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.
Immediately after Reconography came Cottage Building in Cob, Pisé, Chalk and Clay (1919). There were to be homes for heroes? That meant, on a sober calculation, an immediate one million homes. For these there was insufficient brick, stone, timber, and insufficient money – certainly not enough to shift materials from where they were to where they weren’t. The book therefore explores in detail every form of rammed earth building – which is to say, building from whatever ground is underfoot and materials round-about – the history of each, the tools required, shuttering, top-protection and, above all, lastingness. Around 300 years, Clough reckoned. Drawings, photographs and costings abound, and once you get into the heart of this ‘ill-written exercise’ (Amabel again), his own near-desperation grows on you: one million homes is not enough. He cares passionately. (Haslam includes a typically coloured plan and perspective for a memorial hall of 1919, black-bordered in grief.) Like all the soldier-survivors of that generation, Clough knew that homes for heroes meant rehousing the whole of the working class:
Not brick and tile, but wood, thatch, walls of mixed
Material, and buildings in plain strength fixed.
... O better this sort of shelter –
And villages on the land set helter-skelter
On hillsides, dotted on plains – than the too exact
Straight streets of modern times, that strait and strict
And formal keep men’s spirits within bounds,
Where too dull duties keep in monotonous rounds.
That is Ivor Gurney in about 1922, and lest there be any mistaking the near-desperation to build with whatever is to hand, the lines come from the heart of a group of poems terrible with the mutilations and death-chambering of the Somme, where as it happens both poet and architect had fought. The lines are also about ‘villages’ and ‘streets’. Just as Clough’s pacifism, and Gurney’s, moved with a certain inexorability towards socialism, so this second career moved on from the individual cottages and houses of his first to Gumey’s sense of communities. It is at this point that Clough’s great village works develop – at Oare in Wiltshire, Cushendun and Bushmills in County Antrim, Portmeirion and, perhaps the best of them, Cornwell in Oxfordshire – as well as the lesser ‘tightening-ups’, pulling a village or suburb together around some central feature, as with his restoration of Maddocks’s Town Hall at Tremadoc or his Rose Corner cottages dominating the crossroads at Bolesworth.
By now he was involved in his ‘amenity brigade’, in those DIA Guides and admonitions, coupling conservation of past architectures with the creation of small, exemplary new communities, but in no way insular. The Swedish Classical movement, or at least its sense of decoration, seems to have influenced him directly, possibly Polish country-house designers, too, who, like Maule, clay-modelled their work; other cottage-in-garden, garden-city, suburb-community ideas were being developed in Finland as well as Sweden and in a Germany Clough had begun to explore while he was in the Army of Occupation. That first career had discovered to him the glories of vernacular style and how it varied, landscape to landscape, material to material. (‘Just look at how Telford alters his bridges according to local materials, and styles therefore, as the A6 and the Shropshire Union move north and west,’ he once instructed me.) So this second career, by Planning and Civics, revealed how those first loves might now be urbanised and workers of the world rehoused. The urbs concerned was never, it’s true, very great: the two largest shown in Haslam’s book are a development outside Gerrard’s Cross of 1931 and a wholly improbable, because untopographical, preliminary plan for Melcomb Satellite Town of 1945. But one thing would grow from another. The Mrs Gillson for whom he had lately conserved and improved Cornwell Manor and re-plumbed, re-aligned, re-assembled, partly rebuilt, wholly re-gardened its village, adding Town Hall and Shop and Watersplash, creating perfection, now set about buying up the private toll-entry town of Littlehampton for him to develop.
