Amgueddfa Blog: Collections & Research

A large part of our work in the Art Department at Amgueddfa Cymru is researching and working on new acquisitions for the collection. Even with the Museum closed for much of the last 18 months, activity has continued behind the scenes on developing our collections.

With the Museum reopening, we thought we would put together a small group of these new acquisitions in Gallery 11 at National Museum Cardiff that we hope you will enjoy. There is an eclectic mix of work; from Welsh artists, artists working in Wales and some leading national and international figures of modern and contemporary art.

New acquisitions

An individual acquisition can sometimes take months or even years to complete, with a great deal of work going into research and fundraising. We are incredibly grateful to artists and individuals who often donate work to us, and also to Trusts and Foundations who help us to buy pieces – and in particular the Derek Williams Trust. So, while some of the new works that are on display in have arrived at the Museum over the past few months, many have been worked on by curators for 2-3 years in some cases.

Also, what is currently on show is actually a small fraction of what has been collected over the last year or two. The development of the Art Collection has been an ongoing, century long project – one that never stops and is key to the Amgueddfa Cymru collections more generally remaining relevant and dynamic. That said, there is a great deal more to do in terms of what our collection says about Wales in the 21st century as the National Collection of today is also an important artistic and historic resource for future generations.

Below is some information on each of the new works on display. But what better way to appreciate them than by coming to the Museum and seeing them in person!

The organic and the systemic

A black and brown, curved vase

Magdalene Odundo, Asymmetric I, 2016, terracotta
Purchased with support from Art Fund and the Derek Williams Trust
© Magdalene Odundo

Magdalene Odundo’s impressive terracotta vessel Asymmetric I has a strong anthropomorphic character. It seems to allude to a pregnant female body and promise new life. Odundo draws on African traditions to emphasise the power of pots to heal.

In contrast to Odundo’s organic making style, David Saunders, in works like Black Transformation (1973-74, oil on canvas), relies on logical and mathematical processes to produce a systematic method of creating work.

 

Shaped by life experiences

A mixed media piece of art mounted on the wall

Gareth Griffith, Bertorelli, 2019, mixed media
© Gareth Griffith

A strong theme of this display is the way that artists draw on their own experiences, either their own life histories or in response to the landscapes and histories of Wales. Gareth Griffith’s Bertorelli recalls his childhood memory of a double portrait in the Bertorelli ice cream parlour in Caernarfon. He later purchased the portrait and reworked it into this piece.

 

 

Exploring the landscape

Mary Lloyd Jones
Pwerdy Ceunant (2019)

Mary Lloyd Jones’s abstract paintings explore the landscape as a place of memory, culture, and identity. Ysgwrn (2018) is named after the farm where poet Hedd Wyn (1887-1917) grew up prior to being killed in the First World War, while the place names and calligraphic signs in Pwerdy Ceunant (2019) allude to Coelbren y Beirdd, the alphabet that Iolo Morganwg invented and claimed was that of the ancient bards.

 

 

Urban and industrial Wales

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Preparation Plants, 1966-1974 (gelatin silver prints)

Urban and industrial Wales are an equal source of artistic inspiration. In Winter Night with Angharad no.7 (2006, oil and plaster on board), Roger Cecil (born into a mining family from Abertillery) draws parallels between the landscape and the human body. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Preparation Plants, 1966-1974 (gelatin silver prints) is one of their typologies, a grid of nine photographs of a single type of industrial structure that was once a familiar feature of the industrial ecosystem of the south Wales Valleys.

André Stitt’s Municipal Wall Relief for a Housing Complex in a Parallel Universe (2015-16; oil, acrylic and enamel on wood panels) also looks back to what now seems a bygone age, capturing the modernist optimism of post-war architecture and town-planning.

 

Plan your visit

These artworks are now on display for the first time in the art galleries in National Museum Cardiff. Access to the museum is free, but you will need to pre-book a free ticket in advance. Please see our Plan Your Visit page for more information.

 

With thanks

Amgueddfa Cymru is grateful to Mary Lloyd Jones, David Saunders, the estate of Roger Cecil, Art Fund, the Derek Williams Trust and the Henry Moore Foundation for their generosity in making these acquisitions possible.

Amgueddfa Cymru is home to almost 1,400 paintings and drawings by Augustus John (1878-1961). A prolific portraitist, John painted many notable figures such as the poet and writer Dylan Thomas and the musician Guilhermina Suggia. He also made frequent sketches – in both pencil and oil paint – of unnamed people he encountered in everyday life. One such work in our collection has recently had its sitter identified thanks to the crowd-sourced resource Art Detective, where art lovers and experts can discuss artworks in public UK collections.

The work in question depicts a distinctive looking woman with cropped hair and a full fringe, sporting an inquisitive expression on her face. While the model’s dress and lower body is loosely sketched out, her face is richly detailed, suggesting that she was known to the artist.

