Manosalva MA. One-man-band: Clough Williams-Ellis’ Architectural
Ensemble at Portmeirion.
ARENA Journal of Architectural
. 2021; 6(1): 3. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/ajar.268
One-man-band: Clough Williams-Ellis’ Architectural
Ensemble at Portmeirion
Maria Angelica Manosalva
Independent scholar, CO
Portmeirion, a niche holiday resort in North Wales that was designed and built by Sir Clough
Williams-Ellis from 1925 to 1976, is usually seen by architectural historians as an ‘idiosyncratic
playground of little interest’. In contrast, the village regards itself as an architectural site that
not only formed part of the massive expansion of seaside tourism in Britain from the early
1900s, but also responded to this trend by using a unique and sustainable approach character-
ised by Williams-Ellis as ‘light-opera’. Whilst the characteristic look of Portmeirion corresponds
to aesthetic decisions made by Williams-Ellis, it also reects his lifelong eort to introduce
pleasurable and accessible forms of architecture to the British public.
This essay, by including a narrative mode of creative writing that describes my own journey to
Portmeirion, aims to challenge the common association of the village in ctional representations
such as the 1960s TV series
, as well as tackling its long disregard within British
architectural history. Instead, the essay positions Portmeirion as an important exemplar of the
reactions in early-to-mid twentieth century Britain against what were regarded as unsympa-
thetic rural leisure developments.
Keywords: Clough Williams-Ellis; British lecture; leisure; seaside tourism; theme parks; narrative;
In December 2018 I travelled to my home country, Colombia, for the festive holidays. There, whilst my
father and I were driving around Bogotá, I listened to ‘Mini Stories: Volume 5’, a podcast by a US company
called 99% Invisible that consisted of an annual compilation of short stories. The first item caught my
attention because it was introduced through a particular item of clothing that was produced as marketing
merchandise for the 1967 British TV series, The Prisoner, as is recounted in the podcast transcript (Figure1).
The Prisoner was a show conceived within the context of the Cold War boom in the genre of spy novels and
films, and tells of how a former British agent, named simply as No. 6, and played by Patrick McGoohan, tries
in various ways to escape from ‘The Village’ – a charming yet mysterious seaside community to where he has
been abducted as a prisoner.
For Roman Mars and Avery Trufelman, the bizarreness of The Prisoner’s plot is complemented by the unu-
sual set in which the story takes place. ‘The Village’, as it is called in the 1967 television series, appears to
be an architectural pastiche stage-set with buildings in a plethora of different styles ranging from Arts-and-
Crafts to Nordic Classicism, each of them painted in soft pastel colours. This mixture of colourful architec-
ture and the surrounding woodlands and seashore gives an isolated feel to ‘The Village’, suggesting that it
exists in an uncertain, indeed enigmatic, geographical site. In various episodes, No. 6 is told the approximate
location of this place: first in Lithuania, then on the coast of Morocco, and so on. However, the real filming
location of The Prisoner was then revealed in the opening credits for its final episode as being Portmeirion, a
niche holiday resort on the northern Welsh coastline which had been created and developed by Sir Clough
Williams-Ellis (1883–1978) over a very long period, from 1925 to 1976 (Figure 2).
Despite the publicity that Portmeirion has continued to receive from the television and film industries over
the years, it is usually dismissed by architectural historians as a ‘hodgepodge of European architecture’ .
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 2 of 25
Figure 1: Transcript of part of the podcast of ‘Mini-Stories: Volume 5’ by 99% Invisible. [Text transcribed by author].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 3 of 25
It tends to be pigeonholed into three different narratives that are alien to the broader discourse of British
architectural history, with the project being called a ‘Home for Fallen Buildings’, a ‘touristic destination and
beautiful pocket of madness’, or merely the film location for The Prisoner. This essay hence aims to overturn
these standard narratives by examining the long career of Clough Williams-Ellis – his publications, autobiog-
raphies, and architectural practice – as sources to re-evaluate the relationship between the rival interpreta-
tions of Portmeirion and the specific historical contexts out of which they emerged.
Additionally, this essay relies on the direct experience – and hence ‘situated knowledge’ [2; p. 581] – that I
able to obtain during a period of fieldwork research in Portmeirion in mid-2019. As such, the study of this site
is rooted in both my subjective position as an academic researcher and as an international tourist whose first
encounter with it had come through digital media. Hence, the essay incorporates a narrative mode of ‘crea-
tive writing’  in which the speculative and experiential, as well as critical and self-reflecting perspectives,
work together to construct an alternative reading. My physical and metaphorical journey to Portmeirion is
thus presented as the means to challenge its eccentric, individualistic and elusive character. By portraying
the way in which not only the author and reader are required to travel across Britain to visit this holiday
village, and in which they then encounter Portmeirion as if on a journey through time – whether as a Disney-
before-Disney leisure resort or as the fictional home for The Prisoner – this essay questions and repositions
the site as a significant architectural collection within the wider context of British seaside development.
Provenance (May 2019, London)
After watching the entire series of The Prisoner and some music videos subsequently shot at Portmeirion
during the 1980s and 90s, such as ‘See Those Eyes’ by Altered Images and ‘Alright’ by Supergrass, I decided
to trace the village’s portrayal in as many other media as I could find. As a student on a Masters course in
London, I bought myself a copy of Fear in The Sunlight at Waterstone’s Bloomsbury branch, this being a 2012
novel and the fourth book in Nicola Upson’s mystery series. The novel tells the story of a murder that takes
place in Portmeirion in 1936. In describing the setting for her story, Upson, adopting words by Josephine Tey
(an earlier British crime writer), explains that Clough Williams-Ellis sought to create an architectural treasure
that would demonstrate that ‘exploitation need not mean spoliation’; he did so by carefully turning a piece
of wilderness in north Wales into what feels like it is an old hill town on the Italian coastline.
