The phrase ‘History of Wales’ often conjures up images of medieval Welsh princes and princesses like Llewellyn the Great, Owain Glyndŵr, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, and watershed events like the Edwardian conquest, or the Tudor Acts of Union. Alternatively, ‘Welsh History’ evokes images of social, economic and political change in the 19th century, characterised by mining and industrialisation, the growth of Methodism, Chartism, and the Rebecca Riots. These are all rich and fascinating subjects that deserve the attention they receive. However, the period between the Acts of Union and the Industrial revolution are often overlooked, especially in histories that explore the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ people in Wales.
As a social and cultural historian of 18th century Wales, I am working to change this. Fortunately, the National Library of Wales holds one of the best sources of evidence about the everyday lives of Welsh men and women during this often-ignored period. Perhaps surprisingly, the records I’m referring to are the Gaol Files of the Court of Great Session – the highest criminal court in Wales prior to the 1830s. These records provide rich details about peoples’ daily routines, their work and family life, their values, assumptions, interpersonal relationships and so on.
Pre-trial documents, such as depositions, examinations, complaints, and ‘information’, as well as confessions were produced when a crime, such as murder, riot, assault, theft, burglary, forgery, bigamy, and even bestiality were referred to the Court of Great Sessions. Clerks or magistrates would interview witnesses and suspects and record their responses, often after translating them from Welsh into English. Although rarely, if ever, verbatim, they were central to the trial process in a country where many witnesses spoke a different language to the court, as legal proceedings were held in English. For this reason, pre-trial documents from the Court of Great Sessions have a very high survival rate compared to similar records from the Assizes in England. In addition to providing compelling evidence of crime and deviance, pre-trial records also contain highly detailed accounts of what individuals were doing when they witnessed, committed or became victims of crimes. These records are therefore immensely valuable for anyone interested the social and cultural history of Wales.
A case of suspected arson in Anglesey in 1799 illustrates just how rich and detailed these records can be. In this case, a young, unmarried pregnant woman stood accused of setting fire to another woman’s property. The accused woman’s master was the supposed father of her unborn child. He was also courting the woman whose property was burnt, as evidence by the fact that he was said to be in possession of her garters. This rather scandalous case of an 18th century love triangle clearly reveals the complexities and intricacies of certain agrarian courtship practices. However, witness depositions also provide fascinating evidence of more ‘everyday’ circumstances, such as how fire was shared between hearths and homes (using straw and turf from a neighbour’s fire), and the hospitality shown to young female servants who found themselves away from home at dusk (they were taken in by households and allowed to lodge with servants for the night). This case is one of countless examples of the ‘ordinary’ daily routines, neighbourliness and interpersonal relationships found in these ‘extraordinary’ court records.
The Gaol Files have been central to my research on illegitimacy and midwifery in 18th century Wales, and form an integral part of my teaching at the University of Leicester. However, with an online index for the years 1730-1830, and records kept in English (mainly using secretary and italic hand) from 1730 onwards, the Gaol Files are widely accessible at the National Library.
Are you a house historian in Colwyn Bay? It’s your lucky day! I have discovered a bundle of documents in the Longueville solicitors’ collection which concerns building development on the Cefn estate, 1891-1921. The land was owned by Captain Robert William Herbert Watkin Williams Wynn and the development was centred around Colwyn Bay, Old Colwyn and Llysfaen. Local contractors were engaged: Robert Evans for the housing construction, Roberts and Ellis for the back roads and Fred J. Tucker for the sewers. The building sites were located in Meriadog Road, Cadwgan Road, Llanelian Road, Wellington Road, Peulwys Road, Abergele Road, Bodelwyddan Avenue, Berthglyd Road and Coed Coch Road. Leases of the finished properties were taken up by private individuals and by businesses such as Old Colwyn Golf Club and Black’s Advertising Agency.
