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Art in Strange Places

Advertising Britain in the 1951 Festival of Britain guide

Susan Finding


The 1951 Festival of Britain was intended as a showpiece to display the country’s achievements to the world, extolling its way of life. The official Festival guide, as well as containing explanations about the various exhibition sites and exhibits, comprises sixty-four full-page colour adverts for (mainly) British companies and British-made products. No industry or manufacturer was permitted to book exhibition space within the South Bank Exhibition. Exhibits were “selected for the excellence of their design and their appropriateness to the story which is told”. This is likely to have also been the case for the adverts placed in the guide, a further way of putting Britain on display. The overall narrative related by the Festival is found echoed in these pages. In these pieces of artwork, both visual and textual references abound to British “heritage”, to a glorious future, to the literary canon, with artistic tropes projecting both tradition and futuristic visions and, as seen at the time, the place of Britain in the world.

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1A Festival in the cultural world is not a strange place to find Art, since by definition it is “an organized series of special events” (Cambridge), and commonly used for film, music and visual arts events; neither are adverts, which are among the first places one thinks of to look for examples of art in strange places–biscuit tins, soap boxes, billboards... The series of adverts placed in the Festival guide produced for the South Bank Exhibition of the 1951 Festival of Britain are both commonplace and exceptional. The Festival in question was not primarily an art festival. It was however intended to display the arts and industries of the country, British “skill in design and craftsmanship”, “scientific imagination and research”, and the “greatness of our national heritage” (Newsreels The opening ceremony Festival of Britain, Pathé Newsreels, Festival of Britain Opening 1951, British Movietone). These adverts have been overlooked since such commercial placings in brochures, guides and magazines were ubiquitous and routine. They are nevertheless a key complementary source for analysis of the Festival’s aims and purpose.

2The main Festival venue, on the South Bank Exhibition site—situated on derelict industrial ground opposite the Houses of Parliament1 where now the London Eye celebrates views of the capital—housed twenty-six pavilions, a huge dome, and included the Royal Festival Hall (1951) and the National Film Theatre (1952), the only remaining architectural legacy of the exhibition. Over six months, 8.5 million visitors came to the South Bank, and a further 1.5 million attended the satellite exhibitions: architecture and housing in Poplar, East London; the Science Museum, Kensington; industry in Glasgow; technology and agriculture in Belfast; agriculture in Wales. Roving exhibitions were sent all over the country, including a ship providing an itinerant exhibition on quaysides around the British Isles, while towns and cities all over the country organised their own festivities (Jones, 2019).

3Literature on the Festival covered firstly the history of design, then the political and social history behind the initiative (Atkinson), the planning, the design and architecture of the buildings, and the exhibition contents. These were seen as symbolic (Burstow) and innovative, a “beacon for change” (Turner), and the Festival’s achievements were examined in the terms it set for itself, as “national autobiography” according to Herbert Morrison (Conekin 17), and the role of the Festival as a pick-me-up, “a tonic” (Cox). Design and artistic aspects were privileged, whereas the scientific and technical side of the Festival’s narrative and presentations were less explored (Forgan). Over the years, the analysis has become increasingly aware of the gaps and silences in the Festival narrative—the multiple national narratives within the Kingdom, the colonial contribution, and gendered roles (Jervis)—and in the imagined past thus portrayed (Owens).

4The official Festival guide (Cox), containing explanations about the various exhibition sites and exhibits, quoted by historians in analyses of the Festival’s impact, also comprises sixty-four full-page colour adverts for British companies and British-made products. Exhibits at the South Bank were chosen for their suitability in fulfilling the brief. The adverts placed in the guide, a further way of putting Britain on display, can only have been selected in a similar fashion, since “the festival was meant to project an image of Britain (and its wares) to the world” (Mandler). This advertising corpus—artwork and copy—does not appear to have been studied in the published work on the Festival (Conekin; Banham and Hillier; Turner; Atkinson), bar a mention of the Benedict Processed Peas advert (Matless 362), although these pages mirror the Festival content, and have now become collectors’ items as examples of mid-20th century design.

5This article will examine in turn how the corpus of adverts in the Festival guide illustrates 1) the objectives of the Festival of Britain, a celebration of British arts and sciences; 2) its creators (agencies and creative directors), and the products and companies thus elevated to represent Britain; 3) the contrasting modernist aesthetics and heritage references, in particular cultural canons and “art de vivre”; which, in turn, give an idea of 4) the representations and projections of mid-20th century Britain through the prism of adverts designed specifically to tie in with the Festival.

