Biography of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion Designer

Portmeirion Architect and Environmentalist

White-haired Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, 90, in orange-brown suit looking at a plaque with ornate cast-iron framing in 1973

Portmeirion Ltd.

Architect Clough Williams-Ellis (May 28, 1883-April 9, 1978) is best known as the creator of Portmeirion, a village in Wales, yet as an environmentalist, he also helped establish the British National Parks system and became knighted for his "services to architecture and the environment." Williams-Ellis was a master of illusion, and his designs confuse, delight, and deceive.

Fast Facts: Clough Williams-Ellis

  • Known For: Portmeirion Architect and Environmentalist
  • Born: May 28, 1883 in Gayton, Northamptonshire, England, U.K.
  • Parents: Reverend John Clough Williams-Ellis and Harriet Ellen Williams-Ellis (née Clough)
  • Died: April 9, 1978, Llanfrothen, Gwynedd, Wales, U.K.
  • Education: Oundle School, with studies at Trinity College, Cambridge and the Architectural Association School of Architecture
  • Published Works: "England and the Octopus," "On Trust for the Nation"
  • Awards and Honors: Military Cross in the 1918 New Year Honours; 1958 Commander of the Order of the British Empire; Knight Bachelor in the New Year Honours 1972
  • Spouse: Amabel Strachey
  • Children: Christopher Moelwyn Strachey Williams-Ellis, Susan Williams-Ellis
  • Notable Quote: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful"

Early Life

Young Bertram Clough first moved to Wales with his family when he was only four. He went back to England to study mathematics at Trinity College in Cambridge, but he never graduated. From 1902 to 1903 he trained at the Architectural Association in London. The budding designer had deep Welsh and English connections, being related to the medieval entrepreneur Sir Richard Clough (1530 to 1570) and the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough (1819 to 1861).

His first designs were numerous parsonages and regional cottages in England and Northern Ireland. He inherited some property in Wales in 1908, married in 1915, and raised a family there. After serving in World War I, he designed many war memorials and traveled to architecturally rich countries like Italy, an experience that informed his sense of what he wanted to build in his homeland.

Portmeirion: A Lifelong Project

In 1925, Williams-Ellis began building in Portmeirion in northern Wales. His work on the resort village represented his efforts to prove that it was possible to build beautiful and colorful housing without defiling the natural landscape. Located on Williams-Ellis' private peninsula on the coast of Snowdonia, Portmeirion first opened in 1926.

The domes and spires of Portmeirion in North Wales
Martin Leigh / Getty Images

Portmeirion was not a continuous project, however. He continued to design residences and designed the original summit building on Snowdon in 1935. Snowdon became the highest building in Wales. Portmeirion is riddled with anachronisms. Greek gods mingle with gilded figures of Burmese dancers. Modest stucco bungalows are decked with arcaded porches, balustraded balconies, and Corinthian columns.

It's as though the designer tossed 5,000 years of architectural history along the shore, without a care for symmetry, accuracy, or continuity. Even American architect Frank Lloyd Wright paid a visit in 1956, just to see what Williams-Ellis was up to. Wright, who also boasted a Welsh heritage and a concern for conservation, praised the innovative combinations of architectural styles. The designer was 90 years old when Portmeirion was completed in 1976.

