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The Sunbathers on the north wall of Station Gate at the Festival of Britain, 17 May 1951 | © PA Images
The Sunbathers on the north wall of Station Gate at the Festival of Britain, 17 May 1951 | © PA Images
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Lost Sculpture Returns to London’s Southbank Centre

Picture of Freire Barnes
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 6 July 2017
Hungarian sculptor Peter Laszlo Peri’s The Sunbathers returns to its former home on London’s Southbank after the sculpture was found in a hotel garden and fully restored by a conservation team.

One of many public art commissions made for the Festival of Britain in 1951, Peri’s sculpture had been missing for the past 60 years, feared destroyed like other works after the festival closed.

But after a campaign by Historic England to find lost public art, The Sunbathers was discovered in a poor state at the Clarendon Hotel in Blackheath, and has been transformed back to its former glory.

The Sunbathers on the north wall of Station Gate at the Festival of Britain, 17 May 1951
The Sunbathers on the north wall of Station Gate at the Festival of Britain, 17 May 1951 | © PA Images

Originally installed on the wall above the Waterloo Station entrance on York Road, the pair of figures were made out of Peri-crete, a type of concrete created by the artist as a cheap alternative to bronze.

The Sunbathers at the Clarendon Hotel, Blackheath, in February 2017
The Sunbathers at the Clarendon Hotel, Blackheath, in February 2017 | © Historic England

When the sculpture was located in the hotel garden, it was in a terrible state. Thanks to the successful Historic England crowdfunding campaign that raised over £22,000, the post-war sculpture could undergo extensive restoration. Layers of pale pink paint applied to the sculpture over the years were removed to reveal the sculpture’s former rich terracotta hue.

The Sunbathers being restored
The Sunbathers being restored | Courtesy Historic England

Apparently the sculpture made quite an impression on Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote upon seeing the work on his visit to the Festival in 1951, ‘the linked terra-cotta man and woman fly-defying gravity and elegantly hurrying up a W.C. wall.’

Now fully restored, the sculpture will hopefully again inspire the public, and as Celia Richardson of 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.’ A sentiment that feels very apt in London’s current climate.

The Sunbathers at the Festival of Britain
The Sunbathers at the Festival of Britain | © Historic England Archive aa51/06841

You can see The Sunbathers until August 30, 2017 at the Riverside Terrace Cafe of the Royal Festival Hall as part of Southbank Centre’s Summertime programme.