Monday, February 25, 2019

South Bank, London

Back in the swim

This sculpture, called The Sunbathers, by Peter Laszlo Peri, is now on an internal wall in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The piece was made for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and was installed on a wall of the Waterloo Station Gate to the Festival’s South Bank site, on York Road. Like most of the Festival, the sculpture was not intended to remain there permanently – nearly everything on the South Bank, except for the Festival Hall, was swept away after the Festival closed.

Perhaps The Sunbathers was always meant to be an occasional piece – many of the sculptures made for the event were destroyed. It’s not the greatest depiction of a pair of human figures, but it has significance of several kinds – historically, for its prominent place on the Festival site, compositionally, for the innovative way in which its position on the wall enforces an unusual viewpoint, and technically,  because it was an experiment in making figurative sculpture out of concrete. However, like so much of the art made for the Festival it was long thought lost.

In 2016, Historic England put on an absorbing exhibition in Somerset House called Out There: Post-War Public Art. The show included several images of lost public art, and asked visitors to submit information if they knew the whereabouts of any of these lost works. Two people responded that they had seen The Sunbathers in the garden of the Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath. Investigation revealed the two figures, badly damaged, under a tarpaulin in the garden where they had been left with the hope of restoring them and displaying them somewhere.

For over six decades, The Sunbathers remained a memory, of which readers of histories of the Festival and of Dylan Thomas’s essay about the event* were occasionally reminded. After a crowdfunded project to restore them, the figures are now on show inside the Festival Hall, not far from displays about the Festival of Britain and the origins of this famous concert hall. This spot on the wall in the foyer, a short walk from the work’s original home, does not seem a bad place for it to end up.

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* ‘The Festival Exhibition’, reprinted in Ralph Maud (ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1991). 

Note On 26 February 2019, I corrected the text of this post because as originally posted, the title of the sculpture and the date of the Historic England exhibition were incorrect. 


Anonymous said...

Sorry to get picky, but Historic England's exhibition of lost public art at Somerset House was held in early 2016 (not last year - time flies!). And this sculpture is called "The Sunbathers" (not "The Swimmers"). Sadly, many other works highlighted at that exhibition are still lost, many irretrievably so, but "The Sunbathers" was found and then restored and temporarily exhibited at the Royal Festival Hall in 2017. I hadn't realized it had returned to the RFH again. I am glad if it has found a permanent home.

The Festival of Britain was a few decades too early for me, but echoes of it remain. I am particularly fond of the village signs of Bedfordshire. And I doubt many people know of the Hertfordshire school in the orchard.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: You´re not being picky, and I'll correct the post immediately. I'd misremembered the name of the sculpture, and have been scratching my head about why the couple are not actually swimming! As for the date of the exhibition, time flies indeed. I can confirm, though, that The Sunbathers is in the RFH, or was in late January 2019, when I took the photograph. Maybe the people at the South Bank will soon provide a label, so people will know what the piece is and what it´s called! Thanks so much for your corrections.