Amgueddfa Blog: Collections & Research

As humans transport goods all over the planet we also unintentionally transport animals and plants to places that they do not belong. We call these animals and plants non-native or alien species. If conditions are right for the non-native species they can become established and outcompete our own native species for food and habitat. This is when they are called invasive species and could have a negative impact on our native species sharing the same habitat. This is bad news considering all the other pressures on our wildlife.

 

How do they travel such great distances?

Mytilopsis leucophaeta, native to Gulf of Mexico, found in Roath Docks, Cardiff in 1997

One of the major transporters of marine non-native species are the large goods ships that travel from one side of the planet to the other, taking on ballast water in various ports and ejecting the water at their destination. Ballast water aids the huge ships to balance. At ports, as containers are removed from the ship, ballast water is taken on to keep the whole vessel evenly balanced. The problem is that the water in ports often contains tiny floating animals that are the offspring (or larvae) of mussels, crabs, clams and other invertebrates. These larvae get sucked into the ballast tanks and survive onboard until ejected at the destination port, which is sometimes on the other side of the planet. These animals would not normally have reached these far off destinations naturally. 

 

The Manila Clam originally from the western Pacific Ocean  

Aquariums and aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic plants and animals, are another two major contributors towards the invasive non-native species spread. Shellfish farms import juveniles to grow and breed from but these can often escape captivity or have other species attached to them. The Manila clam (Tapes philippinarum) from the Indo-Pacific region was introduced for farming in the south of England in 1989, but has since escaped! Of all mollusc farming in the world, the Manila clam makes up an astounding 25% and this is because the species can grow quickly and reproduce in great numbers. It is also very hardy and has started to spread in the south of England and is breeding with one of our own native species. To learn more about Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) in Wales check out the Wales Biodiversity Partnership INNS pages.

Caribbean Chama sarda - the Cherry Jewelbox - attached to ropes washed ashore in Ireland

A third, less well-known method of transportation of non-native species is by rafting – or attaching to floating items. Numerous bivalves (eg. mussels, cockles, oysters) have crossed the Atlantic Ocean attached to bait buckets, buoys, crates and other sturdy plastic items. They wash ashore usually after particularly violent storms and are then stranded with the rest of the marine litter.  We call these bivalves ‘rafting bivalves’. They attach to their ‘raft’ using byssus threads or cement, depending on the kind of bivalve. Byssus threads are produced by a special gland in the foot of the animal to allow the shell to anchor onto hard surfaces such as rocks. You may have seen this with mussels on our rocky shores. Oysters and other similar bivalves use a special cement to glue themselves onto hard surfaces and so they are also able to attach to the plastic rafts. I am especially interested in learning more about marine bivalve shells that attach to ocean plastics and then wash ashore on our beaches and have started to add them to our Marine Bivalve Shells of the British Isles website.

To find out more about Rafting Bivalves check out next week's blog.

Wooden Objects

We’re sure that you can think of many images surrounding us at the moment, in shops and in the media, associated with the Easter holiday:  colourful chocolate eggs, fluffy chicks and rabbits, white lillies and simnel cakes to name but a few.

But can you guess what the two wooden objects in the images on the right are?

 

Easter Customs

This week I have been listening to recordings in the Sound Archive relating to Easter Customs.  We have oral testimony on a wide variety of traditions:  holding “eisteddfods”; “creu gwely Crist” (creating Christ’s bed); singing Easter carols; cutting hair and trimming the beard on Maundy Thursday in order to look tidy for the Easter weekend; eating fish, “hongian bwnen” and walking to church barefooted on Good Friday; drinking water from a well with brown sugar on the Saturday before Easter; climbing a mountain to see the sun “dancing” at daybreak and wearing new clothes on Easter Sunday; playing “cnapan” (a game of Welsh hurling using a ball of hard wood) on the Sunday following Easter.

 

“Clapio Wyau” (“Egg Clapping”)

But the custom that really caught my attention was the practice of going “egg clapping” on Anglesey.  Going egg clapping before Easter was an extremely popular tradition among children years ago and the images on the right show the wooden egg clappers that the children would carry with them.

According to Elen Parry who was born in Gaerwen in 1895 and recorded by the Museum in 1965:

We would usually have an hour or two off school, maybe a day or two before the school would close so that we could go clapping before Easter.  You would nearly be doing it throughout the week, but there was one special day when the school would let you go clapping for an hour or two.  Nearly everybody would go clapping.  You’re father would have made you what we would call a ”clapper”.  And what was that?  A piece of wood with two more pieces either side so that it would “clap”, and that’s what a “clapper” was.

