Lost Festival of Britain Sculpture Found

  • The Sunbathers by Peter Laszlo Peri has been found after Historic England's call for information on missing public art
  • Crowdfunding campaign launched to restore the piece and put it back on display at its original home on the South Bank
  • Dylan Thomas was inspired by The Sunbathers on his visit to the Festival, writing: "the linked terra-cotta man and woman fly-defying gravity and elegantly hurrying up a W.C. wall."
  • Lost piece "speaks of a time when the Festival gave hope, optimism and colour to a battered and bruised post-war nation."

People looking over a wall looking down at the Sunbathers sculpture
Photograph in The Illustrated London News, Festival of Britain supplement, 12 May 1951 © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

A unique sculpture created for the Festival of Britain in 1951 has been found at a London hotel after Historic England's 2016 drive to track down lost pieces of public art. Today we have launched a crowdfunding campaign to help restore the piece to its former glory.

The Sunbathers, by Hungarian artist Peter Laszlo Peri, was presumed lost forever after the Festival on London's South Bank closed in September 1951 and many of the temporary exhibition's sculptures were destroyed. But a couple visiting Historic England's exhibition Out There: Our Post-War Public Art at Somerset House last year recognised the sculpture from photos of missing pieces of art as one that they had seen in the garden of The Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath.

The Sunbathers at the Clarendon Hotel, Blackheath, in February 2017
The Sunbathers at the Clarendon Hotel, Blackheath, in February 2017

The pair of figures was originally mounted on the wall of the Waterloo Station Gate entrance on York Road. They are made from a special kind of concrete known as Peri-crete, invented by the artist as a cheaper alternative to casting in bronze. The Sunbathers even made an impression on poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote of "the linked terra-cotta man and woman fly-defying gravity and elegantly hurrying up a W.C. wall" in his essay about his visit to the Festival.

Historic England hopes to raise £15,000 to help restore The Sunbathers so it can go back on public display and take pride of place at the Royal Festival Hall for three months as part of the Southbank Centre's Summertime programme. Although Historic England has already contributed towards the restoration we need the public's help to finish the job. The £15,000 is needed to pay for specially trained conservators to dry the sculpture out, peel back layers of paint, reshape the wire frame and patch up missing pieces, and then fund its installation so The Sunbathers can be seen back in its original home on the South Bank.

Find out more about the appeal and how to make a donation

Celia Richardson, Director of Communications at Historic England, said: "The Sunbathers is a remarkable survival. It speaks of a time when the Festival gave hope, optimism and colour to a battered and bruised post-war nation. Today we are asking the public to help us recreate that spirit and contribute to the restoration of The Sunbathers, so it can delight visitors to the South Bank once again."

Sunbathers sculpture on the north wall of Station Gate
Photograph of The Sunbathers on the north wall of Station Gate at the Festival of Britain, 17 May 1951. Image credit PA Images

In the 1950s the owner of The Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath, Joseph O'Donnell, bought the sculpture at auction and laid the figures on a patio in the hotel gardens. Since then, countless hotel guests have enjoyed the piece, with generations of children scrambling over the figures at weddings and tea parties. Josephine O'Donnell, daughter of Joseph and one of the current owners of the Clarendon hotel, said: "I remember The Sunbathers as a child, climbing on them in our sunken garden at the front of our hotel; I used to call them Adam and Eve. I'm thrilled that they are being given a second lease of life."

Peter Peri, grandson of Peter Laszlo Peri, said: "The Sunbathers rediscovery now is a wonderful, even miraculous event and I'm delighted to support Historic England's campaign for its restoration. The sculpture has a radical vertical format; its representation of a sundial-like dynamic engagement between ordinary people at leisure and the cosmos is a great example of my grandfather's unique mixture of Constructivism and Realism."

Remains of the Sunbathers sculpture
The Sunbathers in need of some care and attention © Historic England

Jean MacIntyre, granddaughter of Peter Laszlo Peri, said:

"My grandfather would have been absolutely delighted by Historic England's campaign. For him, the most important thing was to have his art in public places so everyone could pass by and appreciate them. In 1966 he held an exhibition called 'It's the People who Matter' which summed up his philosophy, he would have been very moved to know that it's the people who will save this marvellous piece of public art for future generations to enjoy."


*An earlier version of this page stated The Sunbathers was bought at auction in the 1960s. We now believe it was in the 1950s.

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