My Modern House: Wilfred Cass on starting Cass Sculpture Foundation and living in a Modernist masterpiece
“As Jeannette, my wife, and I headed towards our seventies together, we knew it was time for a dramatic change. We wanted a new home in the country, and we wanted to create a project together that would not just occupy our time, but become our passion.
“And in fact, what we found was a place that could make all of these dreams come true – a plot of land that could become both our home and our joint venture in ways we had never imagined.
“It was 1990, and Jeannette and I had decided to consolidate our lives. Up to that point, we were happily scattered – a flat in London, a house in Spain, and a cottage in West Sussex. I was still on the board at Moss Bros., and would need to be in London a few times each week, so Spain was no use.
“And as dear as London will always be to us, leaving the city was the whole point. We enjoyed our cottage in Kingston Gorse, just outside of Chichester – a city we also loved, with the cultural treasures of a place twice its size.
“So we began looking around West Sussex for a plot of land to build on, since no existing house could possibly fit our strange and stringent requirements!
“Our dream home needed to have a view towards the sea, but be high enough up to avoid any danger of flooding, and it would have plentiful grounds for me to walk.
“Normally when you find such a choice plot in England, it is already crowned with a grand Georgian manor house – but that is certainly not what we wanted.
“From a very early age I’d adopted my parents’ love for Modernism and, in particular, Bauhaus design and architecture, and this is a love that Jeannette and I share.
“The house we wanted would have to be thoroughly modern, full of functional minimalism and well supplied with windows.
“And so, knowing that good, modern architecture is limited even in urban Britain, nonetheless the countryside, we assumed we’d have to build it ourselves.
“To that end, we found a plot of beautiful land in the village of Patching, halfway between Brighton and Chichester, and made an offer despite the awful house that currently occupied the plot.
“It was a weekend, and that coming Monday we were due to pay our first instalment on the offer. On Saturday, I left the Kingston Gorse cottage and went into Chichester where, for the first time in my six decades in this nation, I picked up a copy of Country Life magazine.
“In that magazine, I saw an ad. “Hathill Copse, Goodwood, Nr. Chichester, West Sussex” was all the information it gave, along with three photographs of what I instantly recognised as a classic Bauhaus design, full of glorious windows and surrounded by countryside. This was surely the place for us, and it was ready and waiting.
“The next day we sped out to Goodwood, asking for Hathill Copse – which no one seemed to have heard of. We eventually arrived to discover the previous owner’s housekeeper still living there.
“That day, with its mad chase around the Sussex countryside, is something of a blur to me. But the housekeeper later reminisced to us that Jeannette and I barely looked at the house, but instead walked around pointing to where we would hang each of our pictures.
“Mr Kearley’s housekeeper told us that there was a man interested in the house, not for itself, but because he was convinced there was oil in the grounds – which I think there probably is! – and that he had given the estate agent a sum to stop showing the house for a while.
“The housekeeper was upset because this man’s plan was to pave the front into a huge drive, destroying everything. But we quickly learnt that this small, unofficial exchange of hush money was the only deal that had transpired with the buyer; there was no contract at all.
“That Monday, we made a bid, got out of the Patching deal, and, soon thereafter, Hathill Copse was ours.
“Perhaps it’s the 20/20 vision you get while looking over your own history, but I think that, rather than stumbling upon this glorious house, Hathill Copse found us.
“Jeannette and I both thought we were heading into retirement. But neither of us is the type to take retirement lying down, so to speak. When I think back on it, we weren’t just looking for a new house; we were looking for the next phase of our lives.
“Hathill Copse sits at the north-eastern edge of the Goodwood Estate, seat of the Dukes of Richmond and, perhaps more famously these days, home of Goodwood Racecourse and the Festival of Speed.
“Our predecessor at the house, Mr Kearley, had commissioned the design of Hathill in 1975, done by architects John and Heather Lomax but probably to a plan by, and certainly in the style of, Serge Chermayeff.
“Kearley must have had very similar ideas to Jeannette’s and mine about what makes a good house. There is plentiful space for beautiful pictures – Kearley had the likes of Cézanne and Severini on his walls.
“But visit the house once and the main thing you’ll remember is the view. The entire southern wall of the main living room looks down a long lawn between the trees, towards Chichester cathedral and the sea.
“There is nothing flashy or out of place about the house. It sits harmoniously in its 13-acre plot, sheltered by mature woodland.
“We had to raise the money for the house quite quickly, of course, so the Kingston Gorse cottage and the house in Spain had to go. And suddenly Jeannette and I went from multiple residences to one rural home.
“We went to the theatre a few times each week, and I was in London a few times each week for Moss Bros., but none of it fulfilled what we wanted this so-called retirement to be like.
“Surrounding the house, amongst those 13 acres of land, was a long-neglected patch of commercial woodland, which we knew had to be managed. But we also knew that we wanted to do something with that land and with the enormous amount of wood that came from it.
“In an effort to bring our favourite thing about Chichester a little closer to home, we decided to build a theatre. It was to be an open-air amphitheatre modelled on the Minack Theatre in Cornwall – a Greek stage carved into the landscape.
“From our other cultural pursuits, we knew all the right people, and we had passion and energy to spare. We had volunteers from the Chichester Festival Theatre, and wonderful events including the marvellous actress Doreen Mantle reciting poetry.