There is some confusion about dates for this. Clough much later (in Around the World in Ninety Years, 1978) remembered ‘a stack of lovely surveys and plans’ for a ‘gracious new neighbourhood of seemly working-class houses’, which he took round to his old friend Nye Bevan, ‘the newly appointed Minister of Health’ – post-1945, that is. However, towards the 1981 exhibition, the Marquise de la Fregonniére, as Mrs Gillson had by then become, referred me to London agents with whom her copy of the plans had been deposited, and they informed me that all had been destroyed by bomb-damage – pre-1945, and, considering the time it takes to make a ‘stack of surveys and plans’, quite possibly pre-1944. Though she died before these differences could be adjusted, a Marquise plus her agents get it by simple majority over Clough, whose happy knack for confusing date and person – and on top of that, in his nineties – was notorious. In time another friend, Sam (Lord) Silkin would appoint him chairman of the first of the postwar New Town Corporations at Stevenage, and a spate of homes for heroes, visionary, William Morris-like speeches and broadcasts poured out of Plas Brondanw. Then, abruptly, resignation, for it was soon apparent that none of this was to happen. Clough’s Stevenage was precisely Morris’s Nowhere. But it is Littlehampton, a scheme so near fruition, that seems to me the crucial and cruel culmination of the whole of his architectural life to that point: the intended gift of a client he called his ‘pupil’ (and who Amabel hoped, in her widowed fondness for Clough, had been a lover). Haslam doesn’t mention this episode, for which no drawings survive. Jones doesn’t mention it either – perhaps because of a difference of outlook. Of the mid-Thirties, for instance, he concludes:
By now, with a fair body of work behind him and having made extensive explorations, Clough’s taste could be said to be formed and summed up in that word: ‘Palladian’. He was quite versatile as an architect, was fond of a certain, broadly Cots wold vernacular style, but by and large ... [he is] the champion of a sort of Palladianism that stood up well to the 20th century and its turmoil – a calm, still point in a turning world.
And it must be some similar classical squint, I think, that sees Clough’s schoolboy discovery and adoration of the ruined Kirby Hall reflected in his own Llangoed – surely a building, central staircase apart, better described as symphonic variations on the English Cottage Dormer. But then these judgments seem not after all so final. Jones will draw attention to work far odder than ‘broadly Cotswold’ and certainly not Palladian.
The fact is that the old wonder could, and did, build anything – Art Deco at the Wembley British Empire exhibition or the Ladies’ Carlton Club; Early Modern at the Laughing Water restaurant in Cobham, on top of Snowdon, for the Romney’s House extension, on Criccieth beach; Swedish Classical at Bishop’s Stortford, Oxford, Belfast; Baroque at Bushmills or, over-hurriedly, less successfully, at Stowe. While it is true that he could gag up – the phrase we all preferred was ‘clough up’ – that pair of labourers’ cottages at Bolesworth or a row of them at Oare into Palladian grandeur by making terrific high-pillared porticos out of the entrances to modest ‘backs’, he could also take the same Oare groundplan to Cushendun and there build up from ita bow-fronted manor-house with a (collapsing) mansard roof. His beloved and often-repeated ‘airplane house’, most famously Cold Blow at Oare, looked like a squashed-up Dorset village when thatched, a Provençal villa when pantiled, actually quite like an aeroplane when slated. He built a substantial house in a tree at Stapledown: somewhere there still exists a glorious snapshot of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, who took it over, bursting happily out of one of its upper windows. And all this variety comes to a head, the whole place bursting out of embracing trees, at the estuary township of Portmeirion.
Most often puffed off nowadays as ‘Italianate’ or ‘inspired by Portofino’, in the second career of its beginnings it grew to be, in another of Jonah Jones’s phrases, ‘a hotchpotch of Bavarian vernacular, Cornish weatherboard, Jacobean, Regency, Strawberry Hill Gothic, Victorian Gothic’ – a list that could be much extended. Here, in Haslam, is a drawing of 1927 for Portmeirion’s comfortably demotic steeple-like ‘Bell Tower’: no nonsense about a ‘Campanile’, as it is now known. Indeed an earlier draft drawing, also in Haslam, points another way entirely, for the Bell Tower boasts an onion dome and other signs of Russia. We have in fact been dumped in the third career, for the ‘Italianisation’ of the place, like the ‘Palladianisation’ of the man, is largely the man’s own doing, that fine dandy performance. After 1954 and the lifting of postwar building restrictions, he began additions at Portmeirion, some of which do indeed have formal classical qualities – Belvedere, Bridge House, the Pantheon, Unicorn – and in 1972, the year of his knighthood, he was happy to accept Hans Feibusch’s painting The New Arrival: Place – Limbo; Time – 19 ..? This picture shows him being quizzed by Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, and bears the extended caption (by Amabel):
Wren: ‘He says he reveres our work and shares our principles, and so claims that the too should be counted an architect, in spite of aberrations. How say you both?’ Hawksmoor (dubiously): ‘ ... Well ... ’ Vanbrugh (dubiously): ‘ ... Um ... ’
Nonetheless, that final spate of third-career additions to Portmeirion produces only one building honouring an architect, and that is not Palladio’s or Wren’s or Hawksmoor’s or Vanbrugh’s, but Telford’s Tower. Some things will not change. So what, in the name of vernacular, war, reconography, cob, pisé, God (if need be: Clough was obstinately agnostic), planning, civics, pastiche, has happened? For answers one has to step further back for a wider view than Haslam attempts or Jones does more than fumble.
