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The Opening of The Vulcan Hotel at St Fagans

The Vulcan Hotel is the latest building to be re-erected at St Fagans National Museum of History.  It was officially opened to the public on Saturday 11th May but I was given the opportunity of having a preview on the Wednesday before.

Vulcan Hotel exterior
The Vulcan Hotel about to receive its first visitors      Photo: Diane Davies
Before we had a guided tour, Jane Richardson, Chief Executive of Amgueddfa Cymru, spoke to us about why it is such an important addition to the site.  It is the first to come from Cardiff and, therefore, is able to tell the story about the expansion of Cardiff from the mid-nineteenth century, when The Vulcan first came into existence.  During its life it underwent a number of changes but the building has been frozen in time at around 1915, when refurbishment and expansion created the building that can be seen today; it is an appropriate time as Cardiff was then at the height of its role as the greatest exporter of coal to the world and the pub was the centre of a thriving community.

She reassured us that though the pub had the look of 1915, complete with sawdust on the floor of the public bar, it was a fully modernised in terms of its facilities.  She also mentioned that, as a fully-functioning pub, it will be selling alcohol, including beers brewed for The Vulcan by a local brewery, Glamorgan Brewing Company, another first for St Fagans.
As well as the guided tour given by Dafydd Wiliam, Principal Curator of Historic Buildings at Amgueddfa Cymru, we also had a chance to see a demonstration of how the stained-glass windows which are a feature of The Vulcan were made, which I found fascinating.
Vulcan Hotel spit and sawdust
The spit and sawdust of the public bar                      Photo: Diane Davies
Vulcan Hotel Tiles & Stained Glass
Detail of the decorative tiles and stained glass         Photo: Diane Davies
The Vulcan was created in the early 1840s from two terraced houses that formed part of Adam Street in an area known as Newtown, which was created by the 2nd Marquis of Bute to house the workforce he needed to construct the new docks in Cardiff, that bore his name.  The inhabitants were predominantly Irish immigrants whose numbers grew substantially with those fleeing the Great Famine of 1845.  When the docks were completed the people of Newtown found work servicing the ships whilst many of the women worked on the potato wharfs.

The Vulcan underwent a major renovation in the early 1910s and then in in 1914 it was refurbished and acquired the distinctive façade that can be seen today with glazed tiles (easier to clean the soot from the countless coal fires of the time) as well as its distinctive stained-glass windows.

Newtown was demolished as a slum in the 1960s leaving The Vulcan in splendid isolation.  However, by 2008 it was threatened with demolition so as to make way for the St David’s 2 Shopping Centre.  A campaign was launched to save it and, although it failed, it meant that the building was offered to Amgueddfa Cymru and the rest is history.
So a building which is well worth a visit when you next visit St Fagans.
Diane Davies

Visit to St Fagans: 20th February 2024

I was very pleased to have the opportunity to go on a recent Friend’s visit to St Fagans National Museum of History.  It is always an interesting place to visit but when it is organised you get to see and learn about so much more.  This visit was no exception.

In the morning, we learnt about the Archives held at St Fagans from Lowri Jenkins, Assistant Archivist at St Fagans.  She gave us a brief overview of what is held in the archives: documents, photographs and recordings as well objects.  So, there are documents about the buildings at St Fagans as well as those relating to the people who lived there.  Documentation about life in Wales is also contained in questionnaires which were sent out across the country in the 1930s and answer books that were sent out in the 1960s.  We also listened to some examples from the audio collection which had been collected by members of the staff going around the country with tape recorders interviewing people from all walks of life.

Greenham Common Banner

Banner designed by Thalia and Ian Campbell and sewn by Jan Higgs, depicting scenes from the Greenham Common peace camp, (early 1980s). Four versions of this banner were made, with small details differing in each one.
© Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales

Bidding Letter
Bidding letter of John Jones and Eliza Mackintosh of Carmarthen, dated May 30th, 1857 and sent to Mr William Warren.
© Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales

She then spoke about material that St Fagans holds about campaigning for peace and the special exhibition Petitioning for Peace that will open at St Fagans on 8th March (International Women’s Day) and which will highlight the story of the Peace Petition of 1924 which collected nearly 400,000 signatures of women in a campaign to get the USA to join the League of Nations as well as the Greenham Common campaign. 

Then we had a chance to see some of the items she had mentioned in a room especially set aside for the purpose.  What caught my eye were Bidding Letters which were a custom in South Wales from the late 17th century onwards inviting guests to a wedding and a way of soliciting gifts.

Neanderthal teeth
The teeth of an eight year old Neanderthal boy which were found by archaeologists excavating in Pontnewydd Cave, north-east Wales.
© Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales
After a break for lunch and the chance to wander around the grounds on one of the few dry and sunny days of this extremely wet February, we had a conducted tour of the “Wales Is …” Gallery.   We were fortunate to have Elizabeth Walker, Principal Curator Collections and Access, to take us round and to talk about some of the exhibits that were of especial importance.  It was a real pleasure to hear her talk about the history and significance of the objects we stopped at – objects that could so easily be overlooked just wandering around the gallery.
Our first stop was at the display of Neanderthal teeth which were found in a cave near Pontnewydd along with the bones of animals.  She described how they were able to date the finds to some 250,000 years ago so that they represent the first traces of human occupation of Wales and then how they were able to construct a model of the eight-year-old boy from two teeth in part of his jaw bone.

From the Roman period she showed us a beautiful drinking cup with a handle in the shape of a leaping leopard (the leopard was a symbol for Bacchus) complete with eighty spots and eyes of amber.  It was found with its owner in a grave near Abergavenny.

Caergwrle Bowl
The Caergwrle Bowl: a rare representation of a Bronze Age ship made from shale from Dorset, tin from Cornwall and gold from Ireland or Wales (18cm long and 8cm high).
© Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales
Roman leopard cup
Bronze cup with leopard handle inlaid with silver spots (11cm high, 50-100 CE).
© Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales

Another exquisite object, and again of international importance, is the Caergwrle Bowl from the Bronze age.  The bowl is made of shale and symbolises a boat as it is decorated in gold with designs that represent shields, oars and water. 

Finally, many thanks to Christabel Hutchings for organising such a fascinating visit to learn about some of the hidden gems that are held at St Fagans.
Diane Davies

NBG Entrance and Glasshouse

Visit to the National Botanic

 Gardens: 8th August 2023

(left) Entrance to the National Botanic Gardens with the Great Glasshouse in the distance.                                                                           Photo: Diane Davies
The last time I visited the National Botanic Gardens was in 2019, when they were just starting the restoration of the northern sequence of lakes, so that whole area was out-of-bounds.  Therefore, I was really looking forward to the chance of exploring this new area of the Gardens.  Although the weather was grey and wet when we left Cardiff, which did not auger well, by the time we arrived it was dry(ish) and there were even hints of brightness.
The landscape that can be seen today was mainly the result of the ambitions of William Paxton and to start the visit we had a talk by Helen Whitear, the Heritage Officer, about this early history of the site.  Early maps show a Middleton Hall existing from the early 1600s although now no trace of it exists.  The Middletons were heavily involved in the East India Company and made their money through the importation of nutmeg, a spice that was even more valuable than gold.   However, by the end of the 18th century the family had fallen into debt and in 1789 the property was bought by William Paxton who had made his money exploiting the riches of India. 
NBG Guided Tour
The guided tour: Helen Whiteear talking in front of the old servants quarters with the outline of Middleton Hall behind her .                  Photo: Diane Davies
NBG Oak bridge
The oak bridge at the lower end of Llyn Felin Gât which resembles the bridge depicted in a painting of the landscape by James Horner in 1815..
Photo: Diane Davies
Paxton brought in Samuel Pepys Cockerall to create a Regency waterpark for him, utilizing the two rivers that run through the estate to create picturesque landscape consisting of a series of lakes linked by a network of dams, sluices, and cascades.  Paths and bridges led to a spectacular waterfall at the far northern end of the lake system.   Water was also taken to provide running water in the newly built Middleton Hall, another first.  The cutting-edge technology of the time was also used for another of his projects, which was the double-walled garden we can see today, a unique feature for Welsh and English estates.  In it he constructed a peach house with underfloor heating.  However, with his death in 1829 the estate began a slow decline exacerbated by the destruction of Middleton Hall by fire in 1931.  
So the only original building that we see today are the servants quarters, the impressive neo-classical stables and some outbuildings.
Then before lunch Helen took us on a guided tour which included the old buildings and the walled garden.  On the tour we passed a newly created orchard dedicated to local apple varieties.  The trees are set in grassland which is kept under control by the use of very photogenic Valais Blacknose sheep.
NBG Valais Blacknose Sheep
A Swiss Valais Blacknose sheep mowing the grass in the orchard area.    
Photo: Diane Davies
NBG Waterfall
The waterfall feature on the River Gwynon which feeds the lakes.                  Photo: Diane Davies
After lunch I set off to explore the newly created water features.  The paths wander through woodland following the deep cut ravines created by the River Gwynon with occasional vistas of the lakes.  At the far end one crosses a beautiful oak bridge before ascending to view the waterfall.
NBG Birds of Prey
                    Three birds of prey: (from the left: Eagle Owl,  Red Kite, Peregrine Falcon).                                                              Photo: Diane Davies

The final event of the day was a display of birds of prey kept at the British Birds of Prey Centre .  We were treated to close up views of a Barn Owl, an Eagle Owl, both a Red and a Black Kite and finally a Peregrine Falcon - in flight and perched on nearby posts or on the handler’s wrist.

It was a real treat to revisit the Botanic Gardens.  It has grown enormously from what I remember of my first visit, now it encompasses a huge variety of habitats, from the various aquatic features, to large areas of woodland, meadows and wildflower pastures that help in its prime role of educating us about the importance of biodiversity.

Many thanks to Peter Davies for organizing such a varied and interesting day-out.

Diane Davies

A Visit to Wells: 5th July 2023

The July coach trip saw over forty Friends taking advantage of a fine summer’s day to visit the city of Wells and with it with the chance to see the famous Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace.

 I had been once before to Wells, to visit the Cathedral, but had been totally aware of the Bishop’s Palace, so I decided to start there.    However, what I enjoyed most were the extensive gardens that surround it.  They were a delight to wander through varying from an immaculately manicured lawn area to wild-life areas.  I started in the more formal gardens with their backdrop of the ruined wall of the great hall (it lost the lead from its roof during the Reformation and fell into disrepair and was partially demolished in the Victorian era).  They had some splendid specimen trees including a black walnut complete with walnuts and a line of mulberry trees.

Bishops Palace South Lawn and remains of Great Hall
Bishop's Palace: South Lawn and the remaining two walls of the Great Hall                                                      Photo: Diane Davies
Wells Pools and cathedral reflection
      The Wells Pool with its reflection of the Cathedral
      Photo: Diane Davies
Bishops Palace moat and ramparts
 Bishop's Palace: ramparts and moat        Photo: Diane Davies
Swans at Bishops Palace Gatehouse
Bishop's Place Gatehouse with the bell for the swans just to the right of the window                                                       Photo: Diane Davies

They are natural springs fed by water from the Mendips and allow a succession of ponds to be created but also go on to feed the moat surrounding the palace, as well as providing the water supply for the medieval town along gutters which still exist today.  The provided a tranquil area of flowers and shrubs with the cathedral. as an imposing backdrop.  

In the moat two swans accompanied by their  cygnets glided across the water.  On the wall of the gatehouse is a bell which they can ring when they wish to be fed.  The practice dates from the  1870s  when their ancestors were taught by the daughter of Bishop Harvey.

Wells cathedral Nave vaulting
Wells Cathedral Lizard sculpture on pillar
Wells Cathedral: Nave vaulting with the nineteeth century Persian Tree of Life design                                                          Photo: Diane Davies Wells cathedral: sculpture of a lizard on one of the pillars
Photo: Diane Davies
After lunch it was time to visit the Cathedral and I was lucky enough to be in time for the afternoon guided tour.  Seeing the interior, I was again impressed by the great sicissor arches that are at the centre of the cathedral; they look striking modern but are in fact a novel medieval solution to the subsidence of the central tower as it was being built.  This time, I was also struck by the decorations to the roof of the nave; though nineteenth century they are based on one of the few surviving fragments of medieval painting that could be interpreted and represent a Persian Tree of Life.  Also fascinating were the stone carvings around the pillars, either telling stories or simply showing-off the masons skill.  At four o’clock we were taken to see the astronomical clock strike the hour.  This is the second oldest working clock in Britain (the oldest is in Salisbury Cathedral but so not so spectacular, according to our guide).  On the hour two joisting knights go round the top of the clock whilst to one side a man chimes the hour by kicking two bells with his feet - quite  a sight.
Wells cathedral astronomical clock80
Wells Cathedral: Fourteenth-century Astronomical Clock
Photo: Diane Davies
Wells Vicars Close30
        Wells: Vicar's Close                                         Photo: Diane Davies
Then there was just enough time to visit the Vicars Close, whilst passing on the way an Anthony Gormley sculpture inhabiting one of the niches on the outside wall for medieval stone sculptures, so looking somewhat incongruous.  The Close was built in the fourteenth century to house members of the choir and the oldest continuously inhabited street in Europe.  It is a striking row of stone-built terrace houses that stretch up to a small chapel at the top end.

