Jim Cadbury-Brown was a key ﬁgure in British modernism
I never worked for ‘Jim’ (Henry Thomas) Cadbury-Brown, and so didn’t have that kind of intimacy of collaboration, but I knew him for about 30 years and, with Alan Powers, put on the exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy called Elegant Variation in 2006, and contributed to the monograph published at that time
Jim was the perfect English gentleman, who was yet a modernist, giving the lie to the 1930s slur that modernism was embraced only by Jews or foreigners. In fact he embraced it so enthusiastically that, having finished at the Architectural Association in 1935, he applied to work for nothing for the newly arrived Ernö Goldfinger, who was both.
After the war he was to meet, through Goldfinger, Elizabeth Romeyn, an American architect who had come to work for him on the recommendation of Helena Rubinstein, for whom Goldfinger had built the ‘first Modern shop in London’ in 1926-7, but later quarrelled about fees. Jim and Elizabeth (‘Betty’) married and remained close friends of the Goldfingers.
Jim’s modernism included being a member of the MARS Group of architects, contributing to the 1938 MARS Group exhibition, and after the war, organising with newly-acquired military skills both the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne conferences held in England – at Bridgwater in 1947 and Hoddesdon in 1951. He kept the signing-in books, in which the only name missing is that of Le Corbusier – too proud to sign (but not too proud to draw a portrait of Betty, which he entitled ‘L’Américaine’).
Jim had won a competition in 1937 to design some ticket shops for the railways, in a very austere, hard-edged style. There were to be hundreds of these and he set up his own practice – but only two were built, before war intervened. After the war, much of his career was determined by his friendship with Hugh Casson – first through his commission to design two major pavilions at the Festival of Britain (Land of Britain and People of Britain) and the festival’s main esplanade, studded with runway landing lights and ‘flame fountains’ at the end. He positioned the festival sculpture and subsequently taught architecture to sculptors at the Royal College of Art.
When the possibility of building a new building for the college arose, the school head, Robin Darwin, gave the job to Casson, his head of design, who gave it to Jim. Thus was born his major work. His radical 1954 Ashmount School in Hornsey, sheathed in glass and a masterly composition of masses on a steep corner site, is currently threatened with demolition by Islington council.
As well as a sophisticated practitioner, he was a profound thinker about architecture, president of the Architectural Association, taught at Harvard under Gropius, held an honorary doctorate at the RCA and became professor of architecture at the Royal Academy.