A discussion about this painting was launched on Art Detective after Dr. Margot Schwass wrote in to share her research into Greville Texidor (1902-1964) and her belief that this is the “lost” Augustus John portrait of the author and world traveler. Schwass comments that: “When I chanced across an image of the portrait in the Amgueddfa Cymru collection, I knew straight away that it was Greville”. This prompted a lively and well-researched discussion among other Art Detective users, leading to our curatorial team being utterly convinced that this is in fact a portrait of Texidor, who, it was uncovered, worked as John’s secretary in the early 1920s.

We would like to thank Dr. Schwass for contributing her research and helping us learn more about this work in our collection. Her 2019 book All the Juicy Pastures is the first to tell the story of Texidor's extraordinary life.

You can read more about Art UK’s Art Detective Network here.

The next steps in a Professional Training Year

It’s been a little while since my last blog post and since then there has been a lot of exciting things happening! The scientific paper I have been working on that describes a new species of marine shovelhead worm (Magelonidae) with my training year supervisor Katie Mortimer-Jones and American colleague James Blake is finished and has been submitted for publication in a scientific journal. The opportunity to become a published author is not something I expected coming into this placement and I cannot believe how lucky I am to soon have a published paper while I am still an undergraduate.

There are thousands of scientific journals out there, all specialising in different areas. Ours will be going in the capstone edition of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal which covers systematics in biological sciences, so perfect for our paper. Every journal has its own specifications to abide by in order to be published in them. These rules cover everything from the way you cite and reference other papers, how headings and subheadings are set out, the font style and size, and how large images should be. A significant part of writing a paper that many people might not consider is ensuring you follow the specifications of the journal. It’s very easy to forget or just write in the style you always have!

Once you have checked and doubled checked your paper and have submitted  to the journal you wish to be published in, the process of peer reviewing begins. This is where your paper is given to other scientists, typically 2 or 3, that are specialists in the field. These peer-reviewers read through your paper and determine if what you have written has good, meaningful science in it and is notable enough to be published. They also act as extra proof-readers, finding mistakes you may have missed and suggesting altered phrasing to make things easier to understand.

I must admit it is a little nerve wracking to know that peer reviewers have the option to reject all your hard work if they don’t think it is good enough. However, the two reviewers have been nothing but kind and exceptionally helpful. They have both accepted our paper for publication. Having fresh sets of eyes look at your work is always better at finding mistakes than just reading it over and over again, especially if those eyes are specialists in the field that you are writing in.

As you would expect, the process of peer-reviewing takes some time. So, while we have been waiting for the reviews to come back, I have already made great progress on starting a second scientific paper based around marine shovelhead worms with my supervisor. While the story of the paper isn’t far along enough yet to talk about here, I can talk about the fantastic opportunity I had to visit the Natural History Museum, London!

We are currently investigating a potentially new European species of shovelhead worm which is similar to a UK species described by an Amgueddfa Cymru scientist and German colleagues. Most of the type specimens of the latter species are held at the Natural History Museum in London. Type material is scientifically priceless, they are the individual specimens from which a new species is first described and given a scientific name. Therefore, they are the first port of call, if we want to determine if our specimens are a new species or not.

The volume of material that the London Natural History Museum possesses of the species we are interested in is very large and we had no idea what we wanted to loan from them. So, in order to make sure we requested the most useful specimens for our paper, we travelled to London to look through all of the specimens there. We were kindly showed around the facilities by one of the museum’s curators and allowed to make use of one of the labs in order to view all of the specimens. The trip was certainly worth it. We took a lot of notes and found out some very interesting things, but most importantly we had a clear idea of the specific specimens that we wanted to borrow to take photos of and analyse closer back in Cardiff. 

Overall, I can say with confidence that the long drive was certainly more than worth it! I’m very excited to continue with this new paper and even more excited to soon be able to share the results of our first completed and published paper, watch this space…

Thank you once again to both National Museum Cardiff and Natural History Museum, London for making this trip possible.

As part of our Swansea PRIDE Celebrations this year, we'll be delving into the fascinating history of the novelist and successful industrialist, Amy Dillwyn, and presenting a performance piece about her life on 16th July. Here's Prof. Kirsti Bohata of Swansea University to tell us more about her. To find out more about this and all our Swansea PRIDE events, visit museum.wales

Amy Dillwyn was a pioneer. That was, in fact, her nickname amongst friends: ‘The Pioneer’. A writer, feminist campaigner and successful industrialist (a very rare thing for a woman in the 1890s) she made the most of her public platform to advocate for women’s rights.  Through her writing and her public persona she showed women could be resilient, adventurous and clever.  She rejected feminine norms, eschewing any interest in the restrictive frills of women’s fashion (except for casting an appreciative eye over the female form). Instead she cultivated a genderqueer identity (in her diaries she once wondered if she might be ‘half a man’) and her Trilby hat, thick boots, practical skirt and her ‘man’s cigar’ became iconic symbols of her claim to autonomy.