Highlights of Portmeirion

  • The Piazza: Originally, the Piazza was a tennis court but since 1966, the area has been a quiet, paved area with a blue-tiled pond, a fountain, and lavish flower beds. Along the southern edge of the Piazza, two columns support gilded figures of Burmese dancers. A low stone stairway climbs to the Gloriette, a playful structure named after the grand monument at the Schönbrunn Palace near Vienna.
  • Gloriette: Built in the mid-1960s, Portmeirion's garden room or gloriette is not a building, but a decorative facade. Five trompe l'oeil windows surround the open doorway. The four columns, salvaged from the colonnade of Hooton Hall, Cheshire, are the work of 18th-century architect Samuel Wyatt.
  • Bridge House: Built between 1958 and 1959, Bridge House seems larger than it is because of its tapering walls. When visitors pass through the archway from the parking area, they encounter their first breathtaking view of the village.
  • Bristol Colonnade: Built in about 1760, the Colonnade stood in front of a bathhouse in Bristol, England. It was falling into decay when Williams-Ellis moved the structure to Portmeirion piece by piece. In 1959, several hundred tons of delicate masonry were disassembled and transported to the Welsh village. Every stone was numbered and replaced according to precise measurements.
  • Promenade: An assortment of urns and columns lines the flower-strewn Promenade atop the Bristol Colonnade built in the Welsh hillside overlooking The Piazza and the village. The integration of walkways atop, over, through, and into the village ties together the themes of community and harmony within Italian Renaissance architecture. The dome at the Promenade's end replicates the famous Brunelleschi dome in Florence, Italy.
  • Unicorn Cottage: In this miniature of a stately Chatsworth home, Williams-Ellis created the illusion of a classic Georgian estate. Elongated windows, long pillars, and an undersized gate make the Unicorn seem tall, but it is only a dressed-up bungalow built in the mid-1960s, only one story high.
  • Hercules Gazebo: Several cast iron mermaid panels, salvaged from the Old Seaman's Home in Liverpool, form the sides of the Hercules Gazebo. Built in 1961 and 1962, the Hercules Gazebo was painted shocking pink for many years. The structure is now a more subtle terracotta shade. But this playful facade is yet another example of architectural illusions, because the Gazebo disguises a generator and houses mechanical equipment.
  • Chantry Cottage: Hotels and cottages dot the planned landscape of Portmeirion, just as they would in any village. Chantry Cottage, with red-clay, tile Italianate roof, sits high atop the hill, above the Bristol Colonnade and Promenade below. Built in 1937 for the Welsh painter Augustus John, Chantry Cottage is one of the earliest structures Williams-Ellis built and today is a "self-catering cottage sleeping nine."
  • Mermaid House: It all began with legendary mermaids, real or not. Dating from the 1850s, the Mermaid house was present on the peninsula when building began at Portmeirion. For many years it was used to house village staff. Williams-Ellis dressed up the cottage with an imposing metal canopy and the welcoming palm trees sprinkled throughout the village. Landscape design and Italianate architecture weave the illusion that we are in sunny Italy instead of wet and windy North Wales.

An Italian Resort in Northern Wales

Portmeirion village in Minffordd has become a destination vacation and event venue in northern Wales. It has accommodations, cafes, and weddings all within a Disney-esque community. Vacationing within a fanciful planned community was big business in the 1960s after the success of California's Disneyland in 1955 and before the 1971 opening of Florida's Walt Disney World Resort.

Williams-Ellis' idea of fantasy took on a more Italianate tone than Disney's mousechitecture, however. The vacation village nestles on the northern coast of Wales, but there's nothing Welsh in the flavor of its architecture. No stone cottages here. Instead, the hillside overlooking the bay is dotted with candy-colored houses suggesting sunny Mediterranean landscapes. There are even swaying palm trees around the tinkling fountains. The Unicorn Cottage, for example, was a British-Italian experience in the Welsh countryside.

Mermaid House in Portmeirion
P A Thompson / Getty Images

Viewers of the 1960s television series "The Prisoner" should find some of the landscapes eerily familiar. The bizarre prison kingdom where actor Patrick McGoohan encountered surreal adventures was, in fact, Portmeirion.

Environmentalism

The flamboyant and largely self-taught Williams-Ellis devoted his life to the cause of environmental preservation. In 1926, he founded the Council for the Protection of Rural England. He established the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales in 1928. Forever the conservationist, Williams-Ellis helped establish the British National Parks in 1945, and in 1947 he penned "On Trust for the Nation" for the National Trust. He was knighted in 1972 for "services to architecture and the environment."

Williams-Ellis, today recognized as one of the U.K.'s first conservationists, wanted to show that "the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement." His lifelong concern was environmental preservation, and by building Portmeirion on his private peninsula in Snowdonia, Williams-Ellis hoped to show that architecture can be beautiful and fun without defacing the landscape.

The resort became an exercise in historic restoration. Many of the structures were pieced together from buildings destined for demolition. The village became known as a repository for fallen architecture. Williams-Ellis didn't mind when visitors called his quirky village a "home for fallen buildings." Despite these high-minded intentions, however, Portmeirion is, most of all, entertaining.

Death

He died at his home in Plas Brondanw on April 8, 1978.

Legacy

Architect Williams-Ellis moved amongst artists and artisans. He married the writer Amabel Strachey and fathered the artist/potter Susan Williams-Ellis, the originator of Portmeirion Botanic Garden dinnerware.

Since 2012, Portmeirion has been the site of an arts and music festival called Festival No6, named after the main character in "The Prisoner." For one long, exhausting weekend in early September, Sir Clough's village is home to the quirky fringe who seeks poetry, harmony, and a Mediterranean refuge in northern Wales. Festival No6 is billed as a "festival unlike any other," no doubt because the fanciful Welsh village is itself a fantasy. On television, the sense of geographical and temporal displacement suggests that this village was created by a madman. But there was nothing crazy about Portmeirion's designer, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

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