The 1924 Pageant of Empire: Modernity, Spectacle and Re-imagining Space

The 1924 Pageant of Empire: Modernity, Spectacle and Re-imagining Space
23 Oct 2017, 17:15 to 23 Oct 2017, 19:15
IHR Past and Present Room, N202, Second Floor, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Professor Deborah Sugg-Ryan , University of Portsmouth

Pageants are often thought of as archaic, backward-looking and the antithesis of modernity. Scholars have also tended to overlook their identity as forms of visual culture and spectacle. This paper challenges these views by focusing on the distinctive pageants of Frank Lascelles, ‘the man who staged the Empire’. It examine Lascelles’ Pageant of Empire, held at the old Wembley or Empire Stadium in 1924 as part of a programme of music festivals and sporting events accompanying the British Empire Exhibition.

The paper focuses on the ways in which Lascelles and his collaborators, notably the artist-craftsman Frank Brangwyn, transformed the architecture and space of Wembley Stadium. Through ambitious props and scenery that incorporated the 100,000-strong audience into the spectacle of the pageant, Lascelles and Brangwyn turned the stadium into an amphitheatre, staging tableaux of the British Empire. The enormous cast of over 15,000 volunteer ‘pageanteers’, including visitors from the Dominions and Colonies and an assortment of exotic animals, were drilled in a semblance of spontaneity into massed formations, making striking use of colour to abstract effect, to music by Edward Elgar and others rather than spoken words. Both pageanteers and audience were active participants in the spectacle of the pageant, re-imagining the stadium through different times and places.

Focusing on the material and visual culture of the Pageant of Empire, this paper argue that the polymaths Lascelles and Brangwyn transformed Wembley Stadium into a new ‘modern’ form of spectacle that went beyond theatre and drama, drawing on their experience and innovation in architecture, interiors, decorative arts, craft and design.

Deborah Sugg Ryan is a Professor of Design History and Theory in the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Portsmouth. She is the author of Ideal Homes, 1918–39: Domestic Design and Suburban Modernism (2018), while her research has also been published in journals including English Historical Review and Journal of Design History.


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