So many thanks to Heather Graves and Len Metcalfe for organising such an interesting day out.

Diane Davies

Visit to Kelmscott Manor and Stow-on-the-Wold: 7th June 2023

The Friends’ June coach trip was to the Cotswolds, visiting Kelmscott Manor in the morning and Stow-in-the-Wold in the afternoon.  

Kelmscott Manor is famous for being the summer home of William Morris, a multi-faceted artist, a visionary writer and a political radical. 

A few weeks earlier there had been a Friends talk, in National Museum Cardiff on William Morris by Stella Grace Williams, which had proved immensely popular, so it was no surprise to find that the trip was sold-out.

Quotes from William Morris’s Writings

 Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is the hatred of modern civilisation 
How I Became a Socialist

“I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few  Lecture by William Morris on the decorative arts, 1877
Kelmscott Sculpture of William Morris
William Morris sitting under a cherry tree at Kelmscott Manor: sculpture by Phillip Webb set into the wall of the Memorial Cottages at Kelmscott
Kelmscott Manor was originally built during the seventeenth century, first as a farmhouse and then extended into a manor house as its owners, the Turner family, rose up the social ladder. 

Morris began to rent the house in 1871 in partnership with his friend, Dante Gabrielli Rossetti for whom Jane Morris (Morris’s wife) was his muse and lover but that’s another story.  Morris was looking for a summer residence for his wife and their two girls.  Jane Morris continued to live there and she acquired the house in 1913 just before she died.   It then passed to their daughter, May, who lived there until her death in 1938.

In 1962, it was acquired by the Society of Antiquaries of London who carried out extensive restoration work during the sixties and then again much more recently, having received £4.3 million lottery  grant in 2018.
The house provides the opportunity to appreciate not just the wide range of William Morris’s interests but also a Jacobean house with its original furniture and tapestries as well as objects produced by his family and friends, including many paintings by Rossetti featuring Jane.  

Whilst the house contains furniture and other objects specifically intended for it, there are also many that were originally to be found in the Red House, Bexlyheath built in 1859.  This was designed by William Morris and his friend Phillip Webb as a home after his marriage to Jane Burden and where they lived until 1866.  

So, walking through the rooms of Kelmscott one gets a flavour of the wide range of interests of the Morris’s and their friends.
Kelmscott Manor from the walled garden5
   Kelmscott Manor from the walled garden
What caught my eye were the wallpaper and furnishings, which incorporate many of Morris’s iconic designs, such as Strawberry Thief, inspired by thrushes stealing fruit from the Kelmscott kitchen garden, and Willow Bough, again inspired by the garden.  It was also fascinating to see sixteenth century herbal books whose woodcuts of plants also inspired many of his designs.  I was also taken by a quilt designed by May Morris and embroidered by Jane Morris featuring representations of the house and the nearby River Thames.  Then I came across original prints by Albrecht Dürer, including one of Melancholia, perhaps his most famous engraving.   Among the other items that struck me was a camphorwood box decorated by Rossetti as a wedding present for William and Jane Morris and what I took to be a pair of ornate metal peacock firescreens.
Morris family grave
                Morris family grave designed by Phillip Webb
Leaving the house gave a chance to visit the St George’s Church, where all four (husband, wife and both children) are buried.  The church itself is also full of medieval interest: from uncovered wall paintings to some original fifteenth-century stained glass showing an image of St George. 

Then after lunch we set off for Stow-in-the-Wold, which made its money originally from sheep but now from tourists but it was nice to visit the church and indulge in coffee and cake before the journey home..
Finally, many thanks to Maggie Lewis for organising the trip and making sure that everything under her control ran smoothly.

Diane Davies

Visit to Oxford: 19th April 2023

A trip to Oxford is the traditional start of the Friends coach trips and this year proved no exception.  It was very encouraging to see an almost-full coach.  The Oxford trip is a very relaxed affair in that people can do whatever they like once Oxford has been reached for there is much to see and do.

Front entrance of Ashmolean Museum
       Front entrance of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaology
       Photo: Diane Davies
However, like many of the others I was looking forward to seeing a special exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology entitled Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality.               

The exhibition title comes from the legend of the Minatour, half-man and half-bull, that figures in a complex set of myths that involve Daedalus, his son Icarus, Theseus who killed the Minatour and Ariadne who helped him.   The labyrinth was believed to be at Knossos, the ancient centre of the Minoan civilisation that existed on Crete.  The exhibition sets out the history of the excavations which were originally started by Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan businessman and scholar, at the end of the nineteenth century.  He found evidence of the palace at Knossos lying under what appeared to be a small hill but the excavations were taken over by the a
rchaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who was Keeper of Archaeology at the Ashmolean in the early 1900s. 

He popularised the site by imposing his own interpretation on what he found and through his partial restoration of the palace complex

I was able to visit the site in 2009,so the photographs of the site show it as it was then.  It is huge and very impressive but distinguishing the Minoan remains from Evans’s restoration was extremely tricky, so it was fascinating to see it all set out in historical context.  Excavations continue to this day and the exhibition shows finds from these those carried out since my visit.

View of top end of palace at Knossos
The highest point of the palace complex at Knossos
Photo: Diane Davies
Entrance to the labyrinth at Knossos
Entering the 'labyrinth' at Knossos                         Photo: Diane Davies

The exhibition also looks at the idea of the labyrinth, which has fascinated human-beings throughout the centuries and the myths that have grown around the idea; even today we all enjoy trying to navigate a complex maze.  The myths that grew up around the one at Knossos have echoes in many aspects of the Minoan civilisation.  The palace complex is labyrinthine in its construction, the Minoans celebrated the bull in ritual bull-leaping contests and their decorative designs featured the eight tentacles of octopuses that were arranged into complex patterns in their artworks as well as frescos with dolphins and griffins.

Throne Room at Knossos
The Throne Room, built around 1500BC, with its fresco of griffins (a mythical creature with a lion's body and a bird's head)  
Photo: Diane Davies
Dolphin Frescos at Knossos
                    Dolphin fresco in one of the rooms of palace                 
                    Photo:  Diane Davies

After a break for lunch and a stroll around Oxford I returned to the Ashmolean to spent what was left of the afternoon looking at the art collection.  It is a wide-ranging collection ranging from the early Italian Renaissance to the contemporary.  I would just like to mention two works with a Welsh connection.  The first was Rooftops in Naples by Thomas Jones, the same rooftops viewed from his studio that feature in the postcard sized view in National Museum Cardiff, one of my favourite works in the Museum.  This one though was simpler but in a striking letterbox format which gave it a modern feel.  The other was a work by Gwen John, The Convalescent, one of eleven works she created featuring the subject over a period of nearly twenty years.  It is a painting concerned with shapes and colours rather than the depiction of an individual, so in a way has parallels with Thomas Jones’s image in its preoccupation with form rather than content.

Many thanks to Dorn Swaffield for organising the trip and giving me the chance to once again explore the Ashmolean.

Diane Davies

Thomas Henry Thomas and the Founding of the Museum

The National Museum is celebrating the fact that it is 100 years since it opened its doors to the public.  Kristine Chapman has written a blog about this event, entitled, Opening of the National Museum Oct 1922.

The Friends also have their Oriel magazine and copies are placed on our website.  You can find a copy of an article about Thomas Henry Thomas known as T. H. Thomas who was a founding father of the National Museum.  You will find it in the March edition of 2014.


Painting of T H Thomas
Christopher Williams, Thomas Henry Thomas (1834-1915) (Oil on canvas, 67cm x 56cm, 1902)           
© Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales
The campaign for a National Museum for Wales was part of the flowering of Welsh cultural nationalism which took place before the First World War.  Traditionally Museums collected, preserved and shared collections but were particularly important in establishing identity of national states such as Wales.  Scotland and Ireland had founded national museums in 1854 and 1877 but Wales had to wait until 1907.

Thomas was important in getting a National Museum for Wales located in Cardiff.  Thomas never saw this completed structure which was officially opened by King George V in 1927. The National Museum of Wales had been founded in 1905, with its royal charter granted in 1907.  Part of the bid for Cardiff to obtain the National Museum for Wales included the gift of the Cardiff Museum Collection.  So Cardiff lost its local museum and gained a national one.

The Cardiff Museum collection was formally handed over in 1912.   In fact many of the artefacts and specimens had been collected by Thomas.  Thomas was there to celebrate these occasions in 1907 and 1912 and he also helped oversee the design.  There were lions on the roof but he insisted that other effigies were added and of course insisted on dragons.

By the time the new building opened Thomas had long departed this world.  The last years of his life were difficult.  Thomas was a pacifist and despaired of the war.  He was increasingly ill with heart disease and died in his sleep like his father, the President of the Baptist College at Pontypool, in 1915.

Christabel Hutchings

Visit to Tyntesfield: 5th October 2022

The Friends’ coach trip to Tyntesfield took place on a very blustery and showery autumnal day.  After an introduction to the house and gardens plus coffee in the Visitors Centre, we were allowed to go our own ways to explore both the house and the extensive gardens.
House from formal gardens
         The house from the formal gardens                                  Photo: Diane Davies
The house is primarily known for being built in the Gothic revival and externally replete with crenelations, spires and turrets.  For those of us who love the medieval fantasies built by William Burges for the Bute family in Cardiff, it was a delight to explore.
The site dates back to Tudor times but the house was originally Georgian; it was adapted and added to by William Gibbs as a home for himself, his wife and his seven children in the 1860s.  .
His family had business connections in Spain and South America and he made his money by importing guano from islands off the coast of Peru for use as fertiliser, having secured a monopoly for its export to Britain.  The work there was mainly carried out by Chinese indentured labourers who worked in conditions of near slavery.  The profits from the trade made William Gibbs the richest non-aristocrat in Britain.

The Gibbs family were Tracterians, an Anglican movement bordering on Catholicism.  For Tracterians like Gibbs, the Gothic style was an architectural expression of Christian ideals and the architect he chose, John Norton, was strongly influenced by the high priest of the Gothic revival, William Pugin (of Houses of Parliament fame).   No expense was spared in recreating a medieval atmosphere in a late nineteenth century Victorian country house.  


Tyntesfield chapel
          The Chapel at Tyntesfield             Photo:: Gwen Williams
Rose Garden at Tyntesfield
       The rose garden at Tyntesfield                                        Photo: Diane Davies
The house even has its own Gothic chapel, which I entered by climbing up a spiral staircase to be greeted by gothic-style stained glass windows, including a rose window.

Medieval features abound everywhere with ornate wood panelling, or rich tapestries or stained glass in the windows.  William Gibbs’s motto, “en dios mi ampero y esperanza” (Spanish for “in God my refuge and hope”), was ubiquitous as a decorative feature.  Spanish because he was born in 1790 in Madrid and was educated both in Spain and England.

With the death of the last of the line, the house and much of the contents were sold to the National Trust in 2002.  One of the most important art works, a Madonna and Child with John the Baptist by Giovanni Bellini was given to the nation in lieu of death duties and originally went to Bristol Museum. However, it is now on loan and to the NT and is on display it its original setting.  
This was perhaps the most important of the art works on display, although two paintings have frames announcing them to be by Rubens and another proclaiming the painting to be by Rembrandt - there were a lot more works by these artists around in the nineteenth century, when every aspiring art collector wanted those names in their collections. 

By the time I finished exploring the house, the rain appeared to have stopped so I took the opportunity to explore the gardens.  Not only were there formal gardens full of purple verbena but also extensive woodland beginning to show their autumnal colours to wander through. 
Guardian of the woodland300
             The guardian of the woods           Photo: Diane Davies
All-in-all a fascinating visit and I want to thank Heather Graves and Len Metcalfe for organising the visit and successfully solving problems caused by the day being one chosen for a national rail strike.
Diane Davies

Visit to National Collections Centre: 21st September 2022

I always feel that a Friends’ visit to the national Collections Centre in Nantgarw is a bit like a ‘Lucky-Dip’ that introduces me to the unknown or unexpected and the fascinating stories behind them.  Although I have now been a number of times on these trips, I am always amazed by the range of artefacts that are held there and in awe of the knowledge of the staff who show us around and talk about what we are seeing.
Ceri talking about the art collction s holding of works by miners
         Ceri Thompson talking about the collection of artworks by miners
         Photo: Diane Davies
As usual, we were divided into three smaller groups for the tour.   My group’s first stop was in an area holding some of the art collection created by miners or relating to mining.  Ceri Thompson showed us a small selection of the works and entertainingly related the stories behind them.  Of particular interest were a collection of striking drawing (mainly in pastel and crayon) of William John Davies, known as ‘Chopper’.  He was working at Six Bells colliery in 1960 when an explosion killed forty-five men. He would have been among the dead but had worked overtime the night before and so had taken the day off.  He produced many works based on his experiences underground and donated over three hundred of his works to the Museum.  

