Jan 9 2012: Thirty Two Further Advertising Images from The Festival of Britain (South Bank Exhibition Programme, 1951)

Following yesterday’s first instalment, here’s a second (and final) gathering of colour advertising placed by British companies of the day into the front and back sections of the official souvenir programme and guide to the 1951 Festival of Britain. As with the first selection, the aproaches range from the graphically adventurous and progressive to the whimsical and conservative, and taken together these advertisements  seem to show both sides of Britain’s immediate post-war identity in a kind of conflict: the number of defence and aerospace companies (a later advertising image placed by English Electric directly pitched guided missiles to its potential customer base) suggests both an effort to capitalise on the reputation of UK manufacturing after the Second World War and a thread of progressive thought that restricts itself wholly to technological advance – a notion that becomes increasingly dominant in our own time, when regressive social and economic policies go hand in hand with endless technological advancement.

More progressive is the presence of National Savings but the dominant theme is the promotion of consumerism (the methods adopted by DAKS and Creda/Simplex pursue lines of persuasion that are still effective today, judging by the frequency of their continued use) and the promotion of ideas and technologies – ranging from the colonial assumptions coded into Outspan’s otherwise sunny presentation to the neutral gallery of proposed coal-fired power stations placed by British Electricity – that would later come to seem like the serpents concealed in the myth of the South Bank Exhibition of 1951 as a kind of utopian blueprint for a new British society. Even so, that any of this was imagined at all, in a time of austerity and national debt far more pressing than the artificially imposed version presented as having no alternative in 2012, the ambitions temporarily displayed that post-war summer remain impressive, and there are still as many fruits as serpents in the garden. We’d do well to consider its lessons carefully now.

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