Portmeirion 3. How Serious is Portmeirion?

The trauma of the First World War seems to have manifested itself in the ‘silly ass’ artistic culture of the 1920s. Novelists like Margery Allingham, and even Dorothy L. Sayers, created their detective heroes as upper class twits who took nothing seriously, at least on the surface, and they spent the rest of their writing careers trying to escape this straitjacket by making them increasingly serious. Even Poirot, although Belgian, fits this mould. A musician-painter like Lord Berners was an extreme case, and it even affected a later generation like Rex Whistler, although all the signs are there that it he has survived the Second World War his art would have taken a more earnest turn.

The creation of Portmeirion can similarly be construed as a manifestation of this culture, a fundamentally frivolous endeavour designed to purge the trauma of the trenches. Clough was reportedly a fairly jokey man, but although he served on the Western Front with distinction one does not get the impression that it changed him as an architect, and his jokiness seems to have been innate and genuine, rather than a defensive face. In any case he was formed psychologically before the war began.

The question of the seriousness of Portmeirion goes deeper than this. It is not that Clough did not take it seriously, but that British culture then, and still today, finds such a project hard to swallow, and that one defence is to laugh it off as mere whimsy.

The architectural features that are the touchstone for this issues are the shaped pieces of sheet metal (Fig. 1), often painted illusionistically, that in any ‘serious’ building, such as a Baroque palace, would have been rendered fully in three-dimensions out of a noble material like stone (Figs 2, 3, 4). Of course, plenty of Baroque buildings had illusionistically painted doorways and so forth, and to this day Anglos often respond negatively to them, and the word ‘fake’ will quickly surface. It is this base-level attitude that, it seems to me, underpins responses to Portmeirion from the 1920s to the present, and that Clough had to address in one way or another.


The question of money comes into it. Are these just cheap substitutes created when there was no money for the real thing? Or is the material from which they are made their point? Was Clough making a joke, or being witty, in making them of thin hard metal rather than stone? If they were made with noble materials in three dimensions would they been too earnest, too old-world serious? Or was he pursuing a vision of what these features purported to be, and this was the only way they could be realised?

I am inclined to believe that the use of sheet metal was more to do with economy than jokiness. If your vision is a Baroque one, which requires three-dimensionality, the hardest thing to realise is the details. If you can acquire vases and so forth through salvage, well and good; but the reality is the labour costs of creating such features is immense, and was possibly only in a Baroque princely economy. Even today one if you want such features you are limited to a restricted range of reconstituted items made by firms like Haddonstone. Portmeirion was a low-budget operation from the beginning: it was a vision to be realised in bits and pieces by whatever means available. The buildings are quite cheaply made; the Angel has a solid double brick ground floor, but the upper story is lath and plaster on timber studs (Fig. 5). Only the towers (the Campanile and the lighthouse) look like they are more solidly constructed, but they remain quite small.

A way of testing the issue is to look at the Triumphal arch (Fig. 7). This is a late building, made in 1962–63, and in the opening we find, not an illusionistally painted sheet metal statue as we have come to expect from the rest of Portmeirion, but a three-dimensional one (Fig. 8). In fact this is the wooden model for a set of lead statues on the balcony of a house in Park Lane in London, erected in about 1830. The statues, being so heavy, threatened to bring down the balcony, according to an account in 1909. The statue is an imitation of a Greek archaic type of statue, which has nothing historically to do with the Cloughian Dutch gables on either side historically, and like much at Portmeirion is opportunistic (Fig. 9). But frankly it looks so much better than the painted steel details.

But does it mean, then, that Clough’s vision would be more fully realised if the sheet metal statues were to be replaced with three-dimensional ones? At this point the issue of authenticity raises its ugly head. One could imagine the objections that the conservation and planning authorities would raise if this were proposed. Most of the buildings at Portmeirion have Grade II conservation status, and some acquired this within a few years of being built, during Clough’s lifetime, including this Triumphal Arch, which received it in 1971, eight years after it was built. Grade II status is not particularly special (in the strange British system, Grade I and Grade II* are close together and quite special; Grade II is everything else.) Already then Portmeirion was changing in status from one man’s folly to an historic monument. Only Clough could have made this change, but even for Clough, and indeed for anyone in his situation, the simple passage of time would have woven tendrils of constraint around his constructions, so that what he might have done back then if he had had the money is no longer the point. The building has acquired a life of its own. His successors, fully enmeshed in the bureaucracy of preservation, almost certainly cannot. And with some reason. The painted sheet metal details has been part of the experience of Portmeirion for generations, and it would well be a cultural loss to lose them.

The concept of authenticity provides another way into addressing the seriousness or lack of it of Portmeirion. Here we see a design for the Peacock shop sign (c. 1955) (Fig. 10) and a sign showing Hercules and the Hydra on the Town Hall (Fig. 11), like one in the German Medieval-Renaissance town of Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber (Fig. 12). We know that this sign was created by Clough and others to attract the (probably momentary) interest of a tourist. The shop sign in Rothenburg is not necessarily old, and could even be younger that Clough’s, but let us suppose it indeed dates from ‘the olden times’. Another example might be a statue of a Triton on a column at Rothenburg (Fig. 13), which is strikingly like the Portmeirion logo, a mermaid, exemplified by the cast-iron panels salvaged from the Sailor’s Home in Liverpool that are distributed around the village (Fig. 14).

