Come and Stay

Arnold Rattenbury

  • England and the Octopus by Clough Williams-Ellis
    CPRE, 220 pp, £10.95, December 1996, ISBN 0 946044 50 3
  • Clough Williams-Ellis: RIBA Drawings Monograph No 2 by Richard Haslam
    Academy, 112 pp, £24.95, March 1996, ISBN 1 85490 430 2
  • Clough Williams-Ellis: The Architect of Portmeirion by Jonah Jones
    Seren, 204 pp, £9.95, December 1996, ISBN 1 85411 166 3

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis is best known nowadays as the owner-architect of Portmeirion, the hotel he built as a partly cliff-hanging, partly tree-nestled village on a North Wales coastal estuary, adding to it building by building across some fifty years. Always astonishing, some think beautiful, it enjoyed its greatest publicity as the setting for the cult TV series, The Prisoner. But this kind of showy reputation is not entirely representative.

Clough was born in 1883. He enjoyed three distinct architectural careers separated by the two world wars. It is to the great disadvantage of anyone writing about him now that they can only have known him during the third of those careers. By then in his seventies, eighties and nineties, he had become a character, dressing and playing with brilliance a part of his own contrivance. Gangling, in cravat or bow-tie, brightwaistcoated, long-jacketed, in britches, with long knitted yellow stockings, he was always quick-witted, a story-teller, an enchanter. Introducing King George VI to the Snowdon skyline, he pointed to the peak of Cnicht, remarking, ‘That bit there, Your Majesty, is my own’; then, recalling his prior duty to the idea of a Snowdonia National Park, quickly added: ‘but keep it under your Crown.’ Jonah Jones has a slightly different version of the same story, like anyone who heard it from Clough himself. In his two autobiographies, Architect Errant (1971) and the even more errant Around the World in Ninety Years (1978), there are different versions, although in both, he denies that the incident ever occurred. Because of this ‘improving’, embroidering habit, some effort is required to perceive his earlier two careers as markedly different, especially since he was most often to be met in the somewhat theatrical setting of Portmeirion, perhaps in the company of his wife Amabel, a member of the Strachey family, herself an extraordinary performer. It is even possible to mistake Portmeirion as frivolous. In all matters to do with Clough these difficulties are compounded by two calamitous fires. The first destroyed his home Plas Brondanw and all his records in the study/studio and attics there. The second, gutting the main hotel building at Portmeirion, destroyed an archive assembled over two years by Amabel and myself with a view to a memorial exhibition in 1981. Clough had died in 1978.

Most fortunately, some of the man behind that dandy performance lives again in a reprint of England and the Octopus, his savage manifesto of 1928 against market-forced building and architecture, ribbon-building particularly. Before its publication, he had been active in the Design and Industries Association (DIA), the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE), the National Trust, William Morris’s old Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and elsewhere, with the old ‘Amenity Brigade’, as he was to call it. There can hardly have been a conservation or planning society in his lifetime in which he was not active, if not among the founders. And after Octopus came the extraordinary activities of Ferguson’s Gang (Red Biddy, Sister Agatha, See Mee Run, the Bloody Bishop, Bill Stickers and the rest of them) in defence and rescue of vernacular buildings, industrial and mercantile rather than ‘stately’. Clough’s personal battle for demotic regional styles was soon to become a war – with council after council, county after county, and eventually with government – over minimum standards for all council housing. And although I see that both Richard Haslam and Jonah Jones credit him with authorship of the splendidly rude, punchy, near-libellous DIA Cautionary Guide to St Alban’s (1929), I am surprised that some credit doesn’t also go to what is surely the echo of that same bellicose, witty, incautious voice in the Cautionary Guides to Oxford and Carlisle. ‘Not only High but Stinking Wycombe,’ he was shortly to hurl at another careless authority. And of course since 1925 he had been building at Portmeirion, the other more positive element in the campaign.