Intentions of the Festival

6King George VI’s opening ceremony speech from the steps of St Paul’s after the dedication service on 4th May 1951 makes clear references to past heritage, and present-day know-how, and underlines the prestige of British art and industry: “This Festival has been planned as a visible sign of national achievement and confidence [to] restore and expand the prosperity [to] look back with pride and forward with resolution” (Pathé Newsreels, Festival of Britain Opening 1951). His words echo the general “narrative” of the Festival; a term used by the Festival organizers to describe the exhibition’s avowed purpose, to celebrate British successes, to act, on the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition, as a fillip to the nation emerging from the deprivations and destruction of the previous decade.

7From the outset promoters of art and design were involved and had a lasting impact on the style and the aesthetics of the Festival. The idea of an exhibition replicating the Great Exhibition had been mooted in 1943 by the Royal Society of Arts. An exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington, celebrating British design, was held in 1946. As the name of this exhibition shows, Britain Can Make It was intended as an expression of pride in the country’s arts and crafts, but also in its ability to pull itself through the aftermath of the war. In a precursory manner, Dudley Ryder, heading that exhibition, spoke proudly of the originality of British manufacturers, the strength and capacity of British industry, and the importance of industrial design (Council of Industrial Design; Bilbey). The idea of promoting British skills and creativity, but also of endurance and solidity, was in the air.

  • 2 It is therefore not surprising that a large number of young artists and designers were employed by (...)

8The committee for the Festival of Britain project, sitting from May 1948, was largely composed of representatives of a variety of arts-orientated cultural institutions: the newly created Arts Council of Great Britain, the Council of Industrial Design, the British Film Institute and the National Book League. The Council for Science and Technology, the Council for Architecture—new institutions set up for the Festival—were added to the committee (Barry).2 As the cultural parallel to the new Welfare State (Burstow 5), the Festival was intended to promote the arts in general and encourage cultural consumption, in the absence of full economic recovery.

9The Festival was publicly intended as a pick-me-up, a “tonic”, according to Gerald Barry, the director, demonstrating “two of the main qualities of the national character: on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other fantasy, independence and imagination” (Cox 67; Leventhal). Or, as Ian Cox, the editor of the Guide, put it, “the British people’s native genius” (67).

10But the rebranding of Britain, putting its achievements in science forward—and scientific and technical rather than the cultural content dominated the exhibition in the South Bank, and was what people remembered—showed the phoenix-like renaissance of the country, building on its intellectual and industrial resources, heralding a new era of prosperity, constituting a very public and international display of British fortitude and skills, of Britain’s place in the world. The Guide explains that the exhibition was neither a museum of British culture, nor a commercial exhibition of British products, but “The Story the Exhibition Tells” was intended to show how Britain—the British Empire was singularly absent from the storyboard—had contributed to global civilisation in the arts of peacetime (Cox 8). 

11Within the exhibition space, exhibits were “selected for the excellence of their design and their appropriateness to the story which is told”. No industry or manufacturer was permitted to book exhibition space within the South Bank Exhibition. The adverts given space in The South Bank Exhibition, A Guide to the Story It Tells have a narrative that is in keeping with that “appropriateness”. They were clearly intended not just as window-dressing, but also as both a reinforcement of that message, and to generate additional income, helping to finance what must have been the costly production of the souvenir guide, printed on glossy paper—at a time when paper imports were restricted—and illustrated with black and white photographs and coloured plans of the site. Compared to the sober text and illustrations in the central guide, the adverts framing it were extravagant, full-page colour plates, impossible to miss on opening its pages. The public paid half-a-crown (2/6d) for this souvenir guide. At the time, illustrated magazines with advertising such as Picture Post cost only 4d, Punch 6d. But the more upmarket Ideal Home or Country Life were priced at 2/-. The cost of the Guide was therefore not excessive.

The official guide advertising section—representing Britain?

  • 3 Sample adverts can be found easily by an online image search. A full list of the adverts, giving br (...)

12The official Festival guide contains ninety-six illustrated pages, guiding the visitor through the different pavilions and exhibits, sandwiched between a further sixty-four pages of advertisements.3 The themes of the exhibition, set out in King George’s opening speech—“the prestige of our arts and industries […] our world-renowned skill in design and craftsmanship and […] scientific imagination and research […] Britain’s abiding courage and vitality […] the greatness of our national heritage”—are to be found echoed in the adverts; whilst a new era of less onerous work and more leisure is presaged. The mainly British companies and their advertising agencies joined in the spirit, promoting their know-how, their expertise, their experience, in a manner which was coherent with the story being told at the exhibition.

