Theresa Thompson takes a trip back to a stylish, less complicated age

Designed to demolish a few myths about Britain in the 1950s, Compton Verney’s major exhibition this summer tells us that no, the colours of the post-war decade weren’t all sepia, khaki and grey, that instead there was optimism and vibrancy in design, that it was a time of immense artistic achievement.

“Do you remember when children happily played in the street, you could leave your doors unlocked, and Britain’s only motorway was a whopping eight miles long?” asks Steven Parissien, Director of Compton Verney and curator of Britain in the Fifties: Design and Aspiration.

“Well if you do, and even if you don’t, we plan to take you on a fascinating journey down memory lane into a time when Britain was recovering from shock of the Second World War and looking forward to the future with a sense of optimism and burgeoning affluence.”

The decade saw the end of rationing and the hope of better things to come. So, the exhibition looks at what an average British couple could now hope to have in their home. Mock-up rooms set the scene: the kitchen with new refrigerator, a Kenwood Chef, Bush radio, and all sorts of must-have gadgets like a new-fangled Teasmade; the dining room with coffee cups and plates decorated with aspirational Mediterranean views (though package holidays didn’t take off until the 1960s); and the boxy television in the living room, rented in time to watch the Coronation in 1953.

“This is a decade when great designers were working for big companies. In the 1950s artists, who thirty or 40 years before may have gone into fine art, now made the conscious decision to work for commercial companies. This was a Brave New Britain,” says Steven.

So, we see unapologetically modernist designs from leading British designers such as Terence Conran, and Lucienne Day; textiles and furniture from British firms such as Sandersons (their ‘Mobiles’ fabric design), and Ercol; a wonderful group of Horrockses dresses (pinched waists and flared skirts, in synthetic taffeta or cotton) including one made with a Graham Sutherland fabric design (the fashion label collaborated with several contemporary artists); and celebrating British cinema, Edward Bawden’s poster for the film The Titchfield Thunderbolt outside a cinema with a row of 1950’s seating for us to fidget in until the intermission.

What struck me, seeing the original artwork for the Ladybird children’s book Shopping with Mother (1958), was how neat and tidy things all were.

The little girl’s neat as nine pence pigtails and bows, the mother’s white gloves... the shelves stacked to the hilt with fruit and veg, fish paste and all... the shops swelling with new exciting things to buy.

Quite a few exhibits come from Oxfordshire or near, Parissien pointed out, and many of the brands and items are still around.

As well as the Oxford-made Mini on display (one of the show’s highlights), and the frog-eyed Abingdon-made Austin Healey Sprite (photo only), there’s Robert Welch cutlery (from Chipping Campden; a limited edition toast rack is on sale in the shop to mark 60 years of the design); a Prestcold refrigerator, which was made at Cowley (at Pressed Steel); Ercol furniture is still made in Princes Risborough, Bucks; and of the Shell Guides on show, one is Oxfordshire’s illustrated by John Piper.

“This was an Indian summer for British design. We were even, briefly, the world's largest exporter of cars,” says Steven. Cars had to be reliable and good value, but now they also had to look contemporary and racy.

And then, there’s the Wurlitzer Juke Box they have installed in the gallery’s café cum 1950’s ‘milk-bar’!

A second show, BBC Faces of Comedy, also offers doses of nostalgia from all decades since the ‘50s. Photos of stars and favourite comedy sitcoms – from Tony Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, to Miranda Hart, from The Goons to Absolutely Fabulous – selected from the BBC archive, show them in rehearsal or behind the scenes, relaxed and enjoying a cuppa or even a nap.

* Britain in the Fifties: Design and Aspiration is at Compton Verney, near Banbury, until October 2.