Spot the birdy

Another day on Quad Royal, another bird.  But today’s isn’t any old bird, oh no; this is a Festival of Britain bird.

Joan Nicholson needlework bird Festival of Britain

Yes really.  This very bird was made to ornament some of the room sets in the Festival and it’s not just a copy but the actual thing.  So what’s it doing on my coffee table (other than for me to take not very good photographs of it)?

Birds by Joan Nicholson from Festival of Britain

A fewof these birds – along with many other delights –  came to visit earlier this summer thanks to their current owner, Nancy Nicholson.   Nancy is not only a textile and pattern designer in her own right, but is also the daughter of one of the power couples of 1950s design, Roger and Joan Nicholson.

I’ve written briefly about Roger Nicholson before (since then I’ve discovered even more of his contribution to design at the time and really owe him another post one day). Joan was a talented designer in her own right whose most famous commission was the wall hanging for the Queen’s bedroom on the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Queens Bedroom on Royal yacht britannia with embriodery by Joan Nichsolson

She also wrote several classic books about embroidery and produced some delightfully idiosyncratic designs – here’s just one.  I hope to show you some more in due course.

Joan Nicholson needlepoint

But back to the birds.  In 1951, Roger Nicholson, along with his brother Robert,  designed a number of the room sets in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain  This, for example, is the Headmaster’s Study.

Roger Nicholson Headmaster study roomset for Festival of Britain

At some point, it was decided that the rooms were all looking a bit austere and needed a bit more decoration.  So Joan Nicholson was asked if she could help.  The result was these birds.

Joan NIcholson bird ornamenents from Festival of Britain

These have to be incredibly rare – how many actual items which were displayed at the Festival still exist? Not many I would guess.  But they’re also interesting because they do something which I always enjoy, which is disrupt the conventional narrative of the Festival of Britain.

Roger Nicholson Room design Festival of Brigain

The story of interior decoration at the Festival is always supposed to be one of a Scandinvian style modernism which sweeps all before it, including decorative clutter.  But take another look at these rooms.  Yes, they may not have the array of knick-knacks which would have graced a 1930s fireplace.  But ornaments haven’t entirely disappeared.  The headmaster up there has some odds and ends on his shelf, while the farmer for whom this dining area was designed has a whole trophy cabinet of pewter as well as a rather covetable china bull.

Roger Nicholson Farmer room Festival of Britain Homes and Gardens

So when we remember the Festival of Britain, let’s not just honour the Robin Day chairs and Terence Conran tables, let’s honour the ornaments too.  Because the reality is always so much more complicated than the myth.

More than that, we must also remember the people who weren’t Robin Day and Terence Conran, but who also made the Festival what it was.  People like Joan and Roger Nicholson.

  • OH MY! Those birds are splendid. I’m most envious not to have seen them in person. You’ve got me itching to see more of them. I will be poring over old Festival photo’s from now on.
    (I see the Headmaster has a taxidermy fox head too…now I wasn’t expecting that!)

  • Very interested. I’m making textile fish at the moment – not dissimilar. Did Joan Nicholson actually make them? a lot of work gone into them.

  • I’ve squinted at the photos a lot but can’t see any; mind you they are quite tiny, Mind you, I hadn’t seen the fox head either. That’s quite a good one.

    What I meant to say in the blog and forgot was how much I liked the lights in the farmer’s sitting room. I do rather want those now.

    Patricia – I believe that she did make them all herself. Nancy Nicholson said that her mother was still making things right up until two months before she died, in her eighties.

  • Really fantastic to see those wonderful birds!.. in many ways they herald in the new craft style of the 1950s & particularly that of the 1960s. I have a keen interest in ‘modern’ craft from the period, and once had the pleasure of seeing a truly amazing exhibition of contempoary craft in Britain from the 1940s-late 60s at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
    I agree with you completely that design history tends to narrowly focus on the industrial design or design that fits neatly into a theoretical timeline, with it’s celebrity movers & shakers. There are some wonderful craft makers from the period yet to be celebrated, so well done for highlighting these fantastic little gems.

  • While what you say about design history is almost entirely true, I do have to aay that I spent two years having the importance of craft drummed into me by Christopher Fraying. I didn’t think I’d been listening but clearly I was on some level.

    I would have liked to have seen that exhibition, too.

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