Amgueddfa Blog: Art

It’s usually during LGBT History Month in February that people start producing articles and events around sexual orientation and gender identity heritage. But history should not be restricted to just one month and now as Pride Cymru takes place in Cardiff, it’s a good time to consider LGBT history.

A Story on a Plate

Take for example a plate in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales, which features an image of two women on horseback set within a landscape. It is just one in thousands of blue and white transfer printed wares so popular in the 19th century and beyond. However this picture is intriguing.

Plate, Glamorgan Pottery, c. 1813-1839

It is called “Ladies of Llangollen” inspired by the story of two women, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby.

When Eleanor and Sarah developed a passion for each other in their native Ireland their families, alarmed by this same-sex attraction, tried to ban them from seeing each other. However, determined to be together, they made an escape in the dead of night but were quickly captured. Persistently Eleanor and Sarah fought for the right to be together until eventually they won and their families allowed them to leave.

They made their way to Wales and eventually set up home in a small cottage in Llangollen where they were to live together for over 50 years.

Growing Fame

Their fame quickly grew and were visited by and corresponded with all manner of people such as Shelley, Byron, Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, Josiah Wedgewood and Caroline Lamb. Their deaths in 1829 and 1831, respectively, did not end the fascination with this couple and throughout the following centuries their fame has endured - making them probably the most famous lesbian couple in history.

During their lifetimes, the Ladies were adamant they wanted no portraits done.

However when Lady Parker visited in 1829 she got her mother to distract Eleanor and Sarah whilst she made quick sketches of their faces under the table. Eleanor was now quite blind so Lady Parker was able to sketch her full face whilst Sarah is in profile. After the couple’s deaths she worked the faces up into full body poses set within their library and sold copies of the picture to raise money for charity.

Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, worked from a clandestine sketch made at their Llangollen home. (c) Norena Shopland
Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, worked from a clandestine sketch made at their Llangollen home.

A Stolen Portrait

Around 1830 James Henry Lynch pirated the picture and produced what was to become the most enduring image of Eleanor and Sarah. It was mass produced and featured on a large range of tourist souvenirs, postcards and the covers of many books.

The 'Lynch' portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, pirated from the earlier 'Library' portrait and distributed on a mass scale. (c) Norena Shopland
The 'Lynch' portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, pirated from the earlier 'Library' portrait and distributed on a mass scale.

The picture Lynch produced was of the two women standing outside dressed in riding habits which both women were known to favour. And it appears at the tail end of a period of public fascination with Eleanor and Sarah’s lives.

The story of the Ladies had reached a wide audience by the late 18th-early 19th century and numerous accounts of their lives were being produced. Even William Wordsworth wrote a poem in 1824 after visiting them. Therefore interest was high when the pottery designs started appearing.

Glamorgan Pottery and the History of the 'Llangollen' plate

The first design shows the women on horseback talking to a man carrying a scythe over his shoulder with some cattle, the town of Llangollen, the River Dee and a highly imaginative Castell Dinas Bran in the background.

'Ladies of Llangollen' blue pattern plate marked with 'BBI' stamp

The earliest date for the design is via a base stamp ‘BB&I’. This refers to Baker, Bevin and Irwin of Glamorgan Pottery and was used c. 1815-25. It went on to become one of Glamorgan Pottery’s most famous pieces and means that the plate was produced during the lifetime of both Eleanor and Sarah. The two women, both avid diary keepers, made no comment so we don’t know if they knew of the plates or if they approved of being fictionalised.

Glamorgan pottery was then taken over by Swansea businessman Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn in 1838 and he continued to produce the design using the Glamorgan, Swansea and Cambrian stamps until around 1840. However it is likely that he was already using the same design at the Cambrian Pottery from around 1825, as there was rivalry between the two potteries and they did use some of the same designs.[1]

The fascinating link here is that the most famous member of Lewis’ family was Amy Dillwyn. Amy, a business woman, ran her father’s spelter works after his death, was also a well-known novelist.

She too was in a same sex relationship. It would be nice to have a flight of fancy and think that Amy, having seen the Glamorgan plate, had some influence in getting her brother to produce it at the Cambrian Pottery but there is no evidence of her involvement.

Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland
Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland

Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland
Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland

It is not clear whether it was the Glamorgan pottery design which was produced first or another by William Adams of Stoke. This design, also called Ladies of Llangollen, features the two women, again in riding habits, standing looking down at a man who appears to be showing them a large fish. Behind them stand their horses whilst in the distance there are two men in a boat, one punting along, a bridge and on the bank a rustic cottage. The mountain Cadair Berwyn is in the centre.

Adams had produced a pottery series called ‘Native’ in the 1820s and this design was part of that series. Not long after F. and R. Pratt of Fenton, Staffordshire acquired the plates from Adams and reproduced the series between 1880 and 1920 renaming it ‘Pratt’s Native Scenery.’ When Cauldon took over Pratt’s in the 1920s they continued using the design up to c1930s.