13Without knowledge of the whereabouts of the records concerning the production of the souvenir guide, the vetting of the advertising companies, the choice of the final sixty-four adverts allowed into the guide, we remain in the dark as to the reasons for the choice of adverts, companies or advertising agencies. A number of factors, however, would have logically entered into consideration. The inclusion of these companies and products may have been due to their adherence to the narrative and their artwork, as was that of the exhibits chosen for display in the Festival. The companies whose products and services were advertised include nationalized and government-promoted concerns (see below) who may have received preferential treatment. It is not known if there was any link between the size of the advertising budget of the company, its hope of achieving sales, its public relations priorities or other sponsorship of government events, and their featuring in this guide. The list of advertising companies credited in the Guide and the accounts they managed does provide some information.

14The advertising agencies are, not surprisingly, largely British, although some major American agencies also figure. The oldest British agency, Mather’s, established in 1850, appropriately created the advert for Allied Iron Founders, celebrating the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition with a watercolour impression of the original 1851 iron gates within the “Crystal Palace”, a composition that allows for long-copy occupying one third of the page and bold bright lettering for the product name. Mather’s were also responsible for the adverts for British Electricity, Outspan oranges and Ronson lighters in the guide.

15Two other major British advertising agencies also produced several of the adverts. S. H. Benson’s company, founded in 1893, produced the adverts in the guide for Crompton Parkinson, London Transport, Lloyds Bank, and Macleans toothpaste, whose account they held (along with those, not advertised in the Festival guide, of such staples of British diet as Guinness, Rowntree’s, Lipton’s Tea, Colman’s Mustard, or gastric remedy Andrew’s Liver Salts). W. S. Crawford, established in 1914, provided the adverts for two flagship London stores, Liberty, and Simpson’s, whose account they held and who placed an advert in the guide for Daks slacks (see below), and National Savings (they held the GPO advertising account).

16Only one designer behind these adverts can be clearly identified. Ashley Havinden (1903-1973) became art director at the Crawford agency from 1929, Director and Chairman by 1951. He was a major designer who had designed the Britain Can Make It poster, and whose first name was given to fonts he designed. His post-war work included producing advertising materials for Daks, Wolsey and Pretty Polly.

  • 4 These government and semi-official promotional concerns may well have played a greater role in the (...)

17Two major government or semi-official advertising services represented three or four companies each. The Festival was a government-sponsored event, it was only natural that these services be involved.4 This may in itself have influenced the choice of companies advertised— or, inversely, the companies that were considered important to put forward, may have determined the agencies used. The London Press Exchange, a government advertising agency during the Second World War, based in St. Martin’s Lane, produced adverts for essential energy companies, the Gas Council and National Benzole Ltd., and, more surprisingly, for No.7 (Abdulla & Co.) cigarettes. The Service Advertising Company, given the nature of the advertisers, appears to have worked with defence and government-sponsored companies such as Napier, Marconi, English Electric, and the Nuffield Organisation. It would have been common practice for the utilities (among the companies recently nationalized by the post-war Labour Government) and companies working for the Ministry of Defence (Napier, Marconi) to use official agencies for their campaigns, but this was not exclusively the case: Mather’s had the British Electricity account, Benson held London Transport, and Crawford the GPO and National Savings.

18Overall, the five British agencies above were therefore responsible for one quarter of the sixty-four advertisements, while six further agencies (below) provided one or two adverts each. The Central Advertising Service appears to have worked essentially with the food industry, providing adverts for Cow & Gate baby food (including, from 1930, the Royal Baby campaign), and Carr’s water biscuits. In the same vein, Saward, Baker & Co. (Chancery Lane then Cavendish St., London), who had worked with Glaxo promoting their baby formula since 1913, logically handled the advert for Ovaltine but also produced one for Cossor electronics.

19Cecil D. Notely held the Wolsey account, and produced the adverts for diametrically opposite businesses: Sanderson’s home furnishings, and a metallurgy company (Tube Investments). Charles F. Higham’s London agency, founded in 1906, was responsible for adverts for the rubber company (Dunlop), and for whisky (VAT 69), and two other agencies handled further adverts for spirits, C. J. Lytle (Haig whisky), and S. T. Garland, founded in 1927 (Curtis Gin). Two companies produced adverts for the car industry: Basil Butler Co. (Rootes Group) and Geo[rge] Cuming (Standard Motor Co.).

20At least three American agencies (among the most prominent of the day, and still today) produced six of the advertisements in the guide. Naturally, they were for American products and companies (Craven A, Massey Ferguson, Heinz), but not exclusively: J. Walter Thompson (1896) for Craven A cigarettes, Horlicks drinking powder and Addis brushes; Foote, Cone & Belding (1943, successors to Lord & Thomas) for BOAC and Ferguson agricultural machinery; and Young & Rubicam (1923) for Heinz tinned (or should that be canned?) vegetables (Haughton; West). Allowing adverts for American products by American advertising companies in a guidebook dedicated to the promotion of British know-how and expertise might seem doubly counterproductive.