However, in her description of the place, Upson fails to mention Williams-Ellis’ two key purposes for
Portmeirion: that it, to introduce and give a sense of architectural pleasure to the visiting public, and to use
Figure 2: Still from the final episode of The Prisoner where Clough Williams-Ellis and Portmeirion are cred-
ited [Image courtesy of author from ‘Fall Out’, Episode 17].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 4 of 25
his scheme to prove that ‘good architectural manners’ could be a sensible financial investment [4: p. 12].
Instead, Upson prefers to focus yet again on Portmeirion’s eccentric appearance and the life of its bizarre
creator. Such representations are however problematic, given that Upson’s book merely reinforces the pri-
mary reason why Portmeirion has been disregarded for so long within British architectural history. As one of
the few to have written sympathetically about the project, Richard Haslam notes that Clough Williams-Ellis
‘came to be omitted from at least one standard text on the British twentieth-century’, if not more [5: p. 14].
The visual gaiety of Portmeirion is usually misunderstood, and downplayed, by architectural historians for
being an affected caprice.
With this problem in mind, I realised that to understand the place better I needed to look in detail at its
creator’s life, work and publications – which I proceeded to do avidly throughout the months of May and
June 2019. Starting initially in London-based archives at the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Victoria
and Albert Museum, and the British Library, I moved on to investigate resources available at Portmeirion
itself and in the National Library of Wales, slightly further down the Welsh coast in Aberystwyth. As Clough
Williams-Ellis had himself explained: ‘[Portmeirion] is so much more me than anything else I have built else-
where’ [6: p. 96]. Hence my task was to delve further into his motives (Figure 3).
The Royal Institute of British Architects (May 2019, London)
In the stuffy RIBA library, where rows of books and compilations of magazines and journals published world-
wide delimit and set the tone and atmosphere of the space that I had to inhabit for a couple of days a week
during May 2019, I discovered that the publications on Clough Williams-Ellis’ life and work were limited to
Figure 3: Photograph of Clough Williams-Ellis in The Grotto at Portmeirion [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 5 of 25
articles and interviews in periodicals like Country Life, The Architects’ Journal, Town Planning Review, Archi-
tect & Building News, and others. In these journals he was typically featured as an unconventional ‘architec-
tural jester’. Some reasons for this judgement were Williams-Ellis’ characteristic yet unusual fashion sense,
somewhat outdated when compared to 1920s and 30s fashion standards in Britain; his curious intellectual
interests and writings; and his magpie architectural education and practice overshadowed by two world
wars. He had spent less than a year at Cambridge University studying natural sciences before moving to the
Architectural Association in 1903, where he in fact only stayed for three months. Despite not finishing his
education, he was commissioned to design a charitable institution near Oxford in 1905; this project, along
with others, allowed him to test out a variety of styles that began with vernacular Arts-and-Crafts and mor-
phed gradually into Neo-Classical and then Moderne after the First World War. It was a diversity that not only
illustrated the changing class tastes of his well-to-do clientele but also became the mixture that Portmeirion
would later be known for (Figure 4).
Because of his self-conscious individuality, Williams-Ellis tended to be dismissed by other British architects
at the time. This apparently did not bother him much, and slowly the perception that others had of him
started to change over the years – as he mentions in the ‘obituary’ that he included in his 1978 autobiogra-
phy, Around the World in Ninety Years:
[He] was resented by the already established practitioners … As being as unseemly an intrusion as
would be an outsider imprudently gate-crashing an intimate private party. As however, he seemed
to be increasingly accepted by the public and by the media as a perfectly serious ‘professional’ and
soon even welcomed as a rising new light in the then somewhat dim architectural horizon, he was
eventually and most generously welcomed unto the official fold. [6: p. 125]
The latter claim is perhaps a touch fanciful, yet what seems to have altered the perception of fellow archi-
tects about Clough Williams-Ellis was the campaigning work he engaged on during the 1920s and 30s to
preserve the British countryside against the threat of ‘ribbon development’, the product of urban sprawl.
His opposition was manifested in his best-selling book, England and the Octopus (1928) (Figure 5), as well
as in Williams-Ellis’ earlier publications for the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, National Trust,
Figure 4: Designs by Clough Williams-Ellis for various commissions between 1905 and 1941 [Image cour-
tesy of author, drawings taken from Richard Haslam, Clough Williams-Ellis. Academy Editions; 1996].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 6 of 25
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and Design and Industries Association. Worth noting is that
the campaign mounted by Clough Williams-Ellis – in tandem with similar views expressed by more famous
figures such as Patrick Geddes, Raymond Unwin, Charles Reilly, Guy Dawber, Lawrence Weaver, Patrick Aber-
crombie and Herbert Griffin – followed the propagandic formula developed during the First World War. This
had, as Gary Willis explains, been ‘aimed at motivating men to fight overseas and women to support the war
effort at home’ [7, p. 259]. Hence the polemic by Williams-Ellis and others was now positioning the coun-
tryside, and above all the rural landscape, as representing the ‘essential England’ which people had fought
for in the Great War. This sense of fervour was evident in two cartoons from Punch magazine from 1919 that
Figure 5: Dust jacket of England and the Octopus [Image courtesy of author, taken from Clough Williams-
Ellis, England and the Octopus. Golden Dragon Books; 1996].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 7 of 25
were reproduced in England and the Octopus, as well as in the ‘Cautionary Guides’ being published by the
Design and Industries Association and in advertisements in Portmeirion’s early visitors’ guidebooks, which
encouraged guests to join in the campaign to protect the countryside (Figure 6).
Despite the popularity of the campaign against urban sprawl, Williams-Ellis still felt that something was
missing. In his autobiography, Architect Errant, he explains this in the following way:
[I] began to feel increasingly that to say what I had to say in words was not enough … Ought it not to
be possible to use the mode of expression that came most naturally to me, actual building, to show
an example, a life-size model, which would surely be both more eloquent and more convincing than
mere writing? [8: p. 138]
After all, building was what came most naturally to Williams-Ellis, not writing. As his wife, Amabel (née Stra-
chey), herself an author, tellingly observed: ‘his impulse all his life was to make something tangible’ [9: p.
