Wednesday 30 January 2013

A Walk Through 3 Church Walk with Natalie Wheatley

At last year’s Aldeburgh Music Festival in Suffolk I worked for a few days driving an older friend around. It had been twenty years since his last visit to the festival when he had stayed with Jim and his “very American” wife Betty in their “wonderful modern house”. He could no longer recall the house’s exact location, or anything of his stay in detail, but sensing my interest resolved to reconstruct every detail of that earlier trip. Remembrances came unevenly that first morning, amounting to a spectral cast of figures between London and Suffolk: “Jim had built a matching bungalow for Holst’s daughter Imogen... Absolute functional interior... Slept terribly... Your place the Royal College of Art... Festival of Britain and all that lot - Hugh Casson... The most effeminate man, but definitely not gay.”

Over the next few days we bee-lined every over-80 year old in Aldeburgh: “Are you from around here!? Do you remember Cadbury-Brown!?” Most were retirees or tourists. The elderly locals we spoke to did not know him. Then on the cliff top by the flint church a breakthrough: We spoke with an elderly woman, a real Miss Havisham, or as Jim’s former guest insisted “the ghost of Imogen Holst.” We were in fact, she told us, almost “in its presence”. When Jim died there had been some dispute or other and the place remained abandoned. We followed Havisham/Holst’s directions to the house, trespassing a lawn to pass through a gap in the fence into a thick garden bordered with mature firs. 

In Cadbury-Brown’s 2009 Guardian obituary a portrait by the photographer Eamonn McCabe shows the architect reclining on a Breuer-style easy chair in front of a window in his home. Propped up inside the window frame is a portrait of his late wife Betty. Beyond this, the window frames deep emerald greens of the garden. According to the Guardian obituary (written by Diana Rowntree, the Guardian’s first architecture critic, who died in 2008), in the eighteenth century the site of the house had been a bowling green. Later in 1957 composer Benjamin Britten bought the plot with the intention of building an opera house, but when these plans collapsed his friends Jim and Betty, who had carried out design work for Britten, were given first entitlement to the land. Together they designed their private house, eventually completing the build in 1964. The single-storey structure is constructed from sand-lime walls. Light scoops punctuate the flat grassed roof, providing natural lighting to the largely open plan interior. Tall doors span floor to ceiling. On the outside looking in through the large windows I could see that the same Breur-style chair from Jim’s obituary remained unmoved in the same position. Numerous floor-standing Herbert Terry lamps wore thick coats of dust; wicker bases of William Morris chairs had slacked and splintered with neglect; little heaps of crisp, hollowed insects lined the sills of the bay windows; faintly darkened patches traced where pictures had hung - all that remained was what appeared to be a Matisse print. 

With Sir Hugh Casson and Robert Goodden, Jim had been part of the design team for the Royal College of Art in Kensington Gore. Later that week I enquired about Jim at the RCA library. The only title in their collection relating to the architect was a book by Natalie Wheatley titled Cadbury-Brown: The Family Behind the Modernist Architect, a book I was assured by the librarian to be of “no critical or academic interest”. True, it is not an academic text, whatever the supposed virtues of that may be; rather it is an intimate family history of the Cadbury-Browns, which hangs largely on the public figure Jim, told by his former employee and niece-in-law. Natalie’s husband, Michael Wheatley, was the nephew of Jim: Michael’s mother, Marion Rowena Wheatley née Cadbury-Brown, was Jim’s sister. In the early 1960s Natalie had worked as secretary to Jim and Betty in their office at 1790 house Clarges Street, Piccadilly. Natalie wrote and self-published the fully illustrated book in 2011. When Emily and I began discussing the potential of collaboration on this project Natalie was the first, indeed we thought could be the only, person we contacted. In October 2012 Natalie generously agreed to meet and show us around the house. Below are transcribed fragments of a much longer conversation we had with Natalie, which Emily videoed. 