  • 5 Household appliances and audio-visual equipment (7) and cars (5); clothing (4), hygiene, (3) shoppi (...)

21At the time, rationing was still in place for confectionery, tea, cheese, meat (until 1954), and strict exchange controls were being used to mobilize resources for reconstruction (Kynaston). It therefore seems incongruous that nearly three-quarters (forty-six out of sixty-four) of the adverts are to do with the home and leisure—consumer durables, style and fashion, leisure, energy and foodstuffs.5 The other quarter is concerned with heavy and light industry (electronics and telecommunications, construction, transport, mechanisation), and the services (banking).

  • 6 The war effort and Britain’s overseas commitments patrolling the Empire led to the 1946 £4.8 billio (...)

22Admittedly, the guide was bought by the general public and this was not a trade show, but the advertising content does throw light as much on its propaganda content, as on the consumer expectations of the time. Britain was emerging from the restrictions of the war but continued to struggle with budget constraints.6 These advertisements reinforce the idea that, although this was not explicitly or publicly avowed, the Festival was also intended to woo foreign buyers and visitors, especially American, to whom the whole Festival was selling Britain as a tourist destination, and thus help redress the imbalance of trade (Grant).

23It may also be argued that the Festival was part of a greater project to persuade the British people, and, perhaps more importantly, foreign elites, that Britain was still a world power. It could further be construed that the Labour government who had planned the Festival, “a socialist administration committed to radical change presiding over a crippled economy”, was seeking to give “an image abroad of confidence and economic recovery” (Taylor 239).

24In this light, the Festival with its spin-offs can be seen as an exercise in public diplomacy, especially directed at the United States, the country which had bankrolled the British war effort and reconstruction efforts in both Europe and Britain, a form of cultural propaganda, in an, as yet, un-envisaged form. The advertising plates would therefore have been selected in the same way as the exhibits with a narrative in line with this overall conceit.

Modernism vs. cultural heritage and heritage culture

25A look at what is being advertised and the way in which the product or company is portrayed in these plates reveals two trends which, in both the themes and metaphors used and aesthetic style, follow the narrative of the Festival; namely optimism for the future and pride in the past.

26The Festival was seen as “an opportunity to show what the future might be like” related Ursula Bowyer, a member of the design team (The 1951 Festival of Britain—A Brave New World, 2019). In keeping with the forward-looking, optimistic narrative, the aesthetic choice of futuristic architecture for the Festival pavilions is echoed in the plates with modernist design elements of this mid-century decade. The Festival both drew on early 1950s design tendencies and reinforced others. The Dome of Discovery and the Skylon, a rocket-like structure, suspended by almost invisible steel wires, “like the economy, with no visible means of support” ran the joke at the time (recollected in The 1951 Festival of Britain—A Brave New World, 2019) were the iconic symbols portrayed in many of the adverts, “structures that embodied ideas about science and its centrality to the country’s welfare and future” (Forgan, 218).

27The advert for the construction company building the Exhibition site on the South Bank, Costain, emphasises British reliability showing before and after sites in an hour-glass, the sands of time showing the plans dated August 1949 and the finished site in May 1951. The feat is even more remarkable as the building site was beleaguered by labour disputes, management problems, and very wet weather (The 1951 Festival of Britain—A Brave New World). This advert is almost an exact copy of the photos inserted in the guide, on the reverse of the exhibition plan in the centre opening, showing the South Bank seen from County Hall taken in January 1949 and again in January 1951, also emphasizing the progress made in two short years.

28Other scientific and technological references are used, as would be expected in the adverts for companies involved in building the exhibition centre. Three adverts placed by three companies, Carter-Horseley (Engineers), and two electronics companies (Cossor and EMI), all three appearing on consecutive pages, reference the Festival’s main futuristic architectural feature, The Dome of Discovery.

29The three adverts illustrate different stylistic approaches: the construction work emphasized by superimposing grids and latticework in intricate patterns and warm colours in the first; the invisible hand and radio waves or radar screen, whose concentric circles echo the round contours of the Dome, symbolized in the second drawing, “This age of Electronics … pioneered for Britain by Cossor”; and, in the third, the name of the company, EMI, “The electronic heart of Britain”, along with the Dome of Discovery, neatly paralleling the bulge of a cathode tube, emerging out of the company’s electric spark logo.