This file is a fantastic historical resource. Some of the choicer items include a plan and elevation of a substantial, seven-bedroomed leasehold house for Mrs Liddell in 1908. The property was built to a high specification with large bay windows, a wood block floor in the hall, parquet in the drawing room, picture rails in the main rooms, a cellar and a butler’s pantry. There are also plans of Wyndcliffe in Abergele Road, 1910, a portion of the Cefn estate, 1910, Wellington Road [c. 1916] and a proposed motor garage for Dr Leeming, adjoining Mohrcroft garden, 1921.
The builder had taken out substantial loans to fund the construction work and the cash flow dried up around 1911. There is a notice to Robert Evans of rescission of his contract and letters from Robert William Herbert Watkin Williams Wynn, ordering the tenants to pay their rents directly to him instead. Perhaps Robert Evans junior saved the business when he contracted successfully for an extension to Bodelwyddan Avenue in 1912. The specifications included 2 gullies, one each side with iron grating….Talacre stone neatly dresssed on top and side and closely jointed… channelling of Buckley Firebricks, same laid on a concrete bed and flushed with Portland cement…..
It is amazing how much information is packed into those seventy or so documents. You can identify the locations of the Edwardian housing development in Colwyn Bay and the type of high-quality construction that was expected. You are given the names of the landowner, the builders and the lessees. You may predict the advent of the motor car in Dr Leeming’s planning application for a garage. You can even trace the fluctuations in the fortunes of the building firm. The career of Robert Evans perhaps should not be judged by his money problems in 1911 but by the high standard of the newly built houses which lined the streets of Colwyn Bay and Llysfaen.
Once autumn has bid a fond farewell and each and every one has started to complain that it’s cold, it’s the perfect time to visit Montgomeryshire. Why? Well, to sing the old ‘plygain’ carols – not in a concert or an eisteddfod, but rather as part of a service that occurs as a natural part of society in both church and chapel, throughout the Advent and Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Mary’s Festival of the Candles or Candlemas) on the 2nd of February.
Apparently the word plygain stems from the Latin pullicantio, ‘cock’s crow’. Originally, the service was held at 3 a.m., before being brought forward to 4, then 5, and then 6 a.m. on Christmas morning. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, plygain was one of the services of the Catholic Church, but it was subsequently adopted by the Anglicans, and then at a later date, the Nonconformists. Today, the service is mostly held in the evening.
The service commences with the Evening Prayer (in a church) or a short service (in a chapel). Then comes the declaration ‘Mae’r plygain yn awr yn agored’ (The plygain is now open), which means that it is open for anyone to present a plygain carol. Children open the plygain, followed by young people, then a party from the church or the local area, followed by those who have travelled from afar; should there be more than one local party, then one of them will close the plygain. There is never a programme. The carol-singers, both individuals and parties, make their way through the large congregation down to the chancel or the elders’ pew, pitch a note with a tuning fork, and then sing unostentatiously. The carol-singers decide on the order of the evening to ensure that no two soloists or duets follow each other, and to ensure that the items are varied.
All of the singing is informal, without a conductor or leader. Participants must remember the order of the first half so that the same order is followed during the second half (or the second cycle), and they must also remember which carols have been sung to ensure that none are repeated. At the end, the men who have already presented a carol are called forward to sing ‘Carol y Swper’ (the Supper Carol) together. At their best they are truly mesmerising.
The season’s first plygain is magical experience, as the singers come together once again after another busy year. There is a profound friendship amongst the carol-singers and the supper that follows the service is a very important part of the evening.
We are extremely grateful to the folk of Montgomeryshire and adjacent areas of Gwynedd – Mallwyd, and Llanymawddwy especially – for succeeding without fail to uphold the tradition over the centuries. This is still the plygain’s stronghold today. However, the old carols were sung across Wales at one time, and the tradition is starting once again and enveloping large parts of the country.
Traditionally, the parties were members of the same family, for example ‘Parti Bronheulog’, and would practice at home. The carol-singers have a book of family carols, and only members of that family can sing those particular carols.
‘Parti Bronheulog’ singing the Plygain carol ‘Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore’
Today, with so many moving away from the communities where they were born and raised, many of the modern parties are new parties, based on friendship rather than lineage and blood.
