Amgueddfa Blog: LGBTQ+

Empowering LGBT+ ethnic minority communities in Wales

Vish from Glitter Cymru, 10 February 2021

To celebrate LGBT History Month this year I asked Vish to write a blog post about Glitter Cymru and why they founded it. Throughout 2019 I worked with members of Glitter Cymru to collect their banner, along with other objects and oral histories from its members. These all now form part of the LGBTQ+ collection at St Fagans National Museum of History.

In this blog post we have also included images from the collection, along with a video made by Vish to introduce Glitter Cymru’s Virtual Pride held in August 2020. This video has been donated to St Fagans and is preserved in the audio-visual archive.

Mark Etheridge
Curator: LGBTQ+ history
St Fagans National Museum of History

My name is Vish. I identify as Indian, Welsh and queer and I’m the founder and chair of Glitter Cymru. Glitter Cymru was set up in July 2016 as a meet-up and support group for ethnic minority people who are LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans) based in South Wales. Prior to March 2020, we used to meet on a monthly basis face to face, but due to COVID, we moved our meet-ups to a weekly basis on Zoom. We adapted to this challenging / isolating time and found great comfort in each other’s company.

Glitter Cymru came about after hearing the frustrations of my ethnic minority LGBT+ peers, as well as my own frustrations, of not feeling welcomed, understood or represented by the wider LGBT+ community and in society in general. So Glitter was born to be the possible antidote to the issue of invisibility that we continue to feel, particularly in smaller cities like Cardiff and Newport. We come together at our meet-ups to shine, sparkle and feel visible – hence our group’s name is wonderfully apt.

The truth is many of our group attendees and myself included, have experienced a great deal of exclusion and othering. For example, be it racism from the predominately white wider LGBT+ community to homophopia, biphopia and transphopia from people of our own ethnicities.

Don’t just take my word for it, recent research from Stonewall, a leading LGBT+ equality charity, found 51% of ethnic minority LGBT+ people had faced discrimination or poor treatment from the wider LGBT+ community. This issue was found to be greater for Black LGBT+ people where the figure rises to 61%.

Upsettingly, this stat highlights that many ethnic minority LGBT+ people feel they can’t be their authentic selves in British society. In a society where our identities are ignored and debated, we need spaces like Glitter Cymru to feel validated and in turn gain empowerment to face the wider world that can be bigoted.

Apart from our meet-ups, Glitter Cymru aims to raise awareness of ethnic minority LGBT+ identities and issues through campaigns and events. We’d put together a milestone event on 10 August 2019, Wales’ first BAME (Black Asian & Minority Ethnic) Pride in Cardiff where we celebrated our community.

We’ve donated our banner from this event and which we also marched with at Pride Cymru’s parade (on 24 August 2019) to St Fagans National Museum of History.  We’re deeply honoured that our handmade banner will be preserved at the museum and that it will continue to represent a moment in time where ethnic minority LGBT+ people in Wales came forward to be celebrated and acknowledged or in other words shine and sparkle as Glitter is supposed to.

© Glitter Cymru / Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Just prior to lockdown we were able to run the first LGBTQ+ tours at the National Museum Cardiff which were created in partnership with Pride Cymru. As the doors unlock and visitors can start to return to the museum and also to mark and celebrate Pride Cymru 2020, I would like to share with you my favourite set of objects from the tours.

LGBTQ+ Tours
© Dan Vo @DanNouveau

An Encounter with May and Mary

Sleeve clasp made by May Morris (1862-1938)

When I first saw the exquisite silver sleeve clasps with a centrally suspended chrysoprase teardrop gemstone flanked by two apple-green orbs, I was utterly charmed. What rooted me to the spot and caused goosebumps to tickle my skin though was the name of the owner and the donor: Miss May Morris, given by Miss M. F. V. Lobb.

Echoing in my mind was a talk, The Great Wings of Silence, that I’d seen Dr Sean Curran deliver at an LGBT+ History Month event at the V&A museum on their relationship. Curran also wrote about May Morris (1862-1938) and Mary Frances Vivian Lobb (1879-1939) saying, “people like Mary Lobb and May Morris are part of a still barely visible queer heritage that can contribute to legitimising contemporary queer identities”.

