Hugh Maxwell Casson (1910 – 1999)

Hugh Maxwell Casson was born on 23 May 1910, the son of Mary Caroline Man and Randall Casson. He died in London on 15 August 1999. He married Margaret Troup on 9 November 1938. Margaret was born on 26 September 1913 in Huntley, Aberdeenshire. Margaret died in London in 1999. Hugh and Margaret belong to Generation Seven, their three living children belong to Generation Eight.

From The Independent: Obituaries:
Sir Hugh Casson
The first architect since Lutyens to become President of the Royal Academy,
Casson emerged triumphant

“ARCHITECT ETCETERA” was the title of an exhibition of Hugh Casson’s drawings held at the Heinz Gallery in 1986. The etcetera covered a galaxy of other skills and interests. Back in the free-and-easy 1920s it was possible for architects like Clough Williams-Ellis and H.S. Goodhart-Rendel to be fluent writers and talkers and of course Vanbrugh was the archetype, not least in the expertise for which he depended on Hawksmoor. But to be so versatile, and to have such a talent to amuse, was even more remarkable in Casson’s serious and high-minded generation of architects.

He was born in 1910, his father having served in the Indian Civil Service and his uncle Sir Lewis Casson the actor and producer and husband of Sybil Thorndike. As a child, while his father was at the School of Navigation, he grew up among ships and wharfs and watched the great liners pass down the breezy expanses of Southampton Water. At boarding school, at Eastbourne College, like most drop-outs from organised games he took refuge in reading (he had a remarkable memory for quotations) and of course drawing, but it was not until Cambridge that he turned from the Classics to architecture and learnt at the tiny School of Architecture to draw in perspective with a fountain pen and never to use an indiarubber.

The 1986 show had a sketch of himself (all his life he drew himself with affectionate irony) as the tiny cox of his college boat receiving a medal from the enormous Mrs Stanley Baldwin “in a hat like an abandoned allotment”. At weekends he haunted the Festival Theatre, painting scenery and meeting the resident celebrities.

His teachers both at St John’s College, Cambridge and later in London at the Bartlett School at University College were eminently traditional, and his first little steep-roofed house, on which he always looked back with affection, might have been the work of Edward Maufe. But there was one exception – his year master at Cambridge, Christopher Nicholson, a modernist of great promise who was to be Casson’s friend and first partner from 1937 until his death in 1948 in a gliding accident at Dunstable.

It was at the Bartlett that he met Margaret Troup from South Africa, known to her friends as Reta and to him alone as Moggie, who was soon to be his equally talented wife. But building jobs were scarce in the late Thirties and he turned to journalism as a columnist on the Architects’ Journal and on Graham Greene’s short-lived Night and Day.

In 1939, with the outbreak of war, he characteristically enlisted in the River Thames Fire Service before moving to camouflage, and in 1944 found himself, cast against type, in the Research Department of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning under William Holford.

He continued writing. As he said later, “It was, I suspect, my journalism and illustrations rather than my few bits of unmemorable architecture that were the cause of the invitation in 1948 to join Gerald Barry’s team being set up to plan the Festival of Britain. It proved to be three years of almost total elation.”

Much has been written about the 1951 Exhibition: unquestionably it was the “tonic” that the shabby and exhausted nation desperately needed, and as Director of Architecture Hugh Casson deservedly received a knighthood. Neville Conder had joined Casson’s practice after the war and in 1952 they won a limited competition for a master plan for the development of the Arts Faculty site at Cambridge. When in due course they were commissioned for the first group of buildings the Casson Conder Partnership came into being. Thirty years later, when the development was completed, Conder was to write a masterly essay on the methodology of such long-term enterprises.

Post-war architects often practised in pairs (later the fashion for mysterious initials took over) which led to much discussion among critics and historians, accustomed to the tradition of the single artist, about who really did the designing. The crude assumption was that the first was the sociable job-getter, the second the creative recluse. Architects know that in fact it’s all done by talk over the drawing-board and resent such sleuth-work.

