Amgueddfa Blog: Celf

On 15 March we launch our new LGBTQ+ tours at National Museum Cardiff. The tours have been developed in partnership with Pride Cymru working with self-confessed Museum queerator Dan Vo and an amazing team of volunteers.

You may already have read Norena Shopland's blog about the Ladies of Llangollen, and Young Heritage Leader Jake’s post, Queer Snakes! There are so many more LGBTQ+ stories in our collection – stories that have been hidden in dusty museum closets for too long. Friends, it’s time for us to let them out!

To whet your appetite, here’s a quick glimpse at one of the works you might spot on the tour…

The Mower, by Sir William Hamo Thornycoft

The Mower is a bronze statuette on display in our Victorian Art gallery. It is about half a metre high and shows a topless young farmworker in a hat and navvy boots resting with his arm on his hip, holding a scythe. This sassy pose, known as contrapposto, was inspired by Donatello’s David - a work with its own queer story to tell.

The Mower was made by William Hamo Thornycroft, one of the most famous sculptors in Britain in the nineteenth century, and was given to the Museum in 1928 by Sir William Goscombe John. An earlier, life-size version is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and is said to be the first significant free-standing sculpture showing a manual labourer made in Britain.

Thornycroft became fascinated with manual labourers and the working classes after being introduced to socialist ideas by his wife, Agatha Cox. He wrote ‘Every workman’s face I meet in the street interests me, and I feel sympathy with the hard-handed toilers & not with the lazy do nothing selfish ‘upper-ten.’ In The Mower, he presents the body of a young working-class man as though it's a classical hero or god – a brave move for the time.

Queering the Mower

With the rising interest in queer theory, many art historians have drawn attention to the queer in this sculpture. In an article by Michael Hatt the work is described as homoerotic, which he describes as that ambiguous space between the homosocial and homosexual.

One of the main factors is the artist’s relationship with Edmund Gosse, a writer and critic who helped establish Thornycroft’s reputation in the art world. Gosse was married with children, but his letters to Thornycroft give us a touching insight into their relationship.

He describes times they spent together basking in the sun in meadows and swimming naked in rivers; and they are filled with love poems and giddy declarations of affection. ‘Nature, the clouds, the grass, everything takes on new freshness and brightness now I have you to share the world with,’ he wrote. Gosse was so obsessed with Thornycroft that writer Lytton Strachey famously joked he wasn’t homosexual, but Hamo-sexual.

Gosse and Thornycroft were spending time together when the first inspiration for The Mower hit. They were sailing with a group of friends up the Thames when they spotted a real-life mower on the riverbank, resting. Thornycroft made a quick sketch, and the idea for the sculpture was born. A wax model sketch from 1882 is at the Tate.

The real-life mower they saw was wearing a shirt, but for his sculpture Thornycroft stripped him down. He explained to his wife that he wanted to ‘keep his hat on and carry his shirt’ and that a brace over his shoulder will help ‘take off the nude look’.

Brace or no brace, it’s difficult to hide the fact that this is a celebration of the male body designed for erotic appeal. Thornycroft used an Italian model, Orazio Cervi. Cervi was famous in Victorian Britain for his ‘perfectly proportioned physique’ (art historical speak for a hot bod!)

Later in the century, photographs of The Mower and other artworks were collected and exchanged in secret along with photographs of real life nudes, by a network of men mostly in London – a kind of queer subculture, although it wouldn’t have been understood in those terms back then.

This was dangerous ground. The second half of the nineteenth century saw what has been described as a ‘homosexual panic’, with rising anxieties around gender identity, sexuality and same-sex desire. Fanny and Stella, the artist Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde were among many who were hounded and publicly prosecuted for ‘indecent’ behaviour.

These tensions showed up in the art world too. Many of the artists associated with the Aesthetic and Decadent movements in particular were under scrutiny for producing works that were described as ‘effeminate’, ‘degenerate’ or ‘decadent’. But works like The Mower suggest that art might have provided a safer space for playing out private desires in a public arena at this time.


