The Land Travelling Exhibition: When the Festival came to Leeds

On the Secret Library this week we hear from Lisa Brown and Flo Armitage-Hookes from the Leeds Modernist. They will be discussing the 70th Anniversary of The Festival of Britain using resources from the Leeds Libraries collection. If you would like to know more about the Leeds Modernist Society then visit their website, Instagram and Twitter.

2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the Festival of Britain!

The Festival of Britain was a national ‘three-dimensional projection of a brighter and better future’ after the austerity, destruction and trauma of WW2. It marked the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and would be a riot of all things bright and new.

The main site of the festival was on London’s Southbank, in an area which had slipped into post-industrial dereliction, with the Royal Festival Hall as its centrepiece. In addition to the main site there was also a ‘Live Architecture’ exhibition at Lansbury (thanks to Frederick Gibberd), a Pleasure Gardens at Battersea, Arts festivals around the country, the festival ship ‘Campania’ and a touring show that became known as the Land Travelling Exhibition.

The Land Travelling Exhibition visited Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham and was the largest transportable exhibition ever produced (equivalent to the size of 12 tennis courts!). It was stationed in Leeds, on Woodhouse Moor, from 23rd June to 14th July 1951. A specially designed metal and canvas structure occupied the site and 21 ex-navel searchlights shone 750,000 candle powered beams into the sky.

Visitors could delight in the 6 themed sections: Materials and Skill, Invention, Discovery and Design, People at Home, People at Play, People at Work and People Travel. On entering the exhibition, they were greeted by the thrilling sounding ‘Corridor of Time’. This was adorned with 16 swinging pendulums which displayed the progress of the nation and the continual importance of materials and skill.

The Invention, Discovery and Design section demonstrated how science and industrial design would help create beautiful and useful everyday objects including lighting, textiles and perhaps most exciting of all – domestic irons!

People at Home illustrated how “well-designed British furnishings can help enrich everyday life” and featured room-settings fully kitted out with modern furniture, fixtures and fittings – including three possible ways of incorporating a television into the living room environment!

People at Play exhibited sports, pastimes and their associated clothing and equipment. Toys, such as Meccano, model railways and a Pollock Theatre, were also included in this section.

People at Work concentrated on the engineering and industrial aspects of British life. Large scale models of Sir Frank Whittle’s gas turbine jet aircraft adorned the space and created a seamless transition into the People Travel section.

Road, rail, sea and air travel were showcased by exhibits including a full-size railway carriage, a model Brabazon airliner and humorous motoring related murals. A recreation of a ships cabin demonstrated the modern comforts of travel by sea and was surrounded by displays of yachting equipment.

The Festival of Britain and its companion events created a sense of optimism post war and, as H.T Cadbury Brown remarked, ‘there was a real sense in which the Festival marked an upturn in people’s lives. It was an event for a new dawn, for enjoying life on modern terms, with modern technology’.

It is questionable whether most people did see an upturn in their daily lives; it was perhaps more of a case of muddling through and getting by. However, it is nice to think that the exhibition did provide a bit of a tonic and a distraction from the day to day right here in Leeds!

Words by Lisa Brown

Edited and compiled by Flo Armitage-Hookes

Images courtesy of Leeds Libraries and curated by Leeds Modernist

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