“The only problem was that we didn’t understand how theatre worked! In the one season the project was open, we committed sins such as having world-class volunteer directors fetching the tea, and we learned lessons the hard way.
“For example, it takes a dozen people to move a Bechstein grand piano down to the stage, and, if you’re wondering, it’s not great theatre to have aircraft from Goodwood aerodrome buzzing down over the actors to see what’s going on!
“We’re not afraid to admit when we’ve made a mistake, and open-air theatre was clearly not where our true talents lay.
“After one season, we went back to the drawing board. We still had this land, a little bit of money, and a lot of passion to create something new.
“I was then – I still am – quite shy, and the theatre world is all about socialising. Perhaps what I needed was something that more directly drew on my previous experiences as an engineer, as a businessman, as an early adopter.
“And perhaps what I needed was something that fitted more closely with the Cassirer family history, whether I knew it or not.
“When we sold the house in Spain, we brought back to Goodwood one of our prized possessions: a bronze of a horse and rider by the brilliant English sculptor Elisabeth Frink. It’s one of the early versions of what would become a signature motif for the artist whom we were lucky enough to become friends with in the last years of her life.
“My stockbroker introduced us – he was a neighbour of the Frinks in Dorset, and he knew we were admirers of her work.
“We bought a number of other pieces from her directly – I remember her hauling bronzes into place in our garden at Goodwood, strong and tireless to the end.
“As well as the Frinks, Jeannette and I had both collected a few Henry Moore pieces before she and I met, and I’d known Henry personally since the 1970s.
“Now that we had consolidated our living into one house and grounds, we could see these pieces with fresh eyes.
“Standing in the main living room, after all our renovations and landscaping had been done, after the open-air theatre had been returned to open-air lawn, Jeannette and I looked out onto acres of land crowned by the work of two of Britain’s greatest-ever sculptors.
“And we knew then and there that this was the way to go. Sculpture was something we both loved, and this was so obviously the perfect place for it.
“We’d need to learn – about sculpture, and about the business of sculpture – but that would be a task we’d relish.
“We didn’t know, at that point, if we would buy or borrow the pieces – and, as it turned out, the answer was neither.
“And we didn’t know how we would shape or build our collection and the organisation that would oversee it.
“But we knew how to find out. In theory, Jeannette and I love sculpture parks: the open air, the marble and bronze dotting a beautiful landscape, the freedom and excitement of it. And we knew that there were some amazing parks in the world.
“So we began plotting out a pilgrimage that took us not just to the famous locations in the UK – the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, for example, is a treasure – but to Louisiana in Denmark, to Storm King in America, and to similar parks all over the world.
“And in doing so, we not only stoked our own interest in sculpture, but recognised some very important things that we wanted to do differently.
“Walking through the beautiful sculpture park at Louisiana, outside Copenhagen, Jeannette tripped. She put her hand out to steady herself, and found that she was leaning against a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. She straightened herself out, and in doing so bumped a shoulder against a piece by Brancusi.
“All this beautiful land, and it was literally crowded with sculpture – so much so that we couldn’t truly understand any individual piece. We decided at that moment, if we were going to display sculpture at Goodwood, each piece would be in its own setting such that no other sculpture was visible.
“We would try our utmost to offer the pieces long views like the one we had of our own collection out of our sitting-room window.
“Perhaps as important as the way artwork was displayed, we noticed the way these organisations were run. And we didn’t like it. These places all had a great number of staff. To do that required more money than any one entity could supply – the result being that they all required outside fundraising. And we were determined not to have any outside money.
“We could see how it might be run. Keep it small, stay agile and dynamic and make decisions fast. Get it right, and you wouldn’t need lots of curators or staff on the grounds.
“This was our money we’d be investing, and we knew where we wanted it to go: not to a large curatorial staff, not to constant exhibitions, but to artists making new work.
“These other sculpture organisations had lots of employees and huge collections – as Jeannette pointed out at Louisiana, they’re getting fuller and fuller. And yet, what they weren’t doing is getting new sculpture – they’re being left collections in people’s wills, or buying work that’s sitting in the collections of other sculpture organisations.
“We realised that there are trends in sculpture just as there are in fashion, and we wanted a dynamic collection that changed constantly. Keep the same number of pieces, but by selling some and bringing in new ones. In that way, we could keep the collection ever fresh.
“Here’s the thing that so many people have a hard time understanding: we didn’t set out to do a sculpture park, and that is, in fact, not what we’ve built.
“Look at a sculpture park like Storm King in New York – it’s wonderful, but you quickly realise that the bulk of the work is 40 or 50 years old. It’s heavily subsidised by all sorts of people and foundations, so it’s not self-sufficient; not a good financial model for what we wanted.
“And they’re not encouraging artists to make new work- they don’t put that money up for artists.
“So, once again, we’d have to return to our first principles. What did we want to do? Encourage the creation of new work; display sculpture in a way that gives it room to breathe; build an organisation that’s self-sufficient financially.
“And what were the models for that way of working? There weren’t any. We’d have to create an entirely new way of doing things that combined art, business, and entrepreneurship. That’s the Cassirer way.”
This is an edited extract from The Man Behind the Sculpture, Wilfred’s autobiography published through Unicorn Press