Book your place on our free volunteer-led LGBTQ+ tours here, and keep an eye on our website and social media for future dates!  


A few years ago the chemical works BP Baglan Bay called me and said they were clearing out the offices as the site was closing and would I like to see if the museum wanted any objects for our Modern Industry collection?

I couldn’t wait to go and have a look, and as there was quite a lot to go through I took our museum van in the hope of a few accessions.

There were lots of photographs, some in frames, some big aerial photos too. There were overalls, hats and jackets with logos on them – just the sort of things that tell a great story when exhibited for displays.

There were tools specific to the industry and other bits and pieces like signs and gauges.

I loaded a few things in the van to take back to the museum so I could go through them to decide what we would like to keep and what should be returned.

But as I was about to leave they called me back and asked if I wanted the paintings? I hadn’t noticed these as they were covered in bubble wrap and stood against a wall.

One of the paintings was quite big, about 4’6”x 6’ (1.5 x 2.1m) and I couldn’t see the subject for the wrapping. The other was much smaller about 2’ x 2’6” (0.6 x 0.76m). I was told the bigger one was an oil painting of Baglan Bay at Night and the smaller one a watercolour of a power station. I put them in the van, got the paperwork signed and left for our stores in Nantgarw where I could spread things out and examine them properly.

About a week went by and I still hadn’t looked at the paintings as I had been going through all the other objects first.

When I did take the bubble wrap off I was really surprised by the quality of both paintings. The oil painting was really striking and the BP staff had told me that it had hung in the office since the 1960s.

I looked for a painter’s signature and then the real surprise hit me! In the bottom corner was ‘Vicari’.

Bells rang deep in my head, where did I know that name from? A quick internet search answered that. The richest living artist in the world. The official Gulf War artist. Artist to the Saudi Royal family. And born in Port Talbot. This fitted my collecting policy perfectly, being an industrial scene in Wales painted by a Welsh artist. The only snag from my point of view was that it could be quite valuable and BP might want to keep it.

I contacted them straight away and told them about the artist and its possible value. One of their directors, David, called me and told me that they were happy it would be going to the National Museum of Wales and he couldn’t think of a better place for it.  This generosity meant that we could save a national treasure for future generations.

So far we had treated the painting as if it were a genuine ‘Vicari’, but was it really?

I contacted the ‘Vicari’ website and sent them an image of our painting asking them if they could confirm if Andrew had painted it.

I checked my email every day. No replies. How else could we confirm this if they didn’t get back to us?

One sunny morning about three weeks later my phone rang. I could tell from the number it was someone in France calling. This was not unusual as we have many visits from French schools and as my schoolboy French is just about good enough to get by, my number was very often given to schools as a contact.

After answering with who I was, a deep, rich voice said:

‘Ah, Andrew here, I hear you’ve found the lost Vicari’

I couldn’t believe it! Andrew Vicari calling me from his home in France! To say I was flabbergasted is an understatement!

Andrew told me he had painted Baglan in the early 1960s and was really glad of the commission at the time (when he wasn’t so well known). We spoke for about half an hour about all sorts of things and he went on to tell me an incredible  story from 1966.

Andrew had painted a picture that was to be auctioned for the Aberfan Disaster Appeal and went along to the auction in Cardiff. Before it got underway, two burly men approached Andrew and said someone needed to talk to him in private. He was shown to a room and waiting there were two more men in sharp suits, looking a bit ‘dodgy’ (his words). These two told him they wanted to buy the painting, and asked how much did he want for it? He told them that it wasn’t his to sell as he’d given to the appeal and it was out of his hands. They kept on that they wanted it and he needed to get it for them. They were getting more and more insistent. After repeating that he couldn’t a number of times, they finally left, to Andrew’s relief.

It turned out that they were the Kray twins! He laughed ‘I’m one of the few people to have said ‘no’ to the Kray twins and lived to tell the tale!’

He told me that he was very happy his painting was going to be in the National collection and that he would do anything for Wales!