Then Ceri showed us some of the Museum’s collection of Illuminated Addresses, used to honour individuals from the mining community.  Their style and appearance gave them the feel of illuminated manuscripts – it was a case of appearance transcending content
John James and Mark Lewis then showed us items in the transport section.  These included three Gilbern cars from the early 1970s and are the only cars to be completely manufactured in Wales – you can read about them in an article in Oriel (see Oriel, October 2021, p.21).   John James also showed us some of the boats in the collection.  The Moelfre lifeboat that was involved in a dramatic resecue of the coast of Anglesey in 1947.  Then he talked about the preservation of two much older rowing boats:  one discovered in Llyn Padarn and dating from Tudor times and another found in the mud at Pill, near Newport, and dating from the 11th century. 

Mark Lewis then explained about the restoration work he was doing on parts of an engine from a car that set the world land-speed record in 1926 on Pendine Sands.  It was driven by John Perry-Thomas, who was killed a year later trying to regain the record with the same car.  The remains of the car were buried in the sands at Pendine but were dug-up in 1969.  The restored car will be displayed at a planned Museum of Speed in Pendine.
James and Mark talking about the Gilbern cars
       James and Mark talking about the Gilbern cars on view in the transport area
       Photo: Diane Davies
Lisa talking about the conserving items connected to the Aberfan disaster
           Lisa Charles talking about the conservation of items relating to the                       Aberfan disaster                                                                  Photo: Diane Davies
Our third visit was to the conservation area where Lisa Charles told us about the challenges of conserving items relating to the Aberfan disaster.  Since the publicity over the alarm clock (see Oriel, April 2022, p.30), many more people have come forward to offer items to the Museum. 

One of the most important is a school exercise book which contains an essay written a few years later by a survivor of the disaster who wrote about her experiences of being in the Pantglas Junior School that day. 

Also very poignant were memorabilia of a wedding held just two weeks previously where one of the young bridesmaids was a pupil at the school and was killed in the disaster.
Once again thanks must go to Roger Gagg for organising the trip.  Well worth booking if you see another one advertised as a future event. 

Diane Davies

Visit to Gloucester Cathedral and Highnam Court: 6th July 2022

On a gloriously sunny July morning a full coach of Friends set off to visit Gloucester Cathedral and Highnam Court.  Both have strong musical connections and so we were fortunate to have, as one of the party, Geraint Lewis, an eminent musicologist and composer.   On the way to Gloucester, he explained how Vaughan Williams was connected with Gloucester especially through his connection to the Three Choirs Festival, a link that started with the first performance of his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis at the cathedral in 1910.  He then went on to mention the connection of Highnam Court with music; it was where Hubert Parry grew up and later lived.  Indeed, it is said that Jerusalem, his most famous work, was composed one morning in its music room.

Gloucester Cathedral
             Gloucester Cathedral                          Photo: Diane Davies

Highnam Court
   Highnam Court with the Orangery on the far left       Photo: Diane Davies

For the visit of Gloucester Cathedral, we were split up into three groups for a guided tour.  It is an amazing space with a Norman nave with rounded pillars and Romanesque arches at one end to the airy Perpendicular style at the east end, which consists of one impressive window behind the high altar filled with medieval stained glass celebrating the medieval social hierarchy with God at the top.  I was also struck by modern stained glass designed by Thomas Denny, a Gloucestershire artist, which is to be found in the Thomas Chapel and also a chapel commemorating the composers Gerald Finzi and Ivor Gurney. 
East window and vaulted roof
Medieval east window and the fan vaulted roof                Photo: Diane Davies
Tomb of Edward II
                     Tomb of Edward II                 Photo: Diane Davies

The Cathedral is the burial place of Edward II who was brutally murdered at nearby Berkley Castle and has an ornate medieval shrine dedicated to him which, before the Reformation was a popular pilgrimage destination.  In addition, there is the tomb of Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror.  I enjoy quirky misericords and here they have ones showing dragons fighting, two people playing football and an elephant (complete with horses’ hooves!).  I also admired the cloisters with their fan vaulting which surround a garden in full flower – an ideal place to rest and recuperate.
Elephant misericord
 Misericord with a carving of an elephant               Photo: Diane Davies

Cloisters with fan vaulting
       14th century cloisters with fan vaulting             Photo: Diane Davies

After lunch we moved on to Highnam Court built in 1658 to a design by one of the pupils of Inigo Jones.  In 1838 it was bought by Thomas Gaudier Parry.  He was an artist and musician and, indeed some of his work can be seen in one of the chapels in the Cathedral.  His son was Hubert Parry who also lived there.  However, during the twentieth century the house and gardens went to wrack and ruin.  The present owner, Roger Head, bough the place in the 1990s and since then has devoted time and money to restoring both the house and gardens.

The house is normally closed to visitors but we were given an unexpected opportunity to see four of its rooms.  All had been faithfully restored back to what was known from documentary evidence.  Afterwards we had a chance to explore the extensive gardens in the summer sunshine before tea and cake in the Orangery.  For me, one of the highlights of the grounds were not the flowers and tress but the wooden sculptures created from dead trees by David Bytheway, a Shropshire-based, chain-saw sculptor.  They could be found and admired around every corner.
Carved owl in tree
          Carving of owl in tree                       Photo: Diane Davies

Carved fox and cubs plus boar
Carving of fox and cubs and on the right, a wild boar    Photo: Diane Davies

Thanks to Richard Carter and Trix Pryce for organising such an enjoyable trip and also to Geraint Lewis for his entertaining and instructive coach talks illuminating the connections that Vaughan Williams and Hubert Parry had with the places we were visiting.

Diane Davies

Visit to Aberglasney House and Gardens: 12th May 2022

The second coach trip of the year was to Aberglasney House and Gardens near Llandeilo.  It was very encouraging to discover that it was a full coach that set off from Cardiff in bright Spring sunshine – though I have to confess that Carmarthenshire seemed to be ignoring the fact that Spring had arrived.

After refreshments in the house, we were treated to a guided tour of some of the key features of the gardens and learn about the wide variety of garden types that can be seen at Aberglasney.  It was also an opportunity to learn about the history of the place which after flourishing from medieval times gradually fell into wrack and ruin in the second half of the twentieth century.  Then in 1995 it was taken over by the Aberglasney Restoration Trust who started the task of creating the gardens that can be seen today.
House and Cloister Garden
Upper walled garden
    The house and the Elizabethan Cloister Garden        Photo: Diane Davies
    The Upper Walled Garden                              Photo: Diane Davies
The tour was led by Dave Hand who, apart from Joseph Atkin, the Head Gardener, is the only full-time gardener at Aberglasney.  Otherwise, the work there is carried out by three student gardeners and a host of volunteers.  We started in the Cloister Garden which dates back to the Elizabethan/Jacobean times and which is important as being the only example of its type in Britain.  It has a series of patterned walkways and its sheltered aspect was intended to allow tender plants to be kept there such as the orange trees that decorate the area today.  The origins of this garden could date back to the thirteenth century as a silver Long Cross Penny dating from the reign of Edward I was found during archaeological excavations on the site.
Pool Garden
Pool Garden
       The Pool  Garden                                             Photo: Diane Davies The Friends on their tour through the Stream Garden     Photo: Diane Davies

From there we moved to the two walled gardens.  The upper one was created by the garden designer and writer, Penelope Hobhouse and shows her love of Tuscan gardens and variety of colour combinations.  The lower one is used as a kitchen garden and is bordered with apple trees trained in a variety of ways.  From there we moved past the Pool Garden into more woodland areas before returning to the house for lunch via a wisteria covered walkway.  This has only recently been created and it will be future generations that enjoy its full glory.  However nearby wisteria gave off a heady perfume to give a foretaste of what will come.

       The Ninfarium                                                   Photo: Diane Davies

After lunch came the chance to explore other areas of the house and gardens.  In total there are about twenty different sorts of garden styles that can be seen at Aberglasney and at this time of year the Asiatic Garden was in full splendour. 

The house has been extensively renovated by the Trust over the years but one section that was in a particularly ruinous state was given a glass atrium and planted with sun tropical and exotic species including a wide variety of rare and unusual orchids. Its name, Ninfarium, derives from the garden at Ninfa near Rome who owners, the Caetani family gave financial support to the poet Dylan Thomas.
After leaving Aberglasney there was the chance to spend a bit of time in Llandeilo and many of us used the opportunity to have afternoon tea to fortify us before the return to Cardiff.  Finally, many thanks must go to Margaret Lewis for organising such a successful day out.

Diane Davies

Editor's Note
:  A longer version of this post focussing on the history of the house and gardens is planned for the October edition of Oriel.

Oxford Visit:  Wednesday 13th April 2022

It is just over two years since the Friends last visited Oxford and it became the final visit made by the Friends before the 2020 lockdown. It is fitting therefore that this year’s April 13th visit was the first day trip organized by the Friends since the lockdown.   All our Friends’ visits are organized by committee members of the Board of Trustees and Dorn Swaffield was the organizer on this occasion.

On an overcast, rather dull morning, thirty-one intrepid travellers set forth from the Museum steps and the Wild Gardens in Roath.  The format for the visit is usually the same with the put-down and pick-up spot being the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford city centre.  From there we make our diverse ways.

The spring Oxford trip usually coincides with a major art exhibition and this year the main draw for many was the current art exhibition running at the Ashmolean, Pissarro: Father of ImpressionismThose who made this choice were in for a great treat as this was a beautifully curated exhibition playing on the word “Father” in the title

Pissarro, who was born in 1830, was the oldest of the Impressionists and literally became a father figure to some of them, notably Cezanne and Gauguin.  With Gauguin, he encouraged him to pursue art as a career but it was for his kindness and sympathy towards Cezanne that he is best remembered.  In the case of Cezanne he made a major impact encouraging him to work ‘en plein’ air using looser brushstrokes and there are old photographs existing showing the pair side by side painting together.  At the end of his life Cezanne described Pissarro as being “a father to me.”
Ashmolean Museum in 2014
  Ashmolean Musuem in 2014                                                          Photo: Lewis Clarke

Pissarro in 1900
            Camille Pissarro in 1900                          Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Ashmolean exhibition cleverly displayed their works together and in one case showed the same scene painted by them.  His relationship with Monet, Sisley, Degas, and Van Gogh all informed his creativity and again the curation of the exhibition displayed works by these artists showing the influences at work flowing between them.

Through his son Lucien, also an artist, Pissarro became interested in pointillism and befriended Seurat and Signac and for a time painted in this style as well.  The laborious technique meant that fewer paintings were produced and so Pissaro’s income fell and he reverted to painting freer landscapes, impressionistic in style.

I was struck by the obvious scholarship which forged this exhibition. From the choice of artists, the brilliant descriptions hanging besides the pictures, the exhibition catalogue – it was so informative.  All-in-all, an artistic triumph for the Ashmolean.

The writer of this Blog, who had done a little homework before the trip on the treasures of the Ashmolean, decided to try to find King Alfred’s Jewel - an artifact which is often shown on historical programmes on TV.   Coming face to face, as it were, with the intricacy and beauty of the jewel itself was awesome, particularly when one considers the workshop tools available at that time.

Together with seeing some other wonderful pictures from the permanent collection the day came to a close after the requisite and essential visit to the shop and coffee shop!  Everyone was on time for the coach, which was noticeably quieter on the way back than on the way out as our legs recovered and we all in our different ways reflected on the visual treats which we had experienced.

Trix Pryce

A Visit to National Museum Cardiff: Part 2 (Swaps and new acquisitions)

The second exhibition to open in October was Swaps, which consists of photographs from the David Hurn Collection.   This second exhibition featuring the collection comprises photographs that David Hurn had received from fellow members of Magnum Photo, the photo-journalism collective, plus some of his own photographs taken in Wales.  The subject matter varied enormously (so much that there was a warning on the door that some people might find some images offensive).  Three images have stuck in my memory.  The first is one by Bill Brandt of a miner in Northumberland having his tea whilst his wife looks on - it is the expression of the wife that caught my attention, hard but full of resignation at the same time.  The second was of Henri Matisse in old age, cutting out a shape for one of his famous collages, taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson.  The third was one by David Hurn himself; it was taken on a wet day on the Mynydd Eppynt Army Range and is a view of two sheep sheltering inside a sentry box standing side-by-side and looking out as if on sentry duty.

From there I wandered across to the permanent collection to have a first look at the two Paula Rego pastels acquired last year and being shown for the first time.  The form part of a sequence representing the Life Cycle of the Virgin Mary and featured in an article in the April 2021 edition of Oriel

Then I made my way to the Faces of Wales gallery in the hope of seeing the painting that has replaced the portrait of Thomas Picton that used to hang there, only to discover that the gallery still remains closed.  So, I was denied the opportunity of seeing a very striking painting by Albert Houthuesen (1903-1979) - a life size portrait of of William Lloyd, a hedger and ditcher. However, from the image shown it looks a far more arresting work than the standard man-in-uniform that was Picton's portrait.  Hopefully, access to that section will soon be permitted and I can see the picture in the flesh, so to speak.

From there, I found myself passing through the gallery devoted to the Impressionists to one that is devoted to newly acquired works.

