[1] Anne James, Photograph of Sir Hugh Casson PRA, black and white silver gelatin print, 1981. © The Photographer

[2] Sir Hugh Casson PRA, Record drawing for Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilion, London Zoo, Regent's Park, pencil, pen and ink with coloured washes, Diploma Work, c. 1971. Photo RA/Prudence Cuming Associates © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] Sir Hugh Casson PRA, Great staircase, Burlington House, c. 1977, watercolour with pen and ink on paper. Photo RA/Prudence Cuming Associates © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[4] Paul Caffell, Photograph of Sir Hugh Casson PRA, 1987 platinum-palladium print, (the print was made in 1987, the photograph was taken in 1984). Photo RA/Paul Caffell © The Photographer

Artist of the Month - May 2017


Sir Hugh Casson PRA (1910-1999)

Sir Hugh Casson PRA was probably the most popular British architect of his time. In such high-profile roles as Director of Architecture for the 1951 Festival of Britain and President of the Royal Academy of Arts, he successfully bridged the gap which divided traditional and modern artists and architects during the mid-twentieth century. His great wit and charm, coupled with a light and fluent touch in design and drawing, delighted the arts profession and the public alike.

Hugh Maxwell Casson [1] was born in 1910 and spent his early childhood in Burma where his father, Randal, was a colonial civil servant. He attended Eastbourne College and went on to study architecture at St. John's College, Cambridge (1929-32) and at the Bartlett School of Architecture, London (1932-34). There, he met Margaret Macdonald Troup whom he married 1938. The couple had three daughters together: Carola, Nicky and Dinah.

Casson began his career at the architectural practice of his former Cambridge tutor, Christopher (Kit) Nicholson, but his progress was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Serving as an officer in the Air Ministry, Casson put his skills as a designer to good use identifying sites for air hangars and disguising them with camouflage. He returned to Nicholson's office after the war but this partnership came to an abrupt end in 1948 when his mentor died in a glider accident.

Already established as an architect in his own right, Casson shortly afterwards received his greatest assignment when he was appointed Director of Architecture for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Successfully co-ordinating the design of the whole exhibition at London's South Bank, Casson was knighted in 1952 for his achievements. Soon after the Festival, he went into partnership with Neville Conder, taking on important commissions including the Sidgwick site for Cambridge University and the Ismaili centre in South Kensington, London. One of their best-known works was the Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilion for London Zoo which was Casson's personal project and one of his finest [2]. The building, completed in 1965, lodged four elephants and four rhinoceroses. This typically lively watercolour was produced six years later as a record of the project. The top half shows an elevation of the building, while the lower half features a section (bottom left) and a plan (bottom right). Elected a Royal Academician in 1970, Casson presented the drawing to the institution in 1971 as his 'Diploma Work'.

Alongside his work as an architect, Casson was also Professor of Interior Design at the Royal College of Art, a well-known watercolourist, set-designer, illustrator, editor and writer. Buildings, naturally, were his favourite subjects for sketching but a quick eye for caricature and local colour enlivened his work. Casson's ink sketches and watercolours, like the one above, have a lightness of touch, a sense of spontaneity and immediacy, and of charm - like the man himself. His watercolour of the Great Staircase at Burlington House also suggests the influence of his work as a set designer. Employing some artistic licence, he amplified the proportions of the architecture investing it with an added sense of grandeur. [3] This drawing was reproduced as the poster for the 1977 Sumer Exhibition and another version of the same scene featured as the cover for the Hugh Casson Diary (1981).

In 1976 following the unexpected death of the painter Sir Thomas Monnington PRA, Casson was elected as the President of the Royal Academy. [4] In this photograph he can be seen wearing his medal of office posing next to the self-portrait of his predecessor, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Casson's wide experience, his engaging personality and his leadership qualities helped him to bring the RA into the modern age, encouraging the Academy's membership to accept changes and innovations and placing the institution on a more secure financial footing. Among his many achievements at the RA was the creation of the highly successful Friends of the Royal Academy in 1977. Sir Hugh stepped down as President in 1984 and spent a productive 'retirement', painting watercolours and publishing no less than six books. He died on 15 August 1999; his wife Margaret, Lady Casson, died just a few months later. Their lives were celebrated in a memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral.

The estate of Hugh Casson have recently generously given many of Casson's sketches and sketchbooks to the Royal Academy. A selection of these will be on display for the first time at the Friends Week Launch Party on 15 May 2017.