We never had the chance to speak again; sadly Andrew died in Swansea, in 2016 aged 84. It’s lovely that we have such incredible paintings to remember him by.

This story happened in 2009 and the painting has been in our stores in Nantgarw where is has been conserved and a new glazed frame made. We’ve been waiting for a chance to exhibit it and finally it will happen.

You can see the painting as part of an Andrew Vicari exhibition from 13th July to 3rd November 2019 at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

Rydym yn parhau i nodi blwyddyn ryngwladol tabl cyfnodol yr elfennau cemegol ac, ar gyfer mis Ebrill, rydym wedi dewis calsiwm. Mae’r rhan fwyaf o bobl yn gwybod am galsiwm fel yr elfen sylfaenol er mwyn ffurfio esgyrn neu mewn calchfaen ond mae iddo lu o ddibenion eraill ac mae i'w gael ar wely'r môr ac mewn bywyd morol ddoe a heddiw.


Elfen fetelig o liw golau yw calsiwm (Ca) ac 20 yw ei rhif atomig. Mae’n hanfodol ar gyfer bywyd heddiw ac mae’n aml yn chwarae rhan bwysig yn cynnal planhigion ac anifeiliaid. Dim ond pedair elfen arall sy'n fwy cyffredin na chalsiwm yng nghramen y ddaear ac mae’n rhan o lawer o greigiau a mwynau fel calchfaen, aragonit, gypswm, dolomit, marmor a sialc.


Aragonit a calsit yw’r ddwy ffurf grisialog fwyaf cyffredin ar galsiwm carbonad ac fe gyfrannodd y ddwy at ffurfio’r ddwy filiwn o gregyn yn ein casgliad o folysgiaid. Craidd y casgliad hwn yw casgliad Melvill-Tomlin a gyfrannwyd i’r amgueddfa yn y 1950au. Dyma gasgliad rhyngwladol sy’n cynnwys llawer o sbesimenau prin, prydferth sy’n bwysig o safbwynt gwyddonol ac a ddefnyddir gan wyddonwyr o bedwar ban byd ar gyfer eu hymchwil. Caiff perlau, sydd hefyd wedi’u gwneud o aragonit a calsit, eu cynhyrchu gan gregyn deufalf fel wystrys, cregyn gleision dŵr croyw a hyd yn oed gregyn bylchog mawr. Ym myd natur, caiff perlau eu ffurfio wrth i’r molysgiaid ymateb i barasit ymwthiol neu ronyn o raean. Mae’r fantell o gwmpas corff meddal yr anifail yn gollwng calsiwm carbonad a conchiolin sy’n amgylchynu’r peth estron ac yn dynwared ei siâp ac felly nid yw pob un yn hollol grwn. Yn y diwydiant perlau, caiff pelenni bach iawn o gragen eu 'plannu’ yn yr wystrysen neu’r gragen las er mwyn sicrhau bod y berl a ffurfir yn hollol grwn.


Cyrff meddal sydd gan folysgiaid ac maent yn creu cregyn i fod yn darianau amddiffynnol iddynt. Mae hyn yn wir am anifeiliaid di-asgwrn-cefn eraill hefyd, yn enwedig yn y môr. Mae riffiau cwrel a thiwbiau rhai mwydod gwrychog (Serpulidae, Spirorbinae) yn dibynnu ar natur atgyfnerthol calsiwm carbonad i gynnal a gwarchod eu cyrff meddal. Mae gan gramenogion fel crancod a chimychiaid sgerbwd allanol caled sy’n cael ei atgyfnerthu â chalsiwm carbonad a chalsiwm ffosffad. O gastrolithau y daw’r calsiwm y mae ar gimychiaid, cimychiaid coch, cimychiaid afon a rhai crancod tir ei angen ar ôl bwrw’u cragen. (Weithiau, gelwir gastrolithau’n gerrig stumog neu'n llygaid crancod). Maent i’w cael ar y naill ochr a’r llall i’r stumog ac maent yn darparu calsiwm ar gyfer rhannau hanfodol o’r cwtigl fel darnau’r geg a’r coesau. Yng nghasgliad yr Amgueddfa, mae bron 750,000 o anifeiliad morol di-asgwrn-cefn, yn cynnwys cramenogion, cwrelau a mwydod gwrychog.