There continues to be enormous interest in Eleanor and Sarah - particularly when discussing how we define lesbian relationships from the past. However despite the mass of interest these fictionalised blue and white images are hardly ever mentioned. But at least we know that Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales have this piece in their LGBT collection.

 

NORENA SHOPLAND

Author of Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales to be published by Seren Books, 17th October 2017

Website: http://www.rainbowdragon.org

 

[1] Thanks to Andrew Renton, Keeper of Art,  Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales for clarifying this

 

I am an artist, studying for an MA degree in contemporary design craft, specifically the sculptural potential of prosthetic limbs. My visit to the Mollusca collection occurred after I came across a blog about the interior structure of shells on the museum website, and I made the connection between the interior structure of shells and how 3-D printers work and correct form. On the blog there was a contact number for the Curator of Mollusca, so I contacted Harriet Wood, not knowing what to expect in response.

Photograph of cross-section of 3D printed cube, showing internal supporting structure
Internal structure of 3D printed object © Matthew Day 2017

Looking inside shells - shell sections

When I explained my work on prosthetics to Harriet, and the connections with the interior structure of shells and 3-D printing she seemed very excited and invited me to come down, and also offered to introduce me to the person who runs a photography lab who uses 3-D printing and scanning for the museum.

Going Behind the Scenes

I could not have imagined it could have gone as well as it did. I met Harriet at the information desk of the museum and we then headed behind-the-scenes, where the collection is kept. Walking around the museum to get out back was really nice and modern. It reminded me of an academic journal I read not long before my visit, from the International Journal of the Inclusive Museum: ‘How Digital Artist Engagement Can Function as an Open Innovation Model to Facilitate Audience Encounters with Museum Collections’ in the  by Sarah Younan and Haitham Eid. 

photo showing a large cabinet full of specimen drawers
Some of the archives at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

Behind the scenes at the museum was quite a special environment - generally the general public are not allowed access unless arranged. It was a great privilege to be walking through rooms and rooms full of shells that people over the years have discovered and appreciated for their beauty. What was really fascinating was how the shells had been cut so perfectly. The cut shells looked almost as if this was their natural state – the way they were cut blended in so well with the form of the shell. This is what I wanted to see.

Black and white photograph showing a selection of shell sections
Shell sections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

I was speechless when I saw these collections of shells – especially seeing that part we’re not supposed to see. It was really exciting to see interior structure revealed by the cut, as it added a whole new value to the shells. They really reminded me of work by the the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose work I really admire.

black and white photograph showing a single conical shell, cut to show its internal spiral structure
© Matthew Day 2017

We see shells all the time on beaches and they just fascinate me, especially the broken ones which reveal part of the interior. It’s a very imperfect break, very different to the quality of the shell which has been sliced purposely to reveal what is inside. A natural object sculpted by man: I feel that this is what I am drawn to.

3D Scanning: Art and Science

Before examining the shells myself, Harriet offered to take me down to see Jim Turner, where we ended up spending most of my visit because what he did was just very interesting. Jim works in a lab which uses a photography process called “z-Stacking” (or extended depth of field – EDF) which is used extensively in macro photography and photo microscopy.

Jim is also creating an archive of 3D scanned objects for the museum website, where people can interact with scanned objects using VR headsets - bringing a whole new experience to the museum.

I understood what he was doing immediately from my own work. He explained the process and I understood the technicalities. It was a real pleasure to speak to someone who is using 3-D scanning in a different way to me. Jim is using 3D scanning in a way that was described within academic texts I had read - and even though he wasn’t doing anything creative with shells, he was still putting the objects into a context where people could interact with them using digital technology such as VR headsets, and on the web via sketchfab.

'Like being on a beach...'

When we got back to the Mollusca Collection I was able to take my own time and was under no pressure - so I got to have a good look and explored the shells. It was like being on a beach spending hours of exploring all wonderful natural objects.

black and white photograph showing a single conical shell, cut to show its internal spiral structure
© Matthew Day 2017

This visit had an amazing impact on my MA project - and I cannot thank Harriet and Jim enough for their time. This visit also gave me the confidence to approach other museums, such as Worcester Medical Museum, where I worked with a prosthetic socket from their collection. I 3D scanned the socket and, with the inspiration from Harriet’s collection of Mollusca, I created a selection of Sculptural Prosthetic sockets, drawing inspiration from the internal structures of shells, and illustrating sections of the shells that I was most drawn to. 

