Susan Williams-Ellis’s design and art portfolio can loosely be divided into four chronological phases, each period containing a wide range of archival material:
The archive also contains a vast number of items from Susan’s personal collection, including prints and postcards collected by Susan throughout her life, as well as ephemeral material, such as newspaper cuttings, relating to her.
Cooper-Willis’ was her married name, but she kept using Williams-Ellis for her work throughout her life
This cutting, headed Durrant’s Press Cuttings from ‘My Home’ (Nov. 1965) was found inside a book from the Plas Brondanw library, Tales from the Galaxies, by Amabel Williams-Ellis (1973).
‘I got a job in the Air Ministry in Whitehall … they didn’t bother to find out anything about me! I just had to send them a card saying that both my parents were born in Britain! My uncle, John Strachey, who was the Air Ministry’s representative to the public, was horrified and asked my mother if I realised how deadly secret it was. Of course I did, I had to keep drawing maps and diagrams of how it all worked and in the end to do all the illustrations for my 2 Wing Commander’s (who were really physicists) paper on “How G Works”. Then take the whole explanation down to the cellars and do 20 copies on one of those sticky black copying machines you turned a handle on. They were all marked “Top Secret for Air Marshals and the Prime Minister” etc. and no one checked to see if I’d done a spare copy or thrown some smudged ones in the bin. I can’t imagine how we won the war!’
Susan was endlessly gathering information and inspiration from the world around her, and particularly from museums and galleries. This is a mixed-media drawing of one of the many items in the V&A Museum admired by Susan. It has echoes of several of her designs – Serif, in the handles, Volterra, in proportion, and Meridian, in the raised rim near the base. All this could be coincidence, of course. Reference 130015.1.
This green robotic-looking fish was one of series of pictures created by Susan Williams-Ellis in the early 1960s. This (detail from) and oil on canvas also appears in the archive as a coloured-in drawing on greaseproof paper, and as a rubbing – could Susan’s artwork have been inspired by a low-relief moulded design on a plate or a panel? Reference 120025.1.1
Sketches, drawings, paintings (mainly watercolour and gouache), cards, notes, design work for book ‘In and Out of Doors’, and for theatre programme(s) for Dartington.
In and Out of Doors was a Williams-Ellis family endeavour, but driven by Susan. It was inspired by ‘The Week-End Book’ which was full of suggestions of meaningful activities. Reference 110006.
A large number of 1930s postcards exist in the archive. They are actually photos taken by Susan Williams-Ellis, developed in postcard form. The vase of flowers which were the subject of a painting by Susan may have been done when she was a schoolgirl at Dartington, or later, as a student at Chelsea School of Art. References 170044.2.6 and 120005.53
Paintings (watercolour, gouache, acrylic, oil), sketches and drawings (many of them annotated, made during her travels, visits to museums, etc.); cards, notebooks, book illustrations and some written material; fabric designs and textiles; murals (photographic evidence of); designs for Portmeirion Village souvenirs.
Susan Williams-Ellis worked as a designer and illustrator long before she established Portmeirion Pottery. This painting, Burning the Bracken depicts Snowdon, or Yr Wyddfa. It was the cover illustration of Portraits of Mountains, one of a series of books published by Dennis Dobson. She was also responsible for the front cover of Portraits of Islands. Reference 120035.
Detail from a design for a WWII campaign poster, aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of gossiping. Susan describes her job with the Air Ministry in her autobiographical notes, but does not make reference to artwork such as this, and it is uncertain whether it was commissioned by the War Office or undertaken as part of a school project – she was drafted in to teach at Dartington as the former teacher was German and had to leave. Reference 120031.8.
Pamphlet, designed by Susan Williams-Ellis, late 1940s, campaigning for better design of manufactured objects. ‘Gifted creative artists have far too little to say in the shape of everyday things, yet it is they who should be employed to design the lovely household things which mass-production can then bring within reach of all’. She proved her point. Reference 120007.
Pictures (mainly oil pastel) of tropical fish; watercolour sketches and drawings of roses (a recurring subject of her pre-Portmeirion artwork); many photographs, photocopies of fish and roses artwork, often with annotations; designs for pottery, jewellery and textiles (many surviving only as photocopies); drawings and paintings of pets (some dogs and many cats).
In the mid-late 1990s, Susan and her husband Euan moved to Tyn yr Ardd, behind Castell Deudraeth close to Portmeirion. In her old age she gained artistic inspiration from dogs and cats. At the time of her death, her studio was lined with drawings – mainly pastel, of pets, many her own (such as the two pictured here) – secured on boards with bulldog clips. Reference 120076.
Susan’s fondness of cats as a source of artistic inspiration might have been triggered by the memory of the chalkware cats on the mantelpiece in Portmeirion Hotel, which were consumed by fire on Susan’s 63rd birthday, in 1981. She commissioned copies to be made, and even created a number of pottery versions. This letter to her sister Char depicts one of the American originals, on which a subsequent Portmeirion Pottery trial piece was based. Reference 167501.
Susan’s final major design for Portmeirion Pottery was Caribbean Platter, launched in the late 1990s. Although only six designs were produced on this range of decorative plates, Susan hand-painted twelve with images of fish she had sketched whilst snorkelling in tropical waters. This one, with clownfish, never made it to production. Reference 691267.14.