O fwynau calsiwm y gwnaed llawer o’r 700,000 o ffosilau sydd yng nghasgliadau’r Amgueddfa hefyd. Defnyddir dau brif fath o galsiwm carbonad i wneud cregyn a sgerbydau allanol anifeiliaid di-asgwrn-cefn, ac maent yn fwy tebygol o gael eu hanfarwoli fel ffosilau os defnyddir un ohonynt yn hytrach na’r llall. Mae aragonit, sydd yng nghregyn molysgiaid fel amonitau, gastropodau a chregyn deuglawr, yn ansefydlog ac nid yw’n para am filiynau o flynyddoedd gan amlaf. Wrth ffosileiddio, mae cregyn aragonit naill ai’n ymdoddi’n llwyr, neu mae’r aragonit yn ailgrisialu i ffurfio calsit. Defnyddiwyd calsit i wneud cregyn a sgerbydau grwpiau o gwrelau sydd wedi peidio â bod erbyn hyn, braciopodau cymalog, bryosoaid, ecinodermiaid a’r rhan fwyaf o drilobitau. Mae’n llawer mwy sefydlog nag aragonit ac felly mae darnau caled gwreiddiol o’r creaduriaid yn ymddangos fel ffosilau, filiynau o flynyddoedd ar ôl iddynt suddo i wely’r môr. Yn aml, gwelir grisialau mawr o galsit yn llenwi mannau gwag mewn ffosilau, fel y siambrau y tu mewn i gregyn amonitau. Mae fertebratau’n defnyddio mwyn calsiwm gwahanol i wneud esgyrn a dannedd: apatit (calsiwm ffosffad), a all bara am filiynau o flynyddoedd i wneud ffosilau eiconig fel sgerbydau deinosoriaid ac ysgithrau mamothiaid.


Yng nghasgliadau’r Amgueddfa o greigiau, mae llawer o galchfeini, creigiau a ffurfiwyd ar waelod y môr amser maith yn ôl o ddarnau o gregyn a deunydd arall sy’n cynnwys llawer o galsiwm carbonad. Ers miloedd o flynyddoedd, bu pobl yn defnyddio calchfeini i adeiladu: cerrig cerfiedig yn nhemlau eiconig y Groegiaid a’r Rhufeiniaid; darnau mâl i fod yn falast o dan reilffyrdd a ffyrdd; neu wedi’u llosgi i greu calch i wneud sment. Defnyddiwyd calchfaen enwog o Dorset o’r enw Carreg Portland i adeiladu Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd ac adeiladau eiconig eraill yng Nghanolfan Ddinesig Caerdydd. Ar lawr yr Amgueddfa gwelir teils marmor, sef calchfaen a drawsnewidiwyd o dan wres a gwasgedd mawr. Bu cerflunwyr yn hoff iawn o farmor ers dyddiau’r hen Roegiaid a’r Rhufeiniaid. Yng nghasgliadau celf yr Amgueddfa gwelir gweithiau marmor gan Auguste Rodin, John Gibson, Syr Francis Chantrey, Syr William Goscombe John a llawer o rai eraill. Yn ogystal, mae yno enghreifftiau pwysig o waith gan gerflunwyr o’r ugeinfed ganrif, fel Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill a Henri Gaudier-Breszka. Roedd yn well ganddyn nhw gerfio calchfaen feddalach a llai dwys, Carreg Portland a thywodfaen.

Many of the books in the Library collections at the National Museum Wales have attractive decorative techniques applied to the covers or text blocks. Decoration on text blocks, the combined pages of the book inside the covers, is particularly lovely because it tends to be hidden when they are on the shelves.

