Monday, 27 October 2014

Our museum during the Great War

This post is a synopsis of a Behind the Scenes event I presented in September looking at a “snapshot” of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales' working activities during the WWI period.

My research entailed scanning Annual Reports, scrap books, publication archives and photographic collections for the years 1914 to 1918 and picking  out interesting items of news concerning  staff and exhibitions.

However, the first thing I did was to warn everyone that in 1914 this is what we looked like….
We still existed of course, established by Royal Charter back in 1907 but without a finished building to call our own.

Therefore, during the years while construction of the building was in progress, administration was carried out in offices close by at Park Place and the Kingsway area while exhibitions were held in temporary galleries next door in City Hall.

I centred the staff news around three people:

Archibald H. Lee, the Museum Secretary, who saw active military service and was decorated with the Military Cross after fighting at Gaza. He returned to work after the war and remained Museum Secretary for 44 years, finally retiring in 1953. He appears in many photographs of special events and royal visits over the years.

Archibald H Lee

Cyril Mortimer Green, who was appointed as Botanical Assistant, but never took up his post. He held a Commission in the  3rd Royal Sussex Regiment, went abroad to fight and was killed on active military duty in November 1917. His death is all the more poignant because, not only did he never take up his position at the Museum, his brother Hugh Mortimer Green had also been killed on active duty back in 1915. 

Click  here [and scroll down] for more information on Cyril and his brother.

Eleanor Vachell, spirited and outstanding amateur botanist who stepped in to take charge of the botany collections, while Cyril Mortimer Green was absent on military duty. She did this, with the help of pupils from Cardiff High School for Girls, whilst also supporting the war effort as one of the ‘Committee Ladies of the Auxiliary Workers Territorial Forces Nursing Association’ at the hospital set up in Howard Gardens, working as both nurse and librarian.
Eleanor Vachell
Eleanor was the daughter of Charles Tanfield Vachell [1848-1914], he was secretary and president of  Cardiff Naturalists' Society for many years, instrumental in the creation of the Cardiff Municipal Museum and, a member of the National Museum Wales council for some years from 1908 onwards. Eleanor compiled, with her father, the Vachell herbarium that contains 6,705 dried specimens and is one of the most complete herbaria ever collected by a private individual. This is now held here at the museum along with a very large collection of their own personal library on British floras.
I also looked at the problems faced in the construction of the building due to a lack of basic materials that had been re-allocated for the war effort. The progress must have been excruciatingly slow and all material orders had to apply via license applications to The Ministry of Munitions and the Report for 1917/18 reports that work was suspended completely for a time…

Construction of the dome section
Unfortunately it has become necessary to suspend work on the New Building, and an agreement terminating the contract has been entered into with the builders, Messrs J. Willcock & Son. The roof had already been completed and the windows have been filled with oiled canvas so that the structure is now weather proof… Some of the rooms in the New Building are already in use for storage of specimens. NMW Annual Report p. 9
One of the most enjoyable parts of researching this talk was looking at the exhibitions that were held through the war years. War notwithstanding, the museum had an obligation to the public to carry on programming exhibitions and events. Here are just a few of the many exhibitions held at City Hall and for which we hold the original catalogues:

Turner’s Welsh Drawings
Open from Oct 26th 1914 to Jan 30th 1915 and visited by over 8,000 people

 Exhibition of Modern Belgian Art
Held in 1915 from March 17th to April 15th….visited by over 6,000 people.

 Exhibition of Topographical Prints and Engravings
An exhibition of Prints and Engravings of places in Wales was opened on July 27th 1915 and will remain open until October 30th… A catalogue, with technical and biographical notes , has been prepared by Mr Isaac Williams. The number of visitors to the exhibition up to the 30th September was 7,600.