In the case of Casson Conder it would be particularly invidious because of the unity-in-diversity of their work (from large office buildings to telephone kiosks to ship interiors) and the loving attention given to the tiniest projects. Casson would say that his favourite among their buildings was the 1965 Elephant House at the London Zoo, though that rough beast is uncharacteristic. Others may feel that the first buildings at Cambridge have worn remarkably well and may resent the deliberately contemptuous intrusion of Stirling’s Library.

Their three large office buildings – in King Street, Manchester and Fetter Lane and Charing Cross in London – are among the best in that unloved hand, and their more recent Anglo-Islamic Ismaili Centre opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has great charm. What characterises all their work is elegance, lightness of touch and sensitivity to surroundings (all of which qualities were later to go out of fashion).

Several of the architects and designers involved in the South Bank Exhibition were invited by Sir Robin Darwin to become senior staff of the reconstituted Royal College of Art, where in 1953 Hugh Casson was put in charge of a new School of Interior (later Environmental) Design with Reta as Senior Tutor. Darwin had hoped for a School of Architecture, but was told that, with architecture in its historic sense still, in John Summerson’s words, “an illegal profession”, there were too many already. But a school of architecture, over the years until Casson’s retirement in 1975, it gradually became.

Meanwhile his “etcetera” activities spread in a happy variety of directions. He was a born Londoner, traversing it in his tiny Mini and drawing buildings with the same affection with which Edward Ardizzone drew people, and only rarely escaping with his family to a windswept coastguard’s dwelling facing the Solent and the Isle of Wight. His childhood love of the sea and nostalgia for the Royal Navy found expression in the designs for the royal apartments in HMY Britannia, when he found an enthusiastic client in Prince Philip. Later, through Sir Colin Anderson’s connection with the RCA, the firm was to design all the public rooms in the new P&O flagship Canberra.

Then his family connections and Cambridge addiction to the theatre gave him the chance to design sets for Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. Planning consultancies followed for historic Wessex city centres (Bath, Bristol, Salisbury, Chichester) with the mixed results of such efforts in the face of traffic and tourism. Twenty-three years on the Royal Fine Art Commission (1960-83) were accompanied by a daunting profusion of other appointments and committees. Casson claimed to believe that committee work was “an art form in its own right” and was bad at saying No.

Finally, in 1975, came the Presidency of the Royal Academy – the first architect since Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1938 to undertake it. Painter academicians are tempted to give architect PRAs a rough ride, but over his nine years Casson emerged triumphant, achieving a dramatic improvement in the financial state, artistic “relevance” and public image of the Academy. The picturesque costume and unfailing wit with which he presided over annual dinners will not be forgotten by anyone who was there.

His illustrated Diary for 1980 is a vivid, part funny, part horrific account of one typical year among many through which his wife, amused and ironical, gave him heroic support, almost collapsing when they moved house in the middle of it: their three much-loved daughters came to the rescue. “I stood around moping; how one longs to be a handyman,” he wrote, affecting a helplessness which belied his enormous energy and the core of steel that underlay his sense of fun. Hugh Casson’s achievements were remarkable, but his personality outshone them.


From The Guradian by Jose Mansur
Tuesday 17 August 1999

Sir Hugh Casson Festival of Britain architect who opened the Royal Academy of Arts to a wider public Jose Mansur Tuesday 17 August 1999 The Guardian It was the Festival of Britain in 1951 which thrust Hugh Casson, who has died aged 89, into the limelight. He never left it. By then in his late thirties, Casson, a small, mercurial figure, was an architect in practice who wrote extensively on architecture for both the general and professional press. He had had experience of camouflage work during the second world war and of small architectural projects and exhibition work, but not much more. Nevertheless, Gerald Barry, the festival’s director-general, chose him to be the festival’s director of architecture.

