How a Visionary Architect Turned a House of Cards into a Tarot Village
by Craig Conley
Imagine a well-shuffled Tarot deck formulating the blueprint for an eccentric village, every picture unfolding into picturesque architecture, every background transforming into real ground, every portent a literal signpost. The idiosyncratic coastal village of Portmeirion, Wales is exactly such a place—a Tarot deck made manifest in mortar and gold leaf. Around one corner, a statue of a cherubic Fool stands blithely on the edge of a rocky precipice. Down another path, the World sits atop the shoulders of a Hercules statue, while the God-Empress Frigga looks on. Elsewhere, St. Peter pontificates from a balcony like a true Hierophant, in the shadow of a soaring Italianate Tower. Taken together, the assorted facets of Portmeirion are eerily like an elaborate spread of divinatory cards—an esoteric pop-up book of sorts in which all 22 major archetypes interrelate in three dimensions.
With its structures cascading down a lofty cliffside, the village’s winding, stepped paths of varying elevations provide innumerable vantage points to study the relative iconic connections. Archetypes may be adjacent or separate, above or below one another, all depending upon one’s standpoint. The village can be viewed as one elaborate allegorical story, told from multiple perspectives. As Tarot scholar L. W. De Laurence noted, allegory and symbol are inclusive of all nations and times. Hence, “the cards correspond to many types of ideas and things; they are universal and not particular.”1 As Portmeirion is a pastiche of architecture and ornaments from different cultures and eras, it’s a uniquely perfect setting for the Tarot archetypes to spring into life.
Like all works of art, the statues, paintings, and architecture of Portmeirion find their meanings in the beholder’s interpretation. Is the concrete planter emblazoned with a relief of a trident-wielding King Neptune a reflection of the King of Cups? Do the two Balinese dancers atop Ionic columns in the piazza epitomize the Two of Wands? Visitors must come to their own terms, according to the context of their situation and the call of intuition. Following is a proposed representation of the Major Arcana at play within Portmeirion, to serve as an inspiration to the unconventional traveler eager to read the signs and portents all around.
The Fool stands within the crevice of a dramatic rocky outcropping, above and behind the Bristol Colonnade. It’s as if he has already taken one fall and is unaware that his next step will be another big one. His right hand is raised over his head in a devil-may-care gesture. Perhaps he is pointing high above, to the turret-like Chantry Outlook, distinguished by a tall stone column supporting a weather vane. It seems likely that this is where the Fool has been. Has he reached too high in the past? Is he still lost in the clouds?
The Magician is a bronze bust of the wizard who envisioned and manifested Portmeirion as his retirement hobby. Sir Clough Williams-Ellis literally created his village out of thin air (or at least thin dust): as he couldn’t afford building materials, he salvaged bits and pieces of “fallen buildings” and reconstructed them according to his alchemical whim. The bust is molded in rough style, as if clay had hurriedly been formed into a golem and then cast in metal just as its eyes opened. Framed by an arch, the Magician is located in the entryway to Hercules Hall.
The High Priestess is a trompe l’oeil mermaid “sculpture” painted on sheet metal. She sports two tails, symbolizing duality. They curl up to suggest, along with her curved arms, a figure-eight/infinity shape. The infinity shape is echoed in the dramatic curls of her hair. Eyes closed, she cradles a large fish from whose mouth flows the water of the deep realm of the unconscious. The High Priestess, framed by an archway, meditatively sits atop a sphere in a stone pavilion near the tollgate.
The Empress is a statue of the Nordic all-mother Goddess Frigga (labeled “Frix” on the plinth), ruler of love, marriage, and fertility. Wielding a crossbow in her left hand and the hilt of a sword in the other, the Empress stands assuredly atop a limestone pedestal, head turned toward her right. She is framed by greenery and overlooks the small fountain between the Mermaid and Dolphin cottages. The fountain is a popular wishing well, establishing the Empress as a heeder of prayers and granter of desires. Her broken sword (presumably ruined over time) is of interest, as it symbolizes a firm grip on intention, free from lacerations.
The Emperor is a colorful statue along the estuary, at the foot of the Observatory Tower. The statue honors Admiral Lord Nelson, hero of the Napoleonic Wars. He stands powerfully, in full regalia. Interestingly, the Observatory Tower houses Portmeirion’s camera obscura, whose submarine lens offers clandestine panoramic views of the village and estuary. The projected image is upside down and backward, suggesting that a new perspective can afford the “big picture.”
