On entering British Design 1948 - 2012 at the V&A, one is confronted by one third of John Piper’s huge mural The Englishman’s Home created for the Festival of Britain 1951 and depicting varying forms of British architecture. Over 80 works created by many of Britain’s leading artists featured in the Festival of Britain, including other significant Neo-Romantic works such as Graham Sutherland’s mural The Origins of the Land.
Peter Fuller has argued that the work of the "best artists at the end of the 1930s and throughout the 1940s", such as Henry Moore, Sutherland, Piper, and even Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, "is stamped by a recognition of indigenous tradition, and of indigenous landscape: but it is not nostalgic; rather, the threatened and injured land emerges, again, as a metaphor, a wasteland redeemed through the aesthetic processes themselves."
Home and Land were key themes of the Festival of British and likewise are key themes too in the first room of this significant exhibition. At this time, as Fuller also notes, "the finest examples of the English neo-Romantic sensibility were greeted, literally, with worldwide acclaim." This influence can also be seen and felt in other sections of this opening to the exhibition.
Piper’s mural was selected by Sir Frederick Gibberd, masterplanner of Harlow New Town, to be gifted to Harlow at the end of the Festival of Britain. Gibberd assembled a huge collection of public art for Harlow (to the extent that it is now known as a Sculpture Town) including Moore’s Harlow Family Group, originally sited outside St Mary at Latton Church in Mark Hall. Piper also created an Emmaus mosaic for the Humphrys and Hurst designed modernist church of St Paul in Harlow Town Centre. Examples of Gibberd's designs plus Harlow Family Group feature in the exhibition.
An even more significant engaging of Neo-Romantic artists by the Church occurred through the design of the new Coventry Cathedral by Architect Basil Spence. Spence won the competition to design a new cathedral in 1951 and gathered a team of artists and craftspeople that included both Piper and Sutherland. Examples in this exhibition of work by many who were part of that team demonstrate that although consecrated in 1962, the new Cathedral typified the decorative modernism of the 1950s.
The engagement of the Church with artists such as Piper and Sutherland had been developed by Bishop George Bell and Canon Walter Hussey with St Matthew Northampton and Chichester Cathedral being the outstanding examples, after Coventry Cathedral itself. Bell and Hussey, like their French counterparts Père Regamy and Couturier, sought to work with the engage with the significant artists of their day, which in their case were primarily the Neo-Romantics. Yet Fuller notes that in less than a decade the influence of Neo-Romanticism had been lost and similarly this exhibition contains no other example of a nationally significant commission by the Church subsequent to Coventry Cathedral.
While the Church has continued to commission new work on the basis begun by Bell and Hussey, this exhibition suggests it has been unable to engage in any significant manner with the subversive strand of work - the counter-cultural movements from 1960s ‘Swinging London’, through to the 1970s punk scene and the emergence of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 1990s- which are showcased in the exhibition’s second room. The only significant reference to Christianity, after Coventry, in this exhibition comes with Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy wallpaper where prescription drugs are given Biblical labels suggesting that healthcare has become our contemporary religion. The use Hirst makes of Christian references in this work suggests that Christianity has been superceded, an impression also given by the absence of Christian references in this exhibition after Coventry. In this way, the limitations of the Bell/Hussey, Couturier/Regamy approach become apparent as the mainstream art movements of the day may not share a natural affinity with the Church (particularly when the Church is seen as a part of which is to be subverted) and, if the focus is on engaging key mainstream artists, then less focus is paid to supporting emerging artists with a Christian faith able to engage effectively with the mainstream art world.
The 1948 and 2012 Olympics bookmark this exhibition. The ‘austerity games’ of 1948 (as they became known) took place at a time of economic crisis in a city devastated by bombing, but they provided a platform for reconciliation and reconstruction. In 2012 Britain welcomes the Olympics once more, and while the spirit remains, the context in which they are taking place has entirely changed. The exhibition tells the story of British fashion, furniture, fine art, graphic design, photography, ceramics, architecture and industrial products over the past 60 years. Highlighting significant moments in the history of British design, the exhibition looks at how the country continues to nurture artistic talent, as well as investigate the role that Britain’s manufacturing industry has played in the global market. It also examines the impact that Britain’s ideas-driven, creative economy has had on goods and design industries world-wide.
Similar sporting contrasts are also apparent in Katherine Green’s touring exhibition, currently at the Tokarska Gallery, 1948 Olympians. In 1948 London was recovering from war, athletes were truly amateur and therefore not paid. Athletes trained on rations whilst working full-time and raising children, they had to take unpaid leave to compete and many had to hand sew their own kits. When the Games were over, they returned to work and carried on as normal. Green’s images of the athletes that took part that year tell a story of a different age. For some shown here, sport became their lives, but for many it was a past time that practicalities meant they could not continue.
Green is a social documentary photographer based in London. Her work often focuses on the idea of community and what makes or bonds communities. She aims to highlight and celebrate members of the community who may otherwise go unseen. She says of this work: "At the same time as drawing parallels between 1948 and 2012 Olympic Games, I do hope these portraits and oral histories go some way to demonstrate the knowledge and experience of a valuable generation of people who are overlooked in our society. It has been a great privilege to spend time in the company of such interesting and modest people."
Green’s work therefore shows us some of those who have lived through the massive changes documented in broad outline by the V&A’s exhibition and offers an understated antidote to the lavish, opulent celebration of sport which will be the 30th Olympiad. If Britain has remained a global leader in design, sport or indeed any other fields, Green’s work suggests that this is not solely due to artists and designers who were born, trained or working in the UK and who have produced innovative and internationally acclaimed works from post-war to the present day, but also to the interesting, modest and overlooked people that she documents with such care.
Tom Jones - Soul Of A Man.