LONDON – In 1951, the British Government organised what would become one of the most famous cultural exhibitions in the nation’s history: the Festival of Britain. Devised as a way of raising the spirits of a country that had been significantly scarred by the Second World War, the Festival was a celebration of British achievements, ranging from the arts, to science, industry and technology.


THE FESTIVAL OF BRITAIN EMBLEM, 1951.

While displays and dramatic performances took place around the UK, the festival centred on London’s South Bank, in an area that had been severely damaged by bombing during the war. The redevelopment included a walkway along the river, as well as a range of modernist buildings, meant to inspire the regeneration of urban spaces around the UK.

A number of artists were asked to contribute pieces to the Festival. From outdoor sculptural installations commissioned from Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Lynn Chadwick, to large scale murals by Ben Nicholson and Keith Vaughan.


EDWARD BURRA, JUDITH AND HOLOFERNES, 1950–51ESTIMATE: £250,000–350,000.

Other artists were asked to submit a piece to an exhibition of paintings for the Festival entitled 60 Paintings for 51. The artists were allowed to contribute a painting on a subject of their choice, the only requirement being that the work be on a grand scale. The show included such important works as Lucian Freud’s Interior Near Paddington (1951), Francis Bacon’s Painting (1950), L. S. Lowry’s Industrial Landscape: River Scene (1950), with William Gear winning the prize for his Autumn Landscape (1950). Edward Burra presented the arresting and imposing Judith and Holofernes, which will be included in our Modern & Post-War British Art sale at Sotheby's London this November.

VISITORS TO THE FESTIVAL OF BRITAIN IN FRONT OF THE DOME OF DISCOVERY.
PHOTO BY SOUTHABNK CENTRE ARHIVE/MRS HOLLAND.

The Festival proved immensely popular at a time of severe austerity and with rationing still imposed throughout the country, attracting over ten million paying patrons to the various exhibitions over the five-month period. While many of the buildings and structures built for the Festival were demolished in the years following the event, its influence in architecture, style and design were felt for many years.