Portrait of Amy Dillwyn. Image courtesy of the Morris family.

Though she described herself as a ‘man of business’, and held prominent public roles including Chairman of the Hospital Board, she found her entrance to centres of economic power (like the Swansea Harbour Trust) barred by those who objected to her gender and, one suspects, those who had been on the receiving end of her plain-speaking.  She did not suffer fools. Calling out hypocrisy, inefficiency and incompetence where she found it amongst the all-male committees on which she served won her respect in some quarters but inevitably made enemies in others. She was ousted from the Hospital Board just as she had raised the money for a new convalescent hospital, a debacle  given blow by blow coverage over several issues in the press[i].

As a feminist campaigner, she wasn’t only interested in gaining the vote for herself – though she gave generously to the militant Women’s Freedom League and became president of Swansea’s branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – she spoke up for fair pay and conditions for working-class women.  In March 1911 she shared a platform with trade unionists Mary MacArthur (1880-1921) and Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), who later became a Labour MP, in protest against ‘sweated labour’. To an audience of striking dressmakers and the general public, Dillwyn argued that ‘Employers have no right to ... grind [poor people] down to take unfair wages or to make them accept unfair conditions of labour’ and called on Swansea to boycott the department store, Ben Evans. The campaign (which exposed illegal as well as unethical practices) was discussed in the House of Commons.

Trailblazer though she was as an industrialist and an iconoclastic woman who refused to have her behaviour (or dress) dictated by Victorian convention, Dillwyn’s most enduring legacy is her fiction and its importance to lesbian literary history.  Vigorous, feminist and bearing frequent touches of her dry humour, Dillwyn’s novels satirise the hypocrisy of her own class and she writes about social injustice from the perspective of the labouring classes.  Her abiding theme, however, is same-sex love and desire.  Sometimes this is overt: in A Burglary (1883) and Jill (1884) a young woman develops a ‘strange fascination’ and attraction to a woman just a little bit older (and richer).  Sometimes her plots are more coded, often involving disguise or cross-dressing: in The Rebecca Rioter she has a working-class man (based partly on Dillwyn herself[ii]) fall in love with an upper-class woman (while also fancying another man!) which suggests all sorts of queer, trans and bi-sexual readings.[iii] 

Olive Talbot with her father C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle. From NMGW collection

The recurring subject or women loving women, and her interest in unrequited love between all sorts of people, can be traced to Dillwyn’s own life and love.  Aged 15, Amy Dillwyn fell in love with the 17-year old Olive Talbot (1843-1894), daughter of local millionaire, C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle.  Amy and Olive were close friends, exchanged gifts, and stayed together in various houses and resorts. Though Amy laments that her ‘romantic… passionate… foolish’ love for Olive was met only with ‘ordinary’ affection, by 1872 Dillwyn referred to Olive in her diaries as ‘my wife’.  Olive remained the centre of Amy’s emotional and erotic world for at least the next 15 years (as detailed in her unique diaries which unfortunately stop in 1875 when Dillwyn underwent an operation) and probably much longer if the evidence of her novels (published during the 1880s) is taken into account. 

Though we don’t know exactly how their relationship progressed or ended – Olive spent the last years of her short life in London while Dillwyn was a semi-invalid in Swansea – the legacy of Dillwyn’s love and creative exploration of same-sex desire makes a remarkable contribution to queer Victorian literature. Her novels,[iv] along with her unusually frank diaries (held at Swansea University and currently being edited for publication), offer a compelling insight into queer life in nineteenth-century Wales. 

 

For more on Amy Dillwyn visit the Dictionary of Welsh Biography: https://biography.wales/article/s12-DILL-AMY-1845

Photographs of Olive Talbot are included in a collection of photographs by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, that are part of the National Museum of Wales' collection. Mark Etheridge, NMGW Curator: Industry and Transport provides an introduction to the collection here: John Dillwyn Llewelyn — Welsh Pioneer Photographer | National Museum Wales

You may access this and other photographic collections in our care here: Photographic Collections | National Museum Wales

 

Remote interviewing for Refugee Wales project

Remote interviewing for Refugee Wales project

 

لو  كنتُ في سجن حقيقي.. وكان هناك خمسون سجين سيكون عندي مالايقل عن خمسة أصدقاء… ولكن أنظري الى حالتي هنا… لايوجد أحد حولي…

If I was in a real prison… say there are fifty prisoners in one room, you would at least make friends with five of them… But here, look at my situation. There is no one around.

