The Festival of Britain took place between May and September during 1951. Conceived as a celebration of the British People and their achievements, it represented a uniquely British form of post-war modernity based around an integration of art, architecture and design. For the visiting public it was the first glimpse of a post-austerity Britain, and understood as a moment of light relief and a kind of national village fete.

The main events were focused around the formerly bomb damaged site on the south bank of the River Thames. Constructed as a series of temporary pavilions, they featured murals and designs by artists including Edward Bawden, Ben Nicholson, John Tunnard and Victor Pasmore. The futuristic architecture of the site, such as the Skylon sculpture designed by Powell and Moya, inspired children’s cut-out models, Biro pen holders and featured in numerous postcards and images. Events also happened around the UK, which were commemorated by a multitude of ephemera ranging from printed guides to amateur snapshot photographs.

Official souvenirs were selected by committee to bear the emblem of the Festival, designed by Abram Games, which incorporated Britannia, a compass and festive bunting in the colours of the national flag. A distinctive typographic lettering, called ‘Festival Titling’ was commissioned from Philip Boydell by the Typographic committee, which referenced the design associated with English popular pleasure and entertainments.

Intentionally ephemeral, the physical environment (apart from the Festival Hall) was destroyed immediately after the events, effectively drawing a line under the project so the souvenirs associated with the Festival represent something that has literally disappeared from view. ’A Tonic to the Nation’, features memorabilia selected from the comprehensive collection of the design historians Paul and Karen Rennie sought out from auctions, antique and junk shops over the past two decades, many of which are now extremely rare.

Most of the Festival souvenirs were mass-produced and inexpensively priced in accordance with the democratic ambitions of the Festival. They ranged from enamel badges to first day covers, commemorative medals, teapots and tobacco tins. One distinctive feature of most items is the proud claim ‘Made in Britain’ reflecting the role such merchandise had in promoting post-war creativity and industry. One such example is the Wedgwood commemorative mug and chic headscarves printed by Ascher Fabrics.

The exhibition is complemented by an exhibition of textiles and furniture by two designers who were closely associated with the Festival of Britain: ‘Robin and Lucienne Day: Design and the Modern Interior’ (26 March to 26 June 2010)