Former BRA Chair and local history expert, Averil Nottage, writes:
Between the mid 1930s and mid 1940s seven Soviet spies lived in the Lawn Road Flats, (now known as Isokon), and many others lived nearby. Who were these spies and what brought them to the area?
From 1933 the rise of Fascism and suppression of workers’ movements in Germany and Austria led many active Communist Party members to flee their homelands, bringing little but their political passions with them. They gravitated to areas where their views might be received sympathetically. Soviet intelligence agencies targeted these political exiles to set up their spy networks in Britain.
The Lawn Road Flats, opened in 1934, were very different from the accommodation otherwise available in local Victorian houses. This sleek Modernist block was designed as an experiment in minimalist urban living. The 32 compact “ready to live in” flats had built-in furniture and all services provided. Intended for young professional with few belongings, they were also perfect for refugees. Jack and Molly Pritchard, who owned the flats, were very sympathetic to the exiles, renting vacant flats to them free of charge and helping with introductions and employment.
Jack Pritchard innocently commissioned Edith Tudor-Hart to photograph the construction of the Flats. Edith, who had a studio on Haverstock Hill, was an active member of the Austrian Communist Party and worked for Soviet Intelligence. In 1934 she introduced Arnold Deutsch and his wife to the Pritchards and helped them move into the Lawn Road Flats.
Deutsch arrived in London to establish a Soviet spy network. He focused on Oxford and Cambridge University students with communist sympathies who were likely to reach the upper echelons of government and the civil service. He was one of the most successful Soviet spies then living in London and recruited more than 20 agents including the “Cambridge Five”. Edith Tudor-Hart introduced him to Kim Philby who she knew from Vienna. At the height of his clandestine career Philby rose to be the Head of M16 whilst also a KGB spy. Deutsch was recalled to Moscow in 1937 after some slipups and then side-lined.
Meanwhile in 1933 Robert Kuczynski, a rich and influential German-Jewish-communist exile, moved into a flat at 12 Lawn Road. Most of his family, who gradually joined him there, worked for Soviet intelligence. In 1936 Brigitte, a talented secret agent, moved into Lawn Road Flats after marrying a British communist, Anthony Lewis. In the same year her brother Jurgen arrived in London to reactivate the German communist party in Britain, living at 36 Upper Park Road. As a well-respected government statistician, he had many influential friends. Brigitte’s sister Ursula, codenamed Sonya, was sent to Switzerland by Soviet Intelligence to establish a small group of anti-Fascist activists prepared to work inside Germany. Brigitte briefed new recruits in the Lawn Road Flats’ restaurant, the Isobar, before they travelled to Switzerland. In 1942 Jurgen and Ursula recruited Klaus Fuchs, the spy who revealed British atomic bomb programme secrets. After the war they both returned to East Germany.
The Lawn Road Flats offered the perfect camouflage for well-educated and charming Soviet spies who blended seamlessly into the atmosphere of middle-class respectability. The site layout made it hard for the intelligence services to keep track of visitors once they had entered the building. German and Austrian spies worked quite separately as they came from different Marxist traditions and linked to rival Soviet secret service agencies. So, spies who were near neighbours may not have known about each other’s activities.
As well as the Lawn Road Flats, MI5 also monitored other local locations. In 1938 Jurgen Kuczynski helped to establish the Free German Cultural League at 36 Upper Park Road “to provide a social and cultural centre for refugees and a platform for refugee artists”. MI5 was not convinced and saw it as “politics by other means”. They also identified Edith Tudor-Harts studio as “a rendezvous of persons interested in communist matters”.
The August BelSoc Newsletter is online here as a pdf
Welcome to the August Newsletter of the Belsize Society.
It was great to see many of you at the Summer Party this year, after being unable to host this event for the past two years. We had a sunny day, cakes and tea, and a wonderful garden to enjoy this in.
We are really pleased that our former chair Averil Nottage will lead an historical walk in the area around Parkhill Road. In this Newsletter, she has written about one of the themes in the walk – spies in Belsize – complementing her piece last time on the British Modernists who also lived in that area. Please do sign up for this walk on EventBrite, which will be a tour through this history.
We were deeply saddened to hear of Diana Self’s passing. The Newsletter has a piece commemorating her. There is also a piece about volunteering for the Society, an aspect of our work for which Diana provided a lot of support, as she hosted numerous events bringing members together to progress Society work.
The Newsletter has two pieces about clean air, with Camden consulting on its pollution strategy and the new Parklets being established in the Borough. A Parklet has appeared at the corner of England’s Lane and Antrim Road.
Hope you enjoy this Newsletter.
It is with great sadness that we report that Diana Self died on 22 June peacefully at her home. She was 97.
