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