Amgueddfa Blog: Collections & Research

“Codi i’r Wyneb - Brought to the Surface” is a project on freshwater snails led by the Museum’s Department of Natural Sciences, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Since our last blog in January, our project has grown from its wellspring in the collections to spill over into the outside world.

This, being midsummer, is pond-dipping season. Fieldcraft is so important to being a good naturalist, and also a good curator. No matter how good the collections, ID guides or apps, there is no substitute for finding things in their natural environment first-hand. So far we have identified and recorded snails from over 50 water bodies in South Wales alone, often with the help of local people and volunteers. As well as being good education for us, this has helped provide data and specimens from less well-studied areas, such as the lakes at Blaengarw, and the Neath Canal at Tonna, and the River Ely. We’ve also followed up a number of historical records to see whether species are still present. In a neat symbiosis, Alice Jones from Cardiff University has also been helping us out as part of her search for snail parasites and their microscopic predators. Lest anyone fear this is a Cymrocentric project, we’ve also been collecting in South-west England, and are heading East soon!

Back at National Museum Cardiff and with the help of the Exhibitions team, we installed our display in the Insight Gallery in time for the Easter school holidays. (In fact, all the displays in Insight have recently been refreshed, so it’s well worth visiting if you haven’t for a while). It features a variety of showcasing the diversity and importance of freshwater snails. To help bring the small shells of the Welsh species to life, we made magnified models of the living animals, approximately 1000 times actual size. These are shown alongside some grapefruit-sized tropical Apple Snails (the world’s largest freshwater snails), and their eye-catching bright pink eggs. The display also includes a mini-diorama of a British river, and a slideshow of images of the project’s progress. One thing which proved surprisingly hard to obtain (in Cardiff!) was an authentic-looking miniature of a sheep, so we made our own. The sheep is there to illustrate the life-cycle of the liver fluke - a big problem for British agriculture, yet one that hinges on tiny freshwater snails.

Since our last update we’ve taken part in public events including “Museums After Dark” and “Fossils from the Swamp”, and even appeared on the Radio Wales Science Café programme. The big one for us was our first Snail Day training course in late April, where we put our draft identification keys to the test. Held at Gwent Wildlife Trust’s Magor Marsh reserve, we are very grateful to the 8 members of the public prepared to be our guinea pigs, while learning as much about the 40 species as we could fit into a day. Our second Snail Day, at the “Aqualab” of the National Botanical Gardens in Carmarthenshire, was also a fully-booked success with thanks to the infectiously enthusiastic Paul Smith and our stalwart volunteer Mike Tynen, who helped amaze some visiting cub scouts by juggling a leech. The fish-free lakes at the Gardens have a huge biomass of snails!

Keen to join in? Our third Snail Day is on the 29th June, at the RSPB’s Ynys Hir reserve near Machynlleth, once used as the base for the BBC’s Springwatch. If you’d like to take part, please email On Twitter, follow @CardiffCurator for the latest updates.

In the first part of this blog I looked at the physicality and subject-matter of a small number of fans housed at St Fagans National Museum of History. In this second and final part of the blog, I would like to discuss some of the aesthetic objects 18th century fan shops, warehouses and stalls business displayed and sold. To conclude, I will briefly discuss the fan maker Martha Gamble (active before 1710 to after 1740).

Many fan shops sold prints and, equally, a great number of print shops sold fans. During the 1700s the status of prints increased as the market for prints which could be framed for display grew. The fan makers Sarah Ashton (active before 1750 to 1807) and George Wilson (active before 1770 to after 1801) sold a range of printed artwork, including stipple-engraved illustrated children’s maxims in Wilson’s case. Additionally, fan makers borrowed from the visual language of genre prints. The popular stock characters from the pictorial and literary trope of ‘Old Darby’ and ‘Old Joan’, visually relating to rural representations circulated in print by publishers like Bowles and Carver, were one common source of pictorial inspiration.

There is an extraordinary female fan maker whose work is represented at St Fagans. One of her fans is to be found in this collection, an Allegorical Fan (Untitled) painted with an image of (almost certainly) Queen Anne (1665-1714) and an inscription of ‘11 October 1743’ and the maker’s name ‘M. Gamble’. Although (Martha) Gamble created this fan a decade or so after Queen Anne’s death, images of the Queen were still widespread in the 1720s and 1730s. Gamble was a highly regarded female fan maker, who owned The Golden Fan in St Martin’s Court, St Martin’s Lane. Its reputation built upon Gamble’s renown for her use of the fan as a vehicle on which to present popular stories transposed from narrative print and painting series. Gamble sold copies of William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) A Harlot’s Progress, completed between 1732 and 1733, advertised in the Evening Post as ‘engraved from the Original prints of Mr. Hogarth; in which the characters are justly preserved and beautifully published’. A Harlot’s Progress was made by Giles King, who specialised in reproducing printed images made by the Dutchman Arnout van Aken, in alliance with Gamble. Examining these fans makes evident their intrinsic link to print work produced in the same period and helps us to understand and appreciate these fascinating objects better.

Recently, we’ve been privileged to accept a fabulous new accession into our collection.  It is a set of three silk garments which belonged to Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Baronet, who lived between 1749 and 1789.  He owned vast areas of land in Wales, was active in politics and was a great patron of the arts.  You can find out more about him here:

Image of painting of Watkin Williams-Wynn from our 'Collections Online'
Small pastel portrait from the museum's collections

As part of Sir Watkin’s lavish lifestyle came an opulent wardrobe.  The garments we have acquired are a matching set of waistcoat and breeches made from grey silk, woven with silver metal thread, silk embroidery and metal thread trim,

F2019.21.1 waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.1 waistcoat, detail of buttons, embroidery and metal thread weave

F2019.21.2 breeches Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.2 breeches, metal trim

F2019.21.2 breeches, button








as well as an embroidered waistcoat of flamboyantly pink satin. 

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

 All three items have passed through the Textile Conservation Studio over the last few weeks to record the garments’ construction, materials, and condition, before packing them up to go into storage.  The grey set of waistcoat and breeches were in remarkably good condition, but I was worried about the embroidery on the pink waistcoat.  The embroidery consists of undulating bands of white net which covers small florets made of paper.  The bands run down both sides of the centre front and across the lower edge as well as across the pocket flaps.  Other embroidery features are foliage and blossoms made from chenille thread and mauve ribbon-worked rosette flower heads. 

The white net is made from silk which has been coated with a stiffening agent.  This stiffening agent has made the net brittle and the yarns have cracked in many places resulting in areas of loss and loose areas.  Those loose remains of the net were vulnerable to snagging and abrasion and I was afraid that further pieces would break off and become lost.  Equally, the paper flowers that lay underneath and were formerly protected by the net were now exposed and also at risk of damage or loss through accidentally brushing against them.  As it was, a number of petals had pulled away from the stitches that held them in place and had curled up and become creased and distorted, with several petals and some entire flowers becoming lost. 

To protect the fragile areas I decided to apply an overlay of very fine white Nylon net.  This net does not disturb the aesthetics of the embroidery while at the same time providing protection to the vulnerable net and paper underneath.  Before I could start, however, I had to humidify the paper petals to re-shape them and arrange them in their correct position. For this, I dampened the paper with deionised water applied with a fine paint brush.  Once it was wet, the paper was pliable and creases could be removed.  To apply the net overlay I stitched it in place with small running stitches using a thin white silk organzine thread.  I used a curved needle as the garment had to remain flat on the table (to avoid unnecessary movement).  It’s only now that it has been conserved that the waistcoat is strong enough to go into storage.

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat vulnerable areas before conservation

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat, detail of applying net overlay using silk thread

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat after application of net overlay - now protected and safe for storage

There was something else that was interesting about the waistcoat: The rear panel is made from tabby woven cotton fabric and the lower section is made of cream silk.  As it is now, the seam allowances are facing outwards and raw edges are visible.  It is not unusual that areas of the garment that aren’t on view are made from less expensive materials and that the stitching might not be as carefully executed as on the visible areas, however, the current configuration and some indication of previous stitch holes suggests that the waistcoat would have had an outer back panel and what is visible currently, is simply the back section of the lining.  There is therefore a strong indication that the waistcoat may have been altered and the original back getting lost in the process.

F2019.21.3  pink waistcoat, back panel


I would like to introduce some of the incredible fan leaves that Amgueddfa Cymru holds in its collection in a two-part blog. Looking at these fan leaves reveals the important relationship between the eighteenth-century print trade, text and painting practice. In this first blog I will expand briefly upon a couple of the painted and printed Welsh and English fans dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nestled in storage at St Fagans National Museum of History and their material nature.

A number of these fans have paper bases, while a few are created from silk, and several take the screen, brisé (meaning ‘broken’ in French) or cabriolet (a form of transport comprising a two-wheeled carriage, drawn by a horse) form. Numerous fans sport lace sewn sequins (fig. 1), embossed and carved guard sticks. The majority of these specimens have come to Amgueddfa Cymru from Welsh collectors, with a couple seemingly made by talented amateur fan makers. Among these wonderful examples, several printed eighteenth-century fans highlight the complexity of the British print trade during the period in which these fans were produced.

The anonymously made Medley Fan (Untitled) (fig. 2), produced around 1760 (probably in Wales), illustrates the impact different aesthetic media had upon fan design in the eighteenth century. Medley Fan depicts a number of trompe l’oeil images scattered across its surface, including a hand-painted ‘snapshot’ of castle ruins being admired by an aristocratic tourist, which overlaps an engraved image of a peasant girl, set against verse from John Gay’s poem The Fan (1713). Similarly, Map of South Wales Fan (fig. 3), made approximately between 1800 and 1817 (also anonymously) – there is a signature ‘Miss Watkins 1817’ inscribed on the fan – shows rare, and expertly executed, printed imagery. Miss Watkins was the niece of the Reverend David Williams (1738-1816), the Welsh philosopher, and it is likely the fan was made in South Wales. Map of South Wales Fan and Medley Fan (Untitled) suggest the intrinsic link between fan making, decorative arts, painting and the print trade in the 1700s. In the second part of my blog I will go on to explain more about the trades that fan shops dealt in.

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

While the earliest currently known non-flowering plant specimen in the Museum is a moss collected in 1794 from Gwynedd, the earliest specimen book dates from 1803. This book is Lewis Weston Dillwyn’s personal collection of seaweed and freshwater algae collected between 1803 and 1809. Dillwyn’s specimen book was donated to the Museum in 1938 by the National Library of Wales, and has great importance both scientifically and historically.

Lewis Weston was part of the influential Dillwyn family, and his son John Dillwyn Llewelyn became an early pioneer photographer. He was interested in the natural history that he saw in south Wales where he lived. This is reflected in his scientific research as well as in the pottery designs created while he was owner of Cambrian Pottery. Dillwyn described new species of algae and his specimen book contains type specimens (irreplaceable specimens used in the original description of a species). The book is a personal record of his scientific life, recording places he visited and scientists who sent him specimens. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1804 and later had a plant genus named after him in recognition of his work.

Many of the botanical specimen books in National Museum Cardiff have a fascinating history. Two contain mosses collected by Thomas Drummond on the Second Overland Arctic expedition between 1825 and 1827 to British North America (now Canada). Delving further into the book’s background reveals that the Captain, Sir John Franklin, sent Drummond to the Rocky Mountains with one Native American hunter. After the hunter left him on his own, he survived a severe winter, being mauled by a bear, and starvation. He still managed to collect, preserve and study many new plants of the North American continent. This work was published by Sir W.J. Hooker, who later became the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The more recent books are systematically collected specimens known as ‘exsiccatae’. These are sets of duplicate specimens distributed by scientists to other museums. They help to spread the risk of losing a particularly important set of specimens, and to allow scientists around the world to study them. Lists of their contents are usually published in a journal or online. Much of the Berlin Herbarium and the botanical specimens within it was destroyed in World War 2, however many duplicate specimens from this collection survive in other herbaria around the world. From around the 1900s, exsiccatae changed from being bound books to being loose specimens. This meant museums receiving them could incorporate them into their collections alongside other closely related specimens for easier access and comparison.