Here I was able to see a work by Magdalene Odundo (1950- ).  Those Friends who came on the trip to Northumbria and Durham in 2019 may remember a visit to The Hepworth Wakefield – as well as the permanent Hepworth collection there was a special exhibition devoted to the ceramics of Magdalene Odundo.  I had never seen any of her work before and was immediately entranced by the shapes and patterns of the pottery she created

So, it is wonderful to know that the Museum has acquired one of her pieces.  Asymmetric 1 It is a terracotta bowl/vase in black and orange, the two colours being the result of multiple firings done in a way that gives an unpredictable finish to the piece. 
Magdalene Odundo Asymmetric 1
                   Magdalene Odundo, Asymmetric 1 (Terrracotta)              © Magdalene Odund
Also on display in the room were two oil paintings by Mary Lloyd Jones (1934- ), one, Ysgyrn from 2018 and the other, Pwerdy Ceunant from 2019.  They are large landscapes bordering on abstract.   I have long been an admirer of her work and it was good to see that the Museum has finally acquired two of her works on canvas.

So all-in-all a very enjoyable morning and a reminder that there is so much to see in the art section of National Museum Cardiff.

Diane Davies

A Visit to National Museum Cardiff:  Part 1 (The Rules of Art?)

Recently I took the opportunity to visit National Museum Museum to see what was on show.  What I have been inspired to say about the visit is going to be more than a blog’s worth so this blog is going to be in two parts.  This first part concentrates on the recently opened The Rules of Art? exhibition.

The exhibition occupies five of the gallery spaces and is loosely based on the traditional five genres of painting.  In the first room was a painting that, previously, I had only been able to admire from afar.  This was Spring by Maximillian Lenz, a huge work that used to hang at the top of the stairs leading to the permanent art collection before it was banished to the stores.  Now I could see it close up and admire the details.  You can read about Lenz and the painting in an article by Ilse Fisher-Hayes in the February 2013 edition of the Friends’ magazine.

Lenz Spring 
                         Maximilian Lenz (1860-1948), Spring (Oil on canvas, 174cm x 366cm, c.1904)   © Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum of Wales
I was pleased to see that a large proportion of the works on display were by women artists.  Some were known to me such as Man Rock by Brenda Chamberlain.  Again, you can read more about her and the painting in an article I wrote for the October 2010 edition of the magazine (gosh was it so long ago!).  Then there was Clare Woods' Hill of Hurdles, a striking representation of a detailed landscape in bold swirling acrylic colours.  New to me was a beautiful Victorian genre scene by Emily Mary Osborne entitled For the Last Time.

One of the joys of the exhibition was the juxtaposition of artworks.  In this first room Botticelli’s Madonna and Child (as featured on TV) is contrasted with a photograph of Mother and Child, South Wales by Helen Musratt from 1937. You can see both images in the October 2021 edition of Oriel in an article by Neil Lebeter, curator of the exhibition, explaining the thinking behind it.  In the next room were Still Life artworks and here photographs of flowers taken in the 1840’s by the pioneering photographer from Swansea, Mary Dillwyn, were placed next to a work by Ethel Sands (1873-1963) - a painting I’d not seen before.  I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of an iconic painting by William Dyce, Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting showing two women in Welsh costume demurely knitting in the middle of nowhere with a work Its Called Fashion (Look It Up) Merthyr by Clémentine Scheidermann and Charlotte James showing five young women, dressed-up in Victorian-looking mourning attire, looking challengingly straight back at you. 

Then, Richard Wilson’s Cadair Idris, which is on loan for the exhibition, is paired with Bedwyr Williams’s video installation, Tyrrau Mawr, where a modern high-rise city has been built on the slopes of the mountain and you can follow the change in light over twenty-four hours.  I remember seeing Tyrrau for the first time at an Artes Mundi exhibition when it was installed in a darkened room and provided an immersive experience that bowled me over.  In this exhibition it is on a large TV screen but still fascinating to see.

The immersive experience of the exhibition is Vertigo See by John Akomfrah.  Three screens show natural history films featuring the sea together with historical footage and re-enactments of what humans have done on its surface from slavery to whaling to emigration and flight from persecution.  It is long but the juxtaposition of images is mesmerising, though-provoking and occasionally horrific.  A breath-taking, intriguing and, at times, deeply moving piece.

Diane Davies

Visit to Fourteen Locks Canal Centre: Wednesday 14th July 2021

We are now in the middle of July and the prospect of easing of the restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic comes ever closer.  So, it is time to think about the restarting day visits to places of interest for Friends.  Which meant that, on a warm and sunny day, a dozen or so Friends took part in a trial visit to the Fourteen Locks Canal Centre to the north of Newport.  Thanks must go to Christabel Hutchings for organising the vest and leading a walk to look at the fourteen locks that give the Centre its name.

Pound next to Centre
The pound next to the Fourteen Locks Centre with sculpture and ducks

With coach trips still not an option we all travelled independently to the Centre which houses a café, a small museum, displays of local art and a meeting room.  Next to it is the pound for the topmost lock which is now an attractive water feature complete with a dragonfly sculpture and ducks guiding their goslings across the water in the hope of a free meals. 

From the Centre, Christabel led us down the flight of locks known as the Cefn Flight which is the most impressive section of the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal. During the walk Christabel outlined the history of the canal and why the locks are so significant.

These locks are part of the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal.  The other arm is the Pontypool Canal which finishes at Pontnewynydd where it links to the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal.  So, in its heyday the canal system connected Newport to Crumlin and Brecon and transported coal and iron, with bricks being the third most significant commodity.

The man behind the canals was Thomas Dadford Junior (1760-1801).  Work started in 1792 in Crumlin and by 1794 the canal had reached Abercarn.  The next two years saw the completion of the canal, including the fourteen locks of the Cefn Flight (lock numbers 8 to 21).  These consist of four pairs of locks, a set of triple locks and a single one.

Dadford died just forty years-old whilst working on the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal.  The network was finally completed in 1812.  In 1880 the canal system was taken over by Great Western Railways ensuring that commercial carrying on the canal ceased.
Pair of locks
One of the restored pair of locks with one of its 'shelves' on the left, the purpose of which is still unknown

Friends in dappled shade
Lockkeeper's cottage
Friends investigating one of the restored locks
The lockkeeper's cottage

The Cefn Flight is an impressive engineering feat as the fourteen locks are required to produce one of the steepest rises for a flight of locks in Britain.  In just 800 metres they raise the level of the canal by 50 metres.  In order to do this the locks are linked to a series of pounds, ponds, sluices and weirs that control the water supply.
Over the years the both arms of the canal fell into disuse and roads were built across it making it navigable only for short sections.  In 1969 work began on preserving the Monmouthshire Canal and in 2003 restoration work of the Cefn Flight at the top end began after Heritage Lottery Funding.  This enabled work to be completed on the four locks at the top of the flight which completed in 2011.

 Diane Davies

Thomas Jones, Buildings in Naples

The April 2021 edition of Oriel, the Friends magazine, has news about the acquisition of two early oil sketches by the eighteenth-century Welsh painter, Thomas Jones.  That reminded me that one of my favourite paintings in National Museum Cardiff is an oil sketch by him entitled Buildings in Naples.  
Building s in Naples

Thomas Jones, Buildings in Naples (Oil on paper, 14cm x 22cm,1782)
© Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum of Wales
It was painted when he was staying in Naples and it shows a view of Naples from the roof terrace of his lodgings.  The view though is obscured by the façade of a building opposite painted in minute detail.  The work has a modern abstract feel with its repeating squares and rectangles created by the buildings themselves and the windows and doors they contain with only the clouds and the skyline breaking-up the geometrical regularity.  Then there is the minimalistic colour palette of just blues, greys and brown.  Yet it also has an emotional impact through a feeling of impermanence that comes from the imperfections and discolouration of the buildings decaying over time and the fleetingness of the clouds.  Only the spires of the churches suggest the hope of something else.  So much packed into a painting not much bigger than a postcard.
Thomas Jones was born in Trefonnen, Llandrindod in 1742 and grew up on the estate of Pencerrig in Radnorshire.  He was a pupil of Richard Wilson and, after he left the Wilson’s studio in 1765, he began to develop his career as a painter of landscapes and mythological subjects in London.   In 1796 he went to study in Italy.  At first, he stayed in Rome but then in 1780 he moved to Naples due to a lack of success with obtaining commissions in Rome.  In Naples he lived simply in lodgings and it was from those lodgings that he painted a number of oil sketches of the buildings he could see around him.  On his return to London in 1783 he tried unsuccessfully to establish himself as a painter but in 1787 he unexpectedly inherited Pencerrig and this meant that he was able to spend the rest of his life there as a gentleman painter.  He died there in 1803.

Today, he is recognised as one of the most innovative artists of the eighteenth century, with a deeply personal vision and these oil sketches, which would have painted purely for his own satisfaction, have become to be seen as more and more significant in the appreciation of his work. 

Hopefully we may soon hear good news about the reopening of the various Museum sites and I am certainly looking forward to the chance to see once more Buildings in Naples but also the possibility of seeing these two recently-acquired sketches. 

Diane Davies

Becoming Richard Burton: At National Museum Cardiff

Richard Burton at Pontrhydyfen
Richard Burton (1925 - 1984) on a return to Pontrhydyfen in July 1953          © Getty Images

I was invited to the preview of this splendid exhibition on the afternoon of Saturday 21st November.  It tells the story of the international star of stage and screen from his birth in 1925 in Pontrydyfen near port Talbot in the Afan Valley to his death in Céligny in Switzerland in 1984.

The exhibition takes you on a journey in chronological order through his life. His mother died when he was two and he was looked after by his elder sister Cecilia (Cis.) and her husband Elfed. He was the twelfth of thirteen children. He had been born Richard Jenkins but became Richard Burton at the age of fourteen when Phillip Burton his talented teacher became his legal guardian.

There are fascinating insights into his life all the way through the exhibition in part due to the artefacts such as his diaries, papers, and personal objects on loan from Swansea Museum’s Richard Burton Archives, many of which are on display to the public for the first time.  His wife Sally Burton has also shared her personal collection of artefacts connected with him.
His first experiences of acting were influenced by Phillip Burton – first at school, then Oxford, at the Royal Shakespeare company after which the acting world was his oyster.  Innumerable films followed.  We see the various stages of his acting career through videos, posters and impressive costumes that he and Elizabeth Taylor wore in the 1963 epic, Cleopatra.

He is perhaps famous not just for his acting skills but his hard living and excessive drinking and his two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor and of course for the diamond he bought her. There’s a video where she shows it off to the good people of Pontrydyfen who don’t look that impressed.
Exhibition view 1
Exhibition view 2
Two views of the Exhibition                                                                                                           © Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

But there is more to Richard Burton the man behind the headlines.  He was a global celebrity but also a family man; a generous man to family and friends; an avid book reader – some of his book collection is displayed in the exhibition and despite his jet-setting lifestyle he always remembered Wales and his Welshness and even called his house in Switzerland Le Pays de Galles.

At the end of the exhibition there are three videos to watch of Richard Burton being interviewed on television.  What struck me was the mellifluous Welshness of his voice which brought back memories of my first hearing the record of Dylan Thomas’ play Under Milk Wood in which Burton took the part of the First Voice – the narrator.  His first words were ‘To begin at the beginning…”  It was unmistakable then and is unmistakable still.

Sioned Williams is the curator and she is to be congratulated for creating this ‘must see’ exhibition which runs until 11th April 2021.  For more information please visit: www.museum.wales/RichardBurton

Gwen Williams


A Visit to St Woolos Cathedral, Newport

Since March the Covid pandemic has meant that Friends’ events, such as talks and visits, have had to be put on hold.   Recently things have begun to change and new ways of thinking have already led to a virtual talks programme courtesy of Zoom.  The same sense of reimagining is now being applied to Friends’ visits.  A few days ago, on a dull late-November day, I was one of nine guinea pigs who went on a visit to Newport’s Cathedral, St Woolos.   Of course, we had to travel independently, wear our masks and maintain social distance but the chance to get out and visit a, for me a little-known, Cathedral was an opportunity not to be missed.

Norman Archway
Norman archway with a view down the nave and chancel to the east end

Nave and roof
A detail from the nave showing the norman arches and medieval wagon roof

St Woolos is a very young Cathedral having achieved that status in 1949.  However, its origins go back to the earliest days of Christianity in Wales.  A wattle and daub church is reputed to have been founded by Gwynllwy (Woolos is an English corruption of his name) around 500AD on this striking hill-top site overlooking the Severn Estuary and the mouth of the River Usk.  This was replaced by a stone structure in the ninth century.  Around 1050 this church was destroyed by pirates but a few decades later the Normans constructed a new church with an imposing entrance.  This entrance became an internal archway when the ruins of the older church were rebuilt in the thirteenth century as a chapel at the western end of the church.
East end

You enter the Cathedral from this western end so the beautiful archway was one of the first things that caught my eye.  Through the arch could be seen the eastern end with a stained-glass window and mural designed by John Piper in 1963.  Then, going through the archway into the nave, my eye was struck by a series of Norman pillars running down on either side.  The whitewash overpainting with aspects of the stonework picked out in a terracotta red remined me of the Mezquita in Córdoba.   A stunning medieval wagon roof completes the impressive look and feel of this nave.

