Cotswold Architect Willie Bertram

PUBLISHED: 13:37 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

willie Bertram and Cavendish lodge

willie Bertram and Cavendish lodge

Willie Bertram is a most influential and creative architect who has created treehouses for William and Harry, made his mark on Bath's Royal Crescent, and built 'Britain's most expensive house'. Words and photography by Stephen Morris

Even now, Willie Bertram remembers waiting on the stone step of his Cotswold childhood home for a glimpse of 'the stranger who was my father'. A man home from war, who later, says Willie, 'became one of my first clients and my fiercest critics'.


Since then the boy beguiled by the Cotswold landscape has become Britain's pre-eminent architect in the Classical style, with clients (and critics) knocking at his door.


Last year Willie Bertram made a splash by building Britain's 'most expensive house' - the 35 million Hampstead residence of Israeli diamond dealer Lev Leviev - and is best-known for being the architect most favoured by the Prince of Wales.


For the Prince he has built two tiny hideaway pavilions and other features at Highgrove, including a fairytale treehouse for the young William and Harry. He also advises him on building proposals in the Duchy of Cornwall. The two men have a great working relationship not least, I suspect, because Willie does not compromise his principles - 'not even for princes'.


"I don't draw things I think the Prince will like, he says, 'I draw things I like and rather hope he does too!"


As it happens, both men have an instinct for how landscape and people can coexist harmoniously, and both believe in the power of good architecture to improve our lives.


"And," says Willie laughing, "the prince is extraordinarily perceptive: he'll point at a plan and say 'now, just explain what happens here' knowing full well I don't know either!"


In his newly-published memoir The Architect's Tale, Willie describes how as a failed third-year student his tutor advised him to look beyond architecture for a career. But with characteristic resilience and determination young Bertram qualified and, 'by luck and timing' got his first big break when John Tham hired him to transform two houses in Bath's Royal Crescent into one of the world's great hotels. After John Wood and his son, Willie was the last architect let loose to build in Bath's almost sacred places: in Europe's greatest crescent and later, up the road at Cavendish Lodge - his monumental and controversial neo-Classical pile.


As the Royal Crescent Hotel won Bertram friends, so Cavendish Lodge made enemies. Wrong place, wrong scale, wrong style - even his beloved Cotswold limestone made Bertram's apartments-cum-mansion 'look like a pigsty'. Willie's ambition for the site fell before bitter and bloody battle - in the press, at public enquiry, on ministerial desks and ultimately at the Court of Appeal. He won, but still bears the scars and says - despite the victory - he will never build in Bath again.


After the Royal Crescent Hotel, Willie Bertram transformed Cliveden, the Astor's magnificent Berkshire home, into a luxury hotel. It was here that Christine Keeler, whose portrait Willie found hanging in the loo, seduced John Profumo and brought down the MacMillan government.


In The Archictect's Tale Willie describes the beautiful Pat Kluge and her billionnaire husband who, on Prince Charles's personal recommendation, invited him to the States to design a playhouse for their young son. He is wined and dined in the Kluges' Virginian mansion and introduced to America's richest and most powerful people.


Enchanted and overwhelmed, Willie sketches a miniature, fairytale Bavarian castle for which even John Kluge's bottomless pockets will not find money - and is dropped like a stone.


High society or not, after 45 years in practice Willie remains the geometry-mad schoolboy who drew his first plans at 16, who measures distances in shoe leather and designs his beautiful building with a soft pencil and a notepad. Buildings are his children he says (though he has three of his own and is a grandfather to several), and he is hugely indebted to the skills and traditions that create them.


"Kings or princes, I'm more in awe of a mason cutting a stone - I've tried carving and believe me, it's hard!"


Characteristically for a man who enjoys good company, Willie says his architecture is about people as much as materials and how empathy and understanding are the key to a successful commission. Thus, when Lady Soames invited him to join her 'ordinary family' at Blenheim to redesign the family plot in the little churchyard at Bladon, tact and discretion - and a shared vision - won the day. Typically, the devil and the best story are in the detail, and Willie laughs when he describes how the Duke of Marlborough asked for benches to be wooden, not stone, to avoid piles! Local craftsmen create a new memorial for Sir Winston and Clementine and, in a moving ceremony in May 1998, buglers once more sounded the Last Post.


In an age when architects are seen as arrogant, self-important and incompetent, when they have few friends to fight their corner, Willie Bertram it seems, is a man for all seasons. In the Cotswolds villages where numerous homes already bear the discrete Bertram touch, he is as busy as ever, working and reworking the stone and stone slates into beautiful, timeless beauty. Meanwhile in London with a touch of James Bond, he's building a house within a house: turning the inside of an industrial-like shell into an invisible, three-story mansion for a wealthy client.


"You see?" he says, "I'm a set designer at heart, manipulating space and light and having fun along the way."



The Architect's Tale by William Bertram


296pp, illustrated throughout, including 16 pages of colour illustrations.


