Sir Hugh Casson (1910-99) was the John Betjeman of postwar British architecture: the unthreatening, homely face of a sometimes difficult art form. Casson came to notice when, at the age of only 38, he was appointed Director of Architecture for the Festival of Britain. It was his charm and easy manner that enabled such uncompromising buildings as Leslie Martin’s Royal Festival Hall to be built.
His own career as an architect was successful if unspectacular, his most memorable building being the elephant house at London Zoo, which resembles a pachyderm-size cluster of oasthouses. Although Casson trained as a Modernist, his heart lay with traditional architecture and it was this that underlay commissions to design the interiors of the royal yacht Britannia as well as suites of rooms in Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace (he was also, supposedly, the man who taught Prince Charles to paint).
Wider recognition was largely due to his accomplished watercolours and drawings, almost always on architectural themes, which were disseminated in numerous books and magazines. His paintings have a winning lightness of touch and facility and are stylistic brethren to John Piper’s pictures of buildings. Casson’s, however, are invariably sunny works-moodiness was not his thing.
A selection of his pictures is on display at the Royal Academy, where he was a notably successful president. The exhibition is subtitled “Making Friends”, a frank admission of his public role but also with something of an edge: it is a phrase no architectural purist, especially a Modernist, would have found flattering.