In early March, I emailed the London Transport Museum (LTM) out of curiosity. I’d heard a rumour that some old mural by my father Marek Zulawski was in their depot. Was it really there?
I’d never seen it, neither had my mother. We only had a remnant of Marek’s development of it, a mock-up that hung on the wall before he began working on the real thing.
A couple days later, I got a reply from LTM’s Senior Curator Laura Sleath that it was true. They would be happy to invite me to come see it.
But before we get to what happened in 2023, we need to go back over 70 years ago to understand the context and significance of this piece.
The Festival of Britain
After World War II, Britain was a miserable place.
Even though the it was technically a victor in the war, Britain was broke and still reeling from all the bombings it had taken. The economy was a mess, and people needed cheering up. They needed to feel they had been fighting for something greater than themselves and that they could be hopeful, even optimistic about the years to come.
The government was already busy trying to rebuild much of what had been shelled. So they decided to come up with something that merged the two aims of rebuilding places and rebuilding hope.
In 1947, the idea for the Festival of Britain was born.
Pencilled in for 1951, it was initially thought of as a centenary version of the Great Exhibition of 1851, but more national-focused than international as that famed event had been. There would be a few years to commission new buildings and art, all with the aim of looking forwards to the technological idyll that Britain was aiming to become.
And weirdly, people were actually pretty into it.
Events were held all over, including Cardiff, Belfast, Inverness, York and Bath.
But the main site of the festival was designated the South Bank, a vast 27-acre area that had been bombed to smithereens during the war. The centrepiece in the utopian new site was the Skylon, a strange pointed shaped that was suspended above the crowd and was visible for miles around.
Seen here, the official emblem for the event was created by Abram Games, a prolific war-time poster maker and graphic designer.
Games was one of hundreds of artists commissioned to be involved. And my father Marek Zulawski was one of them too.
My father had done a lot of poster work during WWII, camaraderie stuff to get people in the UK to support the Poles during the German occupation. His most famous poster was Poland: First To Fight, which is still referenced by all sorts of people in Poland today (recently in a giant mural that had an eye-roll-inducing typo).
When thinking about the inspiration behind his work for the Festival of Britain though, it looks like an idyllic park scene by a lake. I think this may have been partly inspired my my father’s own love of the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Here’s a photo of him rowing a boat there.
Marek mentions creating the piece in his autobiography. I’ve translated it into English here:
The Festival of Britain 1951. I’m painting a huge wall picture for the Homes and Gardens pavilion. I like having commissions. The commission defines the frame of the exploration. Then you can go deep within those boundaries.
It’s good to have a topic. It’s good to get a good topic. The artist’s freedom is necessary and inviolable only when it comes to the form, but not the subject of his work. This started to go wrong with the French Impressionists, who took offense at criticism, at the Academy, at the city and the state for rejecting them, and vice versa. The fact is that since the end of the last century, the natural and healthy relationship between the artist as producer and the buyer as the one who needs his product for specific purposes has been shaken….
The greatest works in history were commissioned. Nor would anyone know what some contemporary British painters can do if they weren’t commissioned to work at the festival.Translated by Adam Zulawski from ‘Studium do Autoportretu’, 2009 edition
We actually have a photo of him in the family archive posing in front of the mural while creating it. He doesn’t look as happy as he sounds in that quote, but he never did smile in photos.
The finished work was placed in the Garden Cafe in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the South Bank Exhibition.
There is a photo of it on the vads website:
A lot of the event’s history and wide-reaching effects can be found in the 2012 book The Festival of Britain: A Land and Its People by Harriet Atkinson. She opens the book with this excellent quote:
You can get a sense of what it was like to visit South Bank and the Skylon from the short film Brief City from 1952, available on archive.org:
The festival was seen as a success. Over 8 million people alone visited the South Bank festival site in the summer of 1951.
As Atkinson points out, the public reaction was a stark contrast to the more recent attempt by the UK government to put on a national festival, namely the infamous Millennium Dome.
Since her book came out, there was of course Unboxed in 2022, also known as the Festival of Brexit, which, despite some interesting aspects, was also widely regarded as a waste of money. In homage, the designer Richard Little even recreated Abram Games’ original Festival of Britain poster with a decidedly satirical spin.
The end of the party
But there was one critic of the Festival of Britain whose say counted more than anybody else’s.
Winston Churchill was re-elected as Prime Minister in October, and one of his first orders was the dismantling of the festival site. As a staunch Conservative, he felt the festival had been socialist propaganda and that the Labour government that had orchestrated it were trying to indoctrinate people.
The Royal Festival Hall was the only part of the site left alone. It’s still going today and one of the premiere arts venues in the UK.
The Skylon meanwhile was sold for scrap and turned into commemorative cutlery.