Published by Redcliffe Press of Bristol at 18.99.


www.redcliffepress.co.uk ISBN 978 1 906593 24 7


Even now, Willie Bertram remembers waiting on the stone step of his Cotswold childhood home for a glimpse of 'the stranger who was my father'. A man home from war, who later, says Willie, 'became one of my first clients and my fiercest critics'.


Since then the boy beguiled by the Cotswold landscape has become Britain's pre-eminent architect in the Classical style, with clients (and critics) knocking at his door.


Last year Willie Bertram made a splash by building Britain's 'most expensive house' - the 35 million Hampstead residence of Israeli diamond dealer Lev Leviev - and is best-known for being the architect most favoured by the Prince of Wales.


For the Prince he has built two tiny hideaway pavilions and other features at Highgrove, including a fairytale treehouse for the young William and Harry. He also advises him on building proposals in the Duchy of Cornwall. The two men have a great working relationship not least, I suspect, because Willie does not compromise his principles - 'not even for princes'.


"I don't draw things I think the Prince will like, he says, 'I draw things I like and rather hope he does too!"


As it happens, both men have an instinct for how landscape and people can coexist harmoniously, and both believe in the power of good architecture to improve our lives.


"And," says Willie laughing, "the prince is extraordinarily perceptive: he'll point at a plan and say 'now, just explain what happens here' knowing full well I don't know either!"


In his newly-published memoir The Architect's Tale, Willie describes how as a failed third-year student his tutor advised him to look beyond architecture for a career. But with characteristic resilience and determination young Bertram qualified and, 'by luck and timing' got his first big break when John Tham hired him to transform two houses in Bath's Royal Crescent into one of the world's great hotels. After John Wood and his son, Willie was the last architect let loose to build in Bath's almost sacred places: in Europe's greatest crescent and later, up the road at Cavendish Lodge - his monumental and controversial neo-Classical pile.


As the Royal Crescent Hotel won Bertram friends, so Cavendish Lodge made enemies. Wrong place, wrong scale, wrong style - even his beloved Cotswold limestone made Bertram's apartments-cum-mansion 'look like a pigsty'. Willie's ambition for the site fell before bitter and bloody battle - in the press, at public enquiry, on ministerial desks and ultimately at the Court of Appeal. He won, but still bears the scars and says - despite the victory - he will never build in Bath again.


After the Royal Crescent Hotel, Willie Bertram transformed Cliveden, the Astor's magnificent Berkshire home, into a luxury hotel. It was here that Christine Keeler, whose portrait Willie found hanging in the loo, seduced John Profumo and brought down the MacMillan government.


In The Archictect's Tale Willie describes the beautiful Pat Kluge and her billionnaire husband who, on Prince Charles's personal recommendation, invited him to the States to design a playhouse for their young son. He is wined and dined in the Kluges' Virginian mansion and introduced to America's richest and most powerful people.


Enchanted and overwhelmed, Willie sketches a miniature, fairytale Bavarian castle for which even John Kluge's bottomless pockets will not find money - and is dropped like a stone.


High society or not, after 45 years in practice Willie remains the geometry-mad schoolboy who drew his first plans at 16, who measures distances in shoe leather and designs his beautiful building with a soft pencil and a notepad. Buildings are his children he says (though he has three of his own and is a grandfather to several), and he is hugely indebted to the skills and traditions that create them.


"Kings or princes, I'm more in awe of a mason cutting a stone - I've tried carving and believe me, it's hard!"


Characteristically for a man who enjoys good company, Willie says his architecture is about people as much as materials and how empathy and understanding are the key to a successful commission. Thus, when Lady Soames invited him to join her 'ordinary family' at Blenheim to redesign the family plot in the little churchyard at Bladon, tact and discretion - and a shared vision - won the day. Typically, the devil and the best story are in the detail, and Willie laughs when he describes how the Duke of Marlborough asked for benches to be wooden, not stone, to avoid piles! Local craftsmen create a new memorial for Sir Winston and Clementine and, in a moving ceremony in May 1998, buglers once more sounded the Last Post.


In an age when architects are seen as arrogant, self-important and incompetent, when they have few friends to fight their corner, Willie Bertram it seems, is a man for all seasons. In the Cotswolds villages where numerous homes already bear the discrete Bertram touch, he is as busy as ever, working and reworking the stone and stone slates into beautiful, timeless beauty. Meanwhile in London with a touch of James Bond, he's building a house within a house: turning the inside of an industrial-like shell into an invisible, three-story mansion for a wealthy client.


"You see?" he says, "I'm a set designer at heart, manipulating space and light and having fun along the way."



The Architect's Tale by William Bertram


296pp, illustrated throughout, including 16 pages of colour illustrations.


Published by Redcliffe Press of Bristol at 18.99.


www.redcliffepress.co.uk ISBN 978 1 906593 24 7

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