Amgueddfa Blog: Ymgysylltu â'r Gymuned

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

Teithiau LGBTQ+
© Dan Vo @DanNouveau

An Encounter with May and Mary

Clasbau llawes a wnaed gan May Morris (1862-1938)

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

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

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

 

The Welsh Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Queer Perspective

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

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

Teithiau LGBTQ+
© Dan Vo @DanNouveau

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arweinwyr teithiau LGBTQ+


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

When I first read about this project, “Refugee Wales: The Afterlife of Violence,” I immediately identified with the idea of the afterlife of violence. This idea is closely related to my personal experience as an Iraqi survivor of wars, an asylum seeker and a former academic in my home country, struggling at some stage, to set my foot in the British academia. Moreover, my PhD research “Contemporary Iraqi Women’s Fiction of War” and my publications focus on war-related trauma and on how memory and identity function to shape and define the lives of survivors. 

In my PhD research, I analyzed narratives of the three decades of wars, sanctions and occupation in Iraq and I examined how survivors of traumatic events undergo a “crisis of survival” which transform them into victims to their survival. The crisis of the characters in the narratives takes different forms: sorrow, guilt, uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. However, the characters are determined to live and can put up with the hardships they are facing by means of the strategies of coping: denial, escape, daydreams and through the act of narration.

 Not only fictional characters could survive the woes of war, but also the writers of the texts and myself. In my PhD research, I added my personal memories of war to the experiences of the characters and the writers to generate one story of dealing with loss of a country and of loved ones and of putting up with the sorrow of an unfinished political disarray. My recollections of war work as a personal testimony to a historical fact and locate me as a historian and in my thesis also as an author who narrates the history of the political conflict in Iraq.

Unfortunately, this conflict was enlarged to engulf Syria, a very close country to Iraq and with which Iraqis share similar culture, traditions, and values. And above all we share Arabic language which enabled me to work as a volunteering interpreter with the Syrian refugees in the UK since 2012. 

In my role as an Associate Researcher in the “Refugee Wales Project,” I am responsible for meeting with Syrian refugees in Wales and of conducting interviews with them. The data collected from the recorded interviews will be translated, analyzed and be part of a book later. Thus, I am offered a great opportunity to add my initial PhD research findings and my personal story of displacement, of longing and of belonging to the stories of refugees who are striving to build a new life in Wales. Together we will produce another narrative of survival and a historical record to generations of Syrians who would be longing to hear testimonies from the witnesses who are seeking to integrate while enduring an unresolved misery back home.

https://refugee.wales

Samuel Sequeira, Cydymaith Ymchwil, prosiect Ffoaduriaid Cymru

It was the summer of August 2007. After finishing our holidays in the area in Germany where my wife was born, we (my wife and I) were waiting for a delayed flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow, London. Finally, when the flight arrived, and we were about to board there was chaos as all started rushing towards boarding. An officer was checking our passports and as usual I had no reason to be anxious because my visa and resident documents were in order. 

Despite having all travel documents perfect when the officer took our passports he took inordinately longer to examine them, and to our shock he looked at me as said, “Sir, I want you stand aside” while handing over my wife’s passport to her to proceed towards boarding. But my wife, who is German by nationality, would have none of this and she took up a fight with the officer asking for an explanation. The officer was livid with rage and could not believe the anger displayed by my wife. Also, the crowd was growing impatient. Obviously, having no legitimate reason other than my skin colour and Indian nationality, the officer had to relent. But his minute-long stare at me was something that has remained with me even today. Whenever I read or watch the long caravans of migrants struggling to crossover myriad real and imaginary borders to reach a place of safety my own experience at Frankfurt airport comes to haunt me. This and several more such small but unforgettable experiences at border crossings have inspired me embark on a research area that relates to migrants and refugees.

When I embarked on my doctoral research at Cardiff University some years ago I focussed on the group of South Asians who had migrated to the UK (Wales in particular) since Indian partition in 1947 as labourers, professionals, students, refugees as well as those who were ousted from African countries in the 1970s. During my doctoral years I recorded stories of their home that they had left behind, their migration process, settlement, and life in the UK. Being of Indian origin I, too, have shared their migration experience and viewed this area of research most suited to my interests and personal experience. Having completed my PhD in 2016 and while looking for an opportunity to continue my research career I found this current research project: Refugee Wales having received funding support and I saw this as a great opportunity to research on Sri Lankan Tamil community in Wales.

