- Susan Williams-Ellis
Susan Williams-Ellis (
6 June 1918– 26 November 2007), a pottery designer and the eldest daughter of Clough Williams-Ellis, was best-known for co-founding Portmeirion Pottery.
Williams-Ellis was born in
Guildford, Surrey, England. Sir Clough was an eminent architect; her parents were at the centre of the Bloomsbury Group, with an array of friends including Frank Lloyd Wright, Lytton Strachey, Augustus Johnand Virginia Woolf. With such enviable company surrounding the young Susan, it was not surprising that she was determined to be an artist from an early age. In the 1930s Susan studied ceramics with Bernard and David Leach at Dartington. At Chelsea Art School, during the 1940s, her tutors included Graham Sutherlandfor painting and Henry Moorefor sculpture, who helped to develop Susan’s innate feeling for three-dimensional shape and form.
She studied Fine Art at
Chelsea Polytechnic, where her tutors included Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. Her brother, Christopher (1923-1944), fell in action before Monte Cassinoas an ensign in the Welsh Guards. He had joined up straight from King's College, Cambridge. His mate at Cambridge was Euan Cooper-Willis, who subsequently married Susan. The couple had four children, and their son, Robin, is a Welsh languageauthor.
Her father wrote in the "Architect Errant" about his feelings: "His (Christopher's) room mate in the Gibbs building there, Euan Cooper-Willis, subsequently married our elder daughter Susan. The armistice was thus a time of both pleasure and of almost unbearable pain. We soon had grandchildren to add to the pleasure. We decided that since we, Christopher's parents, were alive, we should try to be so properly, and to keep the wound to ourselves." Fact|date=September 2007
In 1961 she created the company
Portmeirion Potterywith her husband. Now considered one of the UK’s most respected companies, the origin of Portmeirion Potteries was more humble. Susan and Euan set up in business in 1953, when they took over a souvenir shop in the Welsh village of Portmeirion. Despite the unique architectural status of the village, created by Susan’s father, the souvenir shop was operating at a loss. By 1961 the shop had grown enormously; she and Euan were managers of The Village and a second Portmeirion shop had opened in one of London’s smartest shopping areas, Pont Street. Working on Sir Clough’s principle that “good design is good business”, the couple transformed two broken-down potteries in Stoke-on-Trentinto of the country’s most affluent pottery companies. In an era when the idea of the “working woman” was an anathema, the entrepreneurial success of Susan Williams-Ellis, as a designer and a businesswoman (as well as wife and mother) was unprecedented.
In 1948 Susan and Euan moved to
Wales, following their marriage in 1945 and became self-sufficient. She earned some money from book illustration and design work while Euan produced a pamphlet on “Equality for the Fabian Society”. However the lure of Clough’s architectural vision was strong, and as time went by the management of the souvenir shop fell to Susan and Euan. Portmeirion was one of the first retail companies to fully understand and exploit the “lifestyle” consumer, creating a wide range of products including casual tableware, housewares and gifts for both women and men. Between Portmeirion Potteries and the Portmeirion-based television series ‘The Prisoner’ it would seem that both Susan and her father played seminal roles in establishing the visual iconography of the 1960s, as fundamental to the age, if less generally appreciated, as the Mini, the Beatlesand Carnaby Street. Fact|date=December 2007
The 1970s saw the birth of what is considered by many to be signature range of Portmeirion, Botanic Garden. Based on illustration plates discovered by Susan in an antique natural history book she found within an antiquarian bookseller in London, called 'Weldon & Wesley'. Susan was looking for eighteenth century engravings of sea creatures to use in a pottery decoration. She bought some French encyclopaedias but as she was leaving, the bookseller showed her a brightly hand coloured 'herbal' book of 1817, illustrated with a large selection of plants and flowers. The book, by Thomas Green, was called The Universal -or -Botanical, Medical and Agricultural Dictionary.
Botanic Garden has proved to be the company’s most successful range of tableware…despite buyer’s reluctance at the beginning. Susan Williams-Ellis recounted that “I remember when we first launched Botanic Garden. At that time you might have had dessert sets which had different patterns on each plate, but for the traditional tableware setting, everything had to match. I thought “Why can’t we have different patterns all within one collection? So, I created Botanic Garden!” The department store buyers in 1972 said that no-one would stock it as there were too many designs and that no-one would want to buy it as it didn’t match. I think I proved them all wrong!”
However, even in her 80s, Williams-Ellis' desire to continue to design the best tableware and ceramics available, lead her to keep closely involved with the latest generation of Portmeirion designs, introducing Portmeirion to new audiences all over the world. Until 2006 she was still travelling the world, finding inspiration both from ancient civilizations and underwater worlds for her art work.
In 2005, she received an honorary fellowship from the Rector of London's University of Arts, Sir Michael Bichard and University Registrar Susan Asser. Susan Williams-Ellis said: “I was very flattered when I found out that I was to receive an honorary fellowship from University of Arts, London, and even more so when the Rector agreed to come all the way to see me at Portmeirion in North Wales to re-create the ceremony that will be held in my absence in London later this month. I decided to pursue pottery, rather than painting, mainly because I wanted to create affordable and beautiful things. I wanted people to buy my work purely because they liked it, and that it had a function, rather than buying things just as an investment, so its ironic I suppose that my work from the 60s is now considered so “collectable”. I am frightfully lucky. When I went to Chelsea before the War, I studied under the sculptor Henry Moore and the painter Graham Sutherland. Twice a week I would be in a class with these icons of modern British art – what a wonderful chance to have, and now I am being given an honorary fellowship from University of Arts, London of which Chelsea forms part, its all come rather full circle hasn’t it? Being in Stoke has also been a wonderful part of my life. The people of Stoke are really the nicest people one could ever meet, and their hard work has established Portmeirion and enabled us to sell our pots around the world. I have been very fortunate.”
Susan Williams-Ellis died on
26 November 2007in her sleep, aged 89.
* [http://www.portmeirion.co.uk/ Portmeirion Pottery company website]
* [http://www.portmeirion-village.com/en/features.php?id=20&MID=38 Portmeirion Village: article on pottery]
* [http://www.lastingtribute.co.uk/famousperson/williams-ellis/2681892 Susan Williams-Ellis' Obituary]
* [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article3025763.ece Obituary in "The Times", 10 December 2007]
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