The Lure of the Archive

Introduction to The Lure of the Archive symposium at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea - March 2017

The connections between Cornwall and south Wales are significant - particularly when considered in relation to the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. The substantial copper deposits in Cornwall, when coupled with the proximity of coal deposits of South Wales, engendered the many trading partnerships required for the smelting of copper in the nineteenth century.

The Cornish Vivians had been landowners in Penwith and Kerrier since the fifteenth century; several had been baronets or had served as members of parliament. John Vivian moved from Truro in Cornwall to Swansea around 1800 and assumed the post of managing partner in the copper works at Penclawdd and Loughor. The Vivian copper mining, smelting and trading businesses in Swansea eventually developed into the largest conglomerate of its kind in south Wales, and the Vivian family did much to develop Swansea as a town and city.

John Vivian’s grandson, Richard Glynn Vivian, was born on 31 August 1835. He would eventually leave the copper industry to his brothers choosing instead to travel and pursue the arts. In 1905 Richard Glynn Vivian offered his collection of paintings, drawings and china to Swansea Corporation who, with his endowment, built the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery to house it.

At the height of the exporting of minerals and metals from Cornwall, the port of Truro would ship tin and copper to the world. Travelling down the river Fal, boats would pass the town of Falmouth (or as Cornish language speakers prefer to call it, Aberfal), on their journey to Swansea.

As might be expected, artistic exchanges have also been part of the long relationship between Cornwall and Wales seeing artists engage with the creative colonies of Newlyn and St. Ives. Particularly relevant is the painter Tom Cross, who was Assistant Director of the Welsh Arts Council (1959 – 1963) and who later became the Principal of Falmouth School of Art (now Falmouth University). Those creative exchanges, in particular those between Abertawe and Aberfal, continue today.

When considering the relationship between photography and Wales it is often the case that industry is at the heart of it. Today we celebrate creative women. As ‘The Lure of the Archive’ will reveal, Mary Dillwyn was one of the earliest pioneers in photography. For Mary’s family it was the clay feeding its own Cambrian Pottery that helped generate the wealth that allowed them to pursue their interests in science, botany and astronomy. The Cornish connection continues here for Cornish china clay was exported to Swansea for the Pottery, which then exported its pots back to Cornwall [1].

Later in the nineteenth century Robert Thompson Crawshay of Cyfarthfa, Merthyr Tydfil used the wealth generated by the family’s Ironworks to support his own growing passion for photography. He undertook portraits of his family, especially his daughter Rose Hariette (known as Trotty) who was required to pose in exotic costumes for him. Trotty found her father’s needs something of a trial particularly as she was also required to process his photographic plates [2]. Increasingly perceived as a tyrannical figure, Crawshay turned his camera towards the landscape, including the Penydarren Ironworks, which by 1870 were in ruin.

Eventually the increasing democratisation of photography would allow a more socially critical eye to be cast on industry in Wales. Also recording the ruinous industry of Merthyr Tydfil, this time the defunct 1930s steelworks of the town, Helen Muspratt turned her own camera to Wales. Prior to her stay in the Valleys, Muspratt had visited the Soviet Union to see socialism in action, and had been impressed by the organisation of labour there. Of her time in the Valleys she said

I found the Welsh Valleys rather strange and beautiful… with snow on the hills and the mines closed. We saw unemployed miners collecting coal off the coal tips. I visited Dowlais at the top of the valley where the then Prince of Wales had promised to help, and saw a derelict steel factory… It is here that you see the history of these valleys more starkly than elsewhere. You can picture the wild mountain scene before iron ore and coal was discovered… [3].

Although their paths never crossed the photographer Edith Tudor Hart also made work in the south Wales Valleys in the 1930s. Her photographs of the Rhondda Valley were published in Geographical Magazine in 1936. As with Muspratt, Tudor Hart’s political alliance to communism enabled a visible ‘closeness’ between the photographer and her subject. Later a selection of her work would be published under the title ‘The Eye of Conscience’ [4]. The boom, but more significantly the bust, of the most substantial industries in Wales would offer a focus for many photographers, particularly those working for the mass media magazines during the mid-twentieth century.

