London Blog

From Atoms To Patterns

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.

Scott Keir

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": 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.


  1. Report this comment

    Maxine Clarke said:

    What a fascinating post. I’ll definitely have to go to see this exhibition.

  2. Report this comment

    Scott Keir said:

    Thanks! It is a lovely exhibition – there’s so much there about modernism, the relationship between designers and their inspiration and post-war Britian there if you want it.

    Or, as I saw on my last visit, you could do as one group of two middle-aged women did (one leading the other round on a guided tour, whether she wanted it or not), and get the wrong end of the stick. Pausing by some wallpaper which had, I think, haemoglobin on.

    “Do you think this works as something to educate people with?” asks the woman being led.

    “It’s not very educational is it? There aren’t any names or anything, so it wouldn’t work very well to educate anyone with. What else could it be for? This must be for people that wanted to show they were clever – so they would have this on their wall and then other people when they came round to their house would know how clever they were.”

    I wanted to ask them in what way William Morris’s flower prints were educating people about what different flowers were, but… I left them alone.

    Science, you see, can only be used in an educational context, or to show off how intelligent you are. It is never fun, nor inspirational, nor interesting in its own right.

  3. Report this comment

    Maxine Clarke said:

    Such a pity, Scott, isn’t it? And so unnecessary.

    A neuroscientist friend of mine is visiting from Australia, so I’ve armed him with the leaflet for the exhibition — I think he’ll visit this week.

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    Stephen Curry said:

    I visited this exhibition yesterday and it is charming. As a crystallographer myself though, I would like to have seen the technique explained in a little more detail as a prelude to the main set of exhibits, which are the fabrics and wallpapers – some wonderful and some that were more ‘of their time’! My main disappointment was that the gift shop wasn’t selling any of the ties that were on display…!

    A personal highlight was being able to get close to Perutz’s wooden model of the low-resolution structure of haemoglobin – the surprisingly “visceral-looking object” that first sparked my interest in the life sciences.

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    Maxine Clarke said:

    I was a bit disappointed that the Wellcome bookshop is selling copies of the catalogue at £10. If you are feeling rich, Stephen, I think that there might be some more scientific information in there, from a quick flick-through the other day. I wish it were not so expensive, though.

  6. Report this comment

    Scott Keir said:

    I’m sure the catalogue was £15 or more when I went there… perhaps they have dropped the price.

    Though I haven’t really thought twice at being asked to pay £20, £25 or £30 for a catalogue at an art exhibition. I’m all for cheaper catalogues though!

  7. Report this comment

    Maxine Clarke said:

    Actually I think it probably was about £20. I have very poor short-term memory, I am afraid. Comes of being 150. Or is that 160?

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    Stephen Curry said:

    Even at a tenner I demurred – I had taken a few photos going through and that was enough for me. Your estimated age, Maxine, accounts for your awesome level of output in blog-land! (or is that input? – Still can’t get Web 2.0 straight!)

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    Maxine Clarke said:

    Indeed, part of which comes of the short-term memory loss of age, so there are more things you’ve written that you have forgotten you have written, so you write them again.

    I knew all that non-TV watching would come in handy one day.

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