It was a job he tackled with zest, demonstrating his manifold capabilities to a large and potentially critical audience. The inherent difficulties – time available, bad weather, tight budget, strikes, post-war shortage of materials and the sneers directed at this Labour government’s enterprise by a right-wing press – were all overcome. After two and a half years of phenomenal hard work, the festival opened to general acclaim, and although many people were involved, it was Casson’s accomplishment in bringing everything to a successful conclusion which earned him a knighthood in the New Year’s honours of 1952.

Hugh Casson was born in London, his mother having travelled from Burma for the birth. The Cassons were clever. His father, Randal, had been a scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he got a first-class degree in mathematics, entering the Indian Civil Service only because he saw no future as an astronomer. (Randal’s brother, Lewis, became the distinguished actor-director and husband of Sybil Thorndike.)

Hugh and his sister, Rosemary, were sent home at the outbreak of the first world war and raised largely by relatives for the next four years, to which Hugh attributed his charm and affability. He decided early on that life would be easier if people liked him.

After an undistinguished sojourn at Eastbourne College and failure to get a classics scholarship to St John’s, he decided to read architecture there instead; from then on his life was set on its trajectory of ceaseless but enjoyable hard work. Hugh, like his father, came down with a first-class degree and, in his case, the Craven Scholarship which enabled him to spend three months at the British School in Athens.

Completing his architectural training at the Bartlett School in London, he then worked for his Cambridge tutor, Christopher Nicholson (son of Sir William and brother of Ben), who not only helped him expand his already wide circle of friends so that it included the slightly raffish world of the artistic community in 1930s London, but acted as mentor and guide. Nicholson’s sense of humour matched Casson’s own, and people who worked in their office remember it being filled with laughter, particularly during the time they worked on Monkton House for the surrealist patron Edward James, with Salvador Dali acting as adviser. Nicholson found the pair so hilarious he couldn’t contain himself and left Casson to cope.

During the second world war, Casson worked for the camouflage service of the air ministry. It was a job which perfectly suited his creative skills, and he and his wife Margaret – a fellow architect he had met when they were students – settled into a village near Cheltenham where he was based. Casson did his job conscentiously, but it was always supplemented by other pursuits. He wrote knowledgeably for professional publications (he was a long-term contributor to the Architectural Press) in a way that was interesting and accessible for the lay press, illustrating many of his articles with his own sketches. In whatever spare time was available, he lectured at Cheltenham Art School.

With the war in Europe over, the Cassons returned to London and after a short spell at the ministry of town and country planning, Hugh resumed practice with Nicholson until the call came in 1948 to join the Festival of Britain team. He expected to return to the small firm they had established. Tragically, Nicholson was killed in a gliding accident over the Alps just before Casson started his festival work. With typical swift-footedness Hugh asked the young architect Neville Conder to keep the practice going until his return.

In fact, Casson, despite being senior partner at Casson Conder, never returned to full-time practice. After the Festival he established an interior design department at the Royal College of Art, where he stayed, with Margaret as senior tutor, until his retirement in 1975. Almost immediately he stepped in to the presidency of the Royal Academy of Art, a role he filled with more flair and gift for publicity than any president of that institution had demonstrated for decades.

From his perch on his secretary’s desk (he never had one of his own), he persuaded fellow academicians that it was time to open the place to a wider public (one solution was to form the Friends of the Royal Academy in 1977), extend the exhibitions programme, seek sponsorship, and by these and other means make the place financially secure, which it still is after a period of fluctuating fortunes. His yellow Mini became a familiar sight buzzing in and out of the courtyard at Burlington House. He staged huge exhibitions like The Genius of Venice (1983) and did not retire from the job until 1984.

These are the bare bones of Hugh Casson’s life. It was fleshed out with innumerable other activities. He was, above all, an architect (as he declared on his passport), and Neville Conder always insisted that as well as bringing in much work to their practice, Casson made an essential contribution to its design and execution. With the Casson Conder offices close to the Royal College of Art, he managed to spend time there on most days, often when everybody else was ready to go home and wishing he would too.