Lovett Collection of Toys
Mr Edward Lovett, of the Folklore Society, whose Collection of Dolls aroused such interest when on exhibition in the Temporary Museum two years ago, offered to lend his unique Collection of Children’s Toys and Playthings for exhibition… It had originally intended to close the exhibition on August 16th 1915 but in view of the interest it aroused, and to give school children an opportunity of visiting it during the whole of their holidays, the date of closing was postponed to September 2nd.
The total attendance was 21, 889.
Original material on display
I also found mention of a number of war related exhibitions held at City Hall but for which we do not hold catalogues…

 Exhibitions of Women’s War Work
A Ministry of Munitions exhibition of photographs illustrating women’s war work, aroused considerable interest during two weeks in February 1916

 Exhibition of Allied War Photographs
An Exhibition of Allied War Photographs was held in 1917 from August 4th to 20thand was visited by nearly 4000 people.

 British Battle Photographs [in colour]
An exhibition lent by the Ministry of Information. This was opened November, 1918. It closed on the 11th December, and was visited by about 3,500 people.

I concluded by showing two other items held here in the Library that are connected with WWI. The first was volume of military portraits of soldiers from the Welsh Horse Yeomanry. This regiment did not exist before the Great War. It was formed in August 1914 under the administration of the Glamorgan Territorial Force Association and headquartered in Cardiff [Sophia Gardens]. The title page states that the album was presented to Alderman J. Robinson, who was Lord Mayor of Cardiff (1913–1914) and it was donated to the Library on the 27th April 1932 by Councillor R. G. Robinson.

The second item I showed comprised of three albums, possibly put together for promotional purposes for the Italian air craft manufacturer, Caproni. The factory was founded in 1908 [in Taliedo, near Milan] and during WWI, they developed a series of successful heavy bombers, used by the Italian, French, British and US air forces.
1.    Officine Caproni contains photographs of large Caproni factory spaces [interiors and exteriors]
2.    Aeroplani Caproni contains photographs of all manner of Caproni aeroplanes [many with machine guns attached]
3.    Smaller third album [blank cover] containing photographs of Caproni staff groups at work
This album also contains 5 typed sheets of paper listing the aeroplanes and giving all sorts of technical information.

Entries are accompanied with phrases like
·       Very useful in attacking infantry
·       Well armed with 2 - 4 machine guns
·       Purpose built for attacking enemy ships

These albums were donated to the Library on 15th February 1926 by “Lord Treowen” [Major-General Ivor Herbert, 1st Lord Treowen] National Museum Wales Treasurer 1907-12, Vice President 1912-17, and President 1917-22

Further information on Caproni can be found via the following links:     

The last item I showed was one of our scrapbooks covering the war years that contains newspaper articles concerning the museum. These in particular, paint a vivid picture of an exceptional and turbulent period in the history of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.


Friday, 15 August 2014

"Our Cats" by Harrison Weir [1889]

This is a very indulgent post as it is a well know fact amongst all who know me than I am a little [just a little mind you] cat MAD. Therefore I couldn't resist photographing this selection of wonderful and [in some cases] bizarre illustrations of cats from the book "Our Cats and all about them" written and illustrated by Harrison Weir in 1889. 

My personal favourites are the surreal disembodied heads, "Sylvie" [she of the magnificent moustaches] and the Russian cat who [in my opinion] has a most unsettling human expression.

Weir was a very interesting character; he was born in 1824 on May 5th [d.1906], and is known as "The Father of the Cat Fancy”. He organizied the first ever cat show in England, at The Crystal Palace, London in July 1871 where he and his brother served as judges. In 1887 he founded the National Cat Club and was its first President and Show Manager until his resignation in 1890. Our Cats was the first published pedigree cat book.

Weir was employed, for many years, as a draughtsman and engraver for the Illustrated London News as well as many other publications and in his lifetime he both wrote and illustrated other books such as The Poetry of Nature (1867), Every Day in the Country (1883) and Animal Studies, Old and New (1885). In 1845 he exhibited his first painting at the British Institution and during his career he was an occasional exhibitor at the Royal Academy.

He was a keen animal fancier, an experienced breeder of cats, carrier pigeons, and poultry and for thirty years often acted as a judge at the principal pigeon and poultry shows. In 1903 he wrote and illustrated the exhaustive book Our Poultry and All About Them.

