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Sixty years on from the Festival of Britain – Mary Banham

Mary Banham was 27 when she attended the Festival of Britain. She visited the South Bank Exhibition in 1951 with her late husband, Peter Reyner Banham, who as an editor on the AR went on to write a number of critical essays on the Festival and the significance it held for post-war British modernism. 25 years later, Mary Banham co-curated the V&A’s exhibition, A Tonic to the Nation

For me the Festival comes and goes, and sometimes I think, ‘I have just about had enough of it’. But I keep getting interested in it again, every time anyone asks me about it. It’s been very important throughout my life, and of course the book [A Tonic to the Nation] was ridiculously popular. I said we should print more, but the publisher refused, and then the original blues were thrown away.

Most people know Peter’s view, but when asked what my opinion is and whether Peter and I disagreed, I say: ‘Yes, usually!’ He wrote the article about the Festival’s influence, saying it was from Italy to England, not from England to the rest of the world. And I agree with him. But I was more in favour of the Festival than he was, after all those years of the Depression and Second World War. Against all that grey, it was very important that it was colourful and cheerful.

I believe that many of those who went, those small boys who stood there amazed by all the steel and glass, did go on to become architects. The Festival was admired and influenced many people. Much of the engineering was new, such as the Dome. But, the trouble with the Dome was that you could not see how clever it was. To make it work, Misha Black, who designed the interior exhibits, had to black it out, so you were unaware of how those fins were not actually supporting the roof.

My over-riding opinion is that yes, it should have happened. Yes, a lot of money was spent on it, although half way through the budget was halved due to the Korean War. The joke was that when we were doing the Tonic to the Nation exhibition at the V&A, our budget was also cut in half, but in both cases we were too far into the process to cancel the events. It would have wasted money to have stopped at that stage.

Of course, things such as the Lansbury Estate would not have happened had it not been for the Festival; and the whole New Town movement that it influenced - which had to happen, because of the War damage. Don’t forget that the South Bank itself was built on the rubble from war-damaged east London buildings.

So many interesting things happened after the War, that I am often asked if a terrible disaster has to occur before anything notable happens. I do not know the answer. What I do know, however, is there was an atmosphere after the War that got people together in the sense that made things happen, as Roy Strong recalls in his essay. Many younger people like Hugh Casson came out of the War and wanted to do something; he always said the Festival was composed of everyone’s pent-up [student] designs.

Casson was a very smart cookie. He was that unusual person, someone from a privileged background who used it well, but did not in any way show off about it. He came from an amazing theatrical family, which is why he was such a good performer, and in many ways why the Festival was such a success. Casson also was very helpful when I was cataloguing the Festival drawings for the RIBA drawings collection, and subsequently made the key introduction between Roy Strong and I, which led to my happy involvement in A Tonic to the Nation.

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