Revulsion at war and, on the part of surviving soldiers and nurses of the middle class like the Williams-Ellises, a sense of shared experience across class and thus of obligation, was both general and genuine. Late Twenties and early Thirties pacifism, under whatever name, was widespread. Partly slump and immiseration, partly the first pre-farcical fainting-fit of labour into capital’s embrace, partly the world’s rearming, but particularly the rise of Fascism across Europe, politicised what at first had been revulsion, then obligation. Political trajectory is perhaps too pompous, too smooth-sounding a phrase for a bumpy ride, but there is a line to be traced from that earlier pacifism to the landslide Labour victory of 1945. Blurred, even severely fractured it may have been – by the failures of 1926, splits in Labour, defeat in Spain, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Phoney War, Churchillianism in Greece – but a multitudinous movement of individuals inside and outside parties persisted and won. Even unlikely people became involved in what may now seem less than likely ways. Rose Macaulay collected soap and Storm Jameson socks and blankets for Spain; Patrick Hamilton deserted satirical realism for dystopia and allegory; Stephen Spender meandered Forward from Liberalism, crabwise; Sybil Thorndike joined the board of the Daily Worker; Dylan Thomas insisted that his ‘Ceremony after a Fire Raid’ must first appear as part of a socialist Mayday feature in 1944. Doris Lessing, so she now claims, grew hysterical; Clough, who briefly belonged to Jimmy Maxton’s Independent Labour Party, mostly agitated for a revolutionary concept of community and building so that people could inhabit both and be at ease with Nature. Amabel, no less but no more politically, was one of the founding editors of the substantially (but never wholly) Communist Left Review. She, too, continued as before, writing her children’s literature and popular science books. From the same two homes, in London and Wales, they worked together and apart. They visited the Soviet Union several times, Clough with an architectural delegation sometimes, Amabel on one occasion as Left Review’s representative to the first All-Russian Congress of Writers in Moscow, but together more often than not. While Clough battered local authorities at home, Amabel became a leading apologist – like the liberal News Chronicle – for the Soviet State Trials of the Thirties. While Clough turned down a job in Moscow (as director of a railway train fully equipped as architectural offices), Amabel organised delegations to the International Brigades, fighting the British Foreign Office in the process, receiving delegates’ reports-back at home or in her brother’s office at the Daily Worker, organising the concluding conference in Paris. While Clough built on, and propagandised in and out of Portmeirion and the DIA for ‘gracious working-class houses’, Amabel wrote a ‘proletarian’ novel, The Big Firm.
This is not quite the story as told in their autobiographies, though the facts are often muffled. And explaining such a record in terms of Fabianism, as both Haslam and Jones attempt, is a nonsense. The case is not of course that Clough and Amabel never differed. In her last years Amabel liked to say, ‘We had this arrangement. He didn’t criticise my books. I didn’t criticise his buildings’ – a rather one-sided pact in practice. Jones justly points out the almost schizophrenic nature of The Pleasure of Architecture, a joint work of 1924 and near to their beginnings. Here Clough’s lifelong heroes Ruskin and Morris are treated with scorn; and at one point there is a list of eight architectural do’s and don’ts of which Jones remarks, ‘I am not sure that Clough himself stands up well in numbers 1, 3 and 7.’ (‘1. That beauty should be unadorned ... 3. That sham materials are an abomination ... 7. That architects ought to invent a wholly new style ... must not make use of traditional, Classic, Gothic or Oriental detail.’) In his last years Clough was given to purring over this early collaboration because of its insistence on the pleasure of buildings, not I think because he can have read it lately. Reading by then was very hard for him – he relied increasingly on Books for the Blind and audio-books – but that list of architectural ‘rules’ is important. For Amabel, belief must always be systematised and systems properly controlled. She had a passion for orderly thinking, Clough almost a passion for disorder, at least for apparent disorder, irregularity, natural order, hotchpotch, even the wild. In the end, for him, all architecture must agree with Nature, on occasion submit to it. Amabel took agreement for granted and had never heard of submission.
