Plas Brondawn: The 17th century home where the man who created Portmeirion cut his teeth

Clough Williams-Ellis is famous as the architect of Portmeirion, the almost-fantastical Welsh village which won lasting fame as the set for the iconic 1960s TV show The Prisoner. But he took his first steps in learning his craft with a different house not far away, one which had been neglected for centuries.

Every Tuesday afternoon, we take a look through the Country Life archives to share stories, snippets and pictures from this treasure trove of architecture. Today, we look at Plas Brondanw, the 17th century home where Mr Clough Williams-Ellis — the man who created Portmeirion, in west Wales — cut his teeth.

Country Life’s then-architecture editor Christopher Hussey paid a visit and wrote a piece which appeared on January 31, 1931:

Few ancient Welsh homes survive, many having been replaced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with more commodious mansions, others suffered to lapse into the hands of a penurious peasantry. This was the condition of Plas Brondanw — which, it is perhaps necessary to say, is pronounced “Brondanno” — when the late Mr Williams-Ellis of Glasfryn made over the house to his second son, Mr Clough Williams-Ellis, now the well known architect, but in 1912 an inexperienced yet enthusiastic novice.

Plas Brondanw in Country Life in 1931. ©Country Life

In his quasi-autobiography The Architect, Mr Williams Ellis has described vividly, if apologetically, how the gift stirred him to the depths:

At that period I fully shared my mother’s piously dynastic views and regarded all things ancestral with a reverence almost superstitious if not indeed religious. Also I was in the antiquarian phase, and the guardianship of a rambling old Carolean “Capital Mansion House” set in a wildly romantic little estate amongst the Welsh mountains that had been held by my family for over four centuries was well calculated to inflame me.

And well it might.

The hall dining room at Plas Brondanw. ©Country Life

Hussey’s piece goes on to discuss the house, its surrounds and its sensitive reinstatement at the hands of its young owner. But the real warmth in the article — and there is much — is reserved for descriptions of the evident love and joy felt by Williams-Ellis for the place:

Since his Brondanw days, Clough (I cannot go on calling him Mr. Etc.) has become one of the busiest of architects, conceiving projects and exploring every species of style and material as impetuously as any of his ancestors developed their estate. Country houses, town houses, Empire exhibitions, schools, ladies’ clubs, bridges, cottages in Georgian, vernacular, baroque, modernistic and ad hoc styles spring from his brain in never-ending succession.

But it is at Brondanw, much better than at Portmeirion, its fantastic offshoot, that we can see the original fundamental Clough — spontaneous Welshman with incredible energy and an intuitive love of the thick, rough stone of his country.

The west front of Plas Brondanw from beneath the ilex. ©Country Life

The article finishes off on a wistful note:

I have not described the rooms in detail because the illustrations show them quite well, and there were so many other interesting things to talk about — not least the feelings of the architect-owner in the days when the old house was all in all to him. Those are the things that one wants to know about a house but can so seldom arrive at — the warmth and the dreams that its substance has generated in human hearts.

The dining room kitchen at Plas Brondanw. ©Country Life

Houses, though, have a sad time of it. They nurture affection and understanding, and then, when they seem to have caught their master, he plays truant. This one says that his heart still goes out to the place, maturing in ever increasing beauty:

But I can now scarcely even recall the pangs of pleasure that the mere fact of possession once gave me. It is there, and it is beautiful, and that is enough. If it is movingly beautiful also to my children, I hope that they, or one of them, may be able to live there. If it is not wonderful to them, then I hope it may be enjoyed by someone else who will yet think kindly of those who spent four hundred years, off and on, in making what they admire.

How lovely to see the joy of architecture summed up so beautifully in one simple paragraph.