Amgueddfa Blog: Museums, Exhibitions and Events

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 Wedgewood 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’ 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 brother 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 c1930s.

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

This story is inspired by the collections at the National Roman Legion Museum. Bethan Thomas and Jacob Rendle worked with Gritty Realism films to create this short animation.  

As part of the process they looked at Roman archaeology and learned animation techniques. The project was funded by People’s Collection Wales and organised by staff at the National Roman Legion Museum and Newport Communities First education team.

Hanes yn y Teils/Tales in the Tiles from Gritty Realism Productions on Vimeo.

Whilst none of the events in this story are real, it is inspired by some of the real objects the Romans left behind in Caerleon –  2,000 years ago.

For example, we do have evidence that a Roman soldier, a dog and a cat stepped into the clay roof tiles whilst they were being made.

Julius Valens - was a veteran Roman soldier who died aged one hundred! His grave stone can be found in the gallery. As can a soldier’s footprint and the cat shaped roof tile that the Romans put on the front of their houses to ward off evil spirits.

Come and see the animation and these fasinating Roman objects on show at the National Roman Legion Museum until September 2017.

In parts one and two I discussed the highlights of the galleries, learning department and the carpentry. In this post I will be discussing the highlights of the historic buildings.

Historic Buildings

On the final day of our exchange we had a full tour of the historic buildings with Marina, head of Historyland. The buildings we visited included a 19th century Inn, 18th century timber farm fortification, a 19th century school, a 1940s house and 1970s buildings. The tour also included a chance to look inside a 1950s bus which was used as a mobile shop. The bus reminded me of the van I used to load when I worked in a fruit and veg store back in my teenage years (in the 2000s not the 1950s).

One of the highlights of the tour was the 19th century inn, which was also used as a court house. Underneath the inn was a cellar that was not only used for storage but also to house prisoners before a trial. It would have been a tight squeeze to fit in this tiny space! Another highlight were the desks in the 19th century school that had a sandbox across the top for young children to practice their letters. In our Maestir school we have small sand boxes for this purpose, so it was interesting to see these on a larger scale. 

My favourite area we visited was definitely the 1970s. This area included a country shack for hippies to escape the hustle and bustle of the modern world and a luxury family villa. Both buildings showed how immersive Historyland must be when it’s in action. It was like walking back in time into someone’s home. The buildings were full of clothes, furniture and working 70s technology. You were free to fully explore and even look inside the drawers and cupboards which were full of bits and bobs from the 70s. Each room of the villa was a different world to explore. In the parents room there were clothes and wigs, in the children’s room there were toys, in the teenage girl’s room there were drawings of her favourite pop stars, and in the teenage boy’s room there was even a 1970s adult magazine hidden away in a drawer! I can’t imagine a British museum being so risqué!

Overall experience

Overall it was a great experience to see another open air museum in action and to pick up some tips on making the visitor experience more interactive. All the staff were very friendly and informative and the people we met in Östersund were all very friendly and courteous. I look forward to an opportunity to return to Sweden and I would definitely like to see Historyland in full swing.

On 29th July, we are going to take part in an international event to support tiger conservation across the world.

You may be shocked to realize that we have lost 97% of all wild tigers. Worldwide, tigers are on the brink of extinction with many species listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. The goal of the day is to raise public awareness of tiger conservation issues, and to work to find a way to halt their rapid decline. This is an annual event that we will be taking part in for the first time.  The day was first celebrated in 2010 following the Tiger Summit held in St. Petersburg.

Many international organisations will be involved in events across the globe, working towards increasing the numbers of tigers in the wild. So what will be happening at the museum on international tiger day?

The star of the show will be Bryn, a most handsome Sumatran Tiger. Bryn came to the museum in 2016 after spending his life at the Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay. You can find out more about him by reading my last blog. Bryn will only be on display for this one day, so do not miss this opportunity to come and see him up close.

Helping us learn more about Bryn will be the ever-wonderful Dr Rhys Jones. Lecturer, reptile specialist, jungle man and wildlife welfare warrior, Rhys has worked with many charities in conserving and rescuing endangered and exotic animals.

We are especially pleased to announce that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) will be joining us, one of the key charities involved in conservation efforts across the globe. WWF work closely with governments around the world to provide support for surveying and protecting tigers and have launched Tx2. An ambitious conservation project aiming to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022 – the next Chinese year of the tiger.

I am also incredibly excited to announce that the fabulous Nicola Davies (@nicolakidsbooks) will be with us running big cat activities throughout the day. Nicola is a wonderful children’s author with an infectious enthusiasm for animals and the natural world. Join her for storytelling sessions and rhyming activities (bookable on the day).

There will also be drop-in activities throughout the day so there is plenty to keep you and your family busy. We can't wait to see you. You can find out more on our Facebook event page, or What’s On.

You can follow global tiger events on social media using a range of hashtags: #doubletigers, #iprotectTigers, #TigersForever, #3890tigers.

If you want to find out more about what is being done to protect tigers, here are some useful webpages: Project Tiger, Tigers ForeverSave the Tiger fund, WildTeam & Save Tigers Now.  

In part one I gave some background to the exchange programme with Jamtli museum and my experience of the galleries. In this blog I will focus on the shadowing opportunities we had.

Learning Department

Much of the week, Heulwen and myself shadowed members of the Jamtli learning department. The sessions we shadowed included a visit by a preschool class (6 year olds), a primary school prehistory session, adults learning Swedish and parents with preschool aged children (aged 0-5).

The highlight was the session for the preschool class as it had similarities with 2 of our sessions at St Fagans. The session was run by Pia who was playing a 19th century character. The children helped Pia prepare her house for a visitor by cleaning and doing some shopping. It was a very interactive session and kept the children engaged the whole time. It has given us some good ideas to make our school sessions more hands on. The buildings used for the preschool were perfectly set up for young children, with play areas designed to be child sized.

We also had the opportunity to visit the 1950s house and had a discussion about reminiscence sessions. It was very useful to find out how the sessions are delivered. Of particular interest was discovering that when groups from care homes visit the museum finds out where the participants are from. They then cater the information and images to the group by providing images from their home towns. The participants sometimes even recognise the people in the photos!

Carpentry

On the Wednesday, Heulwen, Pascal and myself had a tour of the timber buildings led by Jamtli’s head carpenter, Matts. The highlight of this tour was the timber church with painted walls on the inside. This was vividly painted and reminded me of our own St Teilos church here at St Fagans.

Afterwards we visited the wood workshop where we learnt how to make thin shingles and thick shingles (known as church shingles). I had a go at making both types but found the thin shingles much easier to make and was able to make several during my time. The thin shin shingles didn't require too much skill, whereas church shingles required skilled use of an axe. In my unskilled hands I found the axe work very tiring and I only made one church shingle.

Up next…

In the final instalment of my Jamtli visit blog I will discuss the highlights of visiting the historic buildings.