It is possible that the custom of singing carols at plygain services was started by the carol composers of Glamorgan in the 16th century. The custom spread throughout Wales, bringing sermon and song to the parishioners, conveying the teaching of the Righteous and the order of Salvation in Christ, as well as His birth, His death and His resurrection. It is not uncommon for some of the old carols to contain twenty and more verses, and to be steeped in the theology of salvation. However, by the twentieth century, the flame of the Great Reformation having faded, the carols are not so consistently intense in their content.
Many of the carols were sung on tunes popular at that time, and the Welsh measures used include ‘Ffarwel Ned Puw’, ‘Clychau Rhiwabon’ and ‘Difyrrwch Gwŷr Caernarfon’. And it wasn’t just the Welsh measures that were popular; English measures were also used, including ‘Charity Mistress’, ‘Let Mary Live Long’ and several ballads. Another tune sung often at the plygain is ‘Annie Lisle’, an American ballad composed in 1857 by H. S. Thompson, Boston, Massachusetts.
Powerful lyrics, beautiful melodies, the company of friends and a scrumptious supper. What else could anyone want on a cold winter’s night?
“It would hardly be too much to say that in April of 1895 one was considered eccentric for riding a bicycle, whilst by the end of June eccentricity rested with those who did not ride.” Constance Everett-Green, 1898
The boom in cycling in the 1890s transformed the way tourist maps were produced. Mapmakers increasingly produced maps targeted at cyclists, which included road conditions and dangerous hills, which until then had been absent on maps that mainly catered for railway travellers. This information was retained on later maps branded ‘cycling and motoring’ maps, but even though motor cars became more prevalent in the early 20th century, the mapping conventions developed for cycling maps are still discernible on road maps today.
Most modern cyclists focus on uphill sections of a route, but it was accepted that Victorian riders would get off and walk up any steep inclines. Bikes of the period were usually single speed, ideal for cruising along flat roads. Even in races gears were not always used — Henri Desgrange, who set up the Tour de France in 1903, considered that riding a bike with gears was cheating, fit for only ‘women and old men’! However, indicating steepness downhill was seen as essential on any good cycling map, as cyclists needed to know when to expect ‘danger hills’ — hills too steep to descend safely with unreliable or non-existent brakes.
Cycling organisations themselves produced maps indicating the quality of a road for cycling, and these were often used to petition local authorities to improve the situation, as well as inform other cyclists.
Some mapmakers produced ‘road books’ to complement their maps, like this example from around 1899, produced by Gall & Inglis. These included profiles of hundreds of routes, and descriptions of the route and road surface. Cyclists riding between Lampeter and Aberystwyth would have faced ‘a very trying road… [with] a constant succession of dangerous hills’, and might have been tempted to ride to Llandovery instead, on ‘a splendid piece of road’. It also notes which route to a particular town is the most scenic, to serve the cyclist looking to take in some beautiful views along the way.
Road books like this one are still produced today for professional races. Competitors use them to prepare for rides, and fans often collect them as souvenirs of races they have seen. Noting road surface is still vital. The Paris-Roubaix race, held in northern France each spring, is famous for its cobblestones, or pavé, and the winner is ceremonially presented with a cobblestone as part of their prize.
The ‘safety’ bicycle
While bicycles had been available in various forms since the early 1800s, it was not until the 1880s and the introduction of the ‘safety’ bicycle (the familiar shape very similar to modern bikes today) that its role expanded beyond that of a rich gentleman’s plaything.
The safety bicycle, combined with the newly invented pneumatic tyre, was comfortable, easy to ride and maintain, and relatively inexpensive. It was also enthusiastically embraced by both men and women, though not without raised eyebrows over the morality of women cycling. One columnist in the women’s magazine Queen in 1896 suggested women who cycled were also disobedient, likely to smoke and read ‘risky novels’. Such criticisms notwithstanding, one estimate suggests that in 1896 a third of bike orders were for women’s models, and in 1880, Mrs W.D. Welford became the first woman to join the Bicycle Touring Club (later the CTC and now Cycling UK), just two years after its establishment.
“Where shall we go for our week’s freedom from the town’s oppression?”