More information on Harrison Weir can be found via the following links:



This book was bequeathed to the Library back in May 1916 along with around 500 other books by the Welsh artist, champion of Wales’ cultural heritage and one of the founding fathers of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Thomas Henry Thomas. Along with the books, Thomas also bequeathed his entire catalogue of prints, drawings and watercolours to the Museum.

More information on Thomas Henry Thomas here:


The illustration above appeares in the Chapter "Performing cats". Other chapters include, "Cats as tormentors", "Dead cats", "Fishing cats" and "Lovers of cats" [would you believe... Cardinal Richelieu?].

This book is available to view electronically via the following Project Gutenberg link:

Biographical information on Harrison Weir taken from Wikipedia.
All photographs in this post taken by the author.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Fifty years of a golden reign: a souvenier of the Queen's Jubilee [1887]

Well now, here’s  a pretty thing…
A souvenier booklet celebrating the fifty year reign of Queen Victoria. It was published in 1887 by Eyre & Spottiswoode, who were the official printers to Her Majesty at that time.
Our volunteer [Alison] has been working her way through our pamphlet boxes and all manner of forgotten things and very kindly passes to me items that are interesting, unusual or just lovely, and this one falls into that last category.
It measures 11 x 13.5 cm, has 16 pages and, our accessions register states that it was donated to us in May 1935 by a Mr Charles Barnwell Esq.
The book also contains a poem written by Lord Tennyson especially for the occasion. Tennyson had been Poet Laureate since 1850 [after William Wordsworth's death] and held the position until his own death in 1892.
Interestingly, Eyre & Spottiswoode [established in 1845], went on to merge with Methuen Publishing in the 1970s.
All photographs in this post taken by the author.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Aurelian Society

The following photographs are from the book, Twelve new designs of English butterflies, by Benjamin Wilkes [published in 1742]. This rare work consists solely of twelve engraved plates each depicting geometric arrangements of both butterflies and moths. Wilkes produced this profoundly beautiful work as member of the Aurelian Society. Aurelian is an archaic word for lepidopterist [one who is interested in butterflies]; the term is derived from aurelia, meaning chrysalis, and relates to the golden colour it may attain just before the butterfly emerges.

The Society of Aurelians [London], one of the oldest organized bodies of specialists in any branch of zoology. The group collected and documented insects from the 1690s but came to an abrupt end in March 1748. While members of the society were in a meeting in the Swan Tavern, a great fire broke out  in Cornhill and enveloped them. All the members escaped, but their entire collection, library, and records were destroyed. This event was documented by Moses Harris in The Aurelian; or, Natural History of English Insects (1765). The loss disheartened the group so much that they never managed to regroup again…Aurelian societies were formed several times in Britain [most notable 1762 and 1801], but each time they collapsed.

…Benjamin Wilkes was an 18th-century artist and naturalist whose profession was 'painting of History Pieces and Portraits in Oil'. When a friend invited him to a meeting of the Aurelian Society, where he first saw specimens of butterflies and moths, he became convinced that nature would be his 'best instructor' as to colour and form in art. He began to study entomology spending his leisure time collecting, studying and drawing the images larvae, pupae and parasitic flies of Lepidoptera, assisted by the collector Mr Joseph Dandridge. Wilkes' own collection was kept 'against the Horn Tavern in Fleet Street' London 'Where any gentleman or lady' could see his collection of insects [Wikipedia].

Our  holdings of other Aurelian books include:

The English Lepidoptera: or, the Aurelian's pocket companion: containing a catalogue of upward of four hundred moths and butterflies ... / Moses Harris [1775]

 The aurelian. a natural history of English moths and butterflies, together with the plants on which they feed. Also .../ Moses Harris [1766]

 English moths and butterflies… Benjamin Wilkes [1749] This work ran to three editions of which the last, incorporating Linnaean nomenclature, was published in 1824

 The British Aurelian:  twelve new designs of British Butterflies and Directions for making a collection, with an essay by R.S. Wilkinson / Benjamin Wilkes, R.S. Wilkinson [1982]

All photographs in this post taken by the author