Diana was a remarkable woman who made an enormous contribution to the Belsize Residents Association, now the Belsize Society. Having moved to Lancaster Grove from Hampstead after her retirement, she joined the committee of the BRA in December 1990 and soon took responsibility for social events. From 1996 to 2000 Diana chaired the society at a time when parking controls were being introduced, Belsize Village was pedestrianised and plans were made to redevelop the Swiss Cottage complex. She remained on the committee, continuing to organise social events impeccably, until 2007. For at least ten more years, Diana hosted new members lunches and meetings with councillors in her beautiful flat. She was also always available to offer her wisdom and support.
Diana was very committed to neighbourliness and loved to create events to bring people together. Some of you will remember that soon after you joined the association, Diana phoned to welcome you and invite you to a new members lunch. And, as she had organising social events down to a fine art, everything she arranged was always a great success. Diana will long be remembered for her warmth, generosity and commitment to Belsize.
Local history expert Averil Nottage writes:
Tucked away between Parkhill Road and St Dominic’s Priory are the Mall Studios. It was here in the 1930s that a “nest of gentle artists” pioneered the British Modernist movement.
In 1927 the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and her husband moved into studio no 7. Barbara had studied at Leeds School of Art and the Royal College with Henry Moore, so in 1929 when Henry, and his new wife Irina, were looking for somewhere to live, Barbara suggested that they rent a studio and flat at 11a Parkhill Road.
In September 1931 Barbara Hepworth fell in love with artist Ben Nicholson whilst on holiday with the Moores and other friends. Barbara returned to London to ask her husband for a divorce. Ben announced to his wife that he was leaving her and their three children, although he continued to visit them frequently. Soon after, Ben moved into the Mall Studios with Barbara.
The 1930s were particularly productive for all three artists. Hepworth’s and Moore’s work became increasingly abstract. In 1931 Hepworth first pierced a hole in a sculpture and after that, revealing the interior space became a central motif for them both. Moore later suggested that the hole “can itself have as much shape-meaning as a solid mass”.
In 1932 Ben Nicholson’s wife moved with the children to Paris and whilst visiting them, Ben met Braque, Brancusi, Picasso and Mondrian. Under their influences he developed his distinctive white wooden reliefs on different planes.
In the early 1930s Herbert Read, a well-established art writer and critic, became a strong exponent of Moore’s and Hepworth’s work. After leaving his family and job in Edinburgh he settled, with his new partner “Ludo”, at 3 Mall Studios in 1934. Herbert and Ludo enjoyed hosting parties and became the social glue of the Modernist movement by bringing together people of different ages and nationalities. Ben Nicholson later said that no-one who hadn’t lived in Mall Studios could understand the excitement of the new ideas generated there. Herbert Read provided a public voice for the artists as they rejected figurative art and negotiated around Surrealism and abstract-constructivism to shape British Modernism.
The discussions were enriched by the arrival of eminent European refugees. Walter Gropius, the architect who set up the Bauhaus School in Germany, fled to England with his wife in 1934. They were invited to live in the new cutting-edge Modernist flats in Lawn Road, (now known as Isokon), around the corner from the Mall Studios. Other Bauhaus teachers, including architect Marcel Breuer and the Hungarian artist Laslo Moholy-Nagy were also given refuge there and became frequent visitors to the Reads’ soirees. It was hoped to establish a British Bauhaus, but it never happened. When Piet Mondrian arrived from Paris in 1938, Ben Nicholson found him a room in Parkhill Road overlooking the Mall Studios. He had his walls painted white and added patches of primary colours, reminiscent of his grid paintings. The British Modernists saw his work as the logical conclusion of abstract art.
Herbert Read believed the foreign artists came to this area because the way had been prepared for them. Hepworth said that they made England seem suddenly “alive and rich”. For a few years it seemed that London was becoming the international centre of Modernist art, but with the threat of war the “nest of gentle artists” dispersed. The British artists moved out of London whilst the refugees travelled on to the States, which later became the Modernist art centre. Read said: “Such a feeling of unanimity was never to exist again after the war, but English art had come of age. Within the next decade it was to become, what it had not been for more than a century, an art of international significance.”
Averil will lead our autumn walk on “Artists, Refugees and Spies” which will include more about the artists living around Parkhill Road in the 1930s. An article about local spies will appear in the August edition of the newsletter.