“King of the Road”, writing in TheClarion magazine, June 1897
In a period of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, cycling was celebrated as a way for town-dwellers to escape to the countryside, in a way that was both affordable and included the benefits of gentle exercise. Cycling opened up rural areas, allowing tourists to explore the landscape at their own pace and under their own steam, rather than being dependent on railway timetables or organised excursions.
In H.G. Wells’s 1896 comic novel The Wheels of Chance, a poorly paid draper’s assistant escapes Putney for the freedom of country lanes on his bike: ‘‘Here was quiet and greenery, and one mucked about as the desire took one… [S]omething wonderful, a little, low, red beast with a yellowish tail… went rushing across the road before him. It was the first weasel he had ever seen in his cockney life.’ (The Wheels of Chance, p.48).
Cycling outings were particularly popular among the growing middle class, who had the money and time, but the bicycle was also embraced by the socialist movement. Both the playwright George Bernard Shaw and docker’s union leader Ben Tillett cycled to the Trades Union Congress in Cardiff in September 1896, the former riding 40 miles from a friend’s home in Monmouthshire for the occasion.
Inevitably, many companies wanted to take advantage of the craze for cycling, producing advertising cycling maps like this pocket-sized map of North Wales, published in 1897 by Scotch whisky producers Pattisons. While the map conveniently folds into a cover less than 9 cm tall, making it perfect to slip in your pocket on a bike ride, we certainly do not recommend taking its advice and indulging in ‘Pattisons when cycling’!
When I first wrote about Sidney Curnow Vosper’s painting Salem in the magazine Planet in 1988, I could take it for granted that almost all of my readers would know something about the story of the picture, or at least be familiar with the look of it. The big coloured print still hung on the wall in many a grandparent’s house. That’s why I felt confident about coining the term ‘National Icon’ to describe it. But, about five years ago, teaching art history to a first year undergraduate class at Swansea University I got a shock. None of the class recognised the picture when I showed it, and none of the students had heard of it. The national icon had disappeared from the consciousness of this rising generation.
It was, perhaps, not the disappearance itself but the speed of the disappearance of Salem that was most surprising. After all, the living presence of the picture in the culture had been reinforced in every generation between its creation in 1909 and 1997, when the magazine Golwg reinvented it as a cover image during the devolution referendum campaign of that year. The magazine doctored the picture to show Sian Owen leaving the chapel with her fingers crossed – presumably on her way round to the vestry to vote ‘Yes’.
Created as an image of picturesque religiosity among the Welsh people, Salem originally presented a reassuring message of national docility intended for sale in the English art market. If all had gone according to plan, it is unlikely that more than a few Welsh people would ever have seen it. However, the purchase of the picture by William Hesketh Lever, MP, and its banal use by him in the form of a poster to promote the sale of his company’s Sunlight Soap, put the picture in the public domain and created the potential for the subsequent transformation of its meaning. Although the initial mechanics of the transformation remain obscure, by the 1920s the picture had acquired a new narrative among a different audience. The ‘discovery’ of the face of the devil in Sian Owen’s Paisley shawl stimulated the reinvention of Salem as a parable of the sin of pride. That said, I don’t suppose any but the most puritanical of Christian believers took that morality tale seriously – surely, it was the magical nature of the revelation of the face in the shawl that appealed. It was a story that had more in common with the Mabinogi than with Nonconformity, notwithstanding its promotion in a poem by T. Rowland Hughes, written during the dark days of the Second World War, as a work of Christian devotion. It was revamped again in a meditative mood, with a heavy dose of ruralist hiraeth, for the cover of an Endaf Emlyn LP in 1974. Going up-market, the painter Hywel Harries modernised it in a sort of Cubist-cum-patchwork quilt oil painting.
The failure of the 1979 devolution referendum changed the atmosphere, but in the period of political activism that followed, Salem was again powerfully reinvented. ‘Deffrwch y bastads. Mae Cymru’n marw’ – ‘Wake the bastards up. Wales is dying’ – was the slogan surrounding the image on a pamphlet produced in 1989 by Cymdeithas Cyfamod y Cymry Rhydd. The context was now the reaction against inward migration and the arson campaign against holiday homes. Subsequently, Sian Owen was deployed by environmentalists against the chemical multi-national Montsanto, based at Wrexham, this time making grotesque use of the myth of the devil lurking in Sian Owen’s shawl.
