waterloo Festival 2021

William “Bill” Gear, 1915-1997/1
Vanessa Bell, 1879-1961
Claude Rodgers,1907-1979