The Hierophant is a statue of a bearded St. Peter, preaching from an ironwork balcony. His right hand gestures as he reads from a scroll. He wears a blue toga over a red robe. Above his head dangles a funnel-like green parasol, reminiscent of a gramophone horn. It’s as if a heavenly audio signal is being directed toward his head. The Hierophant sermonizes from above the shop at the Toll House. On the wall to his right is a bell (originally used to summon the village gatekeeper) and striped pole (historically lowered to restrict access). These features establish the Hierophant as an intermediary, a threshold guardian and an opener of doors.
The Lovers are depicted in a Classical-style ceiling mural beneath the archway of the Gate House. The figures are pagan deities, reminiscent of ancient zodiacal personages at play in the heavens. Acrobatically tumbling through the ethers, one figure atop a horse reaches out to join hands with another whose cape billows like a parachute. Though their fingers haven’t yet touched, their eyes are locked. The composition suggests a Yin/Yang balance and a clockwise cyclical flow.
The Chariot is an enormous clamshell which carries a majestic Triton reminiscent of Poseidon. With his right hand he holds a nautiloid shell trumpet to his lips. He brandishes a trident in his left hand. The base of the trident dips into the sea like a rudder, suggesting a three-pronged maneuver. The Triton sports two tails which splash behind him, symbolic of motion without external propulsion. He faces forward, sounds his horn to his right, and points his eyes and trident leftward. Vigilance, preparedness, and assertion are indicated. The Chariot is painted on the back of the Bristol Colonnade.
Strength is a lion statue, regally lying under a hedgerow canopy behind the Gothic Pavilion. The lion is awake but restful, his jaw relaxed and his eyes simultaneously fixed and glazed, as if in the midst of mindful meditation. As the statue was a 90th birthday present to Portmeirion’s founder, it suggests strength through endurance, resilience, life-long learning, and legacy.
The Hermit stands in a lofty alcove, right hand clutching his heavy cloak, right knee bent to take a step. Above his head a large five-pointed starburst illuminates his way. Yet, with eyes closed, the Hermit appears to take guidance from an inner light. The Hermit is located above an archway to the piazza, near the fish pond. Interesting, he faces away from the pond, as if his journey has taken him out from the depths of the unconscious. Perhaps his eyes haven’t yet adjusted to the light of the intellect.
The Wheel of Fortune is actually several bands on perpendicular axes, intersecting to create an armillary sphere. The celestial circles are crowned by a corkscrew drill bit, symbolic of a higher purpose. The Wheel of Fortune’s composition suggests cyclical movement. All elements are in play: the armillary sits atop a white column (Air) on the outlook platform of the Shell Grotto (Earth), overlooking the Portmeirion Hotel on the estuary (Water) and facing the setting sun (Fire).
Justice is the statue of a dispassionate angel wearing a long white robe. Her two hands unroll a ribbon-like scroll. Balance is suggested by the positions of her hands: she raises the left end of the scroll almost above her head, while the right hand is fully extended downward. Justice stands on a pedestal in the middle of the Bristol Colonnade.
The Hanged Man is a black sheep limply dangling from a balcony. Formed of cut sheet metal, the ram is a silhouette of itself, its only dimensionality provided by its curled white horns. The darkness and flatness suggests an encounter with the shadow self. Suspension of will is explicit—the limpness symbolizes an end to struggle, a relinquishment, an acceptance. As a silhouette in profile, the sheep’s two eyes have become one, and that eye is wide open to experience nonduality. The Hanged Man is located on the side of Toll House, just below the St. Peter statue.
Death is in the form of an eagle clutching a snake in its talons. The eagle’s wings are spread triumphantly as it lands with its prey upon a sphere, symbolizing the circle of life. The sphere is balanced atop a shell-embellished cube, propped by a green column. The precariousness of life is made manifest in this arrangement. The eagle of Death is located in the center of Battery Square.