But that may well have been the end of the road for Salem as an active force in the culture. If the Swansea students are typical, perhaps the decline of the Nonconformist Christianity that was the picture’s original context, and the unfamiliarity of a social world based on chapel life, have eventually undermined its potential for redeployment. The National Library’s recent acquisition of the copy version of the picture has certainly reawakened interest in its history. This second version was painted for Frank Treharne James, a Merthyr solicitor and brother-in-law of the artist, who had been frustrated in his desire to acquire the original when the future Lord Leverhulme snapped it up for 100 guineas at a Royal Watercolour Society in London. But I suspect that the original Salem has now passed from the living place in the culture that enabled it to be reinvented unselfconsciously to meet the changing needs of the twentieth century, into a fascinating fossil. Sad as it may be, Salem exists now primarily as material evidence of a bye-gone age, an object of study by historians.
“I cannot think of my father as being a hundred years old”, says his daughter Eluned, and in fact while researching in the archive held at the Library it’s not an old man who comes to mind, but an energetic, enthusiastic, hard-working and determined man. Meredydd Evans, or Merêd, was a pivotal figure in the development of music in Wales. He spent his life contributing to Welsh life and culture as an avid collector, historian, musician, editor, nationalist and campaigner for the Welsh language. The centenary is a chance to celebrate a full and productive life and here is a taste of the buzz of activities at the National Library:
Film: Merêd Centenary – Archive clips Monday, 9 December 2019
Join us in celebrating the centenary of Merêd’s birth (9 December 1919 – 21 February 2015) on his birthday with a special showing of a selection of clips from the Screen and Sound Archive collection, which give a taste of Merêd and Phyllis Kinney’s life and work. Join us on a journey from ‘Noson Lawen’ to Ryan and Ronnie, and from the folk songs to Heather Jones singing ‘Colli laith’.
In September 2019 the musicians Siân James, Gwenan Gibbard, Gareth Bonello, Gai Toms, Iestyn Tyne and Casi Wyn were invited to create a new arrangement of some old Welsh folk tunes from the Meredydd Evans and Phyllis Kinney archive, held at the National Library of Wales. It was broadcast on BBC Radio Cymru from the Welsh Folk-Song Society conference on 29 September. To mark the centenary of Dr Meredydd Evans’ birth, here is a rare opportunity for you to hear that collection of tunes being sung again, following the film which will be shown in the Drwm on the 9th of December.
Merêd centenary lecture
Lunchtime lecture by Geraint H. Jenkins, Wednesday 11 December. An opportunity to celebrate the centenary of Merêd’s birth – philosopher, writer, musician and activist – in the company of historian Geraint H. Jenkins. A special photograph of Merêd by Iestyn Hughes will be on view during the week.
Hela’r Hen Ganeuon (Hunting the Old Songs) BBC Radio Cymru programme
Following a period of research in the archive of Merêd and Phyllis at the National Library, musicians will respond to music relating to the Christmas and New Year period. Al Lewis, Nia Morgan and Arfon Gwilym join Georgia Ruth Williams, and perform songs related to the Christmas and New Year seasons e.g. Plygain, Calennig, and Mari Lwyd. On Sunday 8th December at 19:05 the Hela’r Hen Ganeuon programme will be broadcast on BBC Radio Cymru, and will then be available to listen again on the Radio Cymru website or the BBC Sounds app.
Frank Hennessy’s ‘Celtic Heartbeat’
Talk on Merêd on ‘Celtic Heartbeat’, Radio Wales, (1st December 2019) with Nia Mai Daniel and Frank Hennessey discussing how he has been an inspiration to Welsh folk musicians throughout his life, from his work as Head of light entertainment at the BBC (1963-1973) to assisting the young musicians of the ’10 mewn bws (10 in a Bus) Project. Merêd was a talented performer, recording an important selection of songs for Folkway Records in New York in 1954, and later for the Sain record label.