By comparison, the first career had been haphazard. Well connected but impecunious as a young man, Clough began by chivvying relatives into letting him work with builders on their estate cottages, increasingly as designer rather than bodger. The process continued when he removed to London. Still impecunious but personable and an excellent dancer, he maintained both spirits and diet by means of the Edwardian weekend house-party, picking up cottage or small-house commissions almost as if they were dance-partners. Indeed in a round about manner he landed his castle, Llangoed Hall, that way. He acknowledged this kind of luck almost as much as his lack of technical training – three months at the Architectural Association as against Lutyens’s three weeks, he liked to boast; but this needs more qualification than it gets from either Haslam or Jones. Those three months, which Haslam (perhaps rightly) believes to have been nine, were partly formative, partly confirmatory. H.P.G. Maule, the head of the AA, was a domestic architect in the Arts and Crafts tradition who insisted on the importance of site work, ‘getting the feel of the brick’, ‘knowing the skills’, advocating perspective drawings as well as plan and elevation, and encouraging presentation by plasticene model. Much of this Clough was already doing. He had started on site with builders, and at the very end of his life would be commending his own skilled team, name by name carved into the memorial to celebrate the resurrection of Plas Brondanw from its ashes. Taught initially by his mother, he was a brilliant watercolourist, thoroughly at ease with perspective, as Haslam’s collection of his RIBA Drawings . He may even have modelled in plasticine. At the time of the 1981 exhibition, we had collected photographs of rather lumpy, hand-moulded models I then believed to be papier mâché or clay: they may well have been this other material (I gather that other photographs of this sort of model exist). Besides Maule’s influence, Clough maintained friendships with several AA contemporaries, and a brief partnership with one of them, A.S.G.Butler; quite possibly he continued to use the AA building as the club which it also was.

As against all this, Jonah Jones outlines a ‘ferment in design’ – Mackintosh in Glasgow, Gaudi in Barcelona, Wagner and Hoffman in Vienna, Guimard and Horta in France and Belgium, Frank Lloyd Wright in the US – of which he finds Clough, and the AA generally, unaware. I am not at all sure, either about the unawareness or about this ferment being the only one available. After all, Clough was plumb in the middle of the excitements of the Cottage Movement with its Arts and Crafts notions of social betterment and the central necessity of small affordable home-building. This, too, was a European ferment, at the very least, though Clough’s first whiff of it was insular enough.

Very properly, Haslam’s collection is dominated by cottage, small house and small-house terrace, for these were always the core of Clough’s work. Even Portmeirion, give or take a Town Hall or a Pantheon, is chiefly a few dozen bijoux. The first drawing given by Haslam is ‘Pair of labourers’ cottages, North Wales, 1905 ... 3½d per cubic foot or £296 the pair’. A few pages later comes one of the earliest of his huge series of county cottage styles, the ‘Montgomeryshire Type’, with its legend: ‘Total Cubic Contents of Pair Measured Outside, 19805; Estimated Cost of Pair £372; Cost per Cubic Ft 4½d’. The companion for Northumberland still exists, but those for Shropshire, Devon, various Yorkshires, other Welsh counties, Herefordshire – all of which I once watched Clough unroll for a discussion of round-corner styles – may well have gone up in flames. These were not building jobs so much as a record for reference and, in their obsession with cost, for propaganda. On the back of a snapshot of his much later (1931) pioneering Youth Hostel in Clwyd, he was to scribble: ‘All done for 2½.’

From the war which ended this skiddery-diddery first career Clough emerged with a wife, two daughters – a son was born later – a passionate hatred of all war, and his first book. Reconography, written for the Army, described methods he had developed for recognising enemy dispositions – largely by sketching with frozen hands in an open cockpit over or near enemy lines – and offered a system for codifying observation. He rescued the edition, published too late in 1918 for army use, and gave it to the Boy Scouts to educate their sense of man-made as against natural phenomena. Amabel remembered the edition as being contained in what she called ‘two large gun-crates’ which were ‘a perfect nuisance about the house’ until the Scouts collected them. But Amabel was a fairly advanced romancer in her own right, and I would have doubted the guncrates had it not been that, trying to run down a copy of the book for the 1981 exhibition, Scout headquarters referred me to an exceedingly ancient and apparently supine Scout who leapt into vigorous fury about ‘the damn things blocking a whole room off’. No copy seems to have survived whatever it was that happened next. Amabel dismissed the book as ‘schoolboy writing’, but I remain astonished that no one else regards with any interest what must have been a first foray into man’s accommodation by nature.

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