Such signs as those at Rothenburg were, one supposes, originally created to play a practical, but also artistic, role within the functioning of an ‘authentic’ town. A cultural critic today may decry the fact that for the tourist that sign is only of passing interest within the touristic experience, an experience that is, by definition, inauthentic. Clough’s Hercules and the Hydra shop sign is therefore either doubly inauthentic, in that it was not only used, but created, to contribute to the touristic experience, or else is truly authentic in that there is no disjunction between the role it now plays and the role that it was created to fill.

And is Portmeirion also inauthentic as a touristic experience? The point of going to Rothenburg is to experience what it would be like to live in a town crated by an alien culture. The original inhabitants are long gone, and everyone is a tourist like yourself, but surely the point of the touristic experience is that one’s presence within a physical environment that was created by those people long ago allows you to imaginatively engage with that lost world (or worlds). But at Portmeirion there is no such world. Its buildings and signs were created for you. It may look and feel like Rothenburg, but there is nothing there. It is not a village, and never was; it is just a hotel with themed buildings.

Is there any way out of this? In order to find one we need to sidestep the whole tourism-theme park-authenticity discourse. We need to replace it with something else. Two such possibilities are the cult of the artist, and Platonism. House museums do very well on the cult of the artist: the Watts House and the Villa Stuck are cases in point. We go to the Watts chapel (actually created by his wife) for the Wattses, not for the Celtic-Romanesque world to which it purports to belong (Fig. 15). The cult of Clough is undoubtedly there are Portmeirion, but does anyone go there to drink in his creative imagination? A few perhaps, but not enough. His supposed lack of seriousness gets in the way, as does the question of whether he was a great architect or not. I suspect that few people say, as they do of Michelangelo: great genius, great man, lets go and look at the Sistine Ceiling. More often they arrive at Portmeirion and say: what’s going on? Who is responsible for this odd creation?

The philosophical foundations of the cult of the artist is Platonism. That is to say, beauty. Perfect forms—the ideal—are divine, but unattainable; the works of the artist bring us close to that perfection, and the greater the artist the closer we come. But we need not focus on the artist. We need only ask ourselves whether, and to what degree, a thing, or place, is beautiful. In many ways that is what the tourist does. He or she gets tired of having the history of Rothenburg beaten into them, apart from a few framing anecdotes. They just want to admire it.

The search for beauty involves criticism. Because the end goal is perfection, the first question a Platonic idealist asks of something is the extent to which it fails to be perfect. What is wrong with it? How can it be improved? Baroque artists like Domenichino had the Platonist mindset and believed that in creating a work of art one needed to start with the best model available and improve upon it, in this way approaching more closely the ideal. To improve on something you need to make it better, which means you need to identify what is not as good as it might be. You need to criticise. Unfortunately, a critical mindset is alien to contemporary thinking. There is no such thing as criticism of contemporary art, for example, because there are no criteria by which to criticise it. An artist gains his or her reputation by a process of gaining approval by tastemakers who do not have to give reasons why. Our obsession with identity politics means that any criticism of what someone has done is considered a personal insult to that person’s gender, race, or identity. What right do you have to say that anything I have done is deficient in any way?

Because of this, the tourist in Rothenburg is unlikely to indulge in useful criticism of the place, beyond saying that they loved it (‘how cute was that!’) or hated it (‘oh, it’s so tacky and touristy. Lets go to Bolivia instead’). The idealist critic, though, will attempt to articulate why that stretch of buildings is beautiful, which requires that they also point out the building half way along that rather spoils things and could have been improved. Authenticity and history are beside the point: the Platonic idealist is only concerned with the relationship between the mundane thing and the perfect Form.

The same applies with Portmeirion. If all that matters is its beauty, the circumstances of its creation become secondary; moreover, there is no reason to freeze its form in time, no point in searching for the original, historic Portmeirion. Rather we should be pushing to improve it. That shop sign, is it as good as the one in Rothenburg? This question generates useful answers. ‘At first sight it may look less spectacular, but there is something in that combination of wrought iron with turquoise and gold paint that is pure Clough, and in its own way superior to what those Germans did in Rothenburg’. Does this streetscape work? What can be done to improve it? This line of argument is one that Clough would embrace enthusiastically, having once been given the task of improving the streetscape of an English village called Cornwell. I am reminded of how alien such a process is to our mindset by an ill-fated streetscape initiative launched by the local council in Daylesford a few years ago. Rather than initiating a debate about ‘how can we improve our town?’, it unleashed a torrent of abuse and petitions along the lines of ‘how dare you try to reduce the number of car parking spaces and make it harder for me to park! I have an inalienable right to that piece of asphalt!’ At Portmeirion Clough and his heirs would have no such constraints, unless it is from the direction of conservation as outlined above: that it is now an historic monument, and must stay as it is, for better or worse.

This entry was posted in All Posts, Architecture, Art, Arts and Crafts Movement, Baroque Gardens, Fabriques, Town and Village, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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