I love visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum. I always learn something there – even if it’s that there are very many subjects that I know very little about (mouldings, anybody?). What I do know, however, is that I adore pretty things – and that’s what drew me to the V&A’s new Portmeirion display. That, and the discovery of a wealth of history I had no idea about…
Even if the Portmeirion name doesn’t ring any bells, you will have encountered it in some form or another. Its provenance is captivating: the iconic pottery range is named after the Italianate village created by the architect Sir Clough Willliams-Ellis. That esteemed gentleman was a tireless campaigner for the environment and an advocate of rural preservation: “I think that Beauty, The Strange Necessity, is something that matters profoundly to humanity”.
Sir Clough wanted to demonstrate how a naturally beautiful location could be developed without spoiling it – and Aber Iâ, in North Wales, proved the perfect opportunity. Possessing steep cliffs, woods, streams and old buildings, it boasts a history dating back to 1188 and the medieval castle of Castell Deudraeth. It took 50 years to complete Portmeirion, which comprises colour-washed buildings clustered around a central piazza, woodlands, hotels, cottages, spas and restaurants.
In 1953, Sir Clough’s daughter, Susan Williams-Ellis and her husband, Evan Cooper-Willis, took on the management of Portmeirion’s gift shop – and began stocking ceramic souvenirs. For stock, Susan – an illustrator and textile designer who had studied at Chelsea School of Art under Henry Moore and had paintings exhibited at the Festival of Britain – commissioned Gray’s Pottery to produce her designs.
“I have always wanted to have a pottery. My husband was slightly horrified at the idea at first, but now he is as keen as I am”.
Susan and Evan later purchased Gray’s and pottery manufacturer Kirkham’s in order to gain full control over design and production, formin Portmeirion Potteries in 1962. Learning how Susan turned a gift shop into a world exporter was inspirational. Never happier than when flouting traditional techniques, she spent her 40 years at the helm of Portmeirion setting design trends and experimenting tirelessly, attributes which brought commercial success as well as a plethora of imitators.
These gold-flecked ‘Cylinder’ Coffee Pots, tall and elegant in style, were an instant success and were loved by trade and retail alike. Cleverly, Susan tapped into the 1960s trend for coffee pots, creating luxurious and budget-friendly versions.
Demonstrating a keen sense of fun, she produced beer pull handles, pottery whisky barrels and door furniture in a wide variety of patterns: below are beer pull handles in various patterns dating back to 1955-60.
That isn’t to say that traditions weren’t respected. Portmeirion continued the production of Kirkham’s ‘Old Staffordshire’ relief-moulded hen egg holders, adding extra sizes and colours. Susan designed a duck as an alternative and modified a 19th century design to create ‘Game Pie’.
During the 1970s she launched what is possibly her most famous range: ‘Botanic Garden’, which remains a classic to this day.
Too many different inspirations and influences to talk about in one post, but Susan was an abiding lover of marine subjects and had a passion for art, archaeology and the natural world. She took inspiration from all sorts of places, including historic ceramics, mineral specimens and antique book illustrations. What’s more, Susan was an excellent business woman with an instinct for what worked well visually – and would sell well.
Unlike many of its competitors, Portmeirion has weathered many downturns, acquiring Spode and Royal Worcester in 2009. Today, Portmeirion Group exports to over 60 countries and works with external designers such as Sophie Conran, as well as designing in-house. In 2006, it began outsourcing porcelain production from East Asia to stay productive; I love its ‘Chelsea Collection’ teaware, below, which was made in China.
2019 marks the centenary of Susan Williams-Ellis’s birth and this exhibition is a fitting tribute to an artist and visionary whose influence will continue to live on long into her next centenary.