LIKE thousands of other schoolboys my age, I was introduced to the gloriously idiosyncratic folly that is Portmeirion by the equally bizarre ITV series The Prisoner. Not only did I want to live there, I wanted a Lotus Super Seven as driven by the star of the series, Patrick McGoohan, and a Mini Moke for bobbing around the town.
With the passage of time, we’re talking the 1960s here, not one but three cults have grown up: a fascination with the Shangri-La created by architect Clough Williams-Ellis; The Prisoner Appreciation Society, which still holds its annual meetings there; and for us collectors, the eponymous tableware of such distinctive style that is so popular, it is still being made and can be found in homes throughout the UK, US and Asia.
A new book*, published this week to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the opening Williams-Ellis’ holiday retreat for the upper classes, explores each of these cults and much more. But it is the chapter on Portmeirion Pottery, written by Mark Eastment,
that will most interest readers of this column, if only to dispel a few myths that have grown up around it.
For a start, the pottery isn’t made there. Whether it have been created had Portmeirion never been built, we can only speculate, but the fact is, we still have Williams-Ellis to thank for it.
Susan, his daughter, was born in Surrey in 1918, but spent most of her childhood summer holidays in North Wales. The family’s historic home was Plas Brondanw, near Caernarfon, and it was there that as an 11-year-old she bought her first antique, an 19th century pottery mug for 6d.
Academically gifted and with an artistic eye, Susan decided at that point that she wanted to do "something in art". She attended Dartington School where she was taught pottery by the great Bernard Leach and in 1936, she went to Chelsea Polytechnic where she studied under Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. She married in 1945, her husband Euan Cooper-Willis at the time working for the War Office.
His family owned Blackie’s, the Glasgow-based specialist printing and publishing company, and the couple moved there a year later. While he learned the intricacies of the business, Susan continued her career as a freelance artist contributing among other things designs for a set of tiles produced by Poole Pottery.
However, keen for her children to grow up in Wales, the couple moved to a cottage on Williams-Ellis’ estate near Portmeirion and in 1953, her father gave the couple control of Portmeirion’s general management.
Their goal was to generate income to further develop the village and Susan took over running a small shop in one of the Portmeirion buildings which sold tourist souvenirs including pottery produced in Stoke-on-Trent by A E Gray & Co Ltd.
Albert Gray shared Williams-Ellis’ interest in design and his company had once employed the pottery designer Susie Cooper. Susan’s graphics were used in a small range of pottery produced by Gray’s for the shop including some decorated with a pink lustre similar to that produced a century earlier in Sunderland.
A Portmeirion shop was opened in London in 1958 and following Albert Gray’s death, in 1961 Susan and her husband bought his company, followed by a second called Kirkhams, also in the Potteries, a year later, the combined companies being renamed The Portmeirion Potteries Ltd.
Echoing her father’s understanding of three-dimensional design, Susan set about producing radically different fresh shapes of tableware, notably an elegant coffee pot which was in effect a 12 inch long tube with a spout and handle. This was the perfect canvas for her bold, graphics which echoed the mood of the Swinging Sixties.
The first designs were Gold Diamond and Talisman introduced in 1963 followed by Tivoli and Magic City. Terence Conran was an early champion of Portmeirion in his Habitat stores.
Further designs and shapes tumbled from the business including a set of 12 zodiac tankards printed in gold on matt black and a new shape of coffee mug called Meridian.
Sarah’s signature Portmeirion ware — the Botanic Garden range of tableware — came from a chance purchase in a London antiquarian bookshop of Thomas Green’s The Universal Herbal, first published in around 1824.
The prints it contained inspired her to embrace new technology and reproduce the images on her pottery. The range was introduced in 1972 and is still highly popular today.
Additional books of botanic prints provided further illustrations and demand started to boom. The couple invested in major expansion and reconstruction of the Stoke factory, while at the same time undertaking worldwide travel selling the concept to retailers.
New patterns were developed including Birds of Britain, Summer Strawberry, Welsh Dresser and Harvest Blue, and even prints from Isaac Walton’s Compleat Angler found their way onto Portmeirion dinnerware.
With order books brimming, the company was floated on the stock market in 1988, at the same time buying the former Sylvac site in Longton.
The company received the Silver Jubilee Queen’s Award for Export in 1990 and in 1994, Portmeirion China was introduced to the range.
Other designers were brought in to supplement production but even today, Botanic Garden still accounts for around half of Portmeirion’s total turnover.
Looking to the future, a collaboration with Sophie Conran, daughter of Terence, has resulted in a new fresh look for the years ahead.
*Portmeirion is the collective work of Jan Morris, Alwyn W. Turner, Mark Eastment, Stephen Lacey and Robin Llewellyn, with a foreword by jazz pianist Jools Holland. It is published by the Antique Collectors’ Club and is priced at £25. Copies can be obtained at Portmeirion Village. The images published here are courtesy of Portmeirion Potteries.