'A sculpture in its own right': my collection of sculptural prosthetics

Side by side photographs showing a sculptural prosthetic sock and a shell section. The prosthetic is shaped to emulate the internal structure of the shell.
Prototype conceptual prosthetic sock sculpture inspired by National Museum Cardiff's Mollusca collection © Matthew Day 2017

photo showing a black sculptural prosthetic socket with a yellow decoration
Prototype prosthetic sock sculpture inspired by National Museum Cardiff's Mollusca collection © Matthew Day 2017
photo showing a grey sculptural prosthetic socket with a yellow decoration
3D printed, fabric dyed prosthetic sculptural socket, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

photograph showing prosthetic socket with a large yellow decoration shaped like a round shell
3D printed, fabric dyed prosthetic sculptural socket, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

 

What’s next?

My MA is now reaching a climax, and I am starting the final major project module after the summer, which I am very excited about.

For the final part of my studies, I want to take all that I have explored and incorporated into my research to date, and use it to create a concept prosthetic limb which would be wearable, but also a sculpture in its own right – work which is now on track.

3D illustration of a design for a prosthetic leg, with decorations inspired by the internal structure of shells
Concept design of prosthetic sculptural leg, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

I aim to create a really spectacular prosthetic limb using 3D printing, further incorporating the shell-inspired aesthetics you see in this blog.

More of my work can be found on my website: Matthew Day Sculpture

 

Whether you love L. S. Lowry, Lucian Freud or Richard Long, you know that when you visit Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales you can always see outstanding examples of international modern and contemporary art. What you might not know is that a significant part of that collection is here thanks to The Derek Williams Trust, which lends Amgueddfa Cymru over 260 of its most important works of twentieth and twenty-first century art.

This week sees the launch of The Derek Williams Trust website, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in exploring this collection. The site will enable you to search for art works and artists, and discover more about the Trust and its work with Amgueddfa Cymru.

Derek Williams was a Cardiff-based chartered surveyor and art lover, who had a particular interest in mid-twentieth century British art. He collected a large number of works by John Piper and Ceri Richards, which were supported with works by major figures such as Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, David Jones, Ivon Hitchens and Josef Herman. Following Williams’ death in 1984, his collection and the residue of his estate were left in trust. Since that time, The Derek Williams Trust has undertaken the care, enhancement and public display of the collection, and in turn lends the collection to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. The generous support of Trust has transformed the Museum’s collection of twentieth century art and parallels the great bequests of French Impressionist art made by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies a generation earlier.

Since 1992, The Derek Williams Trust has also been working with Amgueddfa Cymru to build its own collection of modern and contemporary art, and recent purchases include work by Howard Hodgkin, George Shaw, Anthony Caro and Clare Woods. The Trust also provides financial support for Museum purchases, and funds the biennial Artes Mundi Derek Williams Trust Purchase Award – recent recipients include Tanja Bruguera, Ragnar Kjartansson and Bedwyr Williams.

For the latest news from The Derek Williams Trust collection, why not follow us on Instagram and Twitter?

 

Retired gentleman at the MG Car owners Ball 1967 Copyright David Hurn Magnum Photos
Retired gentleman at the MG Car owners Ball, 1967. G.B. SCOTLAND, Edinburgh. © David Hurn/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales is the recipient of an exceptional gift from Magnum photographer David Hurn. Of Welsh descent, Hurn lives and works in Wales and is one of Britain’s most influential documentary photographers. Now, his home country will benefit from his collection of photographs.

David Hurn’s gift is made up of two collections: approximately 1500 of his own photographs that span his sixty-year career as a documentary photographer; and approximately 700 photographs from his private collection which he has compiled throughout the course of his career. Speaking of his gift, Hurn notes, 

“My earliest visual/cultural memories are visiting the museum when I must have been four or five. I remember the naughty statue - Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ - and cases full of stuff that people had donated. Well now I have the chance to repay, something of mine will be there forever, I feel very privileged.”

A definitive edit of a life's work

Over the last two years, Hurn has been selecting photographs from his archive to create a definitive edit of his life’s work.

The collection of approximately 1500 new prints includes work made in Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, Arizona, California and New York. It includes some of Hurn’s most celebrated photographs, such as Queen Charlotte’s BallBarbarella and Grosvenor Square.

However, it is his carefully observed photographs of his home country of Wales that are the focus of the collection. Following his generous gift, National Museum Wales is now the institution with the largest holdings of Hurn’s work worldwide.

The Promenade at Tenby 1974 Copyright David Hurn Magnum Photos
G.B. WALES. Tenby. The promenade at the elegant seaside town of Tenby, South Wales. 1974 © David Hurn/MAGNUM PHOTOS

A Collection of Swaps

In addition to his own photographs, the Museum is also acquiring approximately 700 photographs from Hurn’s private collection, which he has amassed over the past sixty years.

Throughout the course of his career, Hurn has swapped photographs with fellow photographers, including many of his Magnum colleagues.

