The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Robin Darwin: Visionary Educator and Painter

Henrietta Goodden (Unicorn Press, 224pp, £30)

Reviewed by Catherine Croft

Through his reforming leadership of the Royal College of Art, Robin Darwin had an enormous impact on C20 art and design. As a subsequent Rector of the RCA, Sir Christopher Frayling, points out in his introduction to this first biography of Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, Darwin’s influence at the College has lasted for over sixty years, far longer than the Bauhaus existed (thirteen years) or Black Mountain College’s celebrated twenty-year heyday.

Darwin was both a successful figurative painter and a very effective administrator: an unusual combination of talents. Henrietta Goodden is a fashion designer who has taught at the RCA, and the daughter of the multi-talented Robert Goodden, professor of silversmithing and jewellery there from 1948 to 1974 and best known as co-designer of the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion at the Festival of Britain.

The book is a fascinating record of who knew whom, and how networks overlapped and interrelated. Darwin’s sister was the potter Ursula Mommens, married first to
the artist Julian Trevelyan and then to the sculptor Norman Mommens. All three, and Trevelyan’s subsequent wife, the painter Mary Fedden, were part of Darwin’s circle, employed at the RCA, encouraged by him, and socialising together.

The story of the new RCA building on Kensington Gore is well told, from the (now unthinkable) demolition of the run-down Regency terrace on the site, to the inclusion of surplus Crittall windows from Coventry Cathedral, and Darwin’s dedication to checking how work was going, despite being so terrified of heights that he had to crawl round the scaffolding. At this point, Robert Goodden, trained as an architect, was Darwin’s deputy. The suggestion that his ‘shy formality [was] the perfect foil for Darwin’s bluster’ seems a generous interpretation. The author is a powerful advocate for Darwin, though aware of his less pleasant attributes. He acted ‘like a school master with a sixth-form pupil’ towards the building’s primary architect Jim Cadbury-Brown, and was often seen by staff and students as ‘a terrifying bully’, though ‘his frequent aggressive moments were often unintentional and nearly always because he wanted the best for the College.’ His appalling treatment of an ex-lover Janey Ironside and her husband, however, was unforgivable, and the author’s admiration does not blind her to Darwin’s faults.

Above all, this book serves to remind us of the outstanding cultural importance of the RCA in 1960s Britain. It was celebrated in Tatler and featured in Queen magazine, where a photomontage depicted Darwin as King Kong. He certainly deserves a biography.