67]. Therefore, whilst juggling his architectural practice, his campaign to preserve the English countryside,
and his personal family life, from 1925 onwards the battle waged by Williams-Ellis included a new element
which would gradually offer a practical demonstration of seemly and sympathetic rural development: Port-
meirion (Figures 7 and 8).
The Victoria and Albert Museum (May 2019, London)
With the constant thought that the end of May was fast approaching, and that I had yet to visit Portmeirion
and examine other primary sources other than architectural books and journals, I booked an appointment
at the RIBA’s Architecture Study Rooms in the Victoria and Albert Museum to look for myself at their collec-
tion of drawings by Clough Williams-Ellis. The folder that I was given contained rough sketches and scaled
drawings by Williams-Ellis for diverse commissions: private houses, village centres, extensions to existing
buildings, and detailed designs for elements such as shop signs and lanterns. In looking at all the pieces
in this rather extensive repertoire of works, I stumbled upon a preliminary design in 1925 for Portmeirion.
In this drawing, most likely the earliest representation of the village, the buildings appear to float on the
linen page without a particular site in mind. Yet still they possess a strong Mediterranean feel to them that
Figure 6: Final pages from the visitors’ guidebook, Portmeirion Explained (1929), inviting readers to join the
Council for the Protection of Rural Wales [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 8 of 25
Figure 7: Photograph of the central piazza at Portmeirion [Courtesy of the author].
Figure 8: Photograph of the view from the Lady’s Lodge looking over the central piazza at Portmeirion
[Courtesy of the author].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 9 of 25
was inspired above all by Portofino – a city that Williams-Ellis had visited along with Geoffrey Scott before
the First World War. Above all, these early sketches demonstrated Williams-Ellis’ fascination with the group-
ing of buildings according to topography – a concept that is characteristic of Italian coastal towns, where,
in Haslam’s words, ‘architecture works as a mediating element between sea and land, both visually and
functionally’ [5: p. 88]. Today, when googling ‘Portmeirion’ one readily reads that its architecture ‘has been
allowed the licence that the strangely exotic flavour of its whole setting seemed to warrant’ [10: p. 14], this
being a phrase taken from its own very first visitors’ guidebook.
Yet as an explanation for why Portmeirion was built, it is not enough. The new holiday village was directly
motivated by Williams-Ellis’ crusade for rural preservation, and therefore had behind it a very serious pur-
pose that justified what was obviously a risky commercial development. Williams-Ellis wrote that there were
three distinct reasons for creating Portmeirion as an example for future rural developments to follow:
I wanted to show that one could develop even a beautiful site without defiling it and indeed, given
sufficient sympathy and skill, one might even enhance what nature had provided as your back-
ground. Second, I was saddened at finding so many people missing the intense interest and enjoy-
ment to be gained from an appreciation of architecture, landscape, design, the use of colour and
perspectives, and indeed of the environmental art generally – often, I found, because they were shy
of technicalities – so I sought to provide an easy, gay, sort of ‘light-opera’ approach to these seem-
ing mysteries, that would not frighten them off but entice them into interest, criticism and finally
enjoyment. Finally, having seen so many potentially hopeful projects fail to fulfil their promoter’s
hopes and promises through architectural and planning ineptitude – I hoped to suggest that archi-
tectural good manners can mean good business. [6: p. 96]
To be able to create and finance his experimental development on a site that he had purchased in the estuary
of the River Dwyryd, amid the hilly terrain of north Wales, Williams-Ellis took on the split roles of architect and
client, constructing in the process a luxurious seaside resort that aimed to challenge the standards of British
twentieth-century architecture. Significantly, however, Williams-Ellis was not the only one trying to build a
Disney-before-Disney holiday resort in interwar Britain. A decade before he had made his first drawing for Port-
meirion in 1925, another coastal getaway development was conceived around the children’s literature of Peter
Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island, namely the purpose-built holiday village of Thorpeness in Suffolk.
Coastal Imaginaries (May 2019, London)
I first stumbled upon Thorpeness in the pages of Gillian Darley’s book, Villages of Vision, with that touristic
village standing out because of its architectural novelty and for being one of the various private commis-
sions for picturesque rural villages in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain, as an alternative to the growing
shift then towards public and municipal responsibility for working-class housing. However, I decided not
to visit Thorpeness after realising that it was best understood as a cautionary tale, rather than a positive
precedent for Portmeirion.
Founded by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie on the site of a 6,000-acre abandoned fishing hamlet on the east coast
of Suffolk that he bought in 1910, with little infrastructure or even vegetation, Thorpeness was planned as
a hybrid of a rural estate village and a fantasy resort. It was aimed primarily at the children of wealthy par-
ents in London, and as such adapted the literary works of J.M. Barrie (a friend of Ogilvie’s), Robert Louis
Stevenson and Lewis Carroll in its design and marketing strategies. This was most visible in ‘The Meare’, a
64-acre shallow lake where children could play on islands with props such as the ‘Pirates’ Lair’, ‘Wendy’s
House’, ‘Crocodile Island’, and ‘Peter Pan’s Island’ (Figure 9).
Despite, the dreamlike aesthetic that Thorpeness might seem to share with Portmeirion, plus their pre-
figuring of later leisure theme-parks – evident from the countless images I could find online and in print
– these projects followed significantly different routes as time progressed. Ogilvie’s granddaughter, Ailsa
Ogilvie De Mille, in her book One Man’s Dream, states that the aim of Stuart Ogilvie, working with his archi-
tects Frederick Forbes Glennie and William Gilmour Wilson, was to develop the site without ruining it ‘with
hideous monstrosities’ [11: p. 96]. However, the lack of a cohesive plan for Thorpeness, coupled with its
increasing popularity, caused the village to fall victim to what Clough Williams-Ellis termed the ‘bungalow
virus’. As a result, houses were built in Thorpeness that did not follow the architectural plan and the estate
slowly fell into poor condition. Accumulated death duties of around £1 million, plus numerous other debts
and financial difficulties during the 1970s, caused Thorpeness Ltd to go into voluntary liquidation – only
‘The Meare’ was kept by the Ogilvie family.
