Portmeirion 1. Introduction

People don’t always get Portmeirion (Fig. 1). For example, it has been argued that it is a proto-Post-Modernist work, created by an architect trying to subvert the modernist norm long before Venturi and Scott-Brown came on the scene. But this is all wrong. Clough Williams-Ellis belonged to the dominant architectural tradition of his generation, a version of Arts-and-Crafts, moving on to Neo-Georgian and a bit of 1930s modernism. He was a successful country-house architect, he helped to saved Stowe, he participated in the 1930s reaction to the horrors of the rapid speculative suburbanisation of London, and he contributed designs to the New Towns movement in the 1950s. He admired Lutyens, but his tastes were alien in many ways to the Old English/Jacobethan interests of the Arts and Crafts architects of the generation prior: old photos of his family house near Portmeirion, called Plas Brondanw, show it filled with Georgian furniture, the kind of furniture we (since then) have learned to call ‘antique’. This is at odds both with contemporary taste and with the furniture tastes of the Lutyens generation, which was all oak and gate-leg tables. His architectural tastes were conservative and backward looking (although his politics was more radical) but he was not reactive (except in urbanistic matters), certainly not against modernism which had not yet established itself. Indeed he gives an admiring dscription at length of the Festival Hall, created for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and about the only building of note under construction in Britain in those years.

Portmeirion is also called a folly, even the last folly ever made (not so!). One expects a folly to have been built by a rich and idle aristocrat with nothing better to do with his money in order to demonstrate his aristocratic disdain for practicality. The tower built by Lord Berners at Faringdon Hall in 1935 better fits this description (Fig. 2). The difference between aristocrats (and their contemporary equivalent, the mega-rich who have inherited or married their wealth) and the middle classes is that aristocrats derive their identity from who they are, while the middle classes derive their identity from their work. In this respect Clough Williams-Ellis was undoubtedly middle-class. Portmeirion was never a folly: rather, it was the field for architectural invention of a professional architect who wanted to express an aspect of his imagination that did not find full expression in his professional work. And it was his own.

I have long been intrigued by the question of how much money he had. On the one hand he writes of how in the early pre-War period whenever he earned a little money from his profession he would spend it on walls at his family house near Portmeirion called Plas Brondanw. On the other had, he was a member of the landed gentry, and presumably inherited estates as well as the family house. He liked sailing around the Mediterranean in a yacht, not a cheap hobby, and he could afford to buy a whole peninsula in Wales for Portmeirion, even if it was a bargain. He could also afford to buy part of Stowe when it came on the market in the 1920s, although with the intent to saving it from developers, which he did, so that his ownership was only temporary. People of his class and generation were very good at keeping their capital assets and income distinct, and trading land and property were then not so valuable as income producers as they are now. Probably he had enough to live on without his profession, but not in much style, and his professional income was a significant part of his gross income. An early drawing for Portmeirion was drawn to attract interest from investors, but it seems that he seems to have spent his own money on Portmeirion in dribs and drabs, mostly between 1925 and 1939, and from 1954 (when wartime restrictions ended) and 1976 (he died in 1978). Late in life he observed of Portmeirion that ‘its economic success has staggered me’, so it seems likely that the later phase of construction was financed by Portmeirion as a hotel and tourism business at a time when his professional career had wound down.

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