What next caught my eye were the stalls in the chancel.  They are twentieth century but each stall has a medieval touch in that they have a maker’s mark in the form of a charming mouse running up the woodwork.


Mouse signature in stalls
The east end with its stained glass window and mural designed by John Piper

A mouse 'signature' in one of the Canon stalls

Ceramic boots
In Their Footsteps: made in 2017 as part of a commemoration of the Chartist march on Newport in 1839

Outside is a plaque to those who died on 4th November 1839 when soldiers fired on Chartists congregating outside the Westgate Hotel in Newport.  They are buried in unmarked graves somewhere in the churchyard possibly in part of the site that was lost in the building of Clifton Road.   As a keen walker, I was also struck by a sculpture of two white-painted decorated boots entitled
In Their Footsteps situated near the entrance from Clifton Road.

 I have now found out that they are part of a series of ceramic shoes made from the clay mud of the Usk which were created by Richard Parry, George Gumisiriza, Ned Heywood and Dylan Moore.  A sequence of them
lead down from the Cathedral to Westgate Square and commemorate the Chartist march on Newport.
After the visit there was the opportunity to visit a café in Belle Vue Park to have a morning coffee in their open seating area.  Many thanks to Christabel Hutchings for organising the visit and carefully making all the arrangements necessary to meet current requirements for such an excursion.  I look forward to a time when this opportunity can be offered more widely to Friends, as part of a revived events programme.

Diane Davies

Saint Fagans and the Lonely Planet

The Lonely Planet has just published its latest guide for travellers all over the world.  It has named south Wales tourist spots among the world’s most unmissable travel locations.
St Fagans National Museum of History is among seven of Wales’ top attractions and also one of thirty-four of the UK’s best travel experiences to enable it to be put on to Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel List.  With thirty-four UK experiences, it makes the UK home to more of the world’s best experiences than any other country.
It showers praise on St Fagans, which is 437th in the world by saying: “For a lesson in Welshness, St Fagans provides a microcosm of life in Wales like no other.  Boring history lesson this is not.  In this living museum of more than forty original buildings, you can sneak inside still smoke scented 16th century farmhouses, time travel through miners’ cottages, marvel at an ancient church moved here stone by stone and behold the reconstructed 12th century court of Welsh titan Llewellyn the Great.  The display is anchored by a medieval castle worthy of its eclectic dominion.
You might notice a few of the facts need to be checked in this flowery prose!

MIner's cottages Rhyd-y-car
St Teilo's Church
Rhyd-y-car: the terrace of miners's cottages through the ages
St Teilo's Church

Among the other Welsh locations listed as top travel destinations are the Wales Coastal Path, Portmeirion, the Festiniog Railway and St. David’s Cathedral. Worldwide the locations include Petra in Jordan. the Galapagos Islands, the Yellowstone National Park, USA and the Temples of Angkor, Cambodia.  That’s some competition!

So, a brilliant achievement for our own St Fagans National History Museum and all on our own doorstep.  What’s more, even under the Government Covid regulations it’s open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays but book first.  So, go and revel in their success and enjoy.
Gwen Williams
Gwen Williams is Chair, Friends of National Museum Wales

Up and running and roaring

It’s all very well organised – in through the main front door – greeted by Museum staff checking our names – turn right – up the stairs and you look around the wonderful collection of ceramics and porcelain most of which was left to the Museum by one man, the Breconshire banker Wilfred de Winton.  Between 1917 and 1929 he gave more than three thousand objects, representing all the significant eighteenth-century European factories.  There is also a fabulous collection of Meissen and a Sévres ice cream pail which seems a little overlarge and over embellished to hold such large quantities of that delectation.  Three Picasso jugs also caught my eye with unusual decoration but that would inevitably be expected.

You can walk the full circle of the gallery before being directed into the art galleries to see the Botticelli, Virgin and Child with a Pomegranate.  It was donated to the Museum by Gwendoline Davies in 1952 and has always been something of a mystery.  New evidence suggests the painting did in fact come from Botticelli’s studio, and that he himself was responsible for some of it.  Of course the painting was made famous by featuring in the BBC’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces on 13th November 2019.

Woolly Mammoth & Baby
The display featuring a Woolly Mammoth with her baby which is in the process of being restored thanks to a grant from the Friends

This gallery takes you past some amazing pieces of silver - some having a religious function, some a domestic function and some purely decorative.  I attended evening classes in silversmithing for over ten years and therefore truly appreciate the skill that has gone into all of these pieces.

Now back through the Welsh landscape gallery - this gallery is dedicated to artists’ responses to the landscape of Wales.  The display puts artists from different eras side by side to show how places have inspired them in different ways.  The landscape throughout the whole of Wales has obviously been an inspiration to them all and I find those interpretations, particularly of 20th Century painters like Ceri Richards, particularly fascinating.


Back to the ground floor and through Natural History to our beloved Woolly Mammoth and baby.  The refurbishment was sponsored by the Friends of the Museum.  S/he can lift his/her head up high when you approach and roar with the best of them.  The darkness has been lightened and even the baby mammoth moves his head and I’m sure I saw him wink!

The Museum was relatively quiet but as lockdown is lifted I know it will return to it’s former glory.  It certainly gave us a good experience.  Well done to all those who made it possible.

Gwen Williams

Visit to St Fagans National Museum of History 28th July 2020

The St Fagans site opens to the public again on the 4th August but Friends and Patrons were given the opportunity to have a preview on Tuesday.   It was a chance for Amgueddfa Cymru to test the new rules that have to be applied in regard to the opening of a public space during the Covid-19 pandemic.  So I happily volunteered to be a guinea pig.

Having successfully navigated the Eventbrite booking system, I turned up on a dullish Tuesday morning and spent a couple of hours happily wandering around the site.  Of course, none of the historic buildings were open and in the main building there was just the shop to visit.

Wildflowers at a woodland margin
The parterre adjacent to St Fagans Castle

It was wonderful, but somewhat eerie, to feel at times that I had the place to myself.  I felt as if I was wandering through a Gorgio de Chirico painting.  What I enjoyed most of all was the chance to explore the flora and fauna of the St Fagans site both in the woodland areas and in formal gardens surrounding the castle.   Around the woodland areas wild flowers were growing in profusion and, although the birds and butterflies did not readily pose so that I could photograph them, I am convinced I did see a green woodpecker.

Wooden sheep
Wooden sheep resting in the shade

I also came across a couple of pigs at the enclosure next to Hendre-wen Barn.  They seemed very pleased to see me, rushing over to greet me with excited grunts.  I tried moving around the enclosure in order to get a nicely composed picture of the two of them but all they did was follow me - very frustrating.  Further on I thought I spotted some further animals, a group of sheep under the trees.  I took a carefully composed picture of them as they obligingly stood still for me and only afterwards did the penny drop that they were wooden statues.

By the time I reached the more formal gardens surrounding the castle, the sun had truly broken through the clouds and the insects were out in profusion gathering pollen and nectar.  The gardens looked glorious in the summer sunshine and I took photograph after photograph trying to get the perfect picture of a bee or other insect on one of the many blooms or trying to capture the beauty of the various parts of the gardens.

Be on teazel
Hoverfly on buddleia
White-tailed bee on a teazel
Hornet hoverfly on a buddleia
Rose garden
Terraces with reflection
The rose garden
Terraces reflected in the lake

So over two hours had passed in no time.  It was lovely to celebrate the first tentative steps towards a new normality and to remember that there is so much more to enjoy at St Fagans site than visiting the historic houses and the galleries.  So now I am looking forward to the reopening of National Museum Cardiff planned for Thursday 27th August.
Diane Davies

A Virtual Tour of Sudbrook (Part 2: The Chapel)

Editor’s note:  The second part of a virtual visit to Sudbrook by Mark Lewis (Senior Curator, Roman National Legion Museum).  As before just click on the links in blue.
The Coflein record for Sudbrook Holy Trinity Church contains Revd. C.H.A. Porter Collection images, including drawings from Octavius Morgan and Thomas Wakeman's Notes on Ecclesiastical Remains at Runston, Sudbrook, Dinham and Llanbedr  (1858) published by the (then) Monmouthshire and Caerleon Antiquarian Association.  The illustrations were by John Edward Lee (founder of the Association), with the plan and mouldings executed by F. J. Mitchell.   The Association hoped to "rescue from oblivion (and possibly in some measure by the interest thus excited, from destruction also), remains of buildings either little known or likely to go to decay."   They state that the "Bell-cotis so entirely shrouded with ivy, that it is hardly to be discovered".

The 1887 lithograph of the chapel on page 3 of Thomas A. Walker’s The Severn Tunnel: Its Construction and Difficulties, 1872-1887’ (1890: 4) is clearly derived from the Shropshire Museums Service sketch but the lithographer misinterpreted the bell-cote arches as round-headed rather than pointed).  National Museum Wales preserves a drawing of the chapel by Sarah Ormerod.  Revd. Dr David H. Williams published a detailed history of Sudbrook, including the chapel, in The Monmouthshire Antiquary, Volume 3, pages 20-28 (1971). 

Dilapidation of the chapel during the first half of the eighteenth century appears to have been followed by roof removal or collapse, perhaps around 1750.  William Coxe (1801) appears to have found verbal accounts credible of burials, and divine services within the chapel, "within the memory of several persons now living".  ‘Picturesque’ lithographic prints by Revd J. Gardner (1793), Sir Richard Colt Hoare (dating to autumn 1798 or spring or autumn 1799) in William Coxe's Historical Tour through Monmouthshire (1801), and by Henry Gastineau , published in 1830, seem to support a then-relatively recent abandonment of the building, for they show it unroofed and overgrown, but with little apparent loss or erosion of stonework.

Holy Trinity Chapel, Sudbrook, Monmouthshire, circa 1986, looking north-east from the banks of the fort, following clearance.  Photograph: © Mark Lewis
Holy Trinity Church Sudbrook from fort
Holy Trinity Church, Sudbrook west window

Holy Trinity Chapel, Sudbrook, Monmouthshire, circa 1986, west window taken from outside the church looking eastwards towards the chancel arch following clearance.  Photograph: © Mark Lewis

It is estimated that slow deterioration and collapse of the bell-cote occurred during the 1980s and 1990s resulting in the ultimate fall of the bell-cote arches to the floor of the nave and chancel beneath, where they could be clearly seen in 2015. 

Limited excavations within the chapel, and outside, were undertaken by G-GAT and they are published by  S.H. Sell et al in Studia Celtica in 2001.

For a ‘non-virtual’ Sudbrook visit, post-lockdown, see a leaflet for Trails through the Ages: Sudbrook and Portskewett.
Mark Lewis MSc, PhD, FSA

A Virtual Tour of Sudbrook (Part 1)

Editor’s note:  Spring 2020 has seen an historical ‘lockdown’, preventing travel beyond the necessary and meetings as groups.  Mark Lewis (Senior Curator, Roman National Legion Museum) has suggested an online ‘virtual visit’ as a stopgap until better times return and an actual visit can be arranged.  To go on your tour and explore each site just click on the links in blue.
A photographic and historical overview for Sudbrook may be accessed through the RCAHMW’s Coflein.

Situated at the end of a no-through road, but on the Wales Coastal Path, Sudbrook is archaeologically rewarding, offering the visitor an impressive Iron Age fort, a ruined medieval church and the well-preserved workers’ village for the construction of the Severn Railway Tunnel, with its majestic pump house and fan house.

An outbreak of smallpox in Chepstow in 1883 led to the construction of a Fever Hospital set back, socially distanced, from the village, opposite Sea View Terrace, and in line with the post office at the end of Post Office Row on the site of the later paper mill (and near the site of the medieval water grist mill and mill pond, shown as the ‘Olde Mill’ on John Aram’s 1777 map, all now gone.  The Fever Hospital had four wards with en-suite toilets, a surgery, kitchen, scullery, laundry and mortuary. 

Sadly, Sudbrook’s most impressive communal building, its Mission Hall which seated 1,000 people, also no longer stands, but its magnificent pipe organ was preserved at Christ Church, Aberbeeg, until its closure in 2012.  Shropshire Museums Service preserves very fine late-19th century sketches of the exterior and interior of Sudbrook’s Mission Hall, showing the seating, pulpit and three-towered organ.  The sketchbook also records Holy Trinity Church at the time. Sadly, Shropshire Museums Service’s ‘Darwin Country’ website catalogue is currently offline, but the images still feature in Google images searches .

Careful inspection of the front walls of some of the workers’ houses reveals impressions of planks of wood in concrete beneath exterior paint. These ten houses were the amongst the first concrete-built houses in Britain (1882-4).  The beam of one of the six great Cornish beam engines that, from its construction, pumped water from the Great Spring out of the Tunnel workings may still be seen, not in Sudbrook, but in the grounds of Swansea Museum.
Postcard of Mission Hall, Sudbrook
Postcard of The Mission Hall, Sudbrook.  This postcard was posted to Albert House, Stoke Fleming, Devon and franked in Sudbrook Post Office on 8th January 1907.
Reverse of postcard
The correspondence on the reverse is, in every way, the Edwardian equivalent of the modern-day text message, omitting the sentence structures of full stops and capital letters, the text being a continuous stream. The postcard is a possible reminder of internal migration linked with the railway and industries of South Wales. An Ethel Emily Davis was born at Stoke Fleming, Kingsbridge, Devon in 1879, and a John Edwin Davis was born at Kingsbridge, Devon, in 1881 (making him 26 years old in 1907), residing in Stoke Fleming in 1901, according to official record indexes.  Recourse to the censuses will hopefully resolve the nature of the relationship between the correspondents and reveal their occupations.  Intriguingly, marriage indexes online record a marriage for John Edwin Davis in 1907 at Kingsbridge, Devon, and for Ethel Emily Davis at Kingsbridge, Devon, in 1908.  Perhaps they were siblings?  Be that as it may, Edwin attests the ‘rough and wet weather’ which the ruins of Holy Trinity chapel were exposed to, at least during the middle of the winter of 1906-7!

Mark Lewis MSc, PhD, FSA

Who Was Girolamo Bardoletti?

In 1723 artist John Wootton (1682-1764) created a painting entitled Lamprey (a Racehorse).  The painting is currently on loan to The National Trust, Tredegar House (1).   A race horse was an important acquisition but in the corner of the painting stands a black servant.  Such servants had a decorative role in 18th century Britain as they were seen as exotic and something to be displayed.  

Tredegar Estate documents at the National Library of Wales suggest that the black man in the painting could be Girolamo Bardoletti who was also recorded in a document as 'Jerolamo the black'
Wootton Lamrey (a Racehorse)
John Wootton, Lamprey (a Racehorse) (Oil on canvas, 96.5cm x 132cm, early 18th century)
© Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

The records reveal that he was a servant of some status. 

In 1732, materials for Girolamo's livery cost £3 2s and the cost of making his coat, waistcoat and leather breeches was 17s.  Both were considerable sums and his annual wage of £5 was a typical amount at that time for upper servants.  He was a trusted servant as in 1725 he was paid expenses for his coach hire for transporting Mrs Jenny and two clarinets to London.  In 1729 he received expenses for travelling to Gloucestershire with the horses.  Possibly he had special responsibility for horses as he appears with the racehorse Lamprey and is leading another horse.  There was another black servant boy at Tredegar House, ‘
David the black , for whom shoes were bought in 1724 (2). 

Girolamo served under two owners on the Tredegar Estate.  
Firstly, Sir William Morgan (1700-1731) and then his eldest son, also named William Morgan (1725-1763).
Detail of picture
Detail of the above painting showing Girolamo Bardoletti holding a second horse
When Girolamo appeared in the painting in 1723 it was before the abolition of slavery in Britain and the British Empire in 1833.  His annual wage of £5 a year gave him status and suggests freedom but legally his status in Britain was questionable.  In the last quarter of the 18th century almost one million enslaved Africans in the British Caribbean worked on plantations and there were nearly 20,000 black servants in London (3).  The Yorke-Talbot Ruling of 1729 clearly stated that slaves from the West Indies in Britain were not free.  In 1772 there was a further ruling that 'no master ever was allowed here (England) to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service’.  Many British slaves thought that the ruling emancipated slaves living in Britain but this was not the case and slave owners continued shipping runaway slaves back to the colonies and black slaves were still being bought and sold in England.  In 1785, a ruling stated that 'black slaves in Britain were not entitled to be paid for their labour' unless free (4).  

There are questions to answer and we know so little about him.  Was he a free?  Why did he have an Italian name?  Did he come from Italy originally or did he obtain the name in Britain?  Did his Italian name preclude him form the Yorke-Talbot Ruling of 1729?  Was he alive in 1772 when the Somerset ruling became law.  Also how did he come to be a servant at Tredegar House?   We will probably never know the answer to these questions although after lockdown access to more records might produce some clarification.
Christabel Hutchings and Anne Dunton


1. There is an identical painting held by the Yale Center for British Art which is signed by John Wootton and dated 1723.
2. Michael R. Apted, Social Conditions at Tredegar House, Newport in the 17th and 18th Centuries’ in The Monmouthshire Antiquary,  Volume III, Part II, 1972-73, p.130.

3.  British Library: African writers and Black thought in 18th century Britain.  See also Paul Edwards, The History of Black People in Britain in History Today, Volume 31, Issue 9, September 1981.

4. See: National Archives, The Somerset Case.

Editor's Note:  a longer version of this blog can be found on the Blog of the Monmouthshire Antiquarian Association

Volunteering at Amgueddfa Cymru

Making Rag Rugs for Rhyd-y-car

The author at work on a rag rug for the Rhyd-y-Car Houses

©Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

After retiring from fulltime work in 2012 I needed something to fill my time, but I wanted to make sure it was something that really interested me, but was not related to my former career in Education.

We are lucky in our area to be close to some excellent museums, some of which are part of the National Museum of Wales.  The main museum in Cathays Park, Cardiff has always been a favourite of mine and I was pleased to find out that they had a volunteer programme that was very active and wide-ranging and, while it is an advantage to be Welsh speaking, there are many volunteer activities that do not require it.  

Applicants apply formally for the programme and then after being accepted they apply separately for the individual volunteer posts.

I was first accepted for the group run by Dr. Peter Webster, which was cataloguing Roman Samian pottery. We meet for six weeks each Spring and Autumn, alternating our meetings between the National Roman Legionary Museum in Caerleon and the National Museum Cardiff.  We look at each piece of Samian pottery and identify its purpose, the potter who made it and where and when it was made.  We have research documents to help us and we can look at the design of the decoration and the potters’ marks and use these to decide on the provenance of each piece. 

It has given me additional skills and appreciation of the Romans, and it is very exciting to see the thumbprint of a potter from nearly 2000 years ago on the pots we are investigating.  This group is hoping to be able to meet again in October.

Samian ware pottery with the fingerprints of the maker indicated by the red arrows
©Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

Samian ware pottery with fingerprint

Another volunteering activity of mine is the Craft group.  We meet at the Volunteer Hub at St Fagans National Museum of History and produce items needed by the Museum.  To begin with we made rag rugs for the cottages of Rhyd-y-car.  The original rugs held by the museum couldn’t be used as they would get damaged, so they asked us to make replacement rugs to put in the cottages.  Some of us had made such rugs before: I remember my invalid uncle making these and showing me how to thread the rags through the hessian backing.  We were careful to make the rugs as authentic as possible.  We used old sacks as the base and only used natural fabrics. The group meets one day a month and so took some time to complete the rugs.  

Work on Tip Girls costume

Assessing progress on making the tip girls costume for the exhibition due to open at Big Pit: National Coal Museum but postponed at present (June 2020) because of the Covid-19 outbreak
©Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

Since then we made costumes for schools having their live-in experiences at Llys Llewellyn, bunting to use at various celebrations in the different Museum sites, lavender bags from surplus lavender grown in the museum gardens  and, at present, we are costuming a model as a tip girl to accompany the exhibition at Big Pit Museum, which will happen as soon as the situation is resolved.

During the closure of the museum we are carrying on with our work.  We have come to a temporary halt with the tip girl as we’ve gone as far as we can with the materials we have.  We have taken on projects supporting the NHS: making scrubs, masks and ear protectors for staff.  Others who are less skilful (like me) are knitting squares for the Blanket of Hope project for the National Wool Museum in Drefach Felindre.
We have a Craft WhatsApp group to keep in touch, and regularly have meetings via Zoom, and once a month we have a Zoom meeting with David, our Volunteer Coordinator.  So, in spite of the Museum’s closure we are still volunteering and finding it very rewarding.

Marjorie Sheen

The Collector and Collecting

I want to start with a confession.  Throughout my life I have always been a collector.  Like many young boys I loved collecting things – stamps, coins, badges to name but a few – but most of these phases did not last very long.  Then as I became older my interests changed to other things, many associated with putting together a home.  I would rummage around antique shops with great enthusiasm looking for the next bargain.

However, in my twenties I began to collect antiquarian books, especially books on the history and culture of Wales.  This love has remained with me ever since.  Fortunately, as a result of my work at the WJEC, I visited London and other major English cities, as well as travelling the length and breadth of Wales regularly.  After meetings I would call into the local secondhand bookshops to see what was on offer.  The joy of collecting is the hoping finding that special and possibly rare book.  The price asked for a book was not always dependent on its rarity.  Indeed, I sometimes came to the conclusion that very few people, apart from myself, were actually interesting in buying the books I was interested in!

In many ways, the 1970s to the early 1990s were a ‘golden age’ for book collectors when many libraries were sold off.  It was a period when many old libraries in places in the grand houses, theological colleges and workingman institutes closed.  It was also a time when virtually every town had its own secondhand bookshop, with the price of a book determined by the seller’s guess and often on the basis of what price he or she had asked for a similar book in the past.  The perspective buyer could pick up real bargains too, particularly for books on obscure subjects.  There was invariably a haggling over the price before the book was bought.

Conrad Gesner Rhinoceros
Illustration from Conrad Gesner, Historiae animalium... (1558) based on Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros (Woodcut, 1515) and part of the Willoughby Gardner bequest to Amgueddfa Cymru
© Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

May the collecting and collectors long continue!

Richard Carter

However, this world disappeared with the coming of the internet. The first port of call for any prospective buyer is to check its availability and price on-line.

Collecting books can also have its challenges.  Apart from the obvious one of shortage of bookshelf space, there is always the matter of finding the time to read the books bought. I’m afraid my ‘must find time to read that book’ is still as long as ever.   There is also the question of what to do with the books when you no longer wish to keep them. In a word the ‘stuff’ problem.

You may begin to wonder what has all this to do with the activities of Amgueddfa Cymru.  Throughout its existence, the Museum has relied heavily on bequests and donations from enthusiastic collectors.  Of course, we think immediately of the art collection of the Davies sisters or the Derek Williams bequest, but there are many other lesser-known collectors who have bequeathed their collections to the Museum. Without these collections the Museum would be a much poorer place.

Editors Note: To learn more about the the Amgueddfa Cymru's special collections of books click here.

An Early Neanderthal


When I visited the ‘Wales Is’ Gallery before lockdown I was moved by this model of a Neanderthal boy.  I thought about the fact that their species became extinct.  I decided to find out a bit more about him.  I looked in Discovered in Time: Treasures from Early Wales, ed. Mark Redknap (National Museum Wales, 2011) page 10.  Part of his Neanderthal jaw was found in Pontnewydd Cave in Denbighshire, North East Wales along with other bones.  The representation of the Neanderthal boy is based on his tooth fossil and his teeth date to 230,000 years ago.  The teeth from the bottom jaw were a permanent molar and a milk tooth which gave an age of eight or nine.  How the archaeologist knew it was from a boy I do not know.  Do you?  The little boy’s lower jaw was one of nineteen Neanderthal fossils discovered in Pontnewydd Cave and he was an early type of Neanderthal. Tools were also found in the cave and show they were skilled tool makers. 230,000 years ago, the climate was deteriorating and the environment that the boy would have been living in was an open steppe.

Most of us possess 2% Neanderthal DNA which is an amazing thought.  This is because Neanderthals lived alongside early modern humans for at least part of their existence.  Archaeological evidence shows that some Neanderthals looked after their sick and buried their dead, which suggests they were social and compassionate beings. I am quite happy that I might have 2% of their DNA because in this way they have survived and it also stimulates us to want to know more about them.

Neanderthal Boy
Photo taken by C. Hutchings on a visit with the Friends

For more information about Neanderthals on National Museum Wales webpage click here

To see the tools they created click tools.

Christabel Hutchings

The Tombstone of Tadia Vallaunius

This tombstone is on display in the National Roman Legion Museum and it is a favourite of mine because it relates to a woman who had reached the age of 65 and it was put up by her ‘devoted daughter’ Tadia Exuperata.  The term ‘devoted’ shows a strong family link that was based on Isca Legionary Fortress and the ‘canabae’ or civil settlement that surrounded it.  This photo is one of mine and I have brightened the original so that it is easier to read the inscription.
Tombstone of Tadia Vallaunius

D(is) M(anibus)
Tadia Vallaun[i]us vixit
ann(os) LXV et Tadius Exuper(a)tus
filius vixit ann(os) XXXVII defun(c)-
tus expeditione Germanica
Tadia Exuperata filia
ma[t]ri et fratri piiss(i)ma
secus tumulum
patris posui

To the spirits of the departed;
Tadia Vallaunius lived
65 years and Tadius Exuper(a)tus,
her son, lived 37 years, having
died on the German expedition;
Tadia Exuperata, the devoted daughter,
set this up to her mother and brother
beside her
father’s tomb.

© Christabel Hutchings and by permission of Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

The tombstone (RIB 369) is the tombstone of Tadia Vallaunius and also commemorates her son Tadius Exuperatus who died in a war ‘on the German Expedition'.  He seems to have been the son of a legionary soldier from Caerleon and a local lady, Tadia Vallaunius.  Vallaunius is a Celtic name and although this 'us' ending is masculine in Latin, it can also be found in Celtic feminine names.  Tadia has a female Latin ending and Tadius a male Latin ending.  The son appears to have followed his father into the army and was posted to Germany, where unfortunately he died. The precise nature of the German expedition is unknown.