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 10 of 25
The degradation of Thorpeness over the decades meant that an ‘extraordinary enterprise and a uniquely
imaginary concept came to be drowned by inferior housing additions’ [12: p. 183]. The lessons behind its
misstep were a warning to Clough Williams-Ellis at Portmeirion. Instead, from the earliest development
stages of his village, Williams-Ellis approached and modified the site using a procedure he referred to as
‘pegging out’, this being his own interpretation of Patrick Geddes’ concept of ‘conservative surgery’. As can
be seen by looking at maps of the successive development stages, Williams-Ellis was always careful in add-
ing and subtracting pieces on the site to enhance the original landscape – which meant incorporating vari-
ous ‘found’ elements such as some 1840s buildings into the incremental scheme he enacted the 1920s to
accommodate paying guests within this new seaside resort (Figures 10 and 11).
Figure 9: Map of ‘The Meare’ at Thorpeness showing an imaginative lay-out with islands named after loca-
tions from children’s literature [Source: Philip Dawes’ guidebook to Thorpeness, 1930s].
Figure 10: Plan of the site of Portmeirion in the 1840s showing the pre-existing buildings [Created by
author from the 1901 Ordnance Survey County Series map by using the EDINA Historic Digimap Service,
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 11 of 25
During the initial phase in the 1920s, Williams-Ellis designed and built a few dominant structures to cre-
ate the highlights of Portmeirion, notably the Campanile, Watch House and Chantry; these were later linked
together by subsidiary buildings, decorative structures and accommodation units for the rising number of
guests. Starting in the 1930s, and then with renewed energy in the 1950s, he also bought up ‘rescued’ build-
ings from elsewhere and reconstructed them on site, such as the Bristol Colonnade. By the 1960s the obvious
tourist appeal of the village – even prior to the filming and screening of The Prisoner – meant that further hotel
rooms and self-catering apartments needed to be provided at Portmeirion, along with new features such as
the Pantheon, Gothic Pavilion, Grotto and Central Piazza. Williams-Ellis’ final projects during the 1970s were
for few facilities like the Tollgate, a swimming pool, a café/shop (Caffi 6), and an office building (Figure 12).
Figure 11: Plan of Portmeirion in the 1970s including the last additions by Clough Williams-Ellis [Created
by author from the 1974 Ordnance Survey National Grid map by using the EDINA Historic Digimap Ser-
Figure 12: Tourist map of Portmeirion today [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 12 of 25
Clough Williams-Ellis’ commitment to the ‘pegging out’ approach thus allowed him to develop the village
very slowly, assembling it piece by piece and maintaining the natural vegetation and the older buildings. As
a result, Portmeirion’s intended aim, that of ‘exploitation need not necessarily mean spoliation’, and thus
possibility of enhancing the beauty of a site by ‘building appropriately’, became progressively apparent.
Portmeirion’s buildings and decorative elements, alongside its unique natural setting, constituted a recipro-
cal relationship which, for Williams-Ellis, was the reason why the village was so successful as a holiday resort:
The many loggias and belvederes … [and] gardens and terraces and flights of steps to pools and
fountains, its architectural bridges and miniature harbour works and lighthouse … are essential and
integral parts of the whole scheme, and it is because of them and the natural amenities that they
have sought to emphasise and set off, however inadequately, that the place is so well esteemed and
therefore prosperous.’ [13: p. 180]
Realisation (2nd June 2019, London and Shrewsbury)
On the sunny morning of 2nd June, I walked to Euston Station in London to board a train that would
finally take me to Portmeirion. Since it was going to be a 6-hour journey I had already planned out
how to spend my time before arriving at my destination in Minffordd. Once settled into my train seat, I
began looking at the people around me. As it was a Sunday, most were families travelling to other cities
to tour and explore, to visit relatives, or generally to relax and enjoy. Me, however, wearing a black wind-
breaker, combat boots, and carrying a backpack and a tote bag filled with clothes and ‘research equip-
ment’ – laptop computer, notebook, pens, and tape recorder –clearly did not accord with the general
sentiment that any eighteenth-century Romantic poet or artist might have shared with everyone else
on the train, that of seeking refuge from bustling city life in the contemplation of nature and rural life.
After a couple of hours into my journey to Wales, the train stopped at Shrewsbury, five miles away from
the parish of Atcham where ‘The Mytton and Mermaid’ is located. This hotel, a former Georgian coaching
inn, was often featured in the pages of Portmeirion’s guidebooks since from 1932 up till around 1950 it
served as a useful staging post for Londoners attracted to travel to the resort. The decline of ‘The Mytton
and Mermaid’ reflected how newer methods of road transport, including charabancs, coaches and cars, were
changing how British people travelled to their holiday destinations – thereby, helping to extending the
reach of tourism by opening it up to the working classes and lower-middle classes who from the interwar
era flocked to coastal towns such as Brighton, Blackpool, Clacton and Skegness. The increasing adoption in
interwar years of Modernist architecture as the characteristic aesthetic of these seaside resorts came to be
associated with the sense of them being places of fantasy and escape (Figures 13 and 14).
Figure 13: Postcard of the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea [Source: The County Associations Ltd, late-1930s].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 13 of 25
Portmeirion, with its distinctive mixture of architectural styles, remained aloof from this democratis-
ing trend in British cultural life, making the village feel increasingly outdated and not at all suited to
the ‘Kiss-Me-Quick’ tastes and habits of more proletarian seaside resorts. Nonetheless, it provided a place
where mainly middle-class families could relax and enjoy seaside holidays. Portmeirion, in being designed
to be detached – even isolated – from outside interference, unlike most other resorts, instead forged its
relationship with the natural landscape surrounding it. This was the characteristic that most impressed
Maxwell Fry in the late-1920s, as I came to realise from a digitalised copy of an article he had written
for The Architects’ Journal, and which I read on my laptop on the train journey to Wales. Fry described
Portmeirion’s atmosphere thus:
… there are no advertisements of anything; no notices direct you to the obvious woods; there is no
promenade; there are no charabancs; no garish petrol pumps, and nothing that detracts from the
natural beauty of the scene. Rather the reverse, for it is from the combination of the architecture
with its setting that the charm of a local atmosphere has been evolved, each helping the other in its
particular way either in the valley or on the cliff top. [14: p. 875]
The reciprocity between site and architecture that Fry identified at Portmeirion is what Clough Williams-Ellis
very much hoped others would also seek to achieve when building other settlements. Intended as a lesson,
Williams-Ellis’ views on how to build on a beautiful site without ruining it was turned by him into a wide-
spread attack against the ‘bungalow colonies’ and ‘ribbon developments’ being scattered across the British
countryside and along its coastline.