New forms of photographic practice, seemingly extending beyond the camera’s capacity to document, would emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1968 the Welsh Arts Council became the first in Britain to support a living photographer when it funded a touring show and catalogue of Raymond Moore’s work in 1968. Moore, a Royal College of the Arts trained painter was a frequent summer visitor to Skomer Island off the west Wales coast, along with his artist-partner Ray Howard Jones. Rose Marie Howard Jones used to sign her work ‘Ray’ – partly to disguise her gender in the struggle against the disadvantage she had perceived as a woman artist. The two Rays, in their different ways, explored the history and mysticism of the Welsh landscape through their work. In supporting Ray Moore’s work the Welsh Arts Council gave clear validation for photography, in its own right, to be used as a vehicle for exploring more esoteric concerns.

In 1969 another artist-couple, Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, visited Wales from the USA. Both were fascinated by the human imprint on the natural landscape and spent time in west Wales and visited Pentre Ifan, the Bronze Age megalithic site in Pembrokeshire. Smithson also created and photographed the ‘Untitled (Zig-Zag Mirror Displacement)’ artwork at an opencast coalmine, probably on the outskirts of Tredegar [5]. Smithson would complete his ‘Spiral Jetty’ in the year following the visit to Wales.

During the 1970s new creative photographic practices would not only emerge in Wales, they would accelerate. David Hurn started the period of significant photographic education in Wales through his documentary photography course established at Newport. The 1970s also welcomed Wales’s first gallery dedicated to contemporary photography, Ffotogallery. In October 1983, following Susan Beardmore’s appointment as Ffotogallery’s Director, she announced the inaugural exhibition of a new photographic project in Wales. The Valleys Project would focus on the region during a period that witnessed the destruction of the extractive coal industries. Ffotogallery was one of the few early photographic galleries in Britain to make a commitment to support photographers through commissioning their work, allowing them the time and creative freedom to work with their subjects within an overarching brief. Recent decades have seen an expansion of activity and a range of notable achievements.

What of photography in Wales now? In 2016, Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museums Wales appointed Dr. Bronwen Colquhoun, the institution’s first ever Senior Curator of Photography. The creation of the role can be seen as a mark of the importance that Amgueddfa Cymru places on photography’s relationship with Wales - past, present and future. I am delighted that Bronwen is a contributor today.

The revolution of digital and mobile technologies means there are now more people making pictures in and of Wales than ever before. There is a growing awareness of creative activity undertaken by numerous organisations, collectives and others who focus on their own particular interests relating to photography and Wales. This plurality is to be welcomed and encouraged at a time when 'visual intelligence' in our media rich culture has never been so important.

Contrary to current popular belief there remains an absolute need for specialists. Creative ideas, strategies and methodologies all need to be critically questioned. Importantly, photography’s relevance to society should be tested. There is a need for those who can intelligently decode, challenge and construct meaning in imagery. However, the specialist voice should not be the only voice – the viewpoint it brings should be one among many.

As the briefest journey through photography and Wales as outlined above shows, history often provides one perspective from which to look and consider – but there are of course others. ‘The Lure of the Archive’ symposium and the exhibition ‘The Moon and a Smile’ are important projects as they allow us to collectively reflect on the past, consider the present, and imagine the future.

I am grateful to Helen Sear, the Professor of Photographic Practice at Falmouth University, for her creative role in the development of ‘The Moon and a Smile’ exhibition and its associated symposium. I offer a very big thank you to Jenni Spencer-Davis and Katy Freer of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery for their support of this symposium and the development of the exhibition. I would also like to congratulate them (and all those others involved) on the stunning redevelopment of the Gallery. Also special thanks to all the contributors today and congratulations to the artists for a thoughtful and provocative exhibition. Finally, I would like to thank all of you attending today. I very much hope you contribute to and enjoy what should be an interesting symposium.

© Paul Cabuts 2017

[1] TANNER,A&G - Swansea’s Cambrian Pottery?Public & Private Commemorative Printed Wares – p.16 - Accessed December 2016
[2] LORD,P. 1998. The Visual Culture of Wales - Industrial Society. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. p.89
[3] SUTCLIFFE,J. 2016. Face: Shape and Light – Helen Muspratt Photographer. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p.98
[4] TUDOR HART, E. 2013. In the Shadow of Tyranny. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag. p68
[5] Tate Articles - - Accessed December 2016