Artists and secret agents

A REMARKABLE ENGINEER and furniture entrepreneur Jack Pritchard (1899-1992) and his family lived at 37 Belsize Park Gardens, in London’s Hampstead district. before WW2. Pritchard, who studied engineering and economics at the University of Cambridge, joined Venesta, a company that specialised in plywood goods. It was after this that he began to promote Modernist design. In 1929, he and the Canadian architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) formed the company, Isokon, whose aim was to build Modernist style residential accommodation.

Pritchard and his wife, a psychiatrist, Molly (1900-1985), commissioned Coates to build a block of flats in Lawn Road on a site that they owned. Its design was to be based on the then new ideas for communal housing that had been realised in Germany including the influential Bauhaus in Dessau. The flats are close to Fleet Road and the Mall Studios in Parkhill Road. Completed in 1934, they were, noted the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, “… a milestone in the introduction of the modern idiom to London.” He continued, writing in 1952, clearly critical of the edifice, which:

“…put on a forbidding face towards the street, with large unmitigated concrete surfaces … It is all in the spirit of revolution, unaccommodating and direct to the verge of brutality.”

Well, I quite like the building’s elegant simplicity. In the basement space of the block, there was a refreshment area known as the Isobar. This and its furniture were designed by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). Regularly, exhibitions were held in the Isobar and, according to an on-line article in The Modern House Journal these were attended by artists including Adrian Stokes, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. The article also noted that this refreshment area was frequented by modernist architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Serge Chermayeff and, Wells Coates, as well as by left-wing politicians. Pritchard occupied the penthouse flat. In 1969, he sold the block, and now it contains accommodation for 25 keyworkers on a shared ownership basis and 11 flats are in private ownership. The block, first known as the Lawn Road Flats, is now called ‘Isokon. Lawn Road Flats’.

T F T Baker, Diane K Bolton and Patricia E C Croot, writing in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9, Hampstead, Paddington, noted that the Lawn Road Flats were built partly to house artistic refugees, who had fled from parts of Europe then oppressed by dictators, notably by Adolf Hitler. Some of them had been associated with the Bauhaus. These included the architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer, the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969), and the artist and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). All three of them are regarded as being masters of 20th century visual arts.

Despite both having come from bourgeois backgrounds, the Pritchards aimed to free themselves from middle-class conventions. The concept and realisation of the Lawn Road Flats, were important landmarks in their quest to achieve a new, alternative way of living. It is accurate to say that the atmosphere that prevailed in the community that either lived in, or frequented, the Lawn Road Flats was predominantly left-wing and extremely welcoming to cultural refugees from Nazi Germany. Probably, it had not been anticipated that the place should become a convenient place for Stalin’s Soviet spies to use as a base. According to a small booklet about the flats Isokon The Story of a New Vision of Urban Living, published in 2016, the flats were home to the following espionage agents, who had been recruited by the NKVD in Central Europe: Arnold Deutsch, Simon Kremer, Jürgen Kuczinski, and Brigitte Kucynski Lewis. Jill Pearlman, one of the book’s several authors, noted that they found the Lawn Road Flats convenient for several reasons:

“Above all, they blended inconspicuously into the sociable community of tenants there. Many tenants too were refugees from Central Europe … Even the Lawn Road Flats building worked well for the spies. One could enter and exit any unit without being seen … no one could see in. At the same time, the cantilevered decks on each floor provided the tenants a perfect vantage point from which to survey the street below.”

Today, there is a small exhibition area in the garage of the flats. This is open on some weekends, but I have yet to visit it.

1 thought on “Artists and secret agents

  1. Thanks, Adam, I visited the ISOKON building when I was last in London – after an appointment at the Royal Free – having heard of them at a lecture at the Design Museum earlier. Hope all well. 

    Shirin Patel

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