The Isokon building, better known as the Lawn Road Flats, in north London is a stunning modernist building that was – no pun intended – groundbreaking when built in the 1930s. It quickly became a hub for artists and writers – and a centre of operations for an alarming number of Soviet spies. As his acclaimed and popular study of the Flats is published in paperback, Dr David Burke introduces us to some of its many colourful residents.
I was first introduced to the Lawn Road Flats in 2004 by the atomic bomb spy, Melita Norwood, ‘The Spy Who Came in From The Co-op’, who told me that her mother, a Quaker, feminist and Soviet agent, had introduced prospective German refugee tenants to Jack Pritchard, the owner of this truly remarkable building. Among those she introduced to the Flats were the Kuczynskis whose spying activities for the Soviets ranged from atomic bomb espionage to the secrets of Bletchley Park. For the period 1934 to 1960 the Flats were a warren of espionage and intrigue and hosted one of the most notorious of Soviet agents, Arnold Deutsch, the recruiter of the Cambridge Five – Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby.
Deutsch had been introduced to the Flats by the Bauhaus-trained photographer, Edith Tudor-Hart whose sister-in-law Beatrix was the lover of Pritchard. Jack Pritchard lived in the Flats’ compact Penthouse along with his wife Molly. The Pritchards had an ‘open marriage’ and among Molly’s many lovers was the Flats’ Canadian architect, Wells Coates, ‘passionate, mystical, proud, inquisitive and fearless’.
The Flats welcomed their fair share of artists, including the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus professors, László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer. The sculptor Henry Moore also occupied a Flat there during the Second World War along with other British artists and writers. Agatha Christie wrote her best-selling spy novel, N or M? there in 1941. Her bridge partner, the Communist pre-historian, Vere Gordon Childe, star of the popular TV game show Animal, Mineral, Vegetable? lived in the Flat opposite hers. The Flats were popular with a number of radio and TV personalities, including the gifted producer, Lance Sieveking and the first TV celebrity chef, Philip Harben, responsible for the first-rate restaurant and bar on the ground floor of the Flats, known as the Isobar.
Many an intriguing conversation took place in the Isobar. ‘The Lawn Road Flats was a good place to be. They were kindly people there. There was also a small restaurant, with an informal and happy atmosphere.’ Agatha Christie recalled. Christie often dined there with the antiquarian bookseller, Louis Bondy, a good friend of the Soviet agent, Jurgen Kuczynski, who oversaw the recruitment of atom bomb spy, Klaus Fuchs, by the GRU. Christie had an eye for detail and N or M? betrays an insider’s knowledge of Fifth Column activity in Britain during wartime, which arguably owes much of its detail to conversations overheard in the Isobar. The Camden New Journal’s review of the Lawn Road Flats on 13 March 2015 compared the Isobar with Rick’s bar in the film Casablanca: ‘a place where global political intrigues were played out in miniature. But the location was not a café in Vienna, a restaurant in Paris or a bar in Morocco – instead it was the ground-floor communal area known as the Isobar that served food and drinks at a block of flats in Lawn Road, Belsize Park.’ No wonder Christie was attracted.
This guest post was written by DAVID BURKE, a historian of intelligence and international relations and author of The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op: Melita Norwood and the Ending of Cold War Espionage