The Lion And The Unicorn
Author: Henrietta Goodden
List Price: £14.95
Symbolic Architecture for the Festival of Britain, 1951
Reviewed by ALEX KIDD for the Burlington Magazine, May 2012.
AGAINST THE WASH of nostalgia that has marked the diamond anniversary of the Festival of Britain, Henrietta Goodden’s The Lion and the Unicorn stands out as an insightful, scholarly account of an event that still grips the collective imagination. In focusing on the undersung Lion and Unicorn pavilion, Goodden is able to expound on the bold crop of young designers who overhauled British design, providing academic support to the truism that the Festival ushered in a new age of modernity to Britain.
According to Goodden, a specialist in the design of the Second World War period, the exigency of conflict had encouraged designers to apply function to taste. The ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1946 dis- played the utility of wartime production and its functionality in peacetime Britain, while aiming to enhance the public awareness of design in what became a concerted effort to halt the reversion to a traditional, decorative English style. It is one of several antecedent shows that are beautifully described and illustrated with images that could pass for lost stills from a Powell and Pressburger film set. In the ‘spare, gay and elegant’ display by the architect Robert Goodden, Hugh Casson had identified the levity and search- ing modernity that characterised the Festival for which Goodden became the Director of Architecture.
For as much as the War acted as a catalyst, it had also deprived Britain’s best young designers of the opportunity to make any impact on the now depleted British land- scape. From furniture design to the actual art of exhibition design itself, the Festival became a lightning rod for their pent-up creativity and energy. We learn that the criterion for the entire site was devised in one week, and it is surprising, particularly in the light of the confused splurge that besieged the Dome’s millennium exhibition of 2000, that such a frenzy could yield such intellectual coherence. The speed at which the Festival was delivered was in large part due to the organisers’ progressive policy of recruiting young architectural practices and designers, such as Cockade and the Design Research Unit (DRU), many of whom had grown resourceful in the preceding decades of recession and war. The Festival Design Group requested applications from a broad number of practitioners who were given the brief of threading the story of British resourcefulness and innovation through the various pavilions. Crucially, as Goodden argues, it was the overall design philosphy of this new artistic milieu that united the whole. While the space age ‘Dome of Discovery’ and ‘Skylon’ presented a clear vision of the future that still dominates our understanding of the Festival, Gooden points out that the ‘silhouettes of modernism’ also gave a new articulation to Britain’s past and traditions.
Nowhere is this better expressed than in the Lion and the Unicorn pavilion by R.D. ‘Dick’ Russell and the aforemen- tioned Robert Goodden (who happens to be the author’s father). This elegant, tem- porary structure, fastened to the forbidding Hungerford Bridge, attempted to achieve the rather nebulous objective of displaying the British character. Unlike the ‘Dome of Discovery’ on the other side of the bridge, the pavilion aimed to reflect the self-depre- cating, whimsical and gentle character in a modernist form. This monumental collabo- rative effort included bespoke, carefully con- sidered exhibits such as Dick Guyatt’s metal royal coat of arms and Edward Bawden’s ‘Country Life’ mural that have since been treasured as fine works of art in their own right. Students of the Royal College of Art provided typography, while one of the great set pieces, the enormous straw figures of the Lion and the Unicorn, was thatched by Bawden’s gardener, an eye-patched agricul- tural worker named Fred Mizen.
Avant-garde students, architects, Royal Academicians and traditional craftsmen ral- lied to produce a landmark exhibition that, perhaps more than any other, summoned up the collective spirit of the War and the opti- mism of post-War society. It reflected, with varying degrees of success and abstraction, the lives and pursuits of British people and the historic reasons for the British character. Goodden draws upon the accounts of key figures in this movement, not least the sur- viving assistant architect of the pavilion, John Morton, who also contributes a short, sombre foreword. His lament for the whole- sale demolition of a site that had fostered such optimism and appreciation for modern design is made all the more poignant by read- ing Goodden’s book. The author, however, is too busy describing every nook and corner of the exhibition to dwell too much on its rather tragic desecration in the Festival’s immediate aftermath.
Spearheaded by some visionary captains of design, not least Hugh Casson, the exhibition produced, if nothing else, a much needed platform for artistic skill and expression. Casson’s description of the pavilion as ‘a complete fusion of design’ may have been an overstatement, but its fresh use of colour and glass foreshadowed an architectural rev- olution, while the ‘new world’ that emerged on the South Bank’s ‘battered mudflats’ has remained in the shape of pioneering arts facilities. Henrietta Goodden has brought to our attention a significant movement in the history of British modernism and industrial design and, in doing so, has provided a fresh take on the Festival’s celebrated legacy.