Cataloguing the Merêd and Phyllis Kinney archive at the National Library
As part of the work of the Welsh Musical Archive we are preparing an archive catalogue to provide easy access to the treasure trove of archives containing Merêd and Phyllis Kinney’s musical papers, Merêd’s correspondence, and Merêd’s files on philosophy, literature, campaigns for the Welsh language, and more.
Index cards available online
Thousands of index cards on traditional Welsh music have been digitized and are available on our website. There are nine different groups (namely Folk songs, Carols, Carol lyrics, Nursery Rhymes, ‘Alawon fy Ngwlad’ tunes by Nicholas Bennett, Mari Lwyd, J. Lloyd Williams and the Journal of the Welsh Folk Song Society). There will be an exciting opportunity to get involved with a volunteering project on the Nursery Rhymes in the New Year.
Gwenan Gibbard’s folk music PhD
Gwenan Gibbard is the winner of a Doctoral Scholarship to study the contribution of Dr Meredydd Evans and Phyllis Kinney to the field of folk music in Wales. This is a joint project between The Welsh Musical Archive at The National Library of Wales, The School of Music and Media at Bangor University and the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol.
‘Record: Folk, Protest and Pop’ musical exhibition
Last chance to see the exhibition relating to Welsh music from the Crwth to the Y Cyrff. Please note that the exhibition closes on 11th December (not 1st February) due to construction work. The exhibition includes a section on Merêd looking at his influence as a collector and performer and as head of BBC Wales’ light entertainment programmes.
In celebrating the centenary, we are thankful for Merêd’s huge contribution to Welsh culture.
A new collection of railway plans has recently arrived at the Library; it provides insights into one of the first railways in Wales.
One of our major sources of new items for the collection is donations from those who have spent many years building up their own collections. One such person is Alastair Warrington who worked for many years as an Engineer on the Western region of British Rail and later with Network Rail.
During his time working on the railways he became aware that large numbers of plans, correspondence and other items were being disposed of by the railways as different lines were closed down. This valuable archive of the history of railways in Wales was in danger of being lost forever and so he decided to take it upon himself to save as much as he could. Over the years he managed to amass a collection which included 1000s of plans, correspondence files and other documents which he has used for his own research and also to aid other researchers. Most of the collection covers South Wales, but it also contains items from elsewhere in Wales and the Marches.
Housing, organising and listing such a large collection has been a major undertaking and he wanted to ensure that the collection found a safe home for the future. Back in the year 2000 Mr Warrington agreed to bequeath his collection to the National Library as a fitting home to house and protect such a valuable historical resource. However, earlier this year he contacted the Library again to suggest that it would be better to transfer the collection to us now, so that he could help us to interpret and organise it. The collection is being transferred in batches from his home in South Wales to the Library.
So far over 500 railway plans and several hundred correspondence files have been transferred, but there are 1000s more drawings and other items yet to come. This picture shows part of the collection in its new home. Eventually we will flatten and encapsulate the smaller items and catalogue all of the plans and the correspondence files will be transferred to the Archives collection.
One of the features of this collection which has aided us greatly as curators is the fact that everything has been carefully organised and listed so that we are able to know exactly what we have and to provide access to it via the listings even before it is catalogued fully.
Of the material that has already arrived, one of the most fascinating items is this plan showing the proposed line of the Carmarthenshire Tramroad or Railway which was the first Railway in Wales to be authorised by an Act of Parliament, in June 1802. This plan was created as part of the legislative process and was countersigned by Charles Abbott, Speaker of the House of Commons (1802-1817). When the first part of the line opened in 1803 it became the first stretch of public railway to be used in Britain. The line did not use steam locomotives or carry paying passengers, the first successful use of a steam locomotive was on the Merthyr Tydfil Tramroad in 1804. The first fare paying passenger railway was the Mumbles Railway starting in 1807.
It is remarkable that so many firsts in the history of rail travel happened in Wales, and this new collection will help to ensure that this rich railway history is preserved.
