‘Myself, the architect, duffle-coated, sharp-nosed, straggly-haired.’ Thus did Hugh Casson, the influential British architect and writer, describe himself in a diary written during a cultural tour behind the ‘iron curtain’, to China in the 1950s. That diary - Red Lacquer Days - was published in a limited edition of 200, but Casson returned to the diary form 25 years later when President of the Royal Academy. Today, his centenary, is the time to remember that duffle-coated, sharp-nosed architect.
Casson was born on 23 May 1910 and spent some time in Burma, where his father worked for the Indian Civil Service, before being sent home, because of the impending war, to his maternal grandparents in Kent. His uncle was the actor Sir Lewis Casson (married to Sybil Thorndyke). Hugh was sent to boarding school at Eastbourne, East Sussex, and later studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the Bartlett School of Architecture, London. Thereafter he taught at the Cambridge School of Architecture and practised in the firm run by his Cambridge tutor Christopher Nicholson.
During the Second World War, he served with the Air Ministry working on camouflage, and after he worked as director of architecture for the Festival of Britain, and he went into partnership with Neville Conder. Together their firm designed many projects, including university campuses, the Elephant House at London Zoo, and Cambridge University’s Sidgwick Avenue arts faculty. Casson was knighted in 1952.
Apart from his talents as an architect, Casson was considered to be an outstanding writer and speaker. He also designed sets for the theatre and opera. During his later life, he held various high-level appointments, such as provost of the Royal College of Art and President of the Royal Academy. As a friend of the British royal family, he designed the interior of the royal yacht Britannia. For a while in the 1980s, he became a television presenter, with his own show Personal Pleasures with Sir Hugh Casson. He died in 1999; and his wife, the photographer Margaret Macdonald, died three months later. A little more biographical information is available at Wikipedia, or the Sir Hugh Casson official website, or from various obituaries (The Independent, The New York Times).
Casson is not known as a diarist, but two of his short-lived diary writing episodes, a quarter of a century apart, have been published. The first in 1956 by Lion and Unicorn Press in a limited edition of 200 had silk covered boards and was called Red Lacquer Days: an illustrated journal describing a recent visit to Peking. Copies are available on Abebooks for as little as £20. The second - Hugh Casson Diary - was published by Macmillan in 1981 and described Casson’s fourth year as President of the Royal Academy. Like Red Lacquer Days, it too is liberally illustrated with line drawings and watercolours.
Here are a few extracts from Red Lacquer Days, including the start of the first and the end of the last.
14 September 1954
‘Are you the cultural delegation?’ The flight clerk at London Airport looks up from his papers. ‘Mind you, I am only guessing.’ What else indeed could we be? Culture is written all over us. . .’
[Casson then describes the other members of the delegation naming them by their profession, a geologist, a poet, a painter, a philosopher.]
‘Myself, the architect, duffle-coated, sharp-nosed, straggly-haired.’
‘None of us, I’m sure, is certain of any motive for going except that of curiosity. We are all aware that a guest - even at the house of his dearest friend - is always a prisoner and that beyond the Iron Curtain there are no bystanders - only players, and that even a decision not to play is a commitment in itself. Yet none of us hesitated to accept the invitation - who indeed would have?’
25 September - 27 September 1954
‘In lovely weather - warm sun, cold breeze, clear blue days and Mediterranean nights - the week passes crammed with sightseeing. At our request we eschew factories and clinics, mines and blast-furnaces. For us, day after day, are spread out the delights of temples and gardens, of palaces and lakes, of secret courtyards and absurd pavilions with delicious elegant names: ‘The Palace of Pleasant Sounds’, ‘The Studio of Pure Fragrance’, ‘The Hall of Last Virtue’, ‘The Pavilion for Watching the Spring’. All are beautifully kept, affectionately restored, crowded with visitors - soldiers strolling with linked fingers, old ladies tottering on misshapen feet, pale-faced Europeans hung with light-meters and scribbling in notebooks, parties of school-children in scarlet scarves.
There can be few more visually exciting experiences than to wander through the courts of the Forbidden City as though through the rooms of some vast roofless mansion. First the great approach, paved and straight, that even within living memory was lined every day at dawn by kneeling elephants who guarded the approach of Court officials and mandarins. . . Then through the Great Gateway with the court yards set about with halls of state designed for splendid ceremonials. Each hall is surrounded with smaller halls and pavilions, with terraces, bridges, staircases and ramps all in marching, rhythmic perspective. Every column, every roof, every silhouette and every colour is the same - yet all are different because each time they are viewed from a slightly different aspect or different level. Courts give way to temples, to stairways, to courts again. Everywhere roofs are golden, ceilings blue, green and gold, walls and columns blood-red. The floors inside and out are carefully paved, great marble slabs, diagonally tooled along the main pathways - elsewhere grey rectangular bricks or stones. Balustrades are of white marble, richly carved. Great bronze vessels as high as your hat stand sentinel beneath trees every branch of which has been studied and, if necessary, twisted in growth to create the required effect. Within the State rooms are set out the furniture, the silks, the bronzes and porcelains that once belonged to the Imperial Court - some beautiful, some strangely hideous - carved monkeys made out of what looks like chocolate spaghetti; cranes in coloured cloisonné; clocks let into the bellies of elephants. Owing to the risk of fire, buildings are not fitted with electric lighting, and in the scarlet twilight of these great halls the atmosphere is sinister and smells of tyranny.
But once outside in the gardens and grottoes of the surrounding parks the magic returns . . .’
‘Day after delightful day we stroll along beautifully patterned pathways past the agonised rocks and twisted cypresses of the Winter Palace where an old man, white-masked against the dust, sits silently appraising the goldfish. We descend through a dark twisted cave in the Peilhai Park to reach a canopied ferry in which we are carried across a lake to the Emperor’s fishing pavilion. We drink tea in the shade of the Temple of Heaven, eat a picnic lunch among the yet unrestored ruins of the Summer Palace, doze in the sun beside the hulk of the old iron steam yacht (a present from the Emperor of Japan to the Dowager Empress of China) that lies mildewing and desolate upon a marble quay. We watch butterflies by silent pools, and listen to magpies in the bamboo groves. We are taken to see Mr Ching Chin-yi, who, in the shade of a little pavilion, is busy engraving the Stockholm Peace Appeal upon a grain of rice. . .’
‘. . . we drop through sopping clouds into London Airport. No reception committee, no brass bands, no blandly smiling hosts, not even grudging respect for having got there and back. Great distances, strange passport stamps, exotic labels mean nothing here. The journey is over, the delegation vowing constant friendship to be cemented by regular meetings - (I’m in the [telephone] book’) - disintegrates instantly into individuality, each with his own private English life, and vanishes into London.’