My father was annoyed enough about the situation to write an open letter to The Architects’ Journal (I couldn’t find the English original, but have translated the Polish translation he included in his autobiography):
Sir, in the last issue of your magazine, Astragal shed a somewhat nostalgic light on certain aspects of the liquidation of the exhibition on the south bank of the Thames.
Being the creator of one of the festival’s wall paintings, I remember the birth of this wonderful exhibition as the happiest period of my life, not only because I could finally paint something that was specifically needed in connection with architecture – which had always been my ambition – but also because of the atmosphere of optimism and hope surrounding the whole enterprise. It seemed to us that a new and fertile era of wall painting was dawning in this country. Unfortunately, our hopes were dashed and – perhaps prematurely – we were caught up in feelings of frustration.
Not only has nothing changed so far, not only has art criticism ignored the whole topic and missed the opportunity to weigh up the pros and cons of the exhibition from the point of view of a possible revival of the lost tradition of combining painting and sculpture with architecture, but we are now hearing that these wall paintings, which, after the exhibition’s closure have not found permanent homes, are to be sold at auction as used building boards or otherwise used as material.
We live in a country where even Sir Gerald Barry – according to the News Chronicle – cannot mention the word “culture” for fear that “some dailies would immediately reach for their revolvers.” But, like it or not, these wall paintings represent a serious effort and illustrate the state of painting in this country, and by extension the state of our culture. These works could easily be saved if they were given free of charge to institutions and business, schools and factories, conference rooms, trade unions, canteens, etc.
But here comes the eminence grise whose small mind decides everything in England: the taxpayer. It turns out the festival’s organisers have only one goal in mind at the moment, namely to reduce to a minimum the treasury money deficit that the exhibition naturally left behind. So every shilling counts.
It is this fact – I believe – that makes the whole matter so interesting for architects. Almost all of the festival frescoes were painted on construction boards and are therefore easy to move. Many of them are easy to purchase. We shall now see whether present-day English architects really – as they claim – wish to introduce painting into architecture. Here’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity: ready-made frescoes to try out.Translated by Adam Zulawski from ‘Studium do Autoportretu’, 2009 edition
Before the Homes and Garden pavilion was knocked down, Marek’s lakeside scene was sold to a construction firm. Perhaps they had read his letter to The Architects’ Journal – the firm installed the panels during the construction of London Transport’s Loughton bus garage 14 miles away, and displayed it in the cafeteria there.
At least, that’s what I thought.
The photo below was discovered soon after we visited by Laura Sleath’s colleague who looks after the LTM photo collection. The image reveals that it was actually displayed in the rec room.
I can only imagine the volume of cigarette smoke that wafted over it as the drivers played snooker in-between shifts.
The mural was probably removed during a redesign. It ended up back at the London Transport Museum’s depot 16 miles away in Acton.
Having survived both the steam and smells of the packed festival cafe as well as decades of smoke and spills from bus drivers letting loose, it’s an achievement that the mural has survived this long.
So many artworks commissioned for the Festival of Britain ended up lost or destroyed, as Marek points out in his letter above. I’m happy to know that at least his was one of the survivors.
And theoretically, it will continue to survive. It is being kept in a perfectly acclimatised room along with many other valuable artworks associated with London Transport.
The mural in 2023
Back to the present day. I arrived at the Acton depot with my wife and two young children. The older child was asleep for the whole visit, which was a good thing as there were many valuable objects he would have naively trampled.
What I keep calling a mural is rather a set of 12 wooden panels. They had been propped up along the middle of the storage room by Laura Sleath and the LTM team so that we could take a look at them.
Although it was still visually arresting, the piece had clearly seen a lot of action over the years, parts of it were faded and its panels worn in places. There was even a stain or two.
During the visit, Laura revealed they hadn’t found an image of the mural in its entirety so there was a bit of a guessing game to how the 12 panels might be arranged.
It would only be later that day that Laura’s colleague found two photographs that helped them solve the riddle. As well as the rec room image above, here was a full photo of the mural:
When we compare the finished piece with the mock-up that my family had on the wall, we can see a few differences were added to the real thing, such as a different style for the trees and the four birds now flying past.
Below you can see a detailed selection of photos taken by my wife, including close-ups:
As a reminder of the Festival of Britain’s many lost wall paintings, it’s reassuring to know that it has survived over 70 years. It’s hard to imagine all the pieces by other artists that ended up being broken up and reused as plain old wood.
Unsurprisingly, this behemoth won’t be on display when Marek’s new retrospective exhibition comes to Torun CSW this September. But LTM may find a place for it again in a temporary exhibition or two in the years to come. It’s not going anywhere, after all.
We shall see – let’s just hope it’s not put next to hot food and beer again.
Many thanks to Laura Sleath and the rest of the London Transport Museum’s team for inviting me to the Acton Depot and helping me with this article. If you’d like to visit them, it’s invite-only, so maybe you can unearth a family artwork too and get a great excuse like I did. Or try their annual open days, which are next weekend, as it happens.
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