There are commissions, and then there are commissions. Ask any designer, maker, artist: being commissioned to undertake a piece of work for a client is a nerve-wracking prospect.
What if there is a personality clash? Or your interpretation of the brief is not what they had envisaged? Or, worse still, what if the client completely changes their mind? When the clients are Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, there is an extra element of pressure that even the most seasoned designer might freeze up under.
Not Sir Hugh Casson, though. Casson was the man tasked with the interior design of the Royal Yacht Britannia. The last in a long line of royal vessels to be built, it served the Windsors for more than four decades before it was decommissioned in 1997.
The ship had been ordered by King George VI in 1952 but, following his death that same year, his newly crowned daughter stepped in to oversee its creation.
The yacht, built and launched at Clydebank’s John Brown & Co shipyard in 1953, was a multifunctional vessel. Not only did it serve the royals as they undertook state visits around the world, it was also built to double as a hospital ship during times of war. Its primary purpose, however, was as a royal residence; a place where the Queen and Prince Philip could relax, holiday and escape the public eye. Earlier monarchs had designed and decked out their own vessels, but Britannia was different in its sheer size and power, and the royal couple were able to choose how it would look, right down to the exterior paint colour and the trim on their bedding.
Casson’s task was an unusual one. He was a trained architect whose practice had been interrupted by the Second World War, which he spent as an officer in the Air Ministry. He set up his own architecture office in 1948 and was quickly given the job that posterity would deem his most important: director of architecture for the 1951 Festival of Britain.
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Photography © Estate of Sir Hugh Casson
Words Catherine Coyle