A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection reveals how the pioneers of X-ray crystallography inspired the soft furnishings of the 1951 Festival of Britain.
The Festival of Britain in 1951 provided a ‘tonic to the nation’, after the hardships of the Second World War. All aspects of British success would be celebrated in the capital, with a funfair in Battersea Park, a ‘live architecture exhibition’ housing estate in Poplar, a Festival of Science at the Science Museum, and the South Bank centrepiece, “to demonstrate the contributions to civilisation made by British advances in Science, Technology and Industrial Design”.
These advances were also reflected in the decor. The interiors of the Festival of Science and the South Bank’s Regatta restaurant and Dome of Discovery saw a unique collaboration between crystallographers and designers. 28 of Britain’s leading manufacturers came together to form the Festival Pattern Group.
This story is told for the first time at the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition From Atoms to patterns, which runs till 10 August.
Crystallographers’ diagrams and designers’ creations are reunited from the archive. These are placed in context with the Festival of Britain, Britain of the 1950s, and the then-modern science, and provide a unique insight into the creative process—comparing the inspiration with the finished product.
Left: Dorothy Hodgkin’s diagram of the crystal structure of insulin. Right: Wallpaper designed by Robert Sevant for John Line and Sons, used in the Cinema Foyer at the Exhibition of Science. Credit: V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The inspiration is the X-ray crystallography of Dorothy Hodgkin, Max Perutz and others, who pioneered X-ray determination of the crystal patterns to deduce atomic structure. The finished products based on these patterns include table surfaces, lace, plates, carpets, wallpaper, glass, fabrics, and even ashtrays. Context to the works, and to the hope placed in science as a post-War healer, is provided by publications, photographs and a jolly government film commending the “essence of Britain” being “of Newton, of atomic research, of Captain Cook, of nuclear physics, and great works of humanity”. This embracing of the new is evident in the products too—in their novel materials and their bold, bright patterns and colours.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Helen Megaw of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory was key to the success of the Group. Both its originator and scientific coordinator, she used crystal patterns in her own craft, embroidering an aluminium hydroxide cushion for Dorothy Hodgkin in 1937. Perhaps unusually for the time, she saw the value of this academic/industrial collaboration.
All the other crystallographers took part anonymously and are unmasked here for the first time. “It does seem to have been perceived as a risk to venture outside academia—and to associate with trade and commerce,” comments co-curator Emily Jo Sargent. “I think Megaw wanted to ensure that there was a separation between serious research work and the use of them for the designs.” It is evident that they were happy to participate and to use (or wear) the objects they inspired. The exhibition offers tantalising glimpses into their involvement, for example a letter between Hodgkin and Megaw, in which the latter refuses to sign a copyright waiver as she doubted she had the right to sell “a pattern perpetrated by nature”.
From Atoms to Patterns succeeds in provoking questions about designers’ inspirations, the beauty of science, and the attitudes of the science and design communities to each other, then and now. It contains a fascinating insight into British science, British design, and British optimism for a modern future, at a key moment in history for all three.
This is the first of three major exhibitions to open in London this year on an aspect of post-war modernism and design—"Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain":http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/galleries/dan_dare_and_the_birth_of_high-tech_britain.aspx opened 30 April at the Science Museum, and Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70 opens at the V&A in the autumn.
Scott Keir is Administrative Secretary of the R&D Society and a trustee of the Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust.