Amgueddfa Blog: Collections & Research

Many of the books in the Library collections at the National Museum Wales have attractive decorative techniques applied to the covers or text blocks. Decoration on text blocks, the combined pages of the book inside the covers, is particularly lovely because it tends to be hidden when they are on the shelves.

The most popular examples of decorating text blocks include marbling and gilding. But one of the most interesting techniques is the one known as disappearing fore-edge painting, which was often hidden underneath the other types of decoration.

Fore-edge painting was a technique that reached the height of its popularity from the mid-17th century onwards. It was usually applied to the longest section of the text block, the one opposite the spine, the fore-edge.

Two books in our special collections feature examples of mid-19th century disappearing fore-edge paintings. They are the two volumes of the second edition of the Memoirs of Lord Bolingbroke by George Wingrove Cooke, and were published in 1836.

When the book is closed you cannot see the image, only the gilt edges of the text block, but when the leaves are fanned, the hidden picture is revealed.

To achieve this effect, the artist would need to fan the pages, and then secure them in a vice, this means they are applying the paint not to the edge of the page, but to just shy of the edge. Once completed, it is released from the vice and the gilding would be applied to the edges.

Landscape scenes were the most popular for this technique, and the ones on our books show Conway Castle and Caernarfon Castle.

Very often the motivation for a fore-edge painting was a demonstration of artistic skill, so it didn’t always follow that the images were related to the text contained within the book. These two volumes of Memoirs, do not have an obvious connection to the scenes painted. Lord Bolingbroke (Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke 1678–1751) was an English politician during the reign of Queen Anne, and later George I, and is probably best known as a supporter of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, but he does not appear to have any direct association with either Conwy or Caernarfon.

The volumes were acquired for the Library in 2008 from a rare book dealer, but we don’t know enough about their history to be able to tell when the fore-edge paintings were added. The first volume contains an inscription that states that the book was a gift to a T. M. Townley from his friend Samuel Thomas Abbot on his leaving Eton in 1843. Unfortunately we don’t know anything about either the recipient or the sender, so we can’t tell if one of them was ultimately responsible for painting the books.

Each week, hundreds of people will walk through the front doors of the National Museum Cardiff. Yet despite visiting the exhibitions on display, many will be oblivious to what goes on in the background. Conducting a work experience placement at the museum gave us a rare insight into how much work and effort goes on behind closed doors.

 

With the intention of creating a video for the Saving Treasures, Telling Stories project, we were taken on a tour around the archaeology department on our first day of placement. We were fortunate to be shown around the stores, where many remarkable items were kept for preservation and research. Some of the items we viewed were Roman and prehistoric pots, vases and burial urns, which allowed us to explore how communities and cultures operated thousands of years ago.

 

The following day we attended Cyfarthfa Museum in Merthyr Tydfil, which is to acquire a hoard of five Roman Denarii, with thanks to funding from the Saving Treasures project. We filmed museum staff and the finders of the hoard, and heard about its significance. It was great to see the enthusiasm of the metal detectorists who discovered the hoard, and how proud they were of their achievement.

 

We spent the next few days editing the video together back at the University of South Wales campus. This proved to be a difficult job, as there were so many great shots to choose from, so it was difficult to decide which to cut out. However, the staff were always on hand to answer any questions we had and help out where possible.

 

Working at the National Museum Cardiff was a wonderful experience, and we were able to appreciate just how much work goes on behind closed doors to create the exhibitions we see. This work and research has helped us to understand history and past cultures in greater detail, and we would like to thank all the staff for their friendliness and a great week.

Were you amongst among the record number of people who enjoyed our recent ‘Tim Peake’ and ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ exhibitions at National Museum Cardiff? Did you realise that, while you were in the public galleries, there were workers with hard hats and power tools working to improve the building?

We are currently undertaking a large amount of maintenance works in the museum. We do this in such a way to minimise the disturbance to our visitors as much as possible. We want you to enjoy your experience at the museum and be inspired. During the coming months, however, scaffolding will be erected around parts of the building. We are also going to get a temporary over roof on the oldest part of the museum.