The tombstone was discovered in 1849 at Pil Bach Farm on the road leading out of Caerleon towards Bulmore.  The tombstone was eventually displayed in the newly constructed museum built by Caerleon Antiquarian Association in 1850.  It is wonderful to think that after all these years it is still on the same site but in a newly constructed museum built by National Museum Wales who took over responsibility for the original Museum building from the Monmouthshire Antiquarian Association in 1930.

D(is) M(anibus) suggests a second century date for the tombstone.  In Roman times there were compulsory deductions from soldiers’ pay into a burial clubSince money was deducted for their own memorial, soldiers often wanted the same provision to be available to members of their family and that seems to be the case here.  Up to the Second Century most were cremated and the remains placed in a pot or glass bottle but after this date inhumation became the dominant rite.  The stone would have been upright not flat on the ground and the style of the lettering is similar to some other inscriptions in the Caerleon collection.
Although Tadia’s age is given as 65 this might well be rounded up or an approximation.  There are far more ages recorded in round numbers or in fives than in precise numbers (although some ages were recorded in years, months and days!).  In the Museum you will also find the tombstone of Julia Secundina, set up by her son, Gaius Julius Martinus, who lived to be 75 (RIB 373).  Her husband, the veteran Julius Valens is recorded on his separate tombstone as being 100 years old when he died (RIB 363). 
NOTE: RIB plus a number relates to the Roman Inscriptions of Britain database. To while away hours click on the name in blue and you will see a list of inscriptions relating to Caerleon.

Christabel Hutchings (with information kindly provided by Dr Marilynne Raybould)

Dorelia McNeill in the Garden at Alderney Manor

Augustus John (1878 – 1961)

The first time I saw this portrait of Dorelia McNeill by Augustus John in the National Museum, I was struck firstly by its actual size (2 metres by 1 metre), its simplicity and the imposing figure of Dorelia which dominates the work of art.   The background is simple with flat areas of subtle colours but more attention has been paid to the figure itself – the folds of the apron, the patterned dress and the soft beautiful features of the face. Her dress is reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Dorelia was embarrassingly beautiful and according to a fellow friend and artist William Rothenstein “one could not take one’s eyes off her”. She had high cheek bones and slanting eyes and in this portrait she appears tall with a swan-like neck but apparently she was rather short.  She had an enigmatic power that gave her beauty its depth which is obvious in the portrait.  She was not particularly articulate but people in trouble came to her hoping to share her calm.

Augustus John and Gwen John went from Tenby to the Slade Art School in London.  Gwen became friendly with fellow student, Ida Nettleship who was later to become Augustus’ wife.  It was Gwen John who had also met Dorelia first at art evening classes at Westminster School and when Augustus met her he fell in love with her instantly.  Ida liked Dorelia and a tumultuous ménage-a-trois was formed.  However it wasn’t until his wife Ida died that he moved into Alderney Manor with Dorelia and his seven children. The manor was a fortified pink bungalow built by an eccentric Frenchman in 60 acres of heath and woodland outside Poole, Dorset.  Dorelia’s sister Edie helped to tend the cats, cows, pigs, donkeys, ponies, horses and bees as well as the children who lived a carefree existence running about the gardens and nearby heath, occasionally posing for their father to paint them.  Guests tended to drop in and stay for days or sometimes weeks sleeping in the cottage, caravans or gypsy tents in the grounds.

It cannot be denied that Augustus John was a wild, promiscuous, bohemian artist but considered the top portrait painter of his generation.  He had almost too many affairs to mention but never seemed to deny any of his wayward offspring - taking some under his communal wing, paying maintenance to support others.  A claim that he had fathered some 100 illegitimate offspring is probably an exaggeration.  At Alderney John would spend his time painting and sketching the children and guests; taking part in afternoon jazz sessions, the tango was his speciality, and presiding over the many parties, bonfires and trips to local pubs.

Dorelia and John lived at Alderney Manor, from August 1911 until March 1927.  She and John remained together (though unmarried) for the rest of their lives.

This portrait was painted in the year they moved in.  Perhaps that’s why Dorelia looks so calm. Had she any idea of what her future held?

Gwen Williams

Editor' Note: Amgueddfa Cymru owns the painting but copyright restrictions mean I am unable to display the picture in this blog.  However, you can see an image by clicking on the title of the painting in blue or, if you don't want to scroll up click here

Poems and Pictures

En plein-air For Gwyneth Lewis
After reading about Morning on the Oise, Auvers, Charles-François Daubigny 1859, National Museum Wales


I search for the craft that will take me
to the place where plunder is possible.
Your inheritance for posterity.
Horizons singing
With rhyme
At the end of a line.


C F Daubigny Morning on the Oise

Charles François Daubigny, Morning on the Oise, Auvers (Oil on board, 21cm x 42cm, 1859)                                         © Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

Christ mocked
David Jones National Museum Wales
The Carpenter on his way to the Tree
on the boards of the carpenter’s workshop
in Ditchling where you lived in the stable.
I was arrested by boards and helmets.
I thought I knew David Jones as I gazed.
I had taken in words and their music
in the opera “In Parenthesis”.
I thought it was you, mocked for what you were;
looking with unfocussed understanding.
I wanted to know, to observe clearly.
I read all I could — imagination
opened a shutter on my own mocking.
Light streamed in through the cracks of memory
to see as if for the very first time —
my life and the painting through healing tears.
A friend had gifted Epoch and Artist
And there I saw glimpses to help me grasp:
“everyone means different things by the same words”
I learned about your thoughts before Ditchling:
our shared understanding of remembrance.
Cataracts removed, clear lenses in place
I will never have perfect vision.
I hope for adequate perception:
you are my David Jones now.

Jonathan Richards
Notes by Jonathan Richards

I do not know many of the Friends of the Museum yet, so I wonder how 'literary' they will be.  I like to share one or two of the things behind a poem rather than take the view that once it is out there, it is no longer 'my' poem, it must do its work in the reader and the reader must do their work as it resonates with or challenges their lives.  I trust your judgement and inclinations!

A comment under the Plein air poem is:
I watched friends sketch and paint and realised that poetry can either be in the moment, there and then as it arrives in the mind or crafted in the studio with editing, research and polishing.  This poem did arrive in the moment that I read about the painting at the Museum.

Under Christ mocked:
I wrote a poem about my memories of being mocked over many years and how those experiences had shaped my responses; things I had been unaware of until that moment.
The resources I used 'in the studio' over a year of thinking, reading and working through drafts were:
Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (Vintage Books, 2019)
David Jones, Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (Faber and Faber, 1959)
Jonathan Miles, Try the Wilderness First: Eric Gill and David Jones at Capel-y-Ffin (Seren, 2018)
Ed Wilcox (editor), Eric Gill and the Guild of St Dominic  (Hove Museum and Art Gallery, 1990)
I wish to express my gratitude to the Museum staff and in particular Neil Lebeter for their help.

Editor's Note
The painting which inspired the poem Christ Mocked  is David Jones, Jesus Mocked (Oil on tongue and groove board, 117cm x 117cm, 1922-3).  Amgueddfa Cymru owns the painting but copyright restrictions mean I am unable to display the picture in this blog.  However, you can see an image of it by clicking on the title of the painting in blue.

The Parting by James Tissot (1836-1902)


One of my favourite artworks at National Museum Wales.

I can’t give you a date for when I first saw this painting.  I have had a postcard of it at home for many years.  So I obviously liked the work enough that I searched out a copy of it in the shop.
James Tissot The parting

The title of the painting indicates precisely what it is about, a leave taking.  The scene is a soldier in his red uniform sitting looking very despondent.  A lady we assume to be his wife or at least his beloved puts her hands on his shoulders to console him.  Her white dress and bonnet contrast with the military red.  Another lady is preparing tea and looks at the two sympathetically.  All three are looking totally anguished.  Through the bay window of the parlour can be seen boats rowing out to a warship.  The young soldier has received his orders to join his ship.  The painting has the subtitle of “Bad News” which again encapsulates the situation.

From the costumes the scene would seem to be mid-19th century.  It was actually painted in 1872 when Tissot was living in England.  The colours are bold and clear and its message is timeless as there will always be sad but inevitable parting.  The look of the painting is reminiscent of the style of the Pre-Raphaelites whose art was contemporaneous with Tissot’s.

I love the detail of the painting – the Lady’s black half gloves, the quills and inkpot and the fruit cake which has been sliced into.
James Tissot, Bad News (The Parting) (Oil on canvas, 69cm x 91cm, 1872)
© Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

Researching the artist I found that he was popular with the public but taken to task by the critics of the time as his work was considered too photographic and simplistic.

I certainly like the depiction of a scene with which I can empathise.  It is one which has remained in my memory.

Lorraine Wilson

A Favourite Picture:  Brenda Chamberlain’s Self-portrait

One of my all-time favourite pictures at National Museum Cardiff is a self-portrait by Brenda Chamberlain.  It  is  entitled, Self-portrait on Garnedd Dafydd, and quite small - just 30.5 cm high by 30.5 cm wide.  It was painted in 1938 at the start of her artistic career when she had just married to John Petts, whom she had met when both were studying at the Royal Academy, and they had set up home in Llanllechid near Bethesda.

The picture shows her standing on the summit of Carnedd Dafydd and behind her can be seen the glaciated valley of Cwm Pen-llafar running down to Bethesda.  However, it is she who dominates the picture which barely has space to contain contain her face and long blond hair.  She is looking directly at us, the viewers, with an inscrutable expression and with her eyes, black pools that reveal nothing but seem to transfix you.  Yet it is also a very naturalistic painting with the flesh faithfully rendered with the cheeks tinged with red as if proclaiming the exertion of the climb and with her long blonde hair brought to life using impressionistic brushstrokes.

Brenda Chamberlain Self-portrait

© Estate of Brenda Chamberlain and by permission of Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

The pose which she adopts in which she looks directly out at the viewer with her hair tumbling down either side of her face is reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer’s Self-portrait painted in 1500 (an insight for which I must thank Nicholas Thornton, Head of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum).  He portrays himself in the same way looking directly out and with his hair falling down to his shoulders on either side of his face in a pose reminiscent of the portrayal of Christ as saviour of the world.  It is a statement of his intention to be a great artist.

So, her self-portrait can be seen as a bravura display of her skills and an indication of her ambition to be an artist and a great one at that.

Diane Davies

Editors Note:  copyright restrictions mean that I am unable to show Dürer’s self-portrait but if you click on the blue title you can see the picture at a site that does have permission!

Reverend Thomas Thomas (1805-1881) by James Milo Griffith (1843-1897)

I don’t know a great deal about art, but I have been asked to choose a work of art from Art Collections Online and write about it.  I have chosen this sculpture because it relates to my family and because the Rev Thomas Thomas knew all about the effects and fear of disease as two of his sons died of consumption (TB a bacterial disease) in 1854 they were just 22 and 19.

Bust of Thomas Thomas

Rev Thomas Thomas was a Baptist Minister in London and then Principal of the Baptist College at Penygarn, just above Pontypool.  The sculpture’s Accession Number is NMW A 2985.  It is by sculptor James Milo Griffith and is dated 1887.  The media is marble and the size 65.4 cm. Rev Thomas’s son, T.H. Thomas, is stated to have commissioned this posthumous work of art. He was a naturalist, artist and antiquarian, who donated many works to the Cardiff Museum and the National Museum of Wales.  It could not have been produced from life as Rev Thomas Thomas died in 1881 and it was most probably created from pictures provided by his son.  The bust was exhibited at the South Wales Art Society and Sketching Club’s 2nd Annual Exhibition in 1889 a club of which T.H. Thomas was a member.

It is stated to have been acquired in 1924 as a bequest from T.H. Thomas (1839 - 1915), but as you can see his son died in 1915.  In fact it was donated under the terms his cousin-companion Ann David’s will in 1924.  She had lived with the Thomas family as a housekeeper at the Baptist College but was also a companion and daughter. On her cousin T.H. Thomas’s death she continued to live at 45 The Walk in Cardiff, the family home, until her own death in 1924.  Under his will she could have any works of art she wished to keep and this bust was one of them.


© Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales

So what about Milo Griffith?  He was born in Pembrokeshire and trained at the Royal Academy.  He had numerous Welsh clients and later taught sculpture in San Francisco.  He returned to London in 1896 and died there in 1897.  Does anyone know any more about him?

So what do I think about the work of art?  Well it is part of the genre that created naturalistic representations.  Milo Griffith created Thomas Thomas with a large beard typical of the period.  Thomas is looking serious which reflects his position in society and his strict puritan beliefs. The eyebrows hair and beard show great skill.  The production of the crease in his coat where the button holds it together indicates that Revd Thomas was a little too large for the garment.  I like that touch.  Also it was usual not to produce arms which I find disconcerting.  Is there a twinkle in his eyes? I am not sure.  I think it represents the man and his position in life but does not say much about the inner man.  He was a kind man who was much loved by his students and this is not apparent in this sculpture.