Plotlands (2nd June 2019, Machynlleth)
It was more than evident by the early-twentieth century that the face of Britain was changing. Rapid urban
expansion was triggered both by the ongoing exodus from rural to urban areas and by major changes in
land ownership and use, particularly in wake of David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. The latter
introduced a form of land tax that caused many of those experiencing financial difficulties to decide to sell
off at least part of their land to speculators wanting to build housing estates.
Some of the residual land, however, was sold off as plotlands, especially around the coastline, leading
to an increase in the number of self-built shanty developments. Jaywick in Essex was one such seaside
Figure 14: Postcard of the Saltdean Lido near Brighton [Source: Shoesmith and Etheridge (Norman Series),
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 14 of 25
community that grew up after some families initially decided to erect their own shacks, and then later con-
struct permanent residences, with linked smallholdings, in an effort to become economically self-sufficient
(Figure15). This pattern was especially exemplified by Peacehaven in Sussex, a 1916 philanthropic and
paternalistic initiative by Charles Neville. Originally planned to become a stable settlement, Neville lost con-
trol over the sale of the plots and the development process became arbitrary, with many purchasers never
able to take possession of their land (Figure 16). This absence of organized and planned development in
the rural English landscape, including along the coastline, motivated many preservationists to denounce the
disgraceful poverty of design in the plotlands schemes; instead, they called for more governmental control
over the use of coastal land. This viewpoint reflected the elitist prejudices of these preservationists, most of
whom had upper-middle-class upbringings, as Nigel Harrison points out [15: p. 393]. It was amid such figures
that Clough Williams-Ellis took up cudgels with unplanned rural development in the mid-1920s by start-
ing on Portmeirion and by publishing his most polemical book, the previously mentioned England and The
Williams-Ellis kept up this campaign for decade. In 1937 he published Britain and the Beast along with the
celebrated economist, John Maynard Keynes, plus others, as a combined attempt by intellectuals and writers
who shared a common desire to protect the English countryside and its traditions. The book reiterated the
need for a landscape that was simultaneously modern yet traditional, and which would be planned under
the guidance of an expert public authority to ensure that ‘the homes of the peoples are no longer disfiguring
eruptions on the face of the land, but a welcome and becoming adornment, as they were in the days when
England was beautiful because of them’ [16: p. 341]. Britain and the Beast was to have a profound impact
on post-war town planning not only because it helped to establish official policies aimed at regulating
land development and rural leisure provision, but also because it supported those new developments, like
Portmeirion, which sought to remedy the problem of scenic disorder perceived as being caused by (lower-
class) mass holidaymakers.
Figure 15: Aerial view of Jaywick in Essex in the 1950s [Source: Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward. Arcadia for
All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape. Mansell; 1984, p. 77].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 15 of 25
Holiday Camps (2nd June 2019, Talybont)
Five hours into my journey to Portmeirion, I had finished the to-do list planned for my train ride, and so with
some free time I finally decided to relax and look through the window for the first time to study the Welsh
landscape being presented to me. After spotting a couple of isolated cottages and the predictable hordes of
sheep, I gradually notice a few static caravans and then hundreds of these caravans grouped together as if
forming gated rural communities. Since I had only ever seen such things in movies and television series, I
googled on my phone to find out where I was and why these caravan parks had come into being.
My google search informed me about the spread of static caravan parks like those I was looking at, with
most commentators agreeing that they stemmed from interwar legislation like the 1938 Holidays with
Pay Act. Such laws had helped to popularise pioneering initiatives such as Caister Holiday Camp, an estab-
lishment which provided the necessary temporary accommodation for holidaymakers and yet offered an
aesthetically acceptable antidote to urban sprawl. While this was interesting, it is also the case that those
kinds of settlements are not what most people in Britain would usually think about when hearing the
words ‘holiday camp’. Rather, what would come to mind were the large commercial ‘Hi-de-Hi’ camps that
began in the 1930s, catering to thousands of working-class people, and introduced to Britain by the likes of
Harry Warren, Fred Pontin and Billy Butlin. These summer ‘leisure bubbles’, worlds in themselves created
for pleasure and happiness, and developed as self-contained resorts with their own network of private roads,
commercial facilities and entertainment complexes, steadily lost their impact and popularity in the decades
after the Second World War when advances in air flight made overseas holidays affordable to the majority.
By the 1990s many of the famous British holiday camps had closed, often leaving behind derelict sites with
decaying architecture. In other cases, the decline of once-popular holiday camps saw them replaced by other
developments – very often the static caravan parks such as those I could see repeatedly through the train
window as it passed places like Talybont.
Billy Butlin’s Pwllheli, a holiday camp that Williams-Ellis had initially encouraged during the 1940s, but
later regretted having done so, is in many ways an exemplar of the patterns of transition in British coastal
tourism in the twentieth- and early-twenty-first centuries. Today it has been taken over by Haven Holidays as
a static caravan park and renamed as Hafan y Môr. These sites, also termed as holiday parks, create what Fred
Figure 16: Aerial view of Peacehaven in East Sussex in the 1920s [Source: Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward.
Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape. Mansell; 1984, p. 155].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 16 of 25
Gray describes as their ‘own separate geography composed by rectangular and flat-roofed box made out of
plastic and aluminium … with the parks in total forming a disjointed and hidden linear city held together by
the closeness to the sea and web of private roads and clusters of commercial facilities’ [17: p. 299].