Temperance is a golden statue of Buddha which meditatively sits in a half-shelter, half-cave, partially glowing in the sunlight and partially obscured by shadows. Significantly, Buddha’s right arm is missing from the elbow down. The missing arm symbolizes sacrificial measures toward self-restraint. The Buddha of Temperance is located in the pantiled loggia below the looming dome of the Pantheon. Whereas a pantheon is traditionally dedicated to all deities, this Buddha statue is set apart in a lowly place to pursue self-realization.
The Devil is a legendary red wyvern. It sports a barbed serpent’s tail, dragon-like wings, and eagle’s talons. Wyverns symbolize strife, envy, and pestilence, yet their association with strength and endurance has earned a noble place in medieval heraldry. The Devil is located near the Portmeirion Hotel, above the steps leading to the shore of the estuary.
The Tower is the striking Campanile that rises above the entire village. It is partially constructed from the ruins of the 12th century Castell Deudraeth, which had impiously been razed in the 19th century so as not to attract tourism. Hence, the cycle of creation, destruction, and recreation is embodied in the Tower.
The Star surmounts the Observatory Tower. Its eight points shine in gold, symbolically providing light for the “fairy images” of the camera obscura within. The Star, then, illuminates the shadowy confines of one’s vision not with mere light but with inspiring panoramic reflections.
The Moon and the Sun represent themselves at Portmeirion, their shining forms frequently framed by archways and portals. However, two statues within the village are associated with these heavenly bodies. At the top of the Triumphal Arch is a caryatid—a maiden dedicated to the moon goddess Artemis. And a cherub balances a sundial on his head near the Round House.
Judgement is a trompe l’oeil painting of a winged angel standing upon the little globe of Earth. With both hands she holds a great trumpet to her lips, and she sounds it with eyes closed. The angel is surrounded by three eight-pointed stars, a golden crown, and a ribbon-like halo of white and blue. Judgement is located on one side of Angel Cottage.
The World is a statue of Hercules (representing Atlas) supporting the Earth. The World is located near Hercules Hall, at the top of Hercules Steps. Interestingly, attached to the base of the statue are several engraved tablets, commemorating various splendid years. If one imagines time as a river, then the years flow around and around the Hercules statue like a whirlpool around a boulder. Hence, The World speaks of timeless contentment.
The Minor Arcana is represented throughout Portmeirion, too, the numbers of each suit being determined by context. Cups are represented by numerous vases and fonts. The Three of Cups, for example, could be the twin dolphin fountain in the Shell Grotto with three clamshell reservoirs. Pentacles are reflected in slate paving discs, circular windows, and other round motifs. The Six of Pentacles, for example, could be the stacked embellishments on the archway in front of the Salutation shop. Wands are represented by multitudinous columns, appearing singularly as well as in sets. The Queen of Wands, for example, could be reflected in the Victorian-era figurehead atop the ornamental petrol pump outside Neptune Cottage. Swords are represented by ironwork throughout the village. The Ace of Swords, for example, could be the pointed obelisk ornament atop Portmeirion’s folly lighthouse.
The intrepid traveler could use any snapshot from Portmeirion as the basis of a three-dimensional Tarot reading. If a friend or loved one appears in the photo, he or she will stand as the querent. The Tarot archetypes within the frame will constitute the spread. Icons just around the corner, hovering in the background, or partially obscured from view may lend insight into emerging or receding trends.
By way of example, consider a snapshot featuring the Campanile on the left (the Tower), the Frigga statue in the center (the Empress), and the Hercules statue on the right (the World). Down the walkway just out of view is the lion statue (Strength). In three dimensional space, the World is at the forefront, turning in the general direction of the Empress. The Empress looks to her right, toward the hidden lion of Strength. The Tower looms in the background. In this three-dimensional spread, the World spotlights the completion of a cycle. Hercules has accomplished the goal of his struggle. He rotates toward the Empress, ruler over an emerging feminine energy characteristic of the next cycle. The direction of her gaze (toward the lion statue) suggests that hidden strengths will soon be called upon. As the Tower is partially obscured by trees in the background, it appears that the time of crisis is over, even though its shadow may yet have a chilling effect.
Portmeirion means something different to every visitor, but each archway framing a view and each intriguing statue in an alcove invites mindful appreciation. Tourists with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Tarot will have a field day assimilating the whimsical symbols at play in this one-of-a-kind seaside resort.
1 The Key to the Tarot (1918)