British Empire Exhibition

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Joseph Emberton (1889—1956) architect


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The vast British Empire Exhibition (BEE) of 1924 covered 216 acres (87 hectares) in Wembley, London, attracting 27 million visitors over the two seasons that it was open. It revealed the extent to which many people in Britain looked to the empire (which covered about 20 per cent of the world's land surface) as a powerful means of economic survival in the difficult climate of the interwar years. Their outlook was stimulated by propagandist initiatives and organizations such as the Empire Free Trade Crusade, the United Empire Party, and the Empire Marketing Board set up under the Dominions Office in 1926 as well as the fact unfavourable trade tariffs made it significantly more difficult to compete in other markets. Furthermore, in terms of the Wembley exhibition displays the widespread emphasis on technical virtuosity, engineering and scientific achievements, and the material benefits of empire significantly outweighed any visibility of progressive developments in design that bodies such as the British Institute of Industrial Art (incorporated 1920) or the Design and Industries Association (DIA, established 1915) had sought to initiate, although the numerous advertising kiosks (including those for Eno, Oxo, Mackintosh, the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Sketch) by Joseph Emberton were striking contemporary design solutions for effective commercial propaganda. Economic commitment to the empire implied less emphasis on the more design competitive markets of continental Europe or the industrially competitive markets of the United States. The British Empire Exhibition endorsed the widespread belief that at Wembley ‘all modern decoration must be more or less based on tradition’, an idea echoed in the Palace of Arts, which housed a series of rooms in the styles of 1750, the 1820s, 1852, 1888, and 1924. There was also a strong retrospective flavour in the display of one of the leading furniture firms participating, Waring & Gillow, with exhibits that included a Georgian Library and a Chinese Lacquer Room, as well as a Modern Bedroom. The latter, though not steeped in the past, was conservative in feel and represented a modernized arts and crafts outlook. Also looking to the past was the elaborate reconstruction of Tutankhamun's Tomb, widely celebrated since its discovery by Howard Carter in late 1922. This event had captured the public's imagination through wide media coverage and the marketing of all kinds of Egyptiana, ranging in scale terms from Huntley & Palmers' biscuit tins, ceramic ware, and furniture design through to buildings such as cinemas. Important also amongst the Wembley British Empire Exhibition displays were those that sought to show Britain as a ‘civilizing’ and ‘improving’ force in her colonies and dominions. Amongst the many African exhibits, for example, were showcases of living native craftsmen—including weavers, potters, metalworkers, goldsmiths, leatherworkers, and embroiderers—all of whom could be seen plying their trade. Their promotion in this manner was seen to represent the imperial ‘civilizing’ process, whereby craft workers could follow their occupations peacefully within the security of the empire. In addition to their economic potential, indigenous handicrafts were also seen by some critics as a potentially fresh source of inspiration for designers in Britain. The dominions and colonies were also seen as important sources for the raw materials that fuelled British manufacturing industry. However, as the interwar years unfolded views of the empire, its projection, and significance changed markedly as can be charted through the many colonial and imperial exhibitions of the period, including the Antwerp and Paris Colonial Exhibitions of 1930 and 1931 through to the British Empire Exhibitions of Johannesburg in 1936 and Glasgow in 1938. By the time of the latter a much more progressive view of empire was promoted through its modern buildings and displays, giving greater emphasis to the growing self‐confidence of the colonies and dominions.


Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.

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