In 1982, Margaret Jones received a commission from the Arts Council of Wales to illustrate Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi.(1) Through her lifelong love of mythology and folklore, she was aware that generations had grown up with an intimate knowledge of the characters in these culturally iconic stories, and she knew she could shatter dreams with a single pencil line. Voices from the past were warning her to tread softly.(2) She needn’t have worried. Through her imagination and skill as an illustrator and researcher, Margaret’s images have come to define Welsh mythology as much as the words of the ancient stories themselves.
Margaret was born in Bromley, Kent, during the ‘Golden Age of Illustration’, not long after the end of the first world war. She grew up inspired by the books of Arthur Rackham and the great illustrators of the early 20th Century. As a little girl, she drew on wallpaper, carved a face into the wooden mantleshelf, and sketched a man slipping on a banana skin. Every day she drew, all through her schooling in Birmingham and Southport, and her early married life in India. In 1954, she moved with her young family to Aberystwyth where her husband Basil had accepted a job as a methodist teacher. Passing through Tre Taliesin on the bus, she knew this was where she would raise her children, make puppet shows, and become an illustrator.
An exhibition of Margaret’s paintings at the newly opened Aberystwyth Arts Centre in 1979 led to a commission from Cyngor Celfyddydau Cymru to illustrate a new edition of Y Mabinogi. This was her first book commission. She was sixty four, inspired, and apprehensive.
The manuscript arrived from the publisher. Margaret had learned Welsh from reading children’s books, using her eyes rather than her ears, for she found the written language much easier than the spoken. She had no contact with the writer Gwyn Thomas until the end of the project when they met at Yr Eisteddfod.
Margaret recognised that the characters in the stories lived in a real Welsh landscape. These are tales of the tribe, attempts to avoid conflict with Ireland in the Second Branch, of migration and displacement in the Third, and the cruel treatment of women in the Fourth. Margaret knew the role of an illustrator is to complement the text, not replicate it, so she included objects and images from the real world to enhance the magic.
She researched the costumes thoroughly until every shoe and brooch reflected the time, and she drew her own landscape. The picture of Manawydan catching a fish was drawn in Capel Bangor, while the animals and birds were influenced by Ladybird books illustrated by Ynys Môn wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe.
Like Rackham before her, she laid down washes of yellow ochre, prussian blue, or vermillion, which muted the colours painted over the wash, much to the displeasure of the publisher who demanded bright primary colours, as was the deluded fashion of the day. Margaret preferred to explore the darker boundaries between the sentimental and the grotesque, so she wrote to the Arts Council to tell them that Arthur Rackham would never have had this trouble.
The compromise was that she painted four bright introductory letters to each branch.
Margaret finished her paintings for Y Mabinogi in 1982 and it was published two years later after the usual ups and downs common to the book trade.
She went on to illustrate more books for the Arts Council, including her favourite Welsh story, Culwch ac Olwen, followed by Taliesin, which she imbued with her wry humour and understanding that there is an inherent wit and parody in some of these epic tales, which becomes clearer when the story is heard rather than read.
Maps were once seen as mirrors into the ancient world, so it was little surprise when Margaret produced her iconic map of the Mabinogion. This was followed in 1988 by a map of Welsh Folk Tales inspired by Robin Gwyndaf’s collection of stories in St Fagans Folk Museum, which were later published in ‘Chwedlau Gwerin Cymru / Welsh Folk Tales’. At the millenium, the National Library invited Margaret to illustrate a map of the life of Owain Glyndŵr. She even illustrated a map of Narnia which was never published. The National Library also have a set of 12 unpublished drawings for the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym which had been submitted to Gregynog Press as a calendar.
More tales from the folkloric world followed, Madog, Dewi Sant, Arthur, Twm Sion Cati, and her own story of the changeling Nat who leaves the fairy world for the industrial valleys. And she used her memories of her time in India just after partition to illustrate a set of Hindu Tales.