The children would travel around local farms (or any homestead that kept chickens).  They would knock on the door, shake their clappers and recite a short rhyme similar to this one:

Clap, clap, os gwelwch chi’n dda ga’i wŷ

Clap, clap, please may I have an egg

Geneth fychan (neu fachgen bychan) ar y plwy’

Young girl (or young boy) on the parish

And here’s another version of the rhyme from Huw D. Jones, Gaerwen:

Clep, Clep dau wŷ

Clap, Clap, two eggs

Bachgen bach ar y plwy’

Young boy on the parish

The door would be opened and the occupier would ask “And who do you belong to?”  After the children had answered, they would each receive an egg.  According to Elen Parry:

You would either have a small pitcher, a small can, or a basket with straw or grass on the bottom.  And then everybody would get an egg.  Well, by the time you’d finished, you might have a basket full of eggs.

The inhabitants of the home would usually recognise the children and if a brother or sister was missing, they would place an extra egg in the basket for siblings.  Mary Davies, from Bodorgan, born in 1894 and recorded by the Museum in 1974 recalls:

And if the family in the house knew these small children, knew their siblings, and some were missing, they would also give them an egg for those brothers or sisters.

 

Eggs on the Dresser

Having returned home, the children would give their mother the eggs and she would place them on the dresser.  The eldest child’s egg would be placed on the top shelf, the second eldest’s egg on the second shelf and so on.

With plenty of energy and determination, an impressive haul of eggs could be had.  Joseph Hughes, born in Beaumaris in 1880 and recorded by the Museum in 1959 remembers:

Some would be quite brazen-faced and would have been clapping solidly throughout the week.  They would have a hundred and twenty eggs.  I remember asking my wife’s brother, “Did you go clapping, Wil?”, “Well, yes”, he said.  “How well did you do?”, “Oh, I only got a hundred and fifty”.

 

A Type of Begging?

Even though most people would give the children eggs, some would refuse and answer the door with a disgruntled “Mae’r ieir yn gori” (“The hens are brooding”) or “Dydy’r gath ddim wedi dodwy eto” (“The cat hasn’t laid eggs yet”).  Some parents would also be wary of allowing their children to go clapping, considering it to be a type of begging.  This is what one interviewee had to say:

My father would never be happy for us to go because everybody knew who my father was.  Well, my father never liked the fact that we had been begging at doors, but we would still go

 

Revival

It’s great to see that the tradtion of clapping is now enjoying a revival on Anglesey.  It seems, for one week only, it’s still safe and acceptable in Wales to put all your eggs in one basket.

We invited some Big Pit Miner guides - Barry Stevenson, Richard Phillips and Len Howells - to share their memories of working underground.

These films include photos from the Cornwell Collection, and were originally made for the 'Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions' exhibition, along with this guide to the workings of the headgear:

On 15 March we launch our new LGBTQ+ tours at National Museum Cardiff. The tours have been developed in partnership with Pride Cymru working with self-confessed Museum queerator Dan Vo and an amazing team of volunteers.

You may already have read Norena Shopland's blog about the Ladies of Llangollen, and Young Heritage Leader Jake’s post, Queer Snakes! There are so many more LGBTQ+ stories in our collection – stories that have been hidden in dusty museum closets for too long. Friends, it’s time for us to let them out!

To whet your appetite, here’s a quick glimpse at one of the works you might spot on the tour…

The Mower, by Sir William Hamo Thornycoft

The Mower is a bronze statuette on display in our Victorian Art gallery. It is about half a metre high and shows a topless young farmworker in a hat and navvy boots resting with his arm on his hip, holding a scythe. This sassy pose, known as contrapposto, was inspired by Donatello’s David - a work with its own queer story to tell.

The Mower was made by William Hamo Thornycroft, one of the most famous sculptors in Britain in the nineteenth century, and was given to the Museum in 1928 by Sir William Goscombe John. An earlier, life-size version is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and is said to be the first significant free-standing sculpture showing a manual labourer made in Britain.

Thornycroft became fascinated with manual labourers and the working classes after being introduced to socialist ideas by his wife, Agatha Cox. He wrote ‘Every workman’s face I meet in the street interests me, and I feel sympathy with the hard-handed toilers & not with the lazy do nothing selfish ‘upper-ten.’ In The Mower, he presents the body of a young working-class man as though it's a classical hero or god – a brave move for the time.

Queering the Mower

With the rising interest in queer theory, many art historians have drawn attention to the queer in this sculpture. In an article by Michael Hatt the work is described as homoerotic, which he describes as that ambiguous space between the homosocial and homosexual.

One of the main factors is the artist’s relationship with Edmund Gosse, a writer and critic who helped establish Thornycroft’s reputation in the art world. Gosse was married with children, but his letters to Thornycroft give us a touching insight into their relationship.