Given that this part of the building was opened as long ago as April 1927 by King George V it is now due some tender loving care. Owing to the ravages of time, the roof has developed a few leaks which we are going to repair this year. This also involves having to close some galleries temporarily, for example the Ceramics and Photography galleries. We do apologise for the inconvenience, but these closures are necessary to allow us to undertake the work on the roof and associated internal works.

Galleries will reopen refreshed in the Autumn of 2019, once the works are completed. The brilliant news is that we will be able to present exhibitions without having to worry about a leaking roof. Associated electrical rewiring will also reduce the fire risk in the museum.

Other works we are undertaking - unbeknown to most people as these are happening in our basement - are further electrical works and substantial improvements to our air conditioning systems. This includes the installation of new air conditioning equipment to replace old equipment which will make the museum much more environmentally sustainable.

We are undertaking these works, with kind support of Welsh Government, to protect the Welsh national collection. We constantly strive to improve the way we care for the three million objects housed at National Museum Cardiff. The collections allow us to refresh displays regularly and put on exhibitions with new themes – check out our new ‘People and Plants’ exhibition of the museum’s economic Botany collection. Collections are also used for research, study, teaching, commemoration and many other functions.

Hence, there are many reasons why we would want to do our best to preserve the collections as best we can. The maintenance works during the coming months will greatly assist us with our collection care and, if these occasionally impact on our public spaces, we do ask that you bear with us – the works are temporary but the benefits will be long-lasting.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.

 

The Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection features 65 specimens of plant-based dyes and tannins. The collection includes a range of leaves, roots, petals, seeds and barks used for dyeing and tanning from around the world.


'Economic Botany' refers to a group of plants that have recognised societal benefit. The Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales economic botany collection contains over 5,500 plant-based specimens, together with 12,000 timber specimens. Categories within the collection include medicinal plants; food products; dyes and tannins; gums, resins and fibres; and seeds.


Most of the dye specimens were collected from Asia, South Africa and the West Indies as well as a few samples from South America. There is one specimen from the UK - Isatis tinctoria (Woad) from Roath Park Cardiff (1936). Most of the acquisitions of these specimens were made in 1914, 1920—22 and 1938. Only two of the specimens were added after 1938.

As well as leaves, petals, roots and fruits the collection contains a range of specimens of barks for dyeing, largely acquired in the 1920s.

Dye specimens

A number of the plant-based dye specimens originate from India including:

  • The dried leaves of Indigofera tinctoria (Indigo) – one of the most famous plant dyes produces a range of blue tones.
  • The roots of Rubia cordifolia (Indian madder) which produce a red dye.
  • The roots of Morinda citrifolia (Al dye) which produce a yellowish colour.
  • Myrobalans fruits (Terminalia chebula) which produce a yellow dye.
  • The petals of Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius).

Many of these plants indicate their potential as colouring agents in their botanical names. Carthamus derives from Arabic meaning ‘dye’ whilst tinctoria is a Latin word for dyeing or staining.

The collection also includes specimens from the Caribbean including Bixa orellana (Anatto seeds) from the Dominican Republic, Gold Coast, Trinidad and Tobago; and Bursera graveolens leaves from Colombia, both of which produce a red dye.

Some of these plants are used in combination to produce enhanced tones. For example, Myrobalans (Terminalia chebula) produce a buttery yellow on their own, if added to Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) produce a teal and with madder (Rubia cordifolia) they produce orange.

Tannins

Some barks are very high in tannin. Such barks are useful for the dyeing of cellulose fibres (such as cotton and silk). The collection features a range of barks used as tannins including:

  • The powdered bark of Quercus tinctoria (North America 1921), known as Dyer’s oak.
  • Haematoxylon campechianum (Log wood) (Central America and West Indies 1921) which produces a purple from the heartwood.
  • Rhizophora mucronata (Mangrove) (India 1920) bark which produces a reddish brown with mordant.
  • The bark of Ceriops candolleana (Tengah) (India 1920), used in Malaya within Batik dyeing for purple, brown and black colours.
  • Cassia auriculata (Tanner’s Cassia) (India 1921).
  • An extract of wood from Schinopsis balansae (Quebrachio) from Argentina.
  • Acacia mollissima (Black Wattle) (South Africa) including bark, chopped bark, ground bark and solid mimosa extract (acquired from Kew in 1924).