She won the Tir na n-Og Award in 1989, 1993, 2000, and 2003, then in 2008 she collaborated again with Robin Gwyndaf on Llyfr Datguddiad Ioan, which may yet be seen as her masterpiece, perhaps because the stories in the Revelation of John mean more to Margaret than perhaps any other. The book was published privately by Robin in 2008, and is an exquisite piece of work.
Margaret’s visual storytelling has become our eyes into Welsh mythology. Her understandable nervousness in those early days has been turned on its head. Her books inspire other artists and illustrators who are in turn imagining new visions of the ancient tales. And in her hundredth year, she fittingly takes her place alongside illustrators who define the visual mythology of their own countries, Arthur Rackham, Virginia Sterrett, John Bauer, Kay Neilsen, Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Lotte Reiniger, and so many more. And how fitting that the myths of Wales, known for the stories of Branwen, Blodeuedd, Arianrhod, Rhiannon, and Goewin, are defined by another inspiring woman, Margaret Jones.
This is a brief extract from a talk on 20th November 2019 which places Margaret’s work in an international context of illustrators who define their country’s mythology.
(1) Thomas, Gwyn: Kevin: Y Mabinogi, (Welsh Arts Council, 1984)
(2) Jones, Margaret: It Came, To Pass (Apecs Press 20??)
Cyflwyniad gan Robin Gwyndaf i hunangofiant Margaret Jones, (unpublished forewordto ‘It Came, To Pass’), 2007.
Richard Burton playing cricket whilst dressed as Alexander The Great might not be what you expect to find in The National Collection of Welsh Photographs housed here in the National Library of Wales, but it illustrates the diversity of the collection. It is just one of the 1.2 million photographs held here for the people of Wales which range from the first recorded photograph to have been taken in Wales – on 9 March 1841 by Reverend Calvert Richard Jones at Margam Castle – to images which were taken only this year, such as those by Jack Lowe and Nick Treharne, recently purchased by the Library. It’s a collection that continues to develop and despite the effects of austerity, we have continued to buy works by contemporary photographers. These include the likes of Abbie Trayler-Smith, Pete Davis, Amanda Jackson and Rhodri Jones.
Amongst our holdings are many works by the greats of photography – such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, Carleton Watkins, Angus McBean and Philip Jones Griffiths to give just a few examples. During the last month we have also sought to draw attention to the wealth of photographs of the far-flung corners of the world, whether Fiji, Venezuela or Yemen. The collection also includes the work of Welsh photographers, recording all aspects of life in Wales. Personally, I am very proud of the fact that this is a democratic collection. It is open to receive relevant material from anyone, it’s definitely not an exclusive club restricted to the greats of photography. After all who better to document a community than those who live in it?
Hopefully, the vlogs and tweets we’ve shared and events held here over the last few weeks have illustrated the depth and breadth of this collection.
This is a collection of photographs of, about and for the people of Wales. It’s your collection, which tells your story, so please use it and above all enjoy it. Visit The National Library of Wales’ website to find out more.
November 7 is World Digital Preservation Day. This is a global campaign, co-ordinated by the Digital Preservation Coalition, to raise awareness of the issues associated with the preservation of digital information. The theme of this year’s campaign is At Risk Digital Materials, but I would argue that all digital material is at risk, as the fast change of technology, the fragility of the binary code, the obsolescence of hardware and software, all present preservation challenges. There are also challenges in providing access to this material, as it can be difficult to establish provenance and original order, which is the way that archival material has traditionally been catalogued, when dealing with a succession of tweets posted on social media.
In Wales, we have been working together to mitigate the risks posed by the preservation of digital material. The Archives and Records Council Wales, supported by Welsh Government and the National Library of Wales, has produced a national digital preservation policy and developed a technological solution to preserve and provide access to the digital material acquired by its partners. The solution preserves the content in a central repository held at the Library, whist access is provided through the catalogues of the partners.
Family memories are also at risk from digital technologies, as emails, photographs and videos are all being created in digital format. The preservation of these digital memories depends upon the creators taking action now to ensure that they are available for future generations. The message of World Digital Preservation Day is to raise awareness of the need to act to order to preserve, so that digital content is safeguarded for the future.
Sally McInnes, Head of Unique Collections and Collection Care
A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.