New buildings for Cambridge University at Sidgwick Avenue, offices for the General Dental Council, headquarters for WH Smith and the National Westminster Bank, interiors for the new SS Canberra, the elephant house at London Zoo, and the Ismaili Centre at South Kensington are among Casson Conder projects.

At a personal level, Hugh Casson started working for the royal family soon after the Festival of Britain finished. Over the years, he designed private apartments at Buckingham Palace and Windsor, advised on alterations at Sandringham, and designed the state rooms and private apartments on the Royal Yacht Britannia, which the Duke of Edinburgh described, rather poignantly, as the only one of their homes he and the Queen had made for themselves. Rooms on the now decommissioned Britannia remain exactly as the royal couple wanted them, in a 1950s time warp.

The friendship Hugh Casson established with these royal clients was a genuine one, since they, like everyone else, warmed to his wit and good humour. He was made a KCVO in 1978 and a Companion of Honour in 1985.

Hugh Casson’s contribution to the world of committees and commissions was increasing and ran like a thread through his other work. He was on the Royal Fine Art Commission from 1960-83, a member of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, a trustee of the British Museum and of the National Portrait Gallery, and on the Council of the National Trust. The lightness and humour with which he approached these commitments was deceptive; his contribution was informed by a steely intellect which ensured the value of his comments.

Hugh Casson never considered himself an important artist. But he was a prolific and accomplished water colourist. Anyone who knew him has one of his works because the notes of thanks, commiseration or congratulation, which he wrote in profusion were each decorated with a small painting. These were charming, witty, and of instantly recognisable provenance.

To his delight, this skill brought him commissions from Glyndebourne (where water colours of his set designs sold within days), the Royal Opera House and several theatre companies. He wrote and illustrated a number of successful books, including, in more recent years, Hugh Casson’s Diary, Hugh Casson’s London, Hugh Casson’s Oxford, and Hugh Casson’s Cambridge. He also illustrated the Prince of Wales’s children’s story, The Old Man of Lochnagar.

Casson filled his life with activity to an almost insupportable extent, yet he always had time for more. Margaret, Moggie as he called her, was a never failing presence and support in the background. In an effort at control, she was known to write “No” in large letters on envelopes of invitation before he had even opened them. No one, however insignificant in worldly terms, got swept aside for lack of time. As many a struggling student or artist will affirm, Hugh Casson made time for everyone. He is survived by Margaret and their three daughters.

Fiona MacCarthy adds:

I had a child’s eye view of Hugh Casson. I must have met him first when I was about 10, around the time of the Festival of Britain. I was at school in Kensington with his daughters, Carola and Nicola. There were curious relics of the festival in their Victoria Road house when I was taken home for tea.

Hugh’s persona as father of a schoolfriend was entrancing. He seemed altogether different from other London fathers, being tinier, more elfin, much funnier, more friendly. He had the imaginative quality of getting on to a child’s wavelength straightaway. He felt a great nostalgia for the cosy, contained world of the old-fashioned English nursery and collaborated with Joyce Grenfell on a marvellous miscellany called Nanny Says.

Look hard at his drawings and you always find small figures. Avuncular artists sketching ancient buildings, pairs of culture vultures climbing the steps of Burlington House. Hugh loved people and their oddities. He was extremely touchy-feely and would stand uninhibitedly stroking one’s neck or caressing one’s wrist at formal gatherings.

He adored his wife and children and I remember once at a Royal Academy committee meeting, chaired by his wife Hugh suddenly burst in and put his arms around her – a gesture that might have so easily seemed corny. But with Hugh the spontaneity was real.

Hugh was a voice of kindliness and reason in an age of hype and cruelty. He had enormous skill in puncturing pomposity. He hated self-important academics who would labour for 25 years on the perfecting of a footnote and was stalwart in support of unimportant pleasures, the things he used to call “the etceteras of life”. Second raters, he would argue, are nicer than first raters – more civilised, less driven. I agree and will always remember Hugh as one of the sublimely second rate. • Hugh Maxwell Casson, architect, born May 23, 1910; died August 15, 1999.