The most popular examples of decorating text blocks include marbling and gilding. But one of the most interesting techniques is the one known as disappearing fore-edge painting, which was often hidden underneath the other types of decoration.

Fore-edge painting was a technique that reached the height of its popularity from the mid-17th century onwards. It was usually applied to the longest section of the text block, the one opposite the spine, the fore-edge.

Two books in our special collections feature examples of mid-19th century disappearing fore-edge paintings. They are the two volumes of the second edition of the Memoirs of Lord Bolingbroke by George Wingrove Cooke, and were published in 1836.

When the book is closed you cannot see the image, only the gilt edges of the text block, but when the leaves are fanned, the hidden picture is revealed.

To achieve this effect, the artist would need to fan the pages, and then secure them in a vice, this means they are applying the paint not to the edge of the page, but to just shy of the edge. Once completed, it is released from the vice and the gilding would be applied to the edges.

Landscape scenes were the most popular for this technique, and the ones on our books show Conway Castle and Caernarfon Castle.

Very often the motivation for a fore-edge painting was a demonstration of artistic skill, so it didn’t always follow that the images were related to the text contained within the book. These two volumes of Memoirs, do not have an obvious connection to the scenes painted. Lord Bolingbroke (Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke 1678–1751) was an English politician during the reign of Queen Anne, and later George I, and is probably best known as a supporter of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, but he does not appear to have any direct association with either Conwy or Caernarfon.

The volumes were acquired for the Library in 2008 from a rare book dealer, but we don’t know enough about their history to be able to tell when the fore-edge paintings were added. The first volume contains an inscription that states that the book was a gift to a T. M. Townley from his friend Samuel Thomas Abbot on his leaving Eton in 1843. Unfortunately we don’t know anything about either the recipient or the sender, so we can’t tell if one of them was ultimately responsible for painting the books.

This St David’s Day, Friday 1 March, the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion will present a unique eighteenth-century painting, Poor Taff, to the museum. The Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion has kindly offered Poor Taff to Amgueddfa Cymru and the people of Wales, following the closure of its former home, the Welsh Girls’ School (later St. David’s School) founded by the Society in the eighteenth century.

This is one of four oil paintings, possibly commissioned by Welsh Societies, telling the tale of the Welsh satirical character, Shon-Ap-Morgan, who was widely known as “Poor Taff”, and his journey to London. Shon was intent on avenging the  “rabble” English who entertained themselves by annually hanging ragged effigies of Welsh people above the streets on St David’s Day. Things did not go as planned for Shon, many versions of the story claim that the “demon drink” was responsible for his many misadventures.

He is portrayed in the painting with his attributes that include the goat he rides, leeks, cheese and herring. Some versions show him with his wife, Unnafred [Winifred] Shon. This caricature probably stems from a combination of early anti-Welsh prints and a popular Meissen figurine that originally poked fun at the tailor of the Saxony factory’s director, Count Brühl. The figurine shows the tailor riding a goat with a female companion. English factories were quick to copy this popular design that became known as “the Welsh tailor and his wife”.

This image of Poor Taff shows that he self-styled himself as a gentleman. However, he was so poverty-stricken he had to ride a goat rather than a horse. Whereas today, his diet of leeks, cheese and fish seem a healthy choice, they were seen then as further symbols of his poverty. These satirical anti-Welsh symbols were promoted in London’s popular print culture that was convenient for anti-Welsh sentiments. Some English artists used this satire on prominent public figures such as Watkin Williams Wynn and the Prince of Wales (later George IV).

Later versions of the prints however, began to praise Wales and Welsh people, condemning the previous English abuse. As a result, Shon-Ap-Morgan, or Poor Taff, became an affectionate symbol of Welsh national identity. For this reason the painting may have been commissioned by a London-based Welsh society. The stereotype that we see in this painting eventually gave way to a more benevolent Welsh icon created by Augusta Hall (Lady Llanofer) of the Welsh lady, “Blodwen”, with her tall black hat and shawl.