He describes times they spent together basking in the sun in meadows and swimming naked in rivers; and they are filled with love poems and giddy declarations of affection. ‘Nature, the clouds, the grass, everything takes on new freshness and brightness now I have you to share the world with,’ he wrote. Gosse was so obsessed with Thornycroft that writer Lytton Strachey famously joked he wasn’t homosexual, but Hamo-sexual.

Gosse and Thornycroft were spending time together when the first inspiration for The Mower hit. They were sailing with a group of friends up the Thames when they spotted a real-life mower on the riverbank, resting. Thornycroft made a quick sketch, and the idea for the sculpture was born. A wax model sketch from 1882 is at the Tate.

The real-life mower they saw was wearing a shirt, but for his sculpture Thornycroft stripped him down. He explained to his wife that he wanted to ‘keep his hat on and carry his shirt’ and that a brace over his shoulder will help ‘take off the nude look’.

Brace or no brace, it’s difficult to hide the fact that this is a celebration of the male body designed for erotic appeal. Thornycroft used an Italian model, Orazio Cervi. Cervi was famous in Victorian Britain for his ‘perfectly proportioned physique’ (art historical speak for a hot bod!)

Later in the century, photographs of The Mower and other artworks were collected and exchanged in secret along with photographs of real life nudes, by a network of men mostly in London – a kind of queer subculture, although it wouldn’t have been understood in those terms back then.

This was dangerous ground. The second half of the nineteenth century saw what has been described as a ‘homosexual panic’, with rising anxieties around gender identity, sexuality and same-sex desire. Fanny and Stella, the artist Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde were among many who were hounded and publicly prosecuted for ‘indecent’ behaviour.

These tensions showed up in the art world too. Many of the artists associated with the Aesthetic and Decadent movements in particular were under scrutiny for producing works that were described as ‘effeminate’, ‘degenerate’ or ‘decadent’. But works like The Mower suggest that art might have provided a safer space for playing out private desires in a public arena at this time.

 

Book your place on our free volunteer-led LGBTQ+ tours here, and keep an eye on our website and social media for future dates!  

 

The current display Imagine a Castle: Paintings from the National Gallery, London offers a great opportunity to see a selection of European Old Master paintings for the first time in Wales alongside Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales’s own collection.

Comparing European and Welsh castles and the history and legends that come with them plays a vital part in defining Welsh cultural identity. Yet the history of castles in Wales is, for some, contentious.

To find out why we need to go back to the thriteenth century. During this time, there were many disputes between Welsh princes and English kings. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (last Prince of Wales) was involved in many disputes with Edward I, who launched a vicious campaign on the Welsh. This resulted in Llywelyn losing his power, land, titles and ultimately his life.

Following this English victory, Edward began the most ambitious castle-building policy ever seen in Europe. His collection of fortresses became known as the infamous ‘iron ring’ and included those at Harlech, Caernarfon and Conwy. They were intended to intimidate the Welsh and subdue uprisings. Along with these English-built fortresses came new towns that were intentionally populated with English settlers. Welsh people were forbidden to trade or sometimes even enter into the towns’ walls. Yet, while these castles remind us of English power over the Welsh, the strength of their construction underlines that Edward was conscious of the formidable and ever-present threat of Welsh resistance.

To acknowledge the histories of castles in Wales, we have included works from two Welsh artists, the ‘father of British landscape painting’, Richard Wilson, whose works offer an eighteenth-century perspective, and contemporary artist Peter Finnemore.

Wilson’s work reflects his travels to Italy and the influence of the hugely important French landscape painter, Claude Lorrain, whose work can also be seen in this exhibition. Wilson painted many Welsh landscapes and is recognised as changing the face of British landscape painting. While his work encouraged artists to come to Wales, many of his later Welsh compositions, such as Caernarfon Castle (Edward’s main seat in Wales) remind us more of the warmer climates of Italy. As such, they also point to his inspirations outside of Wales.

On the other hand, Finnemore’s photographic works, Lesson 56 – Wales and Ancient Ruler Worship (made especially for this display), look at castles in Wales from a more recent Welsh perspective. Finnemore’s work revolves around his Welsh-speaking grandmother’s school textbooks that were written from an English standpoint. Her childhood drawings in these books humorously undermine the didactic English text. Ancient Ruler Worship depicts Castell Carreg Cennen and looks back to World War II. It is taken from a still in Humphry Jennings’s propaganda film, Silent Village, that portrayed this castle as a site of Welsh resistance during an imagined Nazi invasion. The film demonstrated solidarity with Lidice, a mining village in the Czech Republic that was totally destroyed by the Nazis.

Whatever we may feel about their history, many of Edward’s Welsh castles are now designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Edward left a unique and internationally important legacy of medieval military architecture that can only be seen in Wales.