In 1947, the British Government decided to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 with a Festival of Britain, scheduled to open 100 years to the day since the launch of the Great Exhibition, on 3 May 1951. The focus was an exhibition in London, and the area we now know as South Bank was chosen as the venue for the celebration of British achievements past, present and future. A little upriver at Battersea were the complementary Festival Pleasure Gardens. Whilst the tone on the South Bank was ‘intellectual seriousness’, at Battersea all was colour and whimsy, and a highlight was the sparkling grotto, sponsored by Schhh, you know who…
A site at Battersea comprising of ‘thirty-eight acres of allotments […] and a cricket pitch’ was chosen as the venue for the Pleasure Gardens. The project was overseen by James Gardner, a noted exhibition designer, who beat Oliver Messel to the job. He recruited designers, including Osbert Lancaster and John Piper, to help create the gay scene in ‘the English tradition of elegant follies’.
Gardner gave the commission for the proposed grotto to Guy Sheppard (1912-1990), a set and costume designer, who also created the site’s Riverside Theatre where Leonard Sachs presented ‘old-time Song-Saloon shows’. The company set up to run the Pleasure Gardens approached major companies for their support, the best remembered deal produced the famously wacky Guinness Clock, by design partnership Lewitt Him. Drinks manufacturer Schweppes were approached to sponsor the Grotto, perhaps suggesting some rather creative thinking by the team, as the festival had promised to be ‘a tonic to the nation’.
The Grotto consisted of chambers, representing the four elements of Wind, Fire, Earth and Water. In the ‘Temple of the Winds’ Sheppard engineered breezes blowing in from the four points of the compass, accompanied by appropriate sounds. So the north wind carried the tinkling of sleigh bells and the howling of wolves, whilst that from the east brought the chiming of temple bells. The south wind brought the sounds of the jungle, and the west the boom of fog horns to conjure up vast oceans. Completing the sensory experience were aromas wafted in on the moving air – pine from the north, flowers from the south, rich spices from the east, and seaweed from the west. These olfactory delights were provided by ‘Atkinsons’, presumably the long established Mayfair perfume house.
A ramp led to the ‘cave of Fire’, where a bridge carried visitors over what seemed to be the crater of a volcano that bubbled and boiled with molten lava, and next was the chamber dedicated to Earth, where carefully designed lighting shone on stalactites and glittering minerals, whilst a musical fountain glowed ‘pale phosphorescent blue’. Finally there was the ‘magical luminous world’ of Water, built as a coral reef where fish and sea creatures glowed in pools. Passing beneath a waterfall the visitor exited the ‘wonderfully eerie grotto’ in another part of the gardens. Echoing the 18th century experience of the beautiful and the sublime, visitors remembered being enchanted one moment, and then fearful the next as they passed from a gaily lit chamber onto an apparently rickety bridge over a fiery pit.
A note about historic grottoes also appeared in the guidebook. It mentioned Pope’s Grotto at Twickenham, Goldney’s Grotto in Bristol, and the grottoes in the parks at Wimborne St Giles, Stourhead, Pain’s Hill [sic] and Oatlands. One must wonder if this information came from Gardner’s friend Barbara Jones, also busy on both festival sites with ‘various capers’. At that date she was accumulating the information that would appear in Follies and Grottoes only 2 years later in 1953*.
This potted history concluded with a prominent plug for the sponsor: ‘But, as we see in the Pleasure Gardens, the spirit that built and enjoyed these grottoes, the cave-dweller in each of us, still Schweppervesces’ (Schweppes was at this date running an ad campaign with the slogan ‘Schweppervescence lasts the whole drink through’).
The Pleasure Gardens were scheduled to open with the main Festival site on 3 May 1951, one hundred years to the day since the launch of the Great Exhibition, but bad weather delayed the installation, and the gardens did not open until later in the month. The project was a great success with Country Life writing: ‘here is the festive spirit realised with a mixture of landscape, fantasy, flowers and fun which really delights’.
The grotto was a huge draw and visitors were happy to pay the additional 6d to enter (at the end of the 1951 season the proceeds of £9,300 were donated to the National Playing Fields Association). Celebrity visitors included the actor Douglas Fairbanks, and the Yorkshire cricket team, who called in for a visit before playing Surrey at the Oval (it was a draw). But surely the greatest praise came from the British Speleological Association (in brief: people who like caves), whose journal recommended that ‘all cave explorers make an effort to see this […] masterpiece of ingenuity’.
The initial estimate of visitor numbers was 6,000,000, and this figure was comfortably passed with 7,750,000 people enjoying the gardens in 1951. The gardens were originally to be dismantled at the end of the festival, but the public enthusiasm was such that it was agreed to keep them open for another two years, and legislation had to be passed to allow this. In 1952, the soon-to-be architectural historian John Harris found employment manning the entrance to the grotto, and recorded in his memoirs that the then operators were somewhat lacking in scruples, and that perhaps not all the entrance sixpences found their way to the management. In 1953 private operators took a 21 year lease on the gardens, which operated for a number of years before becoming run down, and tarnished by tragedy when a ride collapsed with fatalities in 1972. Thereafter the gardens were gradually diminished until little remained.
An exact date for the demolition of the grotto has not been found, and sadly few photos survive. What a wonderful, vivid experience it must have been. Sadly this post has been rather monochrome, and fails to do justice to the gardens, so to cheer everything up here is the joyous cover of the Festival Guide.
UPDATE February 2023: The Folly Flâneuse was absolutely delighted to hear from Peter Maggs who remembers visiting the Festival Pleasure Gardens on more than one occasion as a child. Here he is in the grotto, and his memories can be found in the comments section at the foot of the page.
* Gardner would continue to talk follies with Barbara Jones, and the second edition of Follies & Grottoes, published in 1974, featured his drawing of the root house at Spetchley.
For the Guinness Clock see https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/Content/pdf/archive-factsheets/advertising/festival_clock.pdf
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