THEY’RE looking back and having a laugh at Compton Verney this summer.
The country house art gallery has two new exhibitions – Britain in the Fifties: Design and Aspiration, and BBC Faces of Comedy.
Britain in the Fifties, running until October 2, reflects on how design shaped and influenced people’s lives while embodying their aspirations for the future.
It was time when children played happily in the street, people left their doors unlocked, and Britain’s only motorway was a whopping eight miles long.
Although the country was still recovering from the seismic shock of the Second World War, there was a general mood of optimism, as austerity gave way to increasing affluence and burgeoning consumerism.
This carried on through much of the decade, prompting Harold Macmillan’s famous quote: “Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime …most of our people have never had it so good.”
In the years which followed the ground-breaking Festival of Britain of 1951, design played a crucial role in shaping and redefining the Brave New World of a modernising and increasingly prosperous Britain. Britain in the Fifties traces the design journey of a notional young British couple and conjures the social and cultural landscape of the time.
Drawing together over 150 objects – as diverse as a Vespa scooter to the original watercolour illustrations for the 1958 Ladybird book Shopping with Mother, Britain in the Fifties also includes paintings, posters and textiles by Enid Marx, Edward Bawden, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and their contemporaries.
The times were certainly changing, certainly in the home, with new opportunities to fill them with affordable, mass produced goods and furniture, and new, labour-saving electrical equipment which revolutionised the kitchen in the 1950s.
The rapid rise of consumerism also created a number of inter-linked industries. With the emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll came youth culture, in the form of the Teddy Boys. Car ownership climbed as Britain became the world’s largest exporter of motor vehicles. Design and aspiration – and not just reliability and value for money – became far more important for the car buyers of the later 1950s. Accordingly, motor manufacturers worked with leading designers to make what were, beneath the bodywork, often very average models look racy and contemporary – the sprightly Triumph TR2 of 1953, the Austin Healey Sprite of 1958 and Alec Issigonis’ ground-breaking Mini of 1959.
The exhibition also looks back to Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 – the first one to be witnessed by the ordinary man and woman thanks to its broadcast on national television. Over 20 million people watched the event on the small screen.
Stepping beyond the exhibition space, a typical 1950s allotment has been recreated in Compton Verney’s rolling landscape, while the cafe has been turned into a 1950s ‘Milk Bar’ – complete with Wurlitzer Jukebox.
Exhibition curator and Compton Verney Director Dr Steven Parissien said: “This fascinating exhibition explores new ground for us. It charts the harnessing of outstanding artistic talent to everyday commercial design in Britain – a development which in turn enabled the makers and retailers of the 1950s to ensure that good design could, and should, be made available not just to the wealthy few but to everyone.”
FROM Tony Hancock’s lugubrious stare to Miranda Hart’s trademark look-to-camera, some of Britain’s most instantly recognisable comedians and actors are celebrated in BBC Faces of Comedy, also running until October 2.
The collaboration with the BBC, ranging from the 1950s to the present day, features almost 100 photographs drawn from the BBC’s photo library.
This iconic collection contains over four million images, taken both on set and on location, many of which have never been seen by the public before.
Included in the Compton Verney show are the seminal comedy faces of Joyce Grenfell, Tommy Handley, Frankie Howerd, Morecambe and Wise, and The Goons.
Stars from much-loved sitcoms, including The Good Life, Are You Being Served?, Till Death Us Do Part, Dad’s Army, Only Fools and Horses, The Office, Citizen Khan and Absolutely Fabulous are also represented, while contemporary favourites such as Brendan O’Carroll and Miranda reflect the diverse nature of BBC comedy today.
Many of the images reveal their subjects at work. We are taken behind the scenes, on set among the paraphernalia of cameras and microphones, and given a glimpse of an avid script discussion, or the mundanity of taking a few moments’ break to enjoy a cuppa.
Shane Allen, Controller, BBC Comedy Commissioning said: “We wanted to reflect our audience’s enduring love of these iconic comedy shows and performers with this new exhibition, Faces of BBC Comedy. It’s a fabulous photographic roll call of the comedy and sitcom greats post-war.”
Visit www.comptonverney.org.uk for tickets and further details on both exhibitions.