Prior to arriving in the UK, I had worked in India as a journalist. Being from South India I was keeping a close tag on what had been going on Sri Lanka during the time by way of civil war. I have witnessed the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India from close quarters and empathised with their plight. It was very sad that the issue that arose due to real or perceived discrimination led the Sri Lankan Tamils go to the extreme situation of taking up arms and demand a separate homeland. Failure of the state to resolve this ethnic issue and the intransigence of the radical groups among Tamils led to the final war that ended in the defeat and encampment of thousands of Tamils in 2009. I personally had felt a tinge of sadness when the Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran was killed and the Sri Lankan state was celebrating the triumph. My sadness was not for the demise of Prabhakaran but for the defeat and humiliation suffered by a proud and valiant people who fought for their rights and equality within Sri Lankan nation.

The media images of mass- graves, destroyed villages and people in camps huddled behind barbed wires soaked in monsoon rain and ragged condition still haunt me. As a journalist I was always imagining what stories those people behind barbed wires may have had to tell. Now, with this project, I have an opportunity to listen to at least some of those who suffered those years of conflict, state oppression and war and yet managed to escape to the safety of Britain. Their stories of how they managed to escape, what trauma they suffered while crossing those borders and, finally, ending up being settled in the UK will inspire others who go through a similar experience. These stories will no doubt help the state and the wider community to view the issue of migrants and refugees beyond the pale of legality and deal with it as a human condition requiring compassion and assistance. As for the Sri Lankan Tamils in Wales it is their opportunity to imprint their story on the canvas of the larger story of Wales as a multicultural nation. That is why I am delighted to be part of this interesting research project.

https://refugee.wales

It’s a pleasure to be able to share our thoughts as a Youth Leadership Network on Amgueddfa Cymru's platform. The SSAP Youth Leadership Network is the youth arm of the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel. It constitutes a group of highly driven and critical young leaders from diverse backgrounds.

In our last meeting, we hosted a discussion on the topical issue of statues and paintings that relate to British colonial history, particularly those of Thomas Picton here in Wales. The session was chaired by Dr. Sarah Younan from National Museum Cardiff. We were joined by the highly esteemed comparative sociologist educator Abu Bakr Madden Al Shabazz, Dr. Douglas Jones from the National Library of Wales and the Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru, David Anderson. A noteworthy and recommended resource used here is James Epstein's “Politics of Colonial Sensation: The Trial of Thomas Picton and the Cause of Louisa Calderon” in the American Historical Review.

The following are excerpts from the discussion including key events in the history of Picton: the slavocracy he was responsible for as governor of Trinidad, his well-known trial for accusations of misconduct abroad (involving the torture of Louisa Calderon) and thereafter, his deployment to Spain, death at Waterloo and posthumous honorary tributes in the form of statues, paintings, and some literary works.

Who was Thomas Picton?

Picton was commissioned in 1771, and was, according to the description on his portrait by Sir Martin Archer in the National Museum Wales collections, "a controversial governor of Trinidad in 1797-1803". The details of the said controversy are well illustrated in his trial for inflicting torture on Louisa Calderon (The Trial of Governor T. Picton for Inflicting the Torture on Louisa Calderon a Free Mulatto and one of His Britannic Majesty’s Subjects in the Island of Trinidad, (London, 1806)).

The trial of Picton

To sum up the details of the trial, a cause célèbre at the time, we turned to the blog by Dr. Jones for the National Library of Wales. In 1806, Picton was called to a trial at the King's Bench following his authoritarian and brutal rule in Trinidad. The accusation leveled against him was signing off an order for torture at the request of a highly influential planter, Begorrat, a planter also responsible for the execution of a dozen slaves at the time of the torture in question. Several things made this torture notable, not least amongst which are the following facts. It was the torture of a 14-year-old freed girl. It was the first trial for misconduct of an official in the execution duties while in service abroad. And, as Willian Garrow, the lead prosecutor, noted at the trial, it was the first time torture had been used officially in Trinidad.

While the details of the case are unique, its nature is ubiquitous, the misconduct of a high official under the influence of highly influential personnel, devoid of moral courage, and hidden away using technical legalities. This is how Picton was found guilty at the initial trial, but would 2 years later find himself never to be sentenced. In fact, he would go on to serve the British empire in Spain and would end up as the highest-ranking official to die at Waterloo, eventually being buried in St Paul's Cathedral a national hero. His public exoneration was about as swift and inexplicable as this outlined turnaround of events. 

Depicting Picton Today

Today, he has a statue honouring his memory in Cardiff City Hall among the heroes of Wales, a portrait in National Museum Cardiff, and an obelisk in Carmarthen.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing in all this is how the majority of us have become complicit in the obliteration of the history and memory of that free Mulata girl, Louisa Calderon. Instead, we have willingly or unwillingly contributed to the ever-growing memory of Sir Thomas Picton, as polarising as it has always been.  By obliterating the memory of Louisa Calderon, we have severely distorted our collective view of the big man. And readily, we have reduced Louisa to a single case, a stain in both the history of Picton, and British colonial history, a stain which regrettably many have washed away in a falsified sense of pride in the man.