In doing so, he has assembled a significant and diverse collection, which includes leading 20th and 21st century photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Sergio Larrain, Bill Brandt, Martine Franck, Bruce Davidson and Martin Parr, through to emerging photographers such as Bieke Depoorter, Clementine Schneidermann and Diana Markosian.

A selection of works from Hurn’s private collection will be on display for the first time at National Museum Cardiff from 30th September 2017, in Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection of Photography, an exhibition that launches the Museum’s new gallery dedicated to photography. 

Photography Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

National Museum Wales’ existing photography collections are uniquely inter-disciplinary and span subjects including Art, Social and Industrial History and the Natural Sciences.

Importantly it includes some of the earliest photographs taken in Wales by pioneering photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn and his family. The addition of Hurn’s exceptional donation will transform the Museum’s photography collections and raise the profile of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales as an important centre for photography in the UK. 

Sun City Outdoor group fitness in Sun City Arizona 1980 Copyright David Hurn Magnum Photos
USA. Arizona. Sun City. Outdoor group fitness early in the morning in the retirement Sun City. Ages range from 60 to a 94 year old who had run a 50 secs hundred meters in the Senior Olympics. The sense of fun and community was very infectious. 1980 © David Hurn/MAGNUM PHOTOS

The exhibition at National Museum Cardiff follows an earlier presentation of Hurn’s collection at Photo London, the international photography event held annually at Somerset House in London. Curated by Martin Parr and David Hurn, the Photo London exhibition, David Hurn’s Swaps marks the 70th anniversary of Magnum Photos.

 

Nothing lasts forever, not even in your favourite museum. The job of the conservator is to preserve the national collection but decay is all around us. Sometimes it feels like being a surgeon on an intensive care unit. Fortunately we do have a lot of science and technology to help us.

I have recently written about how we refurbished a collection store because corrosive gases being emitted from wooden cupboards caused some metal objects to show early signs of decay. In this blog I want to walk you through the science and analysis behind this project.

Iron rusts, every kid knows that. Leave a nail out in the garden and within weeks, days perhaps, you will notice it develops a lovely orange colour; given enough time, some moisture and oxygen it will eventually become flaky, friable and disintegrate. What happens when iron rusts? Iron atoms react with oxygen and water molecules, leading to oxidation of iron. The result are hydrated iron oxides, a small family of minerals commonly called rust.

Rusting iron has long been a bane of humanity. The Forth Bridge has to be repainted over and over again because it didn’t it would rust and collapse into the Firth below. The same is true of our own Menai Suspension Bridge here in Wales. Wales was the place for the invention of a rust-proofing process for household products made of iron. In the late 17th Century, Thomas Allgood of Pontypool developed a coating for iron involving the use of an oil varnish and heat. This process was called ‘japanning’, as a European imitation of Asian lacquerwork. Pontypool Museum has lots of information about these old local industries on its website so please visit there if you would like to know more.

National Museum in Cardiff has a collection of Welsh japanned ware which was largely acquired during the early years of the National Museum. Many of these objects do not consist of iron alone: lead, tin, copper and zinc all feature in varying proportions in different parts of some of the objects. Complicated parts, such as handles and bases, were parts made from softer metals or alloys. We can find out what materials an object is made of using a completely non-invasive technology called X-ray Fluorescence (XRF). XRF directs X-rays towards an object and analyses the X-rays that bounce back. As different elements have their own, unique X-ray fluorescence which the instrument can identify and even use to quantify the elemental composition of objects without having to take a physical sample.

The problem for the museum conservator is that many of these metals, too, corrode under certain circumstances. In the case of the objects which were subject to the previous blog the corrosion of parts with a high lead component was accelerated by the high organic acid concentration within the old storage cupboards. A number of analytical tests exist for identifying and quantifying organic acids in air; we used small discs with an absorbent material that were exposed to the air in the store (both inside and outside of the cabinets) and later analysed in the lab. The results of this test showed that the concentration of acetic acid was 623µg/m3 (250ppb) inside the cabinets and 19µg/m3 (8ppb) in the store, and the concentration of formic acid 304µg/m3 (159ppb) inside the cabinets and 10µg/m3 (5ppb) in the store.

We know that both acetic and formic acids are emitted by wood, and both acids can react with various metals to produce, in some cases, some impressive corrosion products. Clearly, the concentrations of both acids were higher inside the storage furniture than in the store itself, giving us a massive clue that the problem was caused by the cabinets and not air pollution entering the store through the air conditioning system. The fresh air supply into the store, on the other hand, kept the concentration of pollutants low in the store itself.

Corrosion and decay comes in many forms, and we also use other technologies to help us identify corrosion products. Of these more in a future blog. In the meantime we are continuing to eliminate the sources of corrosive substances from the museum to help preserve the national collection.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.