The Lion and the Unicorn

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Architects: R. Y. Goodden and R. D. Russell
Theme Conveners: Hubert Phillips and Peter Stucley
Display Designers: R. Y. Goodden, R. D. Russell, and Richard Guyatt
Commentary: Laurie Lee

The British People are something more than the sum of: men with ancestors, children in schools, families in homes and gardens, and patients in hospitals. They are, in addition, compositions of various particular habits, attitudes, instincts, qualities and characteristic moods. But these attributes, not being tangible, are hard to display, “in the round”, in an exhibition of tangible things.

Nevertheless, we should not like visitors – particularly those from overseas – to leave the South Bank without having seen, at least, some token and visible reminders of the British People’s native genius. So, this Pavilion offers one or two clues to their character.

The title of the Pavilion – “The Lion and the Unicorn” – serves to symbolise two of the main qualities of the national character: on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other fantasy, independence and imagination.

Language and literature

Through the English language, once upon a time, a huddle of British Islanders founded a mother tongue. Through it, to-day, two hundred and fifty million people can converse together. The English Bible is still the great beacon for the language. Into successive versions of that Bible went the pride of English penmanship and the pick of English words; out of it came a resonance and a radiance which has suffused all our later literature and speech. Then, there was Shakespeare, who took the language in his hand, and made words do things that had never been dreamed of, and enshrined his mother-tongue in monumental plays.

Long before Shakespeare and long after him, poets, from Chaucer to T. S. Eliot, have been at work with English words. As for the prose-writers, the visitor may care to assess for himself how much of lion, how much of unicorn, has gone into the making of such as Defoe, Swift, Sterne, Carlyle, Dickens, or Lewis Carroll.

But the British do not simply leave the development of their language to the professionals of literature. There is no closed shop among practitioners of the English tongue. At times, indeed, the walls of the streets of British towns can make most lively reading. The Cockney has added a local vocabulary to the national one; and every British county has contributed a proverb, or a telling phrase.

Eccentricities and humours

Another characteristic of the British people is their love of eccentric fantasy. No better summary of this exists than Tenniel’s White Knight who, mounted on his all-purpose steed, is displayed in all verisimilitude in this Pavilion.

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Skill of hand and eye

Clues to the British character are also to be found reflected in the long tradition of British craftsmanship: in their old furniture, for example, and their sporting guns and fishing tackle and tailoring. There is something deeply revealing, too, about the British view of nature as it has been expressed in landscape painting from the time of Gainsborough and Constable until the present day, and as it discloses itself in the applied arts, such as textiles, china and wallpaper.

All these are indirect and piecemeal clues. What else can be done, in an exhibition of tangible things, to throw more light on the obscurities of the national character? There is some direct visual evidence to show that, for centuries past, the British have had a continuing impulse to develop and enlarge, whenever opportunity offered, certain kinds of freedom – particularly freedom of worship, freedom of government, and personal freedom.

The instinct of liberty

Throughout their history, the British have patiently probed for the weak spot in the defences of the contemporary enemies of their freedom, and, once they have found it, they have swiftly broken through.

As long ago as seven hundred years, the principal foundations of personal freedom were established in Magna Charta. Four hundred and twenty-seven years later, the House of Commons found the soft spot in King Charles I’s defences against the people’s will, and improvised the structure of a free constitution. In 1644 John Milton wrote the pamphlet “Arcopagitica”, as a spearhead for the break-through into freedom of the press. In the nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell’s plea for the Roman Catholic minority extended the freedom of worship; and the Tolpuddle farm-hands broke down the last fence of resistance to the freedom of labour. In the early years of the present century, Mrs. Pankhurst’s suffragettes forced the break-through which at last brought British women fully into public life.

The indefinable character

If, on leaving this Pavilion, the visitor from overseas concludes that he is still not much the wiser about the British national character, it might console him to know that British people are themselves still very much in the dark about it. For them, the British character is as easy to identify, and as difficult to define, as a British nonsense rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All round the town.

Some gave them white bread
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
And sent them out of town.

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