With a record figure of 1.1 million leisure accommodation vehicles being registered in Britain in 2017 – includ-
ing motorhomes, touring caravans and static caravan holiday homes – these caravan parks are aimed largely at
working-class holidaymakers who desire their own private space rather than the collective sense of pleasure
and community that the older type of holiday camps used to provide. Instead, they create their own distinctive
model of rural coastal development that can be commonly seen around the periphery of the British Isles.
Even though the inter-war caravan parks and holiday camps, and their successors, offered one solution
against the urbanisation of the coastline, their layouts were and still are reminiscent of an industrial factory
estate or military barracks. They have created large-scale schemes using standardised architectural forms
which fail in many ways to acknowledge or respect their setting, instead just taking over large plots of sea-
side land and exploiting them to their full capacity. In contrast, it can be argued that Portmeirion’s concept
as a speculative island built for visual and sensory pleasure, with a still-sizeable number of visitors at around
200,000 people a year, is more sustainable both environmentally and financially. Clough Williams-Ellis’
belief in good manners in architecture required all the buildings in his village to behave as decent citizens
and neighbours, and to harmonise with their environment – a sympathetic approach towards existing urban
and rural contexts, no doubt influenced by Arthur Trystan Edwards’ book on Good and Bad Manners in
Architecture (1924). In the mind of Edwards, good architectural manners referred to the social responsibil-
ity of paying due respect to existing buildings for them to live together, particularly in terms of façades
that were in keeping with their context . Williams-Ellis therefore interpreted Edwards’ approach when
designing Portmeirion, thinking of it as the need to integrate with the site in a manner that minimised the
negative environmental impacts of building, by pursuing a more efficient use of materials.
Williams-Ellis achieved this at the architectural scale by developing his village in two concerted phases,
from 1926 to 1939 and from 1954 to 1976, and only adding in other buildings and structures when deemed
necessary by tourist demand. As a ‘scavenger architect’, as he referred to himself, Williams-Ellis constructed
much of Portmeirion using materials he obtained from demolished and abandoned buildings. He described
his visits to the yard of his favourite builder, saying that he would:
… look over his dump and decide that they will do thus and thus in order to use up, suitably and
economically, just such materials as may be immediately available. Reinforced concrete, brickwork,
masonry, weatherboarding, slate hanging and lath, and plaster are all represented, as found con-
venient and as seemed likely to best suit whatever we intended to construct.’ [19: p. 246]
Furthermore, as Portmeirion grew, Williams-Ellis continually ensured that it was congruous with its natural
setting, even to the point of allowing it to be assimilated by the surrounding landscape. At both these scales,
neither the site with its existing buildings, nor the eclectic holiday village inserted by Williams-Ellis, dimin-
ished the beauty of either. In anything, their symbiotic relationship enhanced each other, as was portrayed
in a 1956 aerial view of Portmeirion that is still being shared with visitors in the current visitors’ guidebook
(Figure 17). It supports the belief of Williams-Ellis that the development of a naturally beautiful site need
not mean its defilement.
Arriving at the Village (2nd June 2019, Minordd)
At the end of my long journey from Euston Station to Gwynedd in north Wales, I eventually arrived at Minf-
fordd, where one of the guardians of Portmeirion kindly picked me up and drove me to the village. As we
drove towards it, I got the feeling that I was no longer in Britain – not only because we drove past Castell
Deudraeth, owned by Portmeirion Ltd and erected in the 1850s by David Williams and then restored in the
1990s, but also because we were surrounded by woodlands with a variety of tropical plant species that if
anything reminded me of my home in Colombia. Arriving in Portmeirion from ‘the outside world’ felt to me
more like an experience reminiscent of the myth of the search for El Dorado, where at the end of the quest
one is presented with a fantastical city.
Once settled into my room, I went outside to wander around the place. Although I tried hard to resist,
I could not escape the feeling that Portmeirion was an open-air film studio, ready and waiting for its next
shoot. What surprised me most was just how small and brightly coloured everything was; it took no more
than ten minutes to walk from one end of the village to the other. Moreover, the image of a pastel citadel,
large enough to make up a whole coastal town, as Portmeirion was portrayed in The Prisoner, had falsely
shaped my perception. In actuality, the village was no more than a ‘small and elegant little mouse’, as Clough
Williams-Ellis memorably described it [20: p. 134].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 17 of 25
Figure 17: Aerial view of Portmeirion in 1956 showing its then-current state of development [Courtesy of
Figure 18: Photograph of the life-size chessboard at Portmeirion inspired by the human chessboard shown
in The Prisoner [Courtesy of the author].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 18 of 25
The Next Day (3rd June 2019, Portmeirion)
The following day after my arrival, I joined one of the official guided tours through Portmeirion. The guide
told us who its creator was, why he had decided to build it, and, of course, mentioned the influence that The
Prisoner had on the village, even to the point of altering the original landscape and ‘vistas’ with permanent
installations which commemorated that television series (Figure 18). Yet even though The Prisoner had
morphed the size and nature of Portmeirion, it had accurately alluded to its link to other far-flung exam-
ples of exotic architecture – this being for a long time a defining characteristic of seaside resorts, such as
John Nash’s Brighton Pavilion (1787–1823), whereby fantastical structures were designed to enable users to
imagine they had travelled to alternative worlds (Figure 19).