30The adverts that reference scientific inventions, and those for companies producing scientific and technical equipment, lend a specific futuristic tone to the whole. As Forgan shows, contrary to ideas about industrial decline due to science and technology lacking in support (and supporting Edgerton’s revision of the Wiener thesis) “In 1951 science was far from neglected and was embedded in virtually every aspect of the Festival” (Forgan 218). This is mirrored in the advertisements.

31“The design idiom of the Festival of Britain was light, cheerful and colourful, intended to dispel the grey and still war-damaged appearance of London” (Anderson). Any reference to destruction caused by the war, or pollution in urban industrial areas was proscribed. Those factories that are shown are modern, clean. The Great Smog of December 1952 was still to come, but “pea-soupers” were recurrent until the 1956 Clean Air Act imposed smokeless coke for domestic fires. In the adverts, clean skies and electric power—Crompton Parkinson electric light bulbs, British Electricity, English Electric—are therefore the vision of the future: while Gas “helps get rid of the fog” and Coalite, “smokeless coal”, was being experimented with.

32Two plates advertising Sheffield steel and British Cars, Ward Ltd. Albion Works Sheffield, and Rootes Group, on facing pages, demonstrate a different style, with bold motifs on a striking deep blue background, inspired by the Art Deco movement. The perspective and lines of the steel advert are reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), while the globe encircled by a 3D badge-like halo of car company names (Humber, Hillman, Sunbeam, Talbot, Karrier, Commer) resembles the early 1920s’ Universal Pictures logo.

33Clean-lined futuristic geometry was also present in interior design and home furnishings on display in the exhibition buildings (for example the Festival Hall furniture), in the exhibits, and in the adverts, reinforcing aspirations for streamlined style and modernity. In the Guide, the Homes and Gardens section of the People of Britain Pavilion is illustrated by a photograph of a modern interior, with gas fire, radio, modern furniture, and a relaxed couple looking at a lifestyle magazine.

34The household goods and furnishings in the advertisement pages echo this aesthetic and the message “Ours is a nice house” where cooking will be done on a Creda Comet electric cooker. The silhouette of the house complete with aerial on the roof, is outlined against a smoke-free atmosphere with plants pictured in the 1950s design idiom. “Progress in the home”, the caption to the Hoover advert, shows vignettes of a woman using a vacuum cleaner and a washing machine on a clean light green background. Technology was “saving millions of housewives from hard, wearisome drudgery” and dirt. Fine products to decorate the home (Sanderson’s and Liberty’s fabrics), soap, brushes, Prestige pressure cookers, complete the vision of a future of plenty, light work, comfort and cleanliness, underlined by the streamlined illustrations and pastel palette, “the assertion of the house as a machine-for-traditional-living-in” (Matless 328). Women were coaxed back to the home to rear the new generation, after their extended and widespread inclusion in the workforce (Matless 329-330) with images of felicity and well-being. This vision of novelty reinforces the gender status quo: “A new Englishness is housed in a profoundly traditional new domesticity” (Matless 327).

35Given the narrative of the Festival, it is unsurprising that the second major theme in the advertisements is that of British heritage and identity. The Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion at the exhibition portrayed the “indefinable character” of the British (Cox 67-68). The reference in the name of the Pavilion to heraldic symbolism and character traits of the British—the lion, realism and strength, the unicorn, fantasy or imagination and independence (Banham and Hillier 96-97)—would not have been lost on those who were aware of George Orwell’s 1941 book, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, yet to enter the canon. Orwell’s attempt to define Englishness and democratic socialism were probably in tune with the ideals of the Labour politicians that had commissioned the Festival. The artwork in the adverts responds to that attempt to define British/English identity by calling on tradition and the literary canon.

36However, very few references to the pageant and tradition of the monarchy are present in the corpus, bar the display of the royal coat of arms for those companies that had been granted a Royal Warrant. This may be out of discretion, or more openly, under a socialist government—albeit one which did not have republicanism on its electoral programme—out of a less hat-doffing attitude towards the institution of the Royal Family. Only two specifically use the royal connection: Cow & Gate’s “Food of royal babies”, a campaign predating the Second World War, and the Standard Vanguard motor car advert:

All that’s best in Britain… The State opening of Parliament… truly a Royal occasion -… an occasion as typical of our way of life as the craftsmanship that goes into the products of the Standard Motor Company.

37This, at a time when only businesses which exported a minimum of 75% of their products, were able to source raw materials, such as steel or paper. For a short period in the 1950s, the British car industry, with little competition from the Continent, and demand in the USA and Australia greater than supply, became the world’s largest car exporter, success to which the Standard Motor Company contributed. This advert in particular would thus have been framed with the foreign market in mind, whilst reminding the British public that traditional British craftsmanship of its products, made the Standard Motor Company outstanding.

