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DESIGN / FEATURE

“There is no evidence that Churchill and Beaverbrook ever discussed the festival – by all accounts Churchill just wasn’t that interested”

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critical shrug – the Independent Group’s influence already pervaded architecture, epitomised by the shuttered-concrete South Bank Centre rising alongside the Festival Hall. Yet given the profession’s mid-1970s crisis, A Tonic to the Nation proved an ideal vehicle to renew claims to victimhood – heroic tales of modernist rigour and establishment enmity flattered its vanity far too much to be seriously interrogated. Even today, broadsheet journalists repeat them faithfully, convinced they are engaged in some novel act of iconoclasm, now spiced up with a quote from Churchill describing the festival as ‘three-dimensional socialist propaganda’ that seems to be absent from any contemporary source. In contrast, attempts to empathise with the festival’s mind-set are dismissed as ‘dewy-eyed’.

Even so, new perspectives are emerging from academics such as Alayna Heinonen, Iain Wilton and Becky Conekin. Digging into the festival’s displays (a challenge often shirked) has raised important questions around the determinedly domestic role allotted to women; the suppression of Victorian industrial and urban achievements for an essentially bucolic, libertarian English identity; problematic tributes to exploration and discovery, couched in deliberately ambiguous language; and the failure to celebrate post-Norman immigrant communities, despite their vital role in the festival’s architecture and design.

It has also become clear that the mainstream press, bar Beaverbrook, was vigorous in its support of the festival, as were most Conservatives, particularly within Parliament – Attlee even wrote to thank Churchill for his backing. There is no evidence that Churchill and Beaverbrook ever discussed the festival, nor is it mentioned in Churchill’s copious correspondence with Beaverbrook’s editors – by all accounts he just wasn’t that interested. Almost all of the government’s proposals regarding the festival were approved in Parliament ‘on the nod’. The one defeat, on Sunday opening at Battersea’s pleasure gardens, came courtesy of a ‘sabbatarian, anti-hedonist lobby’ (in Forty’s words; however, he fails to mention that this included 144 Labour MPs).

Nor was the clearance of the South Bank a Conservative initiative, despite the new minister of works, David Eccles, pushing for haste, stating that he did not want to be ‘caretaker of empty and deteriorating structures’. The decision not to extend the festival had been taken three months earlier under Labour, with a Demolition Working Party instructed to clear the site by the end of the year, backed by London County Council. Staff were laid off, auctions prepared, bulldozers sent in and a large

ABOVE The Lion and Unicorn Pavilion designed by RD Russell and RY Goodden (1951). The murals were intended to capture a sense of British eccentricity

April 2019

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