Issue Number: 94
Home is where the art is
Fiona Maddocks meets Jim Cadbury-Brown RA and discovers how the pioneering architect’s Suffolk home reflects his modernist principles.
H. T. Cadbury-Brown RA Photograph Eamonn McCabe.
Anyone who has sat in the warmly austere library of Burlington House or marvelled at the compressed ingenuity of the Print Room will know how elegant modernism can be. Both are the work of H.T. ‘Jim’ Cadbury-Brown, and a visit to his East Anglian home shows that, unlike many successful architects, he lives what he preaches. First, he shows me the long, one-storey building’s emblematic secret.
‘This,’ he says, whisking back a curtain as if about to reveal a bearded lady, ‘is what I call the hell-hole.’ We peer into a dark space: a washing-machine, the boiler and various essential utilities are hidden from view, so as not to clutter the simple lines and spaces of this modernist gem of a house, built by Cadbury-Brown for himself and his wife, Betty, in the early 1960s. ‘It’s all about enabling the space to flow,’ explains Cadbury-Brown, summing up one of the great tenets of modernist architecture. He illustrates his point by itemising the floor-to-ceiling doors, the absence of architrave or skirting-board, the way furniture is placed away from, rather than against, the walls. Pools of light, deflected through triangular skylights, give a feeling of luminosity throughout, which is further emphasised by huge plate-glass windows and strategically placed mirrors.
Cadbury-Brown’s iconoclastic home, situated near the Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh and completed in 1964, is built on a site that was originally set aside for an opera house by his friend and neighbour, Benjamin Britten. ‘When the opera house didn’t happen, I looked at the site and could see that with a one-storey house to one end of it, with garden all around, it could work well…’ he explains.
Soon after completing his own house, and provoking some opposition from locals in the process, Cadbury-Brown designed another, smaller, home, for Britten’s colleague, the composer and conductor Imogen Holst. ‘I sold part of the garden to Imo for £100, then designed the house. Hers is a one-person house, ours is a two-person one!’
Spurning family expectation – his father wanted him to be a naval officer, but he says, ‘I couldn’t tell port from starboard’ – Cadbury-Brown trained at the Architectural Association, thinking he would become, in his own words, ‘a gentleman architect’. With his swept-back silver hair, quilted jacket and effortless, squire-like elegance, he hardly seems an obvious radical. Yet even in his teens, Cadbury-Brown was smitten by the political and social aesthetic of the new architecture.
‘We had a family friend who’d built a couple of houses, worked on stable-blocks for big country houses and spent the summer fishing. It seemed a nice life,’ he recalls. ‘I went to work with him for three days. But then I took the roof off a house and that didn’t go down well.’ Took off the roof? ‘Yes, so it could be flat! I’d already come across Le Corbusier.’
In 1934, he met the modernist architect, Ernö Goldfinger, once vilified, now admired for his landmark Trellick Tower in west London, and spent a year working in his offices. Then, age 24, Cadbury-Brown won a competition to design branch offices for British Railways, but his career was interrupted by the war. Thereafter, he built up his own practice, designed pavilions for the Festival of Britain, and married Betty Dale, an American architect who was a partner in his firm. ‘She’d come to England with a letter of introduction to Ernö. He didn’t want her and passed her to me!’ he laughs.
Since her death in 2002, Cadbury-Brown has lived alone, keeping house meticulously for himself. Pictures of his wife, including a drawing by Le Corbusier shown in the Royal Academy’s recent ‘Elegant Variation’ exhibition on his work, make her feel a continuing presence. A striking feature of his home, despite its adherence to strict modernist principles, is the reassuring domestic feel. Although he names his Royal College of Art building as the achievement of which he is most proud, Cadbury-Brown admits that this own home, in which scale, function and design unite in serene harmony, best expresses his architectural ideals. ‘I’d designed quite a lot of little houses in new towns where you had to use standard doors and so on. Here, we could be absolutely specific, and Betty did all the detailing. But I rather pride myself on being postmodern before the term existed,’ he smiles. ‘I was always willing to work within a discipline, but bend it as needed.’
Accordingly, without feeling crowded, the house is full of objects and pictures from every period and place. A short inventory of items in the large, split-level main living space includes a Chinese urn full of pine cones, two Victorian carriage clocks, a pair of Art Nouveau candlesticks, a tall eighteenth-century corner cupboard, several William Morris chairs and a pair of De Morgan tiles, as well as architectural engravings and pictures by his own generation of British artists, Victor Pasmore, Julian Trevelyan and Heinz Henghes.
A small painting by Mary Potter shows a corner window of the house looking out to the garden beyond. At the Architectural Association, one of Cadbury-Brown’s tutors was the late, great landscape architect and Italian gardens connoisseur Geoffrey Jellicoe, also an RA, who awakened his student’s fascination with the relationship between house and garden. ‘There were few trees when we came. That big ilex was just a shoot that we brought back from the Boboli Gardens in Florence. And that umbrella pine, too, which came from Lake Garda. We wanted the garden to be semi-natural. The grass grows high in summer, full of wild flowers. We mow paths through it, but otherwise leave it as it is.’
In the small, secret courtyards around the house, plants are evergreen and sculptural, with ivy now softening the brickwork. In this magical retreat, modernism, now as venerably old as Jim Cadbury-Brown himself, makes classic statements – with a suitably British accent.
Elegant Variation: The Architecture of H.T. Cadbury-Brown RA by Alan Powers and various authors (Cambridge University Press, £7.95)
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615