38Tradition is mainly emphasized by companies insisting on their longevity in their adverts: the previously mentioned Allied Ironfounders reference to the 1851 Great Exhibition, also mentions the “industrial tradition unbroken since the reign of Queen Anne”; Carr’s biscuits advert refers to its “over one hundred years” history, the classic block blue and fonts used on the packaging being reproduced in the advert; Lloyds Bank reminds the reader of the 18th- century origins of London banking with an imitation print of a street scene. This particular advert introduces a further element, referencing “the days when Dr Johnson and his company were familiar figures in the coffee houses of the City”.

  • 7 Three patriotic wartime films had previously used this particular speech by John of Gaunt in their (...)

39In the advertising vernacular, the literary canon, the art of language, is called upon to lend the copy both familiarity and poetry. In this corpus, Shakespeare, Shelley and Milton are used to evoke long-standing common cultural references. A line from Shelley’s ode To a Skylark, is used to exemplify the quality of sound in EKCO (Eric Kirkham Cole Limited) products: “All that ever was joyous and clear and fresh—thy music doth surpass”. In the same heritage vein, the advert for the brewers Worthington and Bass (p. lviii) reminds the public of the “tradition of things well made”, “centuries of careful craft-proud men”, of an “avenues of trees” planted years ago. These trees are illustrated visually by a simple artist’s impression of a road leading to a stately home (Ashley House, Hertfordshire)—again tradition and heritage—, with the banner “This England”, a recognizable Shakespearian trope which resonated with the Festival narrative: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” (Richard II, 2, 1).7 The advertising campaign running under this heading ran from 1949 to 1952, spanning the period between the end of the war and the new era promised by the Festival, producing in all a series of ten idyllic artistic portrayals of English countryside scenes (Yorkshire, Cornwall, Isle of Wight…). In this particular case, the artwork in the advert drew not only on a pre-existing campaign, but also on pre-existing tropes and on post-war planning assumptions about the virtues of country living, echoed in the “Geographies of the Reconstruction” (Matless, chapter 6) while the Festival’s “suppression of Victorian industrial and urban achievements for an essentially bucolic, libertarian English identity” (Jervis) is also echoed in these examples.

40On the facing page, the advert for the hi-tech company, Sperry’s, demonstrating space exploration, uses a line “Tomorrow to fresh fields…” adapted from Milton’s, Lycidas, “Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new”. The juxtaposition of natural landscapes, earthly and stellar—whether voluntary or involuntary on the part of those putting together the advertising section—serves as a reminder of the main tenets of the Exhibition: namely, reasons to be proud of Britain’s heritage and reasons to be optimistic about the future.

41One advert in particular seems to summarize this programme in an alliterative triptych: “Prestige from the Past, Pride in the Present, Faith in the future” (Siemens). The company’s history, place in the industrial output of 1951 and in the future, seem to typify the outlook for the whole country. The warm background colours, suggesting a new dawn, the dates 1851 and 1951, and, once more, the instantly recognizable silhouettes of the iconic buildings of those two exhibitions, recall the prestigious past and the satisfactions of the present-day. The final term, “faith”, evokes both belief and confidence, hope and tenacity, in line with the Festival’s brief. The Heinz brand advert, declares “Faith has been kept”, holding to the tenets of the company and keeping faith with its customers. The Festival Guide spoke of “one united act of national reassessment, and one corporate reaffirmation of faith in the nation’s future” (Cox 6). The Siemens and the Heinz adverts build on their reputation and faith in the future, for their companies, and for Britain.

42A further canon identifiable in the adverts which is in tune with the Festival objective set out by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, “to declare our belief in the British way of life” (The Festival of Britain 1951, Information Summary, 1) is that of typical leisure activities.

43According to the satirical magazine Punch, which regularly displayed examples of those British/English “eccentricities and humours” the Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion sought to identify, leisure was an essential component of British identity. The rather tongue-in-cheek Punch advert shows traditional drab, dull, even down-hearted, pleasures on a grey colour wash, both high and low culture (cricket v. football, going to exhibitions or a concert v. listening to the radio, dining v. picnicking at the seaside or going to the pub) which are contrasted with the vibrant colour, and excited suited man reclining on a piece of modern furniture design, reading a copy of Punch, whose slogan—“take your pleasures seriously”—was a principle of the innovative mid-century American designers Charles and Ray Eames (date unknown). Was this Punch advert really suggesting that the British become less staid, and that they adopt American-inspired leisure styles?

