RA Magazine Summer 2013
Issue Number: 119
Sir Hugh Casson PRA: Making Friends
As the Academy looks forward to the opening of the Keeper’s House – a new space for Friends – a show in the Tennant Gallery celebrates Sir Hugh Casson, who was President of the RA, Director of Architecture for the Festival of Britain and founded the Friends of the RA. By Sue Herdman
Sir Hugh Casson PRA on the roof of Burlington House in 1981. © Photo Anne James. Where to start with the life of Sir Hugh Casson (1910-1999)? He was an architect, artist and theatre designer, journalist, teacher and leading statesman for the arts. When, in 1951, the post-war government planned a tonic for the nation in the form of the Festival of Britain, Casson was appointed to the lead role of Director of Architecture – a role for which he was knighted. He also created the interiors for the Royal Yacht Britannia. From 1955-75 he was Professor of Interior Design at the Royal College of Art. And in 1976, at the age of 66, when most people would be thinking of retirement, he took on the Presidency of the Royal Academy, turning its fortunes around and establishing the Friends of the RA and American Associates.
‘The role of RA President fitted him like a glove,’ says Dinah, one of his three daughters. An award-winning designer (she is co-founder of Casson Mann, the studio behind the recent ‘Hollywood Costume’ exhibition at the V&A), Dinah is closely involved with the show in the RA’s Tennant Gallery. With her sisters, Carola – the family’s archivist – and Nicola, a textile craft maker, she views this show as an opportunity for those who know her father’s work to have ‘the canvas widened, and for those who are new to him, to discover the breadth of his activities.’
Casson trained under the brilliant Modernist architect Christopher Nicholson, brother of the artist Ben. But, as Dr Neil Bingham, curator of ‘Sir Hugh Casson: Making Friends’ explains, ‘Casson also loved the unfashionable and, with a deftness of touch, he bridged the divide between traditional and modern. His was a gentle, accessible Modernism. One that people understood. And he was truly a personality: witty, energetic, without a trace of snobbery, whizzing around in his Mini, dressed in a duffel coat.’
The sheer diversity of Casson’s career has made selecting works for the show a colourful challenge. The Royal Collection has lent drawings, as has the V&A, which now holds the archive of Sir Hugh and his wife, architect and designer Margaret Macdonald Casson. Their daughters have loaned personal and rarely seen material, including ‘stacks of photographs, sketch-books and letters – always illustrated.’ Early work includes designs from his wartime experience as a camoufleur, when he worked on camouflaging airfields. Among them is a sketch of a rustic pub, complete with a list of ‘props’, including ‘straw to scatter around the yard’. The pub was, in fact, an aircraft hangar.
One of the ‘firsts’ in the show will be photographs of the Casson Suite at Windsor Castle, which Casson designed in 1959. ‘He was the perfect courtier,’ Bingham says, ‘never ruffled and always prepared to suggest avant-garde work to the Queen by artists such as Mary Fedden and Barbara Hepworth.’ Casson’s drawing of the construction of the Festival of Britain’s Dome of Discovery (above), a temporary exhibition centre on the South Bank site, is also on display. And there is a rare chance to see the shdrawing he presented to the RA on becoming an Academician – the Elephant and Rhino House at London Zoo, (1962-65, page 11), which is now Grade II listed.
‘The bookends of our father’s career were the Festival of Britain and his Presidency of the RA,’ says Carola. Nicola fondly recalls being at the opening of the Festival with her sisters: ‘We were all dressed the same, in little green suits with pleated skirts’. Excerpts from the film Brief City (1951) with Casson’s voice describing the Festival as ‘a gigantic toy shop for adults’, bring that time to life in the show (see red caption on previous page). For all three daughters, their father’s skill as a ‘connector, a generous person who could bring people together in a clever, almost alchemic way’ was key to both those ‘bookends’ of his working life. ‘His immense joy and interest in people meant that he was often to be seen chatting to visitors in the queue for an RA show, or dropping in to sit at someone’s desk,’ Carola recalls. ‘To him, the most important thing was that visitors should have a wonderful experience. He saw that the RA, in order to survive, had to change radically and become financially secure. He was a bit like an oil can, drip, drip, dripping into all its squeaky corners, smoothing things along, charming people into working well together.’
Casson had his critics. Private Eye’s Nooks and Corners columnist Piloti names his annual award for the worst new building of the year after him. Casson himself was modest about his own watercolours, labelling them his ‘maiden aunts’. But who cannot be swayed by the sheer glee of a man whose ambition, according to his daughters, was to ‘make people smile’; who placed Eros in Piccadilly into a gilded cage for the Queen’s coronation in 1953; whose design for an airline poster still leaps off the page; and whose beach house built in 1957 for Lord Montagu of Beaulieu on the Solent had the understandably fulsome approval of glossy interiors magazines of the time? All these, and more, will appear in what Neil Bingham describes as a ‘warm and touching show’.
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