Salih, Cardiff, 2020

Short quote from Salih, a Syrian refugee in Cardiff. Copyright: Cardiff University/Amgueddfa Cymru


Towards the end of 2019, I began working as a Research Associate at the AHRC funded project “Refugee Wales: The Aftermath of Violence”. The project is a partnership between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. Its aim is to record the stories of refugees in Wales, inform Welsh government of what we’ve learnt from them, and archive them as part of the national collections. My role is to record interviews with Syrian refugees who have settled in Wales since 2011.

I am an Arabic-speaking Iraqi and new to Wales myself, so my first challenge was finding willing participants from the Syrian community. Once I had been introduced via a gatekeeper, I started meeting potential participants to gain their trust and confidence and to explain the project further. Establishing a relationship of trust with people whose lives have been in turmoil is not straightforward. My days were ebbing and flowing between positive and negative responses, encouraging and disappointing reactions, scheduling and rescheduling of appointments, rejections and last-minute cancellations. I succeeded in completing my first interviews in February 2020 and had others planned. Then came the COVID-19 lockdown on 23rd March. 

When it became obvious that this situation would last some time, we decided reluctantly to experiment with remote interviewing. One of our team, Beth Thomas, is an OHS trainer who advised us, after discussion with her colleagues, on the options available. Our choice of method was decided on the following principle: that it should be as simple and secure as possible for the interviewees. We used a mobile phone connected to one channel of a Zoom H5 recorder, with the other channel recording the interviewer via a clip-on mike.

It seemed straightforward. Nevertheless, I struggled with the number of wired connections. I experimented with family and friends.  I wondered what kind of interview it would be if I was unable to see my participants. I also wondered how my interviewees would feel about not seeing me. How could I expect the participants to be at ease telling their life stories to someone they are unable to see?

The other option was to connect the Zoom H5 in the same way to the audio output of a computer, to record the audio only of a Zoom video interview. This made more sense to me as it would enable me and the interviewees to see one another. However, most of my participants were unhappy with this option because they either didn’t have a computer, had no access to Zoom, or they had problems with WiFi. 

It quickly became clear that almost all my participants were happier using WhatsApp on their smartphones, as this was how they normally connected with their families overseas. WhatsApp allowed us to conduct video interviews while recording audio locally on the Zoom H5, using the same setup as before. The only drawback was bandwidth and WiFi reception. I had some remote WhatsApp interviews which went well, with reasonable sound quality, and a disastrous one because I was unaware of how bad the WiFi was at the interviewee’s end. Other challenges ranged from dealing with the noise of children at the interviewee’s house, street noise, postmen and deliveries at my door or their door, my next-door neighbour’s loud music and my smoke alarm going off whenever my daughter burnt her eggs! 

In some ways, the pandemic strangely helped strengthen my relationship with interviewees. I have even developed strong bonds with some of my participants which transcended social distancing rules and highlighted our common vulnerability as human beings. They were more than mere research subjects but persons who need to be listened to and be supported in a very difficult stage of their resettlement. However, that involvement occasionally made it difficult to draw the line between supporting others and protecting yourself.

Salih was introduced to me as a Syrian refugee who met my requirements for project participants. All I knew about Salih was that he was a Syrian-Kurd who was resettled in Cardiff a few months before the first lockdown. I introduced myself over the phone and asked if he was interested in an initial remote meeting. Salih interrupted me saying: “I wish you could visit me and my wife in our house. I am in a wheelchair and my wife has some health problems. We only have one person who comes to check on us and brings us groceries… When our Home Office Caseworker comes for a visit, he talks to us through the living room window, hands us documents to sign, asks a couple of questions and leaves… We barely talk to people.” He became very emotional and asked me to help him reunite with the rest of his family who had been relocated in Germany. I explained to Salih that I was a researcher with no hand in policy making. Despite this, he was determined to be part of the project and have his voice heard.  

The phone call upset me. My inability to improve his situation made me ashamed of asking someone like Salih, who was painfully lonely, to narrate his personal story of suffering and survival remotely. Next morning, I called Salih and asked if he and his wife were happy for me to visit them wearing a facemask and maintaining social distance. We agreed to meet the following day. 

After taking all the necessary precautions; wipes, a facemask, Covid-19 declaration forms etc. I went to Salih’s house.  Salih opened the door while leaning on his walking frames. He greeted me in his Arabic-Kurdish accent and led me into a dark first -floor flat, with one small window being their opening to the outside world. Salih’s wife sat on a small mattress on the floor. She had hardly any Arabic but could understand some of what I was saying as I saw her nodding at times. She made us a tasty Syrian coffee and uttered few words in Kurdish which Salih translated to me as: “I am so pleased to have a guest for whom I can offer coffee again as I used to!”

It was a short, emotional and tiring interview. I have kept in touch with them and have promised to revisit once lockdown is lifted. But I feel heavily burdened with helplessness, sorrow, and anger at their situation. 

We are talking through virtual windows, barely touching the lives of those beyond the pane.