Representations and projections of mid-20th century Britain

44The adverts placed in the guide, produced for the public actually attending the Exhibition, or for readers abroad, understandably promote leisure products and household goods, but they also convey a style of life, an enjoiner to benefit from the new toil-free and worry-free post-war life, or as Peter Hennessey puts it with regard to the whole Exhibition, “a kind of full enjoyment policy to go with full employment” (Hennessy 310). There again, if the Festival, and the Festival Guide were partly aimed at overseas visitors, the portrait gleaned from the adverts in the brochure shows all the conveniences and attractions that a visit to Britain could bring and reinforces the idea that Britian was a “dynamic, modern, democratic and open country” (Byrne 2013b, 246).

45One quarter of the plates show men and women with smiling faces (Macleans), enjoying the finest activities: shopping “unequalled in the Kingdom” (Barkers of Kensington, Liberty), drinking and eating the best products “no finer” (Haig Whisky), “without a parallel” (Curtiss Gin), “simply defy comparison” (Outspan Oranges and Grapefruit). They display a cosmopolitan art de vivre, the promise of a new consumer paradise, after decades of austerity and rationing. Spectators in full morning dress in boxes at the racecourse (Number Seven cigarettes), enjoy a musical interlude (EKCO), or are out for cocktails (Craven A), where a Ronson lighter is de rigueur for the gentleman to light the lady’s cigarette (Ronson); or again, in luxury sportswear, DAKS, “the famous comfort-in-action trousers” and polo shirts, observing the sporting action through binoculars. Again, the elegance of the products and the people is set off by those pastel shades of the 1950s palette.

46The cultural activities, the sports events attended in style, are those the middle-classes could aspire to, ones which their education and means allowed them to take part in. The working-classes remained unbidden to such festivities, unless on the fringes, outside the social enclosures (racecourse betting) (McKibbin) and therefore invisible. The workers making these products and providing these services appear nowhere in the adverts. Nor do the factories and cities they worked and lived in.

  • 8 At the same time, it was realized that the countryside was rapidly changing due to mechanisation, a (...)

47In outdoor scenes not depicting industry or heritage, one finds another particular class of advertisements. The sights (and imaginary sounds) convey a particularly English trope, scenes showing bucolic countryside and fertile landscapes—“This other Eden, demi-paradise […] This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” to quote Shakespeare’s lines from Richard II again referenced in the Worthington Bass advert—producing nourishing products: such as cereals (Ovaltine) and hops, essential ingredients of another national beverage; scenery to be enjoyed motoring around the oast houses of Kent thanks to the end of petrol rationing (National Benzole); or more domesticated English gardens with borders of flowers where one could relax with a hot, nourishing drink (Horlicks). Resembling a tourist brochure, the advertising section in the Festival Guide, this “Landscape for a new Englishness” (Matless, Part I), full of Arcadian icons, stood alongside pages in the guide describing the Festival’s modernist architecture and postwar planning displayed therein. 8

48Domestic felicity, mellowing sunsets, suave elegance, comforting tradition, a life of ease, plenty and leisure, seem to be the main traits of the picture of Britain portrayed in the advertising section of the Festival Guide. The proportion of adverts devoted to lifestyle rather than industry (a ratio of three to two) reinforces that impression.

49The adverts are dominated by a contradiction between the promotion of British industry, and forward-/outward-looking scientific and technological advances, and the backward-/inward-looking celebration of heritage and tradition, which are both used by the Festival literature to define British identity. In the same way, the contrast between the 1951 Festival and the 1953 Coronation, appeared to be irreconcilable.

On the one hand, the Festival, championed by a Labour Government, provided a vision of a modern Britain buoyed by a commitment to socialist welfare and Modernism, while on the other hand, the Coronation presented a spectacle redolent with tradition which reaffirmed, for an awe-inspired audience, conservative structures of power and taste. (Breward and Wood quoting Beesley)

50However, this apparent contradiction in the Festival literature, revealed and reinforced in the advertising section of the Festival Guide, can be understood, if both the stated and the non-explicit aims of the Festival are taken into account. The Festival and the advertisements placed in the guide may be read as representations ; in the sense “representative of”—i.e. typical. It can also be taken as re-presenting, that is selecting the images and reframing the narrative. These representations were addressed to both domestic and international audiences, as a form of promotion intended to maintain morale at home, and to persuade foreign governments and visitors from abroad, prima inter alias, the United States, of Britain’s enduring appeal and continuing role.

51At home, the fillip or tonic, provided by the Festival provided relief and colourful entertainment from the drab post-war recovery. The full-page colour plate advertisements lift the Guide from the level of an educational brochure to that of a glossy magazine. If in time of continued rationing and awaiting improvements in living standards and the availability of consumer goods, the British visitors to the Festival could only look on and dream of the goods and activities on offer in the advertisement section; these were part of the general message of optimism for the future and confidence in the direction the country was taking.

