What Was the Festival of Britain?

The Festival of Britain was a morale boosting phenomenon following World War II, featuring an array of pop-up buildings, exhibitions and tourist attractions.

May 12, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


Held from May to September 1951, the Festival of Britain was a momentous event in British and international history. The spectacular festival was staged by the British government just six years after the end of World War II, and as such it signaled a new era of hope and optimism for the 20th century. Showcasing the latest in internationally manufactured products, the event included ground-breaking examples of textiles, furniture, graphic design, architecture and more.


Organizers went to town with the event, staging a series of pop-up buildings and fairground attractions, drawing in crowds from near and far. While some criticized the Festival of Britain for its ostentatious display of wealth at a time when the country was still recovering from austerity and rationing, many more praised its significance in boosting public morale, and reasserting Britain as a place of cultural significance following the devastation of war. We look closer at a handful of the event’s key roles. 


The Festival of Britain Was Intended as a ‘Tonic for the Nation’

Vintage postcard illustrating the Festival of Britain


Above all else, the main purpose of the Festival of Britain was to raise the morale of the British public, at a time when many had faced significant change, upheaval and hardship, both during and after World War II. The show stopping nature of the event drew in more than 8.5 million people, who flocked to the main stage at London’s South Bank, and to a series of smaller, related events in cities and towns throughout the rest of the UK. 


A Showcase for Modernist Design

Textile design by Lucienne Day for the Festival of Britain in 1951


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The Festival of Britain was a true showcase for breakthrough modernist design, including, most prominently, architecture, furniture, and textiles. Architecture played a significant role, reimaging areas of London that had been badly damaged during the war. Some buildings were temporary, while others, including the Royal Festival Hall, are still standing today. Furniture design by Ernest Race, Andrew John Milne and Robin Day demonstrated the rising trend for mid-century modernism, with domestic furniture that embraced industrial materials and stylized curving forms. Meanwhile textile designers Lucienne Day, Joyce Clissold and John Barker presented their daring new designs and successfully launched international careers following the event. 


Science, Engineering and Technology

The Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain in London, designed by architect Ralph Tubbs


As well as presenting world-leading design, the Festival of Britain also presented the latest innovations within the fields of science, engineering and technology, which drew in crowds from far and wide. A star attraction was the Dome of Discovery, a purpose built dome- the largest in the world at the time – housing a series of exhibitions related to spectacular natural wonders, including the sea, the sky, Polar regions and outer space. The Telekinema, an experimental new cinema space, was another prominent attraction at the South Bank site with 400 seats, and a state-of-the-art screen for presenting 3D films. Meanwhile, the Science Museum in South Kensington constructed a new wing for presenting the Exhibition of Science. 


Fairground Attractions

Vintage postcard illustrating the funfair at the Festival of Britain


A great crowd puller and morale-booster during the Festival of Britain was the large-scale funfair, featuring Pleasure Gardens, fairground rides and a series of staged events. One particularly popular feature of the funfair district was the Guinness Festival Clock, a 25-foot clock sponsored by the Beermaker Guinness, which had rotating mechanical features, and decorations inspired by characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Meanwhile, the fairground offered up a Big Dipper, a Bubble Bounce, a Loop-O-Plane and the Sky Wheels, with rides shipping from the United States that had never been seen before in the UK. While the funfair was originally intended to be a temporary feature in London, their enduring popularity during the 1950s meant many rides remained in place for a decade or longer.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.