Christabel Hutchings

A Milestone for the Friends

Saturday 4th January was a milestone day for the Friends.  It was the first time we had arranged a talk for members who were mostly grandparents together with their grandchildren.  It was an attempt to diversify our audience and encourage children and young people to foster their interest in learning and lifetime interest in the Museum.

The subject was Dinosaurs, something from my teaching days I knew children had an avid interest in. There were just over fifty people in the Oriel Suite - half adults and half children. Dr. Caroline Buttler, the Head of Palaeontology in the Museum, talked to the children about Dippy, the resident dinosaur attraction in the main hall.  Her well illustrated talk was excellent, managing to appeal to children from five to sixteen - not an easy task and all the children were extremely well behaved and lapped up the information she gave them.

Caroline Buttler with members of the audience

Grace Buttler with a member of the audience
Dr Caroline Butler and Grace Buttler with some of the younger members of the audience getting to grips with dinosaur exhibits

At the end of the talk Caroline, ably assisted by her daughter Grace, allowed the children to come and examine the dinosaur skull and assorted horns, claws, foot bones and jaw bones and teeth.

The children were rewarded with a soft drink and a dinosaur biscuit at the end of the event and the adults had the usual caffeine intake. 
Everyone really enjoyed this event and we’d love to replicate it.  Have you a suggestion for a subject that you think we could arrange an event around at the Museum.  Please let us know.

Gwen Williams


Visit to National Collections Centre: 28th October 2019

A visit to Amgueddfa Cymru’s Collection Centre on the Treforest Industrial Estate is always a rewarding experience.  This was the third visit organised for the Friends by Roger Gagg and the third I have been on.  The Centre holds so much, over half-a-million objects – roughly 12% of Amgueddfa Cymru’s collection.  So each visit is a new experience.

We started with an introductory talk by Diane Gwilt, Keeper of Collections Services and the Site Manager.  She gave a brief history of the Centre from its founding in 1998 as a place to store objects from the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum in Cardiff Bay.  It expanded considerably in 2006 when it began to store collections from other Amgueddfa Cymru sites and now has eleven staff concerned with conservation and management of the collections.
We were then split up into three groups to get a taste of the collections and the work that goes on at the Centre.

My group went first to see some of the 250 ship models held by the Museum and learn more about them from David Jenkins, former Principal Curator at the National Waterfront Museum.   The one that most interested me was a model of a sailing ship, the Mary Evans, which was built in 1867 and which carried coal to Valparaiso in Chile until the 1890s when it ended up as a hulk in Rio de Janiero.  What was intriguing was that it was built in Montgomeryshire, an apparently land-locked county.  However, it had a port at Derwen Las, a village on the River Dyfi, which flourished in the 1800s.  The coming of the railways to the area in the 1860s, though, changed the course the river so cutting off Derwen Las from sea and ending its role as a port.
Ship model
              Model of the Mary Evans

Next, we had a talk from Jenny Griffiths, the conservator at the Centre.  She spoke about some of the objects she had been involved in conserving.  These included the fat-fryer that is now in the Life Is Gallery at St Fagans and a model of Oakdale Colliery which was made by schoolchildren from the local primary school in the early 1970s which will go to Big Pit. 

The object that she is working on at present is an iron bell which used by the Foyle Tryfan Slate Company from 1837 to 1873 to warn about imminent blasting operations.  It was acquired by the Museum this year in a sorry state, being severely corroded.  Jenny explained how she had removed the corrosion by scraping and polishing and then applied a protective layer to maintain its present appearance, ready for it to become part of the collection at National Slate Museum.
Jenny Griffiths Talk
Jenny Griffiths talking about the conservation of the quarry bell
Our final visit was to see some of the industrial photographs held at the Centre.  They were selected by Mark Etheridge, Industry and Transport Curator, and they ranged from photographs taken by the Dillwyn-Llewelyns of Penllergare which are some of the earliest taken in Wales to modern aerial photographs of major building projects such as the Cardiff Barrage and the second Severn Crossing.  He explained that the industrial collection is just one of a number of photographic collections held by the Museum.  Those primarily acquired for their artistic merit form part of the National Museum Cardiff collection, whilst those primarily relating to social history are at St Fagans.  A large part of the industrial collection has been digitised and can be seen on the website on the Collections Online page.

Many thanks to Roger Gagg for organising such a fascinating insight into the work that goes on at the National Collections Centre

Diane Davies
Mark Etheridge Talk
Mark Etheridge talking about photographs from the industrial collection

Elgar and Hellens

In June of this year a visit to the Elgar Museum and Hellens Manor House was organised for the Friends and this proved to be so popular that a repeat visit was arranged for October 3rd. Thus it was on a chilly morning that a full coach left from Cardiff and, although the weather remained dull throughout the day with heavy rain in the afternoon, it did not spoil the enjoyment of what was a most interesting and informative day.

We were fortunate to be accompanied on the trip by Geraint Lewis, who in March had given an excellent talk to the Friends entitled Elgar and the Hidden Enigmas.  That talk concentrated on the Enigma Variations but during our journey on the coach Geraint gave a commentary based on his wide knowledge of the composer’s life and other works.

The Elgar Museum consists of two separate buildings, The Firs at Broadheath, which is the house in which Elgar was born, and a purpose-built Information Centre.  On arrival we were served coffee and biscuits and enjoyed another excellent talk, this time from an enthusiastic member of staff, who gave us further information about the family.

The Firs

The Elgar Museum, The Firs, Broadheath

Broadheath remained very dear to Elgar throughout his life, although he only actually lived there until he was two, when the family moved to Worcester. However, his mother wanted a country upbringing for her children and they spent their Summer holidays on a farm near Broadheath.  It was a pleasure to walk through the rooms of the cottage, which contain so many of the composer’s personal possessions – manuscripts, letters, photographs, musical instruments and one of his treasured bicycles on which he explored the nearby Malvern Hills.

It was Elgar’s daughter Carice to whom he confided his wish to be remembered in the place he loved best.  After his death in 1934 she persuaded the corporation of Worcester to purchase the cottage which was later acquired by the National Trust.  It was Carice who recalled her father’s love of and connection to the Worcestershire countryside.  She wrote that it meant, ‘everything to him’. He was, ‘imbued with the very spirit and essence of the county. … From his walking, driving and cycling there was very little of the county he did not know’.

Elgar statue

Edward Elgar by Jemma Pearson made in 2007 to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth

From Broadheath we travelled towards Ledbury to visit the very fine medieval manor of Hellens.  Before our tour we enjoyed a very welcome lunch which had been cooked and served by members of the catering staff.  This consisted of delicious quiches, new potatoes and a variety of imaginative salads all created from locally grown produce.  With the perennial favourite dessert of fruit crumble we considered ourselves well prepared for the rest of our day.

The first building of the manor dates from 1180 and in the centuries following the house was owned by several different families and was much altered and extended.  We were divided into two groups and our guides led us through the many rooms containing fine paintings and furniture reflecting the changing styles of the ages.
Hellens Manor House

Hellens Manor House near Ledbury and its formal garden (below)

Among many interesting anecdotes was the sad story of Hetty Walwyn, a daughter of the house, who in the 18th century eloped with a local lad and was eventually abandoned. On her return home she was confined to her room for 30 years and her mournful ghost is said to wander Hellens making it one of England’s ‘most haunted’ houses.

Unfortunately, time and rain prevented us from seeing much of the gardens, but we returned home agreeing that it had been a day of fascinating contrasts.  Many thanks are due to Richard and Trix for arranging such a memorable programme.

Diana Wilson

The Formal Garden at Hellens
Note: photgraphs are from the first trip in June 2019

Visit to Nantgarw China Works and Museum

Friends Visit on Tuesday 27th August 2019

A group of the Friends had the opportunity to see the various aspects of the Nantgarw China Works amd Museum.  In his introduction, Charles Fountain, Director of Nantgarw China Works and Museum, mentioned that we were the largest group of visitors that the site had played host to.  The site is both a Museum for Nantgarw Porcelain and, once again after a gap of two hundred years, a producer of porcelain, .  He explained that the Works receives no public subsidies or grants and is run by volunteers. Money comes from visitors to the site to visit the Museum and teashop and from the sales of commission porcelain pieces that the Works now produces.

As a Museum for Nantgarw Porcelain, it is currently hosting an exhibition, Coming Home, which celebrates the manufacture of Nantgarw porcelain in its brief production period of four years from 1813 and the exhibition includes twenty-three pieces from Amgueddfa Cymru’s collection as well as other important pieces from public and private collections.

First of all. Charles told the story of William Billingsley, its founder.  In the course of his career, he set up, and was financially ruined by, a series or factories he set up across England before he came to Nantgarw where he set up the works in 1813 and for the next four years produced the finest porcelain the world has ever seen.  His soft-paste porcelain was fine-grained, pure white and translucent whatever the thickness of the piece made. 
Blue Plaque
Nantgarw's Blue Plaque

Charles Fountain talking to Friends

   Friends listening to Charles Fountain giving a talk on the history of the Works                                                                                    

He went on to tell about the recent revival of porcelain making at Nantgarw.  By using the latest scientific technology, they have been able to recreate the secret formula that William Billingsley carried to his grave.  They are now therefore now making cups to commission – each one is hand-crafted, so probably as expensive, in today’s terms, as Billingsley’s porcelain was in his day.

Unfortunately, its firing required precise temperature control, which was impossible in the kilns of the time, and his wastage rate from the firing was nearly 90%.  It was not economically viable and, inevitably, the business ran into financial difficulties so that after four years production stopped.  Sufficient had been produced that a further two years were spent decorating the pieces for customers before the works closed for good in 1819 (thus the exhibition to commemorate the anniversary).

We were then split into three groups.  Each had a guided tour of the Exhibition with David, who pointed out some of the most interesting exhibits.

Reconstructed kiln
Then there was a chance to see the historic old factory and kilns, which are designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, before visiting Sally Stubbings, the artist-in-residence, who is making the new porcelain pieces. She took us through the stages of  how Nantgarw porcelain was and is made.  First the clay is poured into moulds, removed and allowed to harden and dry. This results in an incredible 15% shrinkage of the piece without causing any damage or distortion to the shape of the cup, which even she found amazing.  Then came firing and glazing before the white porcelain piece was turned over for decoration according to the wishes of the commissioner.

The third aspect was the history of the works between these two periods of porcelain manufacture.  For most of that time three generations of the Pardoe family produced everyday objects such as clay pipes and tiles. 
Artist in residence
Reconstruction of one of the three kilns on the site
There was an irony in that these objects of mass production proved extremely profitable for nearly 100 years in stark contrast to the fine porcelain that William Billingsley produced for such a short period.
Sally Stubbings, artist-in-residence, explaining to us how moulds are used to create the cup  and handles from the liquid slip

In addition, we were treated to morning coffee and afternoon tea as well as a tasty buffet lunch.

Many thanks must go to Gwen Williams who organised the trip.  At the end she spoke on behalf of us all of our appreciation of the care and efforts of David Fountain and the volunteer staff who had made the visit such an illuminating and enjoyable experience.

Diane Davies

Friends Day Out in Worcester
Visit to Royal Worcester Museum and Worcester Cathedral: Tuesday 6th August 2019

Our last coach trip of 2019 was to Worcester.  An almost fully booked coach set off early and reached Worcester without trouble around 10:00am.  Our first port of call was the Royal Worcester Museum.  Here we treated to a wonderful talk by Jane Tudge on the history of porcelain making in Worcester from its beginnings in 1751.  In addition, we had the opportunity to handle some of the items in the collection and hear sound bites from audio recordings of workers talking about their experiences.  
Royal Worcester Museum

Royal Worcester Museum
Worcester Cathedral Nave

Porcelain production ceased in Worcester in the late 1970s and in 2008 the company itself went into administration.  Fortunately, by then a Trust had been set up to create a Museum which was given ownership of all the historic pieces thus safeguarding them from sale by the administrators.

Then there was an opportunity to visit the Museum galleries to see the collection.  So we were able to explore Galleries showing the Museum’s extensive holdings of Royal Worcester Porcelain with one gallery devoted to the Georgian period when it all started, one devoted to the Victorian period and a third gallery showing pieces up to the closure of the works.                              

After lunch we assembled at Worcester Cathedral for a guided tour. We were split into four groups each with our own guide.  The Cathedral was built between 1084 and 1504 and thus has examples of every style of English architecture from Norman to perpendicular. 
Nave of Worcester Cathedral

The cathedral is famous for its Norman crypt and early 12th century Chapter House.  In addition it houses the tomb of King John as well as a chapel with the tomb of Prince Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII.  Arthur's early death at the age of fifteen meant that his younger brother Henry acceded to the throne when Henry VII died in 1509.   Our guide pointed out aspects of Prince Arthur's Chapel that suggest it was built off site in pieces and reassembled because it would appear to be facing the wrong way and also certain decorative features had to be broken off in order for the chapel to fit.  As well as these sights, a stained-glass window dedicated to Edward Elgar was pointed out.
Worcester Cathedral Choir
Many thanks to Peter Davies for organising such an interesting and informative visit.

Diane Davies
  Friends in the Choir of Worcester Cathedral listening to our guide

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