52As an international event, the Festival of Britain—and again, the advertising section follows suit—contributed to the image the Labour government of the time wished to project to the world. This image was twofold. On the one hand, it showed off Britain’s industrial and scientific skills, its cutting-edge technology and inventions made by British scientists during the war (radar in the Cossor advert for example). On the other, the adverts also display, in a way in which the exhibition halls did not, an abundance of food, leisure activities and domestic bliss that countered any fears of shortages or discomfort. The pressing need for foreign currency, the drive to boost exports, to attract foreign investors, buyers and visitors, to redress the balance of trade, was not the only aim. Attlee’s socialist government needed to convince its allies that its radical programme of nationalisations, welfare and planning, had neither worsened living standards nor altered the basic British values and attributes. Besides their content, the very presence of adverts in the official guidebook to the Festival, printed by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, was unusual. It appears to signal the mixed-market economy that allowed private enterprise while also attributing a larger place to government intervention, and to demonstrate how that could work.

53The contribution that the adverts make to the Guide is both subtle and convincing. They are part of what could be called the propaganda effort of which the Festival was an integral part, continuing the framing of national opinion that had taken place during the war, directed at maintaining the hopes of British people, and thus encouraging them to continue to make sacrifices in the present in order to reap future benefits. These adverts are, of course, also part of the economic recovery plans to place British products and services on the international markets. However, it can be argued that the adverts are as much part of the cultural diplomacy that sought to encourage greater ties between the British and their American allies (Byrne 2013a) as theatre tours or sculpture exhibitions. In those respects, the representation the adverts give of Britain are as important as that of the Festival itself.

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Brief City. The Observer. Part 1 (b/w, 9 min.20) ; Part 2 (b/w, 9 min. 24); Transcript :

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Festival in Britain, 1951, dir. Philip Leacock. Central Office of Information, 1951.

Festival of Britain Opening – 1951, British Movietone, Movietone Moments, 3 May 1951

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The 1951 Festival of Britain – A Brave New World, dir. Julian Hendry. Proudfoot Co. for the BBC, 2019.

The opening ceremony Festival of Britain, Pathé Newsreels, 1951,,

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1 The blog contains several annotated virtual walks covering the development of the site 1945-1951.

2 It is therefore not surprising that a large number of young artists and designers were employed by the Festival committee in key jobs. Hugh Casson, aged 38, was made director of architecture for the event and Basil Spence was architect and designer of several displays. Laurie Lee, also 38, with experience at the Ministry of Information, sat on the organising committee and wrote commentary and captions, while Humphrey Jennings was commissioned to make a film, Family Portrait. Pieces of sculpture, ceramic wall designs, and tapestry were also commissioned for the Festival’s main venues. Festivals of the Arts, art exhibitions, concerts, and other events were programmed all over the country to coincide with the Exhibition on the South Bank (Arts Council of Great Britain).

3 Sample adverts can be found easily by an online image search. A full list of the adverts, giving brand, company, address, advertising agency, sector, describing the illustration and significant text, was drawn up for the purposes of this research.

4 These government and semi-official promotional concerns may well have played a greater role in the conception of the Festival literature and spin-offs, but it has not been possible to pursue this line of enquiry within the scope of this article.

5 Household appliances and audio-visual equipment (7) and cars (5); clothing (4), hygiene, (3) shopping and interior deco (3); alcohol (5), tobacco (4), a magazine (1); energy to run the cars, homes and appliances (6); foodstuffs (8).

6 The war effort and Britain’s overseas commitments patrolling the Empire led to the 1946 £4.8 billion loan from the USA and Canada that took sixty years to pay off. The budgetary deficit led to a devaluation in 1947.

7 Three patriotic wartime films had previously used this particular speech by John of Gaunt in their titles: This England, This Happy Breed, Demi-Paradise (McKibbin 447). The term is also to be found in King John 5.7: “This England never did, nor never shall / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror”.

8 At the same time, it was realized that the countryside was rapidly changing due to mechanisation, and the Department of Agriculture thought it necessary to set up the Museum of English Rural Life (in 1951 in Reading) and commissioned wall hangings by Michael O’Connell to commemorate the “Variety of British Farming” as part of the arts programme of the Festival (Hughes; Museum of Rural Life).

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Electronic reference

Susan Finding, Advertising Britain in the 1951 Festival of Britain guide Miranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 18 April 2024, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Susan Finding

Professeur émérite
Université de Poitiers, UR MIMMOC

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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