If we attempt to reconfigure this distorted view of Picton to what we know was the more complete form of the man, many will be offended. They have every right to be, because many of them were lied to. They were never afforded the chance to make their own true and more complete judgement of the man. But they must take this offense, the rage at the sense of betrayal, and rightly turn it to the overdue redress. And now is the opportune time to do that.

The leadership panel suggests a number of ways in which this is possible

Suggestions for moving forward

The first and unquestioned is the removal and resituating of the current statues and paintings. The purpose of this is not to remove figures like him from history, but rather to put them in a contextualized environment, where their complete history can be more truthfully and completely told. This will allow our present-day collective memory of such figures to be rid of the bias that's been wrought by failure to tell their histories in the proper colonial context and in environments that allow all members of the public to digest this history.

Secondly, and an extension to the first recommendation, is multi-level education across different institutions responsible for public and private education. Notably, the attempts to re-educate the public should not place sole importance on the humanities but must make an honest attempt to diversify the contents of curricular in subjects such as the sciences.

We encourage members of the public to take an active role in engaging in the public discourse on the future of such statues, monuments, and memorabilia. These should not reflect the views of the elite few, but the public.

Our work with young people at Amgueddfa Cymru is part of the Hands on Heritage initiative kindly supported by the National Heritage Lottery’s Kick the Dust fund  - changing perspectives on heritage with the help of young people.

Pan ddechreuodd Sain Ffagan gynllunio’r project hwn gyda staff y Brifysgol, doedd dim sôn am Covid-19. A dyma ni nawr ynghanol ‘Y Meudwyo Mawr’, yn gofidio am ein hiechyd, ein bywoliaeth a’n dyfodol. Mor rhwydd y gall bywyd droi wyneb i waered! Ac fe ŵyr ffoaduriaid hynny’n well na neb. Digon hawdd meddwl nad yw’r hyn sy’n digwydd mewn gwlad bell yn ddim i wneud â ni yng Nghymru. Gwers Covid-19 yw ein bod ni, yn ein milltir sgwâr, yn rhan annatod o fyd sy’n fwy. 

Credaf yn gryf iawn mai hanfod amgueddfa fel Sain Ffagan yw’r egwyddor fod hanes pawb yn bwysig. Mae pob un ohonom yn cyfrif, beth bynnag fo’n cefndir. Mae hawl gan bawb i lais, i fywyd rhydd a diogel, a chael parch gan eraill. Nid dweud stori’r bobl fawr yw pwrpas yr amgueddfa, ond cofnodi a deall cyfraniad pawb i’n hanes. Mae Cymru yn ystyried ei hun yn wlad groesawgar, barod ei chymwynas. Mae’r hunan-ddelwedd honno’n rhan o’n hunaniaeth fel cenedl. Ond pa mor wir yw hynny? Beth gallwn ni ddysgu am ein hunain a’n lle yn y byd trwy wrando ar dystiolaeth y ffoaduriaid sydd wedi ceisio am loches yn ein plith? Ac i ba raddau ydyn ni’n deall, mewn gwirionedd, cymhellion ac ofnau’r ffoaduriaid hynny? Sut mae esmwytho eu ffordd tuag at deimlo eu bod yn perthyn?

Mae’r bartneriaeth rhwng y Brifysgol a’r Amgueddfa yn ein galluogi i gyflawni sawl peth. Gwaith y Brifysgol yw gwneud yr ymchwil dadansoddol manwl fydd yn dylanwadu, gobeithio, ar benderfyniadau a pholisiau gwleidyddol. Cyfrifoldeb yr Amgueddfa yw diogelu tystiolaeth lafar y ffoaduriaid ar gyfer yr oesoedd a ddêl, ond hefyd creu cyfleoedd iddynt gyflwyno eu profiadau a’u gobeithion i eraill. ‘Lloches ein hanes ni’ yw Sain Ffagan, ond mae rhoi lloches hefyd yn rhan o’n hanes ni ac yn haeddu sylw.

Gwyliwch allan felly am ddigwyddiadau yn Sain Ffagan sy’n ymwneud â phrosiect Ffoaduriaid Cymru. Yn y byd ansicr sydd ohoni, anodd yw rhagweld pa fath o ddigwyddiadau fyddan nhw. Rhaid i ni gyd bellach fod yn barod i ddelio gydag ansicrwydd. Mae ffoaduriaid wedi bod trwy brofiadau na fydd y rhan fwyaf ohonom yn wynebu byth. Mae gennym lawer i’w ddysgu ganddynt.