When we first met she was, I now see, between systems. We were seated beside each other at a wartime dinner party, and very intimidating I found her loud assurance, too. At this time I was living in the home of the playwright/librettist Montagu Slater, one of her co-founders of Left Review, and working at the arts journal Our Time with the poet Edgell Rickword, a co-organiser with her of work for Spain. Correctly deducing from this that I must be a Communist, Amabel considered a moment, then utterly unnerved me by pouncing to whisper fiercely: ‘Give Willie Gallacher a big hug from me!’ The thought of hugging that tough old Communist MP on anyone’s behalf was bizarre enough, but this – to my astonishment, for her brilliant gentle-mannered son was a friend of mine – was a positively grande dame. Then she asked after Jack Haldane, Sage Bemal, Jo Needham, none of whom I yet knew. The response next day when I passed all this on to Montagu and Edgell was, ‘Ah, Red Ammo! Hasn’t changed a bit. After the scientists still.’
Between systems must always be an awkward place: you cling onto what you can. As literary editor of her father’s Spectator and in her Anatomy of Poetry (1922), she had been Modern; by the time of Pleasures of Architecture (1924), Functionalist. The Tragedy of John Ruskin (1928) retained the scorn and condescension but had, now, some sense of a Labour ethos. By the time of Left Review and The Big Firm she was hitching the proletarianisation of literature to a pretty crude economic determinism – an affair she would ever after solemnise as Marxism. Each of these systems was superimposed on the one before, so that the lists of ‘rules’ could sometimes seem a little odd. She needed them nonetheless, as Clough did not, and so was at something of a loss. With John Strachey, her beloved younger brother, now in the Labour Government and so in a stand-off with past Communist affiliations, Amabel sent no more hugs to anyone by me. Eventually, around a projected anthology to be called Pills to Purge Melancholy, she would attempt another system founded loosely on mystical experiences she perceived to be shared by artist and scientist, but by then she was too old to go anthologising and had to invent. Those of us who received the script, section by section, found more and more by ‘Anon’, each entry scrupulously dated but not otherwise placed, each in various forms of arch-aified English. It must have been great fun to do, but also distressing in its system-lessness. And finally the autobiography, All Stracheys are Cousins (1983), which thoroughly mangles the actual record, researched – and its documents supplied – at her request, by myself and others. But I do not denigrate her. In trying to get it together, she may misrepresent but never shits on her past.
Now, in the immediate postwar years, she is between systems. Now is Clough’s Little-hampton, Clough’s Stevenage and, worse for them both, the death of Christopher, their son. Haslam has this as ‘1945, killed at battle of Monte Cassino’, Jonah Jones as ‘in the protracted and bloody battle of Monte Purgatorio’, no date. In fact it was not so simple. Kitto was ‘missing’ from March 1944, then silence, more silence, then ‘missing believed killed’, then the endless and terrible and never unusual silence got of war, a lifelong silence.
People deal differently with despair. Ivor Gurney had died in his asylum; Montagu Slater was forced into pseudonymity; Edgell Rickword acquired an antiquarian bookshop; Patrick Hamilton and some others became inconsolable drunks; to be cheerful a moment, Sylvia Townsend Warner, an old comrade of Amabel’s whom I once took over to see her again, found imagery and setting for the total breakdown of 20th-century belief and system, and made of them her 14th-century Corner that Held Them. Many, many went into denial and vilification, as the Cold War required. Amabel, I think, was haunted for life, but you’d not have guessed it from her busy, witty concoction of an anthology. Clough in some way managed to excise experience: Stevenage, Cornwell and the Marquise (if, as Amabel hoped, she mattered) he dismissed in less than a paragraph each; and, though there are brief, touching mentions in both his autobiographies, Christopher’s existence, even his birth, is not admitted in the very full text Clough wrote for his own memorial. He wasn’t bothered with systems of belief, only with action, with life. He became the ‘character’ we all of us met, and wore its costume, a carapace round silence. But there, in the silence, nothing altered.