The collection also includes a range of Libidibia coriaria (Divi divi) seed pods from the West Indies used for tanning and extract as dye (including specimens acquired from Kew in 1924).

Galls

The collection also contains a range of galls mainly from Southern Europe (used as tannin) mainly acquired in 1914. This includes Blue Aleppo Galls, Green Aleppo Galls, Morea galls (Greece), White Bussorah galls, Blue Smyrna galls. These oak marble galls are caused by gall wasps which puncture bark of Quercus species and lay eggs inside. As well as oak marble galls, Chinese Sumac (Rhus chinensis) are also used as tanning agents.

Galls are used in dyeing processes since they tend to be very high in tannin. Cellulose-based fabrics are often treated in a gall bath prior to adding mordant (a substance that fixes dye in fabric). This process is called ‘galling’. The fabric can then be mordanted with alum, as the tannin forms an insoluble compound with the alum and natural dye, resulting in more permanent colour.

Dyed wool specimens

The dyes and tannins collection also features a range of specimens of wool that were dyed with plants using wool from the Cambrian Mill, Felindre. This includes Weld (with tin mordant), Privet (with tin mordant), Brazil wood (with alum mordant), Onions (with tin mordant), Eucalyptus (with copper mordant), Indigo (no mordant), Madder (with tin mordant), Walnut (no mordant) alongside two red and blue cloth specimens (possibly Madder and Indigo).

Tin can produce very bright natural colours. However, in excess it can make wool brittle and it is also harmful, potentially causing irritation to skin, eyes and respiratory system and damage to the liver and kidney system. Of note are the two specimens (Walnut and Indigo) that are ‘substantive’ rather than ‘fugitive’. Substantive dyes do not require a mordant.  

In 2017-2018 Poppy Nicol worked with Heather Pardoe to explore the economic botany collection and its relevance for helping us understand biodiversity and the importance of plants for health and well-being. You can read more about the Sharing Stories Sharing Collections Project here.

Have a look back at previous posts about this collection:

This article is by Dr. Poppy Nicol, a visiting researcher from Cardiff University.

This St David’s Day, Friday 1 March, the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion will present a unique eighteenth-century painting, Poor Taff, to the museum. The Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion has kindly offered Poor Taff to Amgueddfa Cymru and the people of Wales, following the closure of its former home, the Welsh Girls’ School (later St. David’s School) founded by the Society in the eighteenth century.

This is one of four oil paintings, possibly commissioned by Welsh Societies, telling the tale of the Welsh satirical character, Shon-Ap-Morgan, who was widely known as “Poor Taff”, and his journey to London. Shon was intent on avenging the  “rabble” English who entertained themselves by annually hanging ragged effigies of Welsh people above the streets on St David’s Day. Things did not go as planned for Shon, many versions of the story claim that the “demon drink” was responsible for his many misadventures.

He is portrayed in the painting with his attributes that include the goat he rides, leeks, cheese and herring. Some versions show him with his wife, Unnafred [Winifred] Shon. This caricature probably stems from a combination of early anti-Welsh prints and a popular Meissen figurine that originally poked fun at the tailor of the Saxony factory’s director, Count Brühl. The figurine shows the tailor riding a goat with a female companion. English factories were quick to copy this popular design that became known as “the Welsh tailor and his wife”.

This image of Poor Taff shows that he self-styled himself as a gentleman. However, he was so poverty-stricken he had to ride a goat rather than a horse. Whereas today, his diet of leeks, cheese and fish seem a healthy choice, they were seen then as further symbols of his poverty. These satirical anti-Welsh symbols were promoted in London’s popular print culture that was convenient for anti-Welsh sentiments. Some English artists used this satire on prominent public figures such as Watkin Williams Wynn and the Prince of Wales (later George IV).

Later versions of the prints however, began to praise Wales and Welsh people, condemning the previous English abuse. As a result, Shon-Ap-Morgan, or Poor Taff, became an affectionate symbol of Welsh national identity. For this reason the painting may have been commissioned by a London-based Welsh society. The stereotype that we see in this painting eventually gave way to a more benevolent Welsh icon created by Augusta Hall (Lady Llanofer) of the Welsh lady, “Blodwen”, with her tall black hat and shawl.