In Portmeirion this sense of otherworldliness, of being in another place, was not created by designing
ornate ‘Orientalist’ architecture, notwithstanding a couple of small structures of that kind which I spotted in
the village during the guided tour. There is in fact no grand examples such as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton
or later variants like Hastings Pier (Figure 20). Instead, the village relies upon a more generalised and low-
key refence to Italian coastal towns through its bold experimentation with colour, scale and style. What is
produced is a resort that is aesthetically designed down to the last detail, presenting to the visitor a richly
atmospheric scenography which, by continuing around every corner, creates an illusionistic continuum. It
is a technique that Walt Disney was to follow so famously during the mid-1950s at Disneyland in Anaheim,
California. For instance, Williams-Ellis decided to emulate the miniature ‘castle’ used to house the wash-
rooms and latrines in one of the very first British holiday camps, Cunningham’s Camp in Douglas on the
Isle of Man, and so for Portmeirion he copied the trick of disguising the more basic, functional installations
with fantastical forms. Thus, the public toilets, house chimneys and the village’s electrical sub-mains sta-
tion are all carefully hidden away. Moreover, inspired by the 1923 Gothenburg Exposition in Sweden, which
Clough Williams-Ellis had visited along with Lawrence Weaver, and with knowledge also of Claude Lovat
Fraser’s vivid use of colour in his stage designs for a 1920s production of The Beggars Opera, Portmeirion
was designed in what Williams-Ellis called a ‘light-opera’ approach that hoped to win ‘as yet uninterested
and uninformed popular support for architecture, planning, landscaping, the use of colour and indeed for
design generally’ [13: p. 209].
As part of this deliberately light-hearted method of introducing visitors to the mysteries of architecture so
they would be intrigued by and enjoy it, Williams-Ellis chose to ‘Clough-up’, as he termed it, the new build-
ings at Portmeirion. This involved a technique whereby the structures were deliberately painted in two or
Figure 19: Postcard from the 1960s showing John Nash’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton [Source: D. Constance Ltd].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 19 of 25
three shades of a similar colour to suggest a more aged and weathered look, or else to paint structures in two
brightly contrasting colours to alter their appearance and proportions. This can be seen openly at The Chantry
and Chantry Row, where the two buildings manage to conceal the number of apartments they really contain,
and a typical rectangular chimney is hidden behind a more colourful and expressive turret (Figure 21). Other
theatrical tricks played by buildings at Portmeirion include painting false windows on their façades, making
the arches too low, and using deliberately smaller statues to intensify the illusion of scale and distance.
In addition, Portmeirion’s picturesque visual variety is created not only by the many stage-like settings
dotted throughout the village, which makes the project resemble the kind of model village once common
at international exhibitions, but also by the ‘rescued’ buildings from elsewhere that over time transformed
it into what some called a ‘Home for Fallen Buildings’. Often derided at the time as tacky, this strategy by
Williams-Ellis now feels like a forward-looking initiative in terms of preserving and adapting historic build-
ings threatened with demolition. Yet this eclecticism also meant that Portmeirion sacrificed some of its
own potential value as an architectural museum, as was observed by Lewis Mumford, one of Williams-Ellis’
closest friends [21: p. 91]. The pieces that Williams-Ellis collected span from a seventeenth-century plaster
ceiling and mullioned windows from Emral Hall in Flintshire, through to the remains of a fireplace from
Dawpool Hall on Merseyside (Figure 22), the latter designed by Richard Norman Shaw. These types of build-
ing fragments were happily incorporated and displayed in Portmeirion, being mainly found around the
Central Piazza, and often repainted in bright colours like the rest of the village.
With its vivid variations in colour and scale, and the eclectic mixture of building styles, the overall affect
that Portmeirion created for me – and indeed it would seem for most visitors – is that of a playful and theat-
rical place. The village is clearly intended as a cheerful creation, mirroring Clough Williams-Ellis’ personality
and his approach to architectural practice. It represents the work of exuberantly creative artist, something
that Mumford referred to when describing Williams-Ellis as ‘the very paragon of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens,
never more serious than when he is at play, or more playful than when he is serious’ [22: p. ix].
Clough Williams-Ellis’ multifaceted career as a writer, architect, preservationist, and jester might make it
appear that he rarely took himself seriously. Yet his characteristics, as Nigel Harrison argues, were more akin
to those of the âneur, an ‘inhabitant and archetype of the modern city, always observing, always spectating,
never still’ [23: p. 202]. Furthermore, Harrison feels that the Homo Ludens aspect of Williams-Ellis was a vital
fragment in his polyvocality that becomes evident in the fabric of Portmeirion. For a start, the whole design
of the village must be understood as a performance stage in which colourful and deceitful buildings, such as
Figure 20: An example of seaside orientalism as shown in an early-1900s postcard of the pier and pavilion
at Hastings [Source: Pictorial Stationary Company Ltd].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 20 of 25
Figure 21: The façades of Chantry (far left) and Chantry Row (right), with colour being used to divide the
latter visually into what appear to be individual terraced houses when in fact they are part of larger self-
catering flats (the yellow and pink ‘houses’ are a single unit). The pretend corner tower hides a chimney
behind it from public view [Courtesy of the author].
Figure 22: Photograph of the fireplace when it was in Dawpool Hall, a country house near to Liverpool by
Norman Shaw that was then demolished [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 21 of 25
the Campanile, become dramatic gestures which introduced a sense of play. It is also an aspect of the Homo
Ludens persona of Williams-Ellis that the circulation patterns in Portmeirion offer many alternatives vistas
and routes for visitors to choose from as they walk around.
Whilst Harrison’s analysis is useful in explaining Williams-Ellis’ relationship to Portmeirion, it fails to
recognise that its incorporation of fallen buildings and other found elements is also an example of heritage
commodification – however, not as mere souvenirs or objects that are presented to satisfy feelings of nostal-
gia, but rather as part of an imaginative personal collection by Williams-Ellis. As Susan Stewart has pointed
out about the general principle involved, ‘the collection is a form of art as play, a form involving the refram-
ing of objects within a world of attention and manipulation of context’ . In this regard, Portmeirion
needs to be seen as the result of Williams-Ellis’ collecting habit over the years, a prolonged kind of play
activity that involved experimenting with and inventing relationships with building materials, and in which
each element of his collection is used to work with others to create a new whole.