I felt what I was seeing was evidence of their relationship. Though, as it turns out, there are two great collections that hold jewellery made by May and gifted by Mary, National Museum Cardiff and my ‘home collection’ of the V&A. Somewhat ironic! 

 

The Welsh Connection

The link between May and the V&A, I think, is easy to deduce: William Morris had significant influence in the early years of the V&A and after he died May, a respected artist in her own right, carried on his work teaching about good design principles and maintained a strong relationship with the museum. 

While the Morris family were proud of their Welsh ancestry, the question of how May’s jewellery ended up specifically at National Museum Cardiff involves a curious path that takes in sites from all across Wales, and certainly affirms the significant relationship between May and Mary.

May was a skilled jewellery maker and embroiderer and took charge of the embroidery department of her father’s renowned company Morris & Co. when she was 23. By the time Mary came into her life, May was living alone in the Morris family summer residence, Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswold.

Mary was from a Cornish farming family and during the First World War and as an early recruit to the Women’s Land Army she was involved in demonstrations showing how women could support the war efforts, even making the news with a headline “Cornish Woman Drives Steam Roller”!

At some point after the war, Mary joined May at Kelmscott Manor and the couple became a familiar sight, even attending local events together. Then, perhaps as it is for some now, not everyone was sure what to make of the relationship: Mary has been variously described as Morris’s close companion, housekeeper, cook, and even bodyguard!

When May died in 1938 she bequeathed her personal effects and £12,000 to Mary, an amount larger than any she left to anyone else. She also secured the tenure of Kelmscott for the rest of Mary’s life, however, Mary tragically died five months later in 1939. In those short months, Mary arranged the donation of May’s jewellery as well as her own scrapbooks to the National Library of Wales.

The scrapbooks were not given much consideration and were broken up and scattered across various sections of the library. It was researcher Simon Evans who began slowly reassembling the collection, and as he did so started to realise the significance and how it helps paint a clearer picture of the relationship between May and Mary.

Rediscovered items include watercolour landscapes painted by May, which suggests the pair traveled extensively together across Wales with journeys including Cardigan, Gwynedd, Swansea, Talyllyn and Cader Idris (one of my favourite images of the couple is a photograph from the William Morris Gallery that shows them camping in the Welsh countryside).

 

The Queer Perspective

Sandwiched in the scrapbooks is also a cryptic note in a letter from May to Mary, "after posting letter, I just grasped the thread at the end of yours, and having grasped (how slow of me!) I will be most careful.” 

To contextualise, Evans also describes a postcard (at Kelmscott Manor), written on a trip in Wales, in which Mary asked someone back at the Manor to send Morris’s shawl which is in "our" bedroom, which seems to put to bed the rumour May and Mary shared a room. Further, writer and curator Jan Marsh concludes in her book Jane and May Morris by saying the relationship between May and Mary was, in contemporary terms, a lesbian one.

LGBTQ+ Tours
© Dan Vo @DanNouveau

Through the jewelry gifted to the National Museum Cardiff we have a small glimpse of two lives intertwined, an intimate relationship between May and Mary that was full of love, care, and concern for each other. Theirs is one story among many on the free volunteer-led LGBTQ+ tours, which will return in the future when it is safe to do so.

In the meantime, labels for 18 objects have now been written that help highlight works with an LGBTQ+ connection for visitors. Connected to the May and Mary is a stunning hair ornament, which resembles a tiara, formed by floral shapes studded with pearls, opals, and garnets with silver leaves, all meeting symmetrically in the middle of the head. 

There are landscapes and a self-portrait by Swansea born painter Cedric Morris and several portraits by the renowned Gwen John who hails from Haverfordwest, as well as a bust of her by lover Rodin. Other highlights include works by Francis Bacon, John Minton, Christopher Wood, and 'Brunette' - a ceramic bust of Hollywood star Greta Garbo by Susie Cooper.

It is also now possible to explore the museum’s queer collection online by searching for ‘LGBTQ’ in the Collections Online. This will allow you to see works like The Wounded Amazon by Conwy sculptor John Gibson, a painting of Fisher Boys by Methyr Tydfil born artist Penry Williams (Gibson and Williams lived together in Rome and are understood to be lovers), and a ceramic plate that features perhaps the most famous lesbian couple in history, the Ladies of Llangollen, who lived together at Plâs Newydd. 

It is a joy and a privilege to be able to share the rich history of Welsh queer culture in such a historic place. I'm pleased to say the tours and the related research are merely just getting started! There are so many more stories to be found and told, many that will take us down interesting intersectional paths too. So do stay tuned for more from the National Museum Cardiff and Pride Cymru volunteers. 

For now I wish you a happy Pride. However you’re celebrating it, I hope it’s with as much sparkle as May and Mary’s glamorous bling! 

LGBTQ+ tour leaders


Dan Vo is a freelance museum consultant who founded the V&A LGBTQ+ Tours and developed the Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd National Museum Cardiff LGBTQ+ Tours. He is currently the project manager and lead researcher of the Queer Heritage and Collections Nework, a subject specialist network supported by the Art Fund formed of a partnership between the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic England, Historic Royal Palaces and the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (University of Leicester).

Queering the art collection: new LGBTQ+ tours

Stephanie Roberts, 6 March 2020

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!  

 

LGBT figures from Welsh History

youth forum, 4 June 2019

Happy Pride Month!

We've got an introduction to 4 prominent LGBT-people from Welsh history for you.

This text was written by Young Heritage Leaders during last LGBTQ+ History Month; thank you to Norena Shopland for helping with our research and diolch to The National Lottery Heritage Fund for their "Kick the Dust" support of our work with Young People.

This blog was written as part of our Hands on Heritage project.

Words by Holly

Images by Cecile

 

Gwen John

‘I should like to go and live somewhere where I meet nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not effect me beyond reason.’

Gwen was born on 22 June 1876 in Haverfordwest to Edward and Augusta John. Growing up, she had one older brother, a younger sister and a younger brother, the artist Augustus John. When their mother died young the family moved to Tenby, where Gwen’s education was placed in the hands of governesses. Her childhood years seemingly left little impression; she later said that nothing important happened to her before she turned 27.

Gwen is well-known for her affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, but she had sexual relationships with both men and women over the course of her life. Whilst attending he Slade School of Fine Art in London in the 1890s, she developed passionate feelings for an unknown woman, who ended up disposing herself of Gwen’s affections when she began a relationship with another man. Gwen threatened suicide if she did not break it off. This man eventually returned to his wife, but the love between Gwen the object of her passion had turned to hate.

In 1898 Gwen travelled with a group of friends to what was at the time the centre of artistic culture in the Western World: Paris. This period was a big influence on her art, at the end of which she painted her first self-portrait.

Throughout her life she challenged and defied convention. In 1902 she and a friend, Dorelia McNeil decided to walk to Rome to study there. They slept rough on the streets, and sang and painted in return for meals. If this seems daring now, at a time when women were usually chaperoned everywhere by older relatives it would have been totally unheard of. Gwen was also known for her intense focus on her work. She abhorred distractions and often preferred to work alone in her room, when she would become so absorbed she would forget to eat and rest. All this has contributed to Gwen’s reputation as being a bit of a loner, a hermit. Her surviving letters actually reveal that she enjoyed company, although it is difficult to escape the impression that, had Gwen lived today, she may have been diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome, or something like it.

Gwen met Rodin whilst in Paris again in 1904, and began an affair that lasted some 14 years. During this time, Gwen wrote around 2000 letters to Rodin, would organise her days around his visits, and would sometimes stand outside his house watching for him. Rodin frequently explored female sexuality in his work, and sketched Gwen with one of his assistants in erotic poses. Whilst Gwen was intrigued, she later told Rodin it was insignificant compared to being with him.

In later life Gwen converted to Catholicism. She also fell in love for the last time with an older woman called Véra Oumançoff, who became increasingly irritated with her obsessive attentions and was horrified by her sketching during Mass. In her last years she became increasingly isolated, and in 1939 left Paris carrying her will and burial instructions. When she died she was buried in an unmarked grave, and it was not until  over sixty years later, thanks to a 2015 TV documentary, that the final resting place of one of Wales’ greatest ever female artists was discovered.

‘It is difficult to express oneself in words for painters, isn’t it?’

 

 

Sarah Jane Rees//Cranogwen

‘It is a pretence in everybody, men and women alike, to try to be what they are not; and it is a loss for anybody not to be what they are.’

Sarah was born on 9th January 1839 in Llangrannog, Cardiganshire, the town from which she would later take inspiration for her bardic name. In her later autobiographical writings, she claims the birth of a girl was ‘much awaited for’ after two sons, and she was named after her paternal grandmother who lived with them. At 15 years old, Sarah started going her father out at sea. This was not in itself unusual for the time, but Sarah went on to attend schools in New Quay, Cardigan and eventually London, from which she returned with her Master’s Certificate in Navigation, allowing her to captain a vessel anywhere in the world if she chose.

It was at the 1865 Eisteddford that Sarah was catapulted into the limelight, winning a major prize in the ‘song’ category for her poem ‘The Wedding Ring’. It depicts four working class wives reflecting on their marriages, and placed above other established male writers who were ‘disgusted,’ according to the local newspaper. This was just the beginning of her Eisteddford success, winning a prize at Chester the following year and taking the Bardic Chair (the first woman to do so) at the local Aberayron in 1873. It was around this time that Sarah suffered a great personal tragedy. Fanny Rees was a milliner’s daughter who, like Sarah, had published literary works and moved to London for her education. It was there that she had contracted Tuberculosis, and in 1874 she returned to Wales. It was not to her family home she went to, but that of Sarah, in whose arms she died, something that indicates ‘a requited affection stronger than friendship’ according to Sarah’s biographer. Sarah had clearly loved this woman deeply; it was 12 years before she could bring herself to go to Fanny’s grave to lay flowers.

The success of her writing enabled Sarah to leave her teaching profession. She published a book of poems under her bardic name Cranogwen, which she dedicated to her mother, and became the editor of the Welsh language women’s journal Y Frythones. She often used this position to give advice to her readers regarding marriage and the role of women, and tirelessly promoted women’s writing and education. When two women from Dolgellau asked her advice regarding the suitability of female preachers, Sarah replied in a typically firm fashion: ‘Everyone should preach the Gospel who feels a desire to do so, and can do so, and can get people to listen.’ Her life had never been defined by traditional gender roles, so she would be unlikely to give any other response. At this time, and indeed for most of life, she had been in a happy same sex relationship with Jane Thomas, to whom she addressed one of her most famous poems, ‘My Friend’: ‘I love you, my beloved Venus, my Ogwen.’ At the time Ogwen was the female subject of a popular love ballad. Sarah clearly puts herself in the role of the male lover, leaving no doubts about the nature of their relationship.

Despite her sexuality, Sarah was a committed Christian, seeing human love as being ‘beamed from the warmth of the divine breast.’ She was a frequent preacher, though she was often relegated to using the deacon’s pew due to her gender, and at 60 years old founded the South Wales Women’s Temperance Union, which by the time of her death had 140 branches across Wales. She died in 1916, aged 81. The Union set up a shelter for homeless women and girls in her memory in 1922, in recognition of her unending efforts to improve the lives of Welsh women.

‘Gender difference is nothing in the world.’

 

Jan Morris

‘I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised I have been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl…it is the earliest moment of my life.’

Jan was born James Humphrey Morris to a Welsh father and an English mother in Clevedon, Somerset, on 2nd October 1926. She was aware of being transgender from an early age, and remembers as a child at Catherine Choir School in Oxford praying to God to make her a girl. After graduating from Oxford University, she had a brief career as a soldier in the closing months of the Second World War. She became a well-known journalist, built on the back of breaking the news of Hillary and Norgay’s successful ascent of Everest on the day of the Queen’s coronation. When reporting on the Suez Crisis, she provided the first irrefutable proof of collusion between France and Israel in invading Egyptian territory.

But the feeling of being born into the wrong body remained. Whilst still living as James she had married; her wife Elizabeth knew from the beginning that she was transgender and has been a lifelong support. They went on to have five children, one of whom died in infancy. With her wife by her side, Jan began taking steps towards gender reassignment, though many tried to convince her that she needed to be cured, or that she was really homosexual. Having been referred to Charing Cross, she was told that she and Elizabeth would have to get divorced. Jan adamantly refused. Eventually, in 1972 in Morocco, ‘James’ underwent surgery and officially became Jan Morris. Two years later her landmark book Conundrum was published, one of the first autobiographies to discuss transgender issues and gender reassignment.

Whilst she acknowledges that the question of her gender overshadowed her work at first, she has gone on to write around 46 books, including the Pax Britannica trilogy. She does not see her surgery as having changed her writing, in fact, ‘it changed me far less than I thought it had.’ In the past, other feminists have criticised her for simplifying traits associated with gender, something she acknowledges, and now says her views have matured. In 2008 she and Elizabeth entered into a civil partnership in Pwllheli, close to where they now live.

Morris has now fully adopted Wales, or perhaps Wales has adopted her. After moving to Wales, she was adopted into the Gorsedd of Bards in 1993, which she sees as one of the proudest moments of her life. She considers herself a Welsh nationalist, although she accepted a CBE in 1999 out of respect. Her picture of Wales sometimes seems to border on the romanticised, the fantastical. Just before her reassignment surgery she spent the summer in North Wales, and would often visit a secluded lake: ‘There I would take my clothes off, and stand for a moment like a figure of mythology…I fell into the pool’s embrace, [and] sometimes I thought the fable might well end there, as it would in the best Welsh fairy tales.’

Jan now rarely speaks about being transgender and does not join with LGBT activism, preferring to be seen first and foremost as a writer. Last year, at the age of 91, she published another book, Battleship Yamato. She has also written a book of allegories, to be published after her death.

“Looking back on my life, of course I had this feeling that I was in the wrong sex and I had to get out of it. But it didn’t occur to me then that the ultimate object might be to be both. And the next object is to be neither.”

 

Angus McBean

“Kings and queens, princesses sleeping or otherwise in ivory towers, or in enchanted castles with satins, furs and cloths of gold...and always happy endings.”

Angus was born on 8th June 1904 in Newbridge, Monmouthshire, in what seems like a far cry from London’s theatrical scene of the 1930s and 1940s that would make him one of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century. His father, Clement, was a chartered surveyor. He was educated at Monmouth Grammar School and Newport Technical College, and in his late teenage years worked as a bank clerk. However, his childhood interest in the makeup of a visiting actress and the purchase of an early Kodak perhaps hinted at what was to come. After being introduced to amateur dramatics by an aunt, he began designing posters, costumes and masks for the first time.

His father died at 47 years old, having contracted TB when fighting in the trenches, and the family moved to London. Angus was briefly married during this time (1923-24) to Helena Wood, although given that Angus was a homosexual, it is unsurprising that they separated a year later with no children.

He began working at Liberty’s Department store in London, where he developed the eccentric style of dress that he became known for. After leaving Liberty’s he attracted the attention of society photographer Hugh Cecil, who took him on as an assistant and taught him about the art of photographic portraits. His first job as a theatre photographer was for The Happy Hypocrite at His Majesty’s Theatre in 1936, starring Ivor Novello. The intensely dramatic photographs that he produced were unlike anything seen before.

It was Angus who took photographs during the now lauded years of the late 1930s at the Old Vic, which saw Laurence Olivier’s first performances in Macbeth, Hamlet and Henry V. His other subjects included Vivien Leigh, who became a muse of his. It was Angus’ photograph that was sent to David Selznick, preparing to cast Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. He never photographed the Queen, reporting that he would have been ‘shaking with fear,’ and never moved into society photographs like his mentor Cecil, calling it all ‘a Bond Street Game I never played.’ He also became popular for his ability to retouch the photographs he took.

It was in 1942 that he was sentenced to four years in prison for homosexual practices. It might be expected that this would have meant the ruin of his life; he reportedly collapsed in the dock as his sentence was read out. However, the commissions were still there for accepting and Angus carried on much the same after his release. It was a similar case with his friend, the legendary actor John Gielgud who was arrested in 1953 for cruising for sex in a public toilet. He feared the disgrace would end his career, but the audience of his next performance gave him a standing ovation. This is probably reflective of how much more liberal the arts world was, then as now, compared with other sections of society. After his release, Angus also appeared as a witness at the trial of his friend and lover Quentin Crisp, who had been charged with soliciting.

Angus passed away in 1990. His photographs are now held by, among others, the Harvard Theatre Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library, the National Portrait Gallery and the Shakespeare Library.

‘Put the camera into the hands of an artist and a very different kind of photography will emerge.’

A Story on a Plate: The Ladies of Llangollen

Guest Blog by Norena Shopland, 25 August 2017

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 Wedgwood 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’s 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 father 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 c. the 1930s.

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