One day in the Sixties, I found him in Portmeirion, mixing earth into one of three buckets of paint, sand into another of the same colour, and into the third a quantity of what appeared to be crushed wild sorrel or other pulpable green-giving leaf. He was instructing his painter to graduate these mixtures from ground level upwards of a rammed-earth pillar supporting the new-built Arches. ‘You have to make it appear as if it grew up from the ground here, and out of those trees – like the Town Hall there.’ (The trees in those days came down to the road at this point, as alas they no longer do.) ‘Blotch it if necessary, but it must belong.’ He had a passion for the patterns of mould and damp, and was indeed just then driving Amabel mad with the preservation of one great marbled blotch on the upstairs sitting-room of the now rebuilt Brondanw. This particular Portmeirion building, the Arches, with a shop beneath, would accommodate hotel staff. I asked him why here precisely, next to the Town Hall. ‘This township may seem a mere fribble to some,’ he said, ‘but it doesn’t run on air. People work here and make it run, so it is important that people in boilersuits or chef’s whites or aprons, and people with tools and mops, are visible at the centre. I wanted a mill at first, but it wouldn’t have paid. And the sands in the bay here shift too oddly to rely on anything to do with fish, which I also hoped for at one time. So we’re a hotel – well no, we’re a township whose business is visitors.’ He made the same point rather differently to a government minister – it has always much pleased me to believe it was Sir Keith Joseph – holidaying in the Chantry or Telford’s Tower, between which Clough was preparing the foundations of Unicorn, one of the last Portmeirion buildings. Sir Keith, if it was him, complained of explosions early in the morning. ‘Of course,’ said Clough, ‘we are having trouble with a bit of rock. You are not in some country never-never land, you know, but the middle of a township. Do you know a town anywhere that has no explosions in the early morning?’
He had always written profusely about Portmeirion, not least in the innumerable, sometimes undated, unsortable visitor booklets about the place, from 1930 onwards Portmeirion Explained, Portmeirion Further Explained, Portmeirion Still Further Illustrated and Explained, Portmeirion, Its What? When? Why? and How? Variously Answered and so on. The earlier booklets appeared against a general propagandist background of DIA activity and articles in Country Life and the Architects’Journal by Maxwell Fry, Christopher Hussey, sometimes Clough himself. The message is ‘Come and see’ or, preferably, ‘Come and stay’ or ‘Come and live.’ He had no great love of day visitors, who used to be confronted before entering the long driveway by a noticeboard beginning: ‘That visitors to Portmeirion may be sufficiently discouraged’, followed by the highest admission price he dared charge and ending: ‘To avoid [paying] it, please turn back now.’ For those who were leaving, the message was always ‘Go thou and do likewise.’ Although people were to enjoy themselves, a visit was clearly serious business. Without that general propagandist background, the tone seems to change. Information about the acquisition of the site, its (pretty garbled) history, names of famous past visitors, commendations by fellow architects and planners, general discourse about Man and Nature, advertisement of the Gwyllt – Portmeirion’s wild rhododendron and azalea forest – combine to reduce the message to a once hugely potent phrase, ‘architectural good manners’, now beached like a whale on the sands below. The process culminated in Portmeirion, the Place and Its Meaning of 1963, reworked in 1973. So-say ‘classical’ buildings have been added, and Clough’s habit of rescuing ancient monuments whole or in part and incorporating them has led to the addition of material about ‘This Home for Fallen Buildings’. Descriptions have become entirely glazed in Portofinish.
In fact, building and planning practice has never changed. Under the glaze is silence. One has to penetrate the silence and look. There are no straight roads. Even on the flatter terrain of Cornwell great effort had gone into un-straightening one road and altering the levels beside another so as, he said, to make it ‘wobble’. Although the density of building at Portmeirion is high and every window frames a view, no view intrudes on any other building’s essential privacy. Views do not open onto some single ‘thing’; views are vistas, leading the eye through opening after opening, sometimes natural, sometimes architecturally contrived, but ending as often as possible in Nature. From any one building each view should be different if possible and so very largely determine the size and direction of fenestration, which is often best irregular. Buildings with more than one or two rooms are always internally changeable: that’s to say, can be partitioned into two or more compartments – an architectural practice not limited by Clough to Portmeirion. His part-church/part-hall for Pentrefelin of 1935 can shut off altar and chancel to provide, as a recent vicar gliding about in the rest of it happily told me, ‘the best dance floor in the Principality’. And the twopenny-halfpenny Youth Hostel of 1931, a more prudish time than ours, had moveable interior walls to separate women from men according to how many of each turned up on the night. Styles that do not seem to go together must be made to do so. This is not hotchpotchery so much as profound common sense. The nature of urban building is that it rises beside styles that are already there and often inimical. Portmeirion may be a spree by someone who ‘can and does build anything’; it also deals practically with the urban architect’s job. All this is profoundly propagandist.