Unravelling the Place (4th June 2019, Portmeirion)
After spending a couple of nights at Portmeirion, I steadily realised that the day-trip visitors and the longer-
stay residents experience the place in two different ways. The first group usually arrives in the morning and
stays for only a few hours, perhaps until the village closes for the day. They walk, eat, and explore Portmeirion
while surrounded by a host of other visitors, tour guides and guardians. In contrast, the residents or guests
who stay on for a night (or more) find themselves in the village once everybody but the hotel staff have left,
and they discover that it is only then, when empty, that the place more easily comes to life. This observation
echoes something that Williams-Ellis also considered to be a fundamental piece of Portmeirion’s essence,
when he explained that the ‘colourful movement up and down the flights of steps and along the vistas is
definitely essential … this artificial landscape is only alive and meaningful when it is being used’ [21: p. 10]. In
this way, what makes Portmeirion what it is today is not the eccentrically colourful buildings or the beauti-
ful surrounding woodlands, but rather the feel of the village during its quieter state of occupation, as I was
eventually detected on my last day there (Figure 23).
Clough Williams-Ellis’ vision for Portmeirion was to a large extent influenced by the inventive designs
of Edwin Lutyens, and by the latter’s belief in the sheer, joyful pleasures of architecture. The village, when
viewed as the framework for Williams-Ellis’ architectural practice, is comparable to Edwin Lutyens’ idea of
‘vivreations’, a neologism that Lutyens coined to describe all of the enlivening, light-hearted activities such as
dancing, singing, joking, and making drawings that amuse all ages. As such, the contribution of Portmeirion,
Figure 23: Photograph of ‘Battery Square’ at Portmeirion as taken on 3rd June 2019 [Courtesy of the author].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 22 of 25
considering that Williams-Ellis’ career was always predicated on the desire to work for a wider community,
should not merely be understood as an architect acting as a socially detached âneur, as it is conventionally
understood, but rather as a different kind of âneur whose play is – as Zygmunt Bauman writes – sufficient
enough ‘to make others play, to see others as players, to make the world as play … one may say: the job of the
flâneur is to rehearse the world as a theatre, life as a play’ [25: p. 145–146].
When viewed from this perspective, an experience of Portmeirion involves us in more than we are aware
of, echoing a concept theorised by Hans George Gadamer when he talked about the characteristics of play
within a work of art. Gadamer suggests that both games and artworks ‘appear as forms of self-movement …
which requires a playing along with’ . In other words, Portmeirion shows that by establishing and playing
with a dialectic dialogue between a place and its buildings, visitors, residents, guardians, and so on, that it is
only then an architect’s intentions can be drawn together. This insight promotes a reading of Portmeirion as
an interactive, communicative event which demonstrates that architecture is a form of art which is best able
to satisfy those who practising it if they adopt unconventional, even unfashionable, methods.
Portmeirion, as the lifelong project of Clough Williams-Ellis, has been cherished throughout the years by
many British nationals, often being visited by them first during their childhood summer holidays and then
later during weekend getaway trips. On the contrary, as a foreign tourist and researcher who was alien to
cultural references such as The Prisoner, my first encounter with Portmeirion came more than 5,000 miles
away through a popular US podcast. Likewise, the image I had constructed in my mind after reading numer-
ous academic and popular journals, books, touristic guides, and so on, was that of a weird pre-Disneyland
resort disconnected from reality, despite the fervent hope of Williams-Ellis was that its actual message was
that humanity and nature could co-exist and not be in opposition.
Figure 24: Revised sketch model in the 1920s made by Clough Williams-Ellis to show the main central fea-
ture at Portmeirion [Source: The Architects’ Journal, 6th January 1926, p. 65].
Manosalva: One-man-band Art. 3, page 23 of 25
As described above, Williams-Ellis developed Portmeirion without any fixed or comprehensive master-
plan. The real purpose behind his ‘architectural mongrel’ was to create a seemly design that would make
the case for the environmental protection of rural coastal areas – an aesthetic intention plainly evident in
his simple, consciously naïve, early-1920s sketch models for the village (Figure 24). Williams-Ellis estab-
lished three specific objectives for the project: to develop a beautiful site without defiling it; to demonstrate
that architectural good manners could be profitable; and to provide a populist, ‘light-opera’ approach to
explain the otherwise seeming mysteries involved in appreciating architecture and landscape design. It can
be argued that the first two aims have proved successful, as made explicit by Portmeirion’s fabric today and
various small-scale interventions that have helped to preserve the Gwyllt, a 70-acre sub-tropical forest, in a
symbiotic and sustainable relationship that minimizes the environmental impact of construction by using
On the other hand, the ‘light-opera’ approach and the ‘Cloughing-up’ of the buildings at Portmeirion are
unconventional ways to call for less selfishness and more collaboration in architecture via the act of ‘playing
along with’ buildings, sculptures, landscapes, artifacts and people. One could argue that because of these
factors, the public imaginary of Portmeirion has been reduced nowadays to a ‘touristic destination and
beautiful pocket of madness’, or merely the stage-set of The Prisoner, as publicised throughout the village
by statues, souvenir shops and tour guides. Moreover, additions and modifications to the village made since
Williams-Ellis’ death, such as the toilet block next to the Tollgate, are a clear misinterpretation of the vil-
lage’s imaginative qualities (Figure 25). The design for these toilets is nothing more than a yellow-painted
cube with some fake windows and green-turquoise decorations that attempt, unsuccessfully, to mimic the
theatricality of other buildings in the village. Such moves make it even more necessary to highlight the real
values and intentions behind Portmeirion’s seemingly absurd architecture, given that its aesthetic and envi-
ronmental lessons seem ever more pertinent now. Otherwise, the village’s architectural importance could
quite easily come to be forgotten in the future, having been displaced by its role in a few fanciful and less
Figure 25: Public toilets at Portmeirion’s entrance showing the fanciful painted illusions on its façade, such
as false side windows and a trompe l’oeil niche with flower vase [Courtesy of the author].
Manosalva: One-man-bandArt. 3, page 24 of 25
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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How to cite this article: Manosalva MA. One-man-band: Clough Williams-Ellis’ Architectural Ensemble at Portmeirion.
ARENA Journal of Architectural Research
. 2021; 6(1): 3. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/ajar.268
Published: 25 May 2021
Copyright: © 2021 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
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