Committee member Barbara Abraham has been researching the history of a Belsize building too often taken for granted:
Howitt Close is a mansion block, in Art Deco style, that has nestled comfortably and rather unassumingly at the curved southern end of Howitt Road for almost a century. Last autumn a most unwelcome planning application to add a fourth storey and mansard roof brought it into the limelight. The Belsize Conservation Area Statement of 2003 mentions Howitt Close as a building making a positive contribution to the special character and appearance of the conservation area but little other information about the flats was readily available. Establishing its heritage was important in opposing the planning application and so began a rather frantic search for historical information, which brought to light both Howitt Close’s significant architect and some interesting comparisons and contrasts with the Isokon Building.
A careful look at Howitt Close reveals that it was designed with considerable architectural skill to suit its specific location. The L-shaped block of flats was evidently intended to make optimal use of the available space, but without dominating its prominent situation at the junction of Howitt Road and Glenilla Road. Aesthetically it was designed to blend with the earlier Edwardian terraced housing in the neighbourhood, whilst proclaiming its era of construction through its overall form and Art Deco flourishes. The building comprises two red brick storeys topped with a white roughcast one, with both the red brick and white roughcast mirroring the materials of the Edwardian houses across the street. The pale storey above two darker brick storeys appears to diminish the height of the block. “Setbacks” and tripartite main windows are used to divide it visually into vertical sections that approximate to the width of the houses in the vicinity so that, from afar, the mansion block can be mistaken for a terrace of houses.
A day spent in London Metropolitan Archives yielded some background information but not the date of construction of Howitt Close. But a visit to Camden Local Studies & Archives Centre proved more fruitful as one of the archivists unearthed a “Notice of new buildings, drainage works, and apparatus in connection therewith”, filed with the Borough of Hampstead in October 1932. The notice was signed by Henry F Webb & Ash, an architectural partnership that also owned the site.
Subsequent research established that the same partnership was responsible for the 1932 Ambassador Cinema at Hendon Central, and that Henry Frederick Webb (1879-1953) was the architect behind other significant north London buildings. He went on to design Elm Park Court, Pinner, constructed in 1936 and now Grade II listed. Elm Park Court is considered one of the icons of the modernism characteristic of 1930s “Metroland”, a form of modernism that owes more to Art Deco than to the later “brutalist” strand of modernism. Despite Elm Park Court’s very distinctive character, its Art Deco heritage is apparent and the development has a number of features reminiscent of Howitt Close.
Howitt Close was built 1932-1934 and the General Rate book for Belsize Ward shows that its 46 flats were fully tenanted at April 1934. Its construction dates between 1932 and 1934 mean that it was contemporaneous with the Grade I listed Isokon flats on Lawn Road. The Isokon design was developed 1929-1932 and the building was officially opened in July 1934, shortly after Howitt Close was first occupied. Volumes have been written about the Isokon flats: a project “to design an apartment building and its interior based on the principle of affordable, communal and well-designed inner-city living… aimed at intellectual, working middle class people” (https://www.ignant.com/2016/04/04/the-secret-history-of-londons-isokon-building). The Howitt Close flats were also intended to provide compact living spaces for the middle classes. The original plans for the building were titled “Proposed Block of Small Type Flats,” and it had a restaurant from the very beginning on the lower ground floor, whereas the famous Isobar restaurant in the Isokon building was not opened until 1937, when the block’s communal kitchen was converted into a restaurant. The impetus behind Howitt Close was similar to that of the Isokon building and, with its contrasting architectural style, it provides context for the modernist Isokon flats. Without good comparable examples like Howitt Close the significance of the Isokon flats cannot be fully understood.
In contrast to the well-publicised and dramatic history of the Isokon Building with its celebrity tenants – “Very few pre 1945 tenants do not have a Wikipedia entry” – Howitt Close has had a quiet history, and remarkably little has been written about it. It is understood that it was used as residential accommodation for civil servants at some point and further research may reveal an interesting story of this early example of inner city, partly communal living for the middle classes. Whilst the Isokon Building fell into an appalling state of disrepair and required total refurbishment, Howitt Close has remained in a reasonable state of repair over the past 90 years, partly because it lacks some of the structural design faults that contributed to the Isokon’s deterioration.
It is fair to say that Howitt Close, as a pleasing presence in its location, has been taken for granted over the best part of a century, at least until the threat to its architectural integrity posed by the current planning proposal. It is surely only a matter of time before this building becomes highly valued and rightly appreciated for its distinctive architecture and well-preserved authenticity, and achieves listed status – unless the proposed development succeeds in violating the block before then.
And what of the planning application? The development proposal generated over 100 objections, including from The Belsize Society, Belsize Conservation Area Advisory Committee (BCAAC) and the Twentieth Century Society, and no expressions of support. As at April 2022 we still await a decision from Camden Planning Committee.
Note: the author continues researching the history of Howitt Close and welcomes information/reminiscences about the building and its occupants. She can be contacted via email@example.com.