"Jim and Betty had only electric heating that was plugged in - I believe it cost them somewhere in the region of £4,000 a year to keep the house warm. Jim wouldn’t have pipes or anything like that. You see those plugs, well in those days it was much harder to get them flat and made of stainless steel; he was very modernist, almost before his time. Sourcing this stuff in the early 1960s was difficult." 

3 Church Walk shortly after completion in 1964. View from driveway onto the garage and entrance courtyard (photo courtesy of Natalie Wheatley).

"Jim had a local builder and they had a good relationship. Of course I can't remember his name now. I don’t know much about the construction of the house. I really only knew it as a home, but I’ve since become more interested in it, and him. Jim kept his business side and his family side separate - he didn’t discuss these things with us. It really has been a revelation to learn how well-known he is." 

Tea in the entrance courtyard. Jim, Betty and unknown guest(s). September 1964. In this early photograph the borders have been planted up (photo courtesy of Natalie Wheatley).

"Jim always had a great big glass vase with grasses, thistles, or big blousey flowers from the countryside or the garden. He also loved laying the table. They used to buy in those days - in the sixties - very exciting Habitat-type curtain material and he used them for tablecloths. He adored the bright colour in this black and white house; he loved bright colours - he always wore bright colours." 

Jim at the living-dining room table, probably mid 1990s (photo courtesy of Natalie Wheatley). 

"He always had a hanky flopping out of his top pocket. He loved purple and orange together, which looks terrific. He got all his suits from Saville Row and wore long jackets in fine tweed with drainpipe trousers, always drainpipes. Later in his older days he had this exhibition Elegant Variation at the Royal Academy and I wonderer what he’d turn up in: he wore a dinner jacket, a white shirt and tie, and black jeans - drainpipes of course! He looked great."

"The slate tablets I know are from the Royal College of Art in London. They were done at the Royal College: I think he felt they were important and so brought some back with him. When people enquire about the house they always mention the tablets." 

Slate inscribed by students of the Royal College of Art. Jim began teaching one day a week in the RCA sculpture department in 1952. Video still by Emily Richardson, October 2012.  

"Almost as soon as Jim died we sealed the windows with brackets - you have to for insurance purposes. Insuring an empty house is difficult because it’s so vulnerable. You have to make it as safe as possible. Mike, my husband, was very tuned into what Jim liked: he didn’t want to put these things on the doors and windows, but he chose ‘Jimmish’ sort of locks. You hardly notice them." 

View of the west facing wall of the house from the garden. The large double doors ("stable-type" as Jim describes them in a 1962 mortgage notes document) open out from the kitchen, August 2003 (photo courtesy of Alan Powers).

"I’d say there is a lot of Betty in the kitchen. She was the one who looked after the details. She did these tiny little detailed drawings of plans. Actually there is a lot of Betty in the house. Betty is also in the organisation, in that you can open up files and there is masses of Betty’s hand writing with measurements and costs and all the rest of it. Jim was a control freak, but without Betty he wouldn’t have managed administratively. He wanted to do the drawings and the thinking. She was the boss, but he would never accept that."

View from hallway into office, 2003 (?) (photo courtesy of Alan Powers).

"It all looks a bit shabby now but I think you should notice the tall cupboards that no one can reach the top of. Jim took the back off that gas stove - he didn’t like it. They shared a particular attention to detail. Inside the cupboard in the double bedroom is a cistern. It actually belongs to the toilet off the hall. It didn’t fit in the toilet room so they knocked a hole in the wall and put the cistern in this next door cupboard. I remember my husband and I had shirts made for Betty in India because she was then wearing jeans as part of her daily wear. We bought cotton shirts with collars. She thanked us vociferously and later chopped off all the collars because she didn’t like them. She removed them and made little stand up collars."

Natalie Wheatley at the door of the office at 3 Church Walk, October 2012. Video still by Emily Richardson.

Natalie’s intimate, yet frank book Cadbury-Brown: The Family Behind the Modernist Architect can be purchased from Amazon or Waterstones for £15 including postage and packaging. 

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