It’s true that the internal division of a cottage is convenient to hotel-booking management; but it’s also true that the horror of high-rise or box-built estates is the total unmalleability of each unit: families that grow or shrink must leave environments that won’t adapt or hooliganise themselves. It’s true that straight roads are often a given, but also that an architect can back off from them, putting the rear gardens in the front as at Cushendun. It’s true that, short of accepting the Octopus, building density is with us, that everyone wants community as well as privacy, but houses too can be back-to-front, or sideways on, and need not peer into each other. It’s true that in many cities no vista can end in a natural scene, but vistas can be tree-lined and open through buildings, play with colours or, as at Cornwell, with heights and ‘wobble’ or end in a park. And styles? Why, within any general sense of community and focus, any can go with any – as do people, including architects.
After England and the Octopus Clough wrote little about such practical matters, preferring to go off and build. Doing his own thing, and having fun with it, may have come to obscure his catholicity of taste. The little book he wrote with Sir John Summerson back in 1934, Architecture Here and Now – ‘a guide to what we now know as Modernism’, Jones calls it – has Le Corbusier, Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright among its heroes. Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew, Ove Arup, Lionel Esher and, in time, Frank Lloyd Wright (met, as it happens, in Russia) were among his admiring friends. And I can vouch for his fascination with Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesics (though not with the jaw-breaking language involved), and the cruel disappointment he felt that Armstrong Jones’s Birdcage for the London Zoo was robbed of its ‘tensegrity’, or tensional integrity, by the addition of legs and an increase in the weight of spars. Give or take 2½d, 3½d, 4½d, he must, I think, have liked the juxtaposing of St John Wilson’s British Library with St Pancras; and the focal-pointing of Richard Rogers’s Dome and South Bank scheme, for accepting the river as the heart of London, for being fun.
Almost everything Clough did, Portmeirion for sure, is full of that last commodity – often derived indeed from twopence-half-penniness, the poverty he forced on himself by building there beyond his means. The small pilasters supporting the lantern above the dome of the Pantheon, now replaced, were cardboard cylinders from bolts of furnishing fabric, rendered rigid and rainproof by multiple layers of paint. The dome itself was marine ply, only painted copper – a major feat of carpentry by his admired Mr Smith. (This, too, has been properly coppered since.) The Town Hall’s lantern was chiefly an inverted pigswill boiler which Clough was delighted to be shown listed in an Allied Ironfounders’ catalogue as ‘Missionary Pot’. The front of the Pantheon is part of a fireplace by Norman Shaw commissioned by a shipping magnate. The 16th-century plaster ceiling in the Town Hall was rescued from Emral Hall before demolition. Of two structures facing each other across the central Green, the Gloriette employs pillars by Wyatt, and the Gothic Pavilion is the porte-cochère, removed from Nerquis Hall when its owners restored it to Jacobean splendour. The pond-side parapet on the back motor-road is made from the remains of damaged stonework at Westminster Abbey, accepted with alacrity when offered by the Dean (and Clough immediately wrote to ask the Dean of St Paul’s had he anything so acceptable to offer). Circular slates in paving are mostly the pieces left from toilet seats provided for ‘the hardy Welsh’, as Clough put it. If the foot of a building bulges outwards like a tree toward roots it is probably cob, pisé, clay or, more likely, the rammed earth of his own devising, with chickenwire armature, as are some other bulges. And so it went on. You were meant to laugh. The colour-washes, more subtle once than the solid paint-chart colours of recent years, but now returning to pellucidity, were meant to surprise and excite your eye along vistas and enhance, never obscure, texture and under-colour. Copper was meant to streak the walls below it, streaks that would have to be painted on if the copper was false. You might have to duck through an arch which had seemed importantly high from a distance, simply because the illusion of distance along some axis of view had required that it be dwarfed. Living – here or anywhere else – was not to be boring.
The propaganda, a revolutionary desire for change in the ways that people are habited, the absolute politics, have not changed. A general view exists – is even implied sometimes by the valuable books discussed here – that the politics really stem from Amabel, a sort of tricoteuse with a past to hide, Red Ammo, and that Clough was the squire with a liking for follies. This seems about as wrong as could be. Clough was the rebel, Amabel, in the end, the Squire’s Lady – and good at it, as she had been at organising delegations to Spain, not untypically goading a Brondanw under-gardener into further education and ultimate headmastership. Nor should this surprise anyone. Clough’s third career (the Dandy), silence and Amabel’s lack of system were almost precisely the years of the Cold War, of smear, denial, pretence, pretension. Reputations of all kinds – those of Cold Warrior and Victim both – must now go somersaulting, grandees be stood on their heads and clowns stand upright. How Clough would love the fun of that.
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