South West Wales

Swansea's Dillwyn Llewellyn family pioneers in photography

Picnic on Goppa, taken by John Dillwyn Llewellyn on 23 September 1855 Image copyright National Museum Wales
Image caption Picnic on Goppa, taken by John Dillwyn Llewellyn on 23 September 1855

An exhibition has charted the time when a Swansea family led the world in pioneering photography.

The Dillwyn Llewellyn family made their fortune by transforming the Cambrian Pottery into one of the most fashionable brands in London homes during the early 19th century.

But they were also polymaths of some repute and in no field more so than photography.

The exhibition at Swansea's Glynn Vivian Art Gallery opened on Saturday.

Frenchman Louis Daguerre created the first practical photographs in 1839, and around the same time William Henry Fox Talbot devised a rival system through quite different chemical processes.

Yet it was Fox Talbot's friend and relative John Dillwyn Llewellyn who picked up the camera and ran with the idea.

In 1856, he devised a means of preserving photographic plates for several days before development, meaning that for the first time images could be practically taken out and about, and not only in specially equipped studios.

'World of thanks'

The Illustrated London News of July 1856 wrote: "We have heard of a new method of preserving collodion plates for a week or a fortnight discovered by Mr Llewellyn of Penllergare, a gentleman to whom all photographers owe a world of thanks.

"The plates may be prepared at home and a boxful taken out and think of this ye tourists, as you travel along and a fine prospect meets your eye you have nothing to do but to stop your carriage, get out your camera, and in a few minutes you may secure a picture, drawn by nature herself, that would have taken you hours to sketch..."

Image copyright National Museum Wales
Image caption The Moon by Thereza and John Dillwyn Llewellyn

John Dillwyn Llewellyn also took some of the earliest-known photographic images of the moon - captured during the mid-1850s from his purpose-built observatory at his Penllergare estate - as well as pioneering a method of taking photographs in stereo.

But as the exhibition, The Moon and a Smile, charts, equally if not more important than his technical advances were the artistic strides taken by his sister Mary and daughter Thereza.

With about 120 surviving images from the 1840s and 1850s, Mary Dillwyn is said to have been the first female photographer in Wales.

Her images are more spontaneous and natural than those of other photographers of the period, with her photographic milestones including the first known capturing of both a smile and a snowman.

Shockingly realistic and unstaged for the time, her "Smile" picture snapped the fleeting expression of her little nephew, William Mansel Llewellyn, as he gazed intently at something off camera.

The first snowflake

Continuing the snow theme, Thereza Dillwyn Llewellyn helped her father to improve the focus of early cameras to such an extent that they were able to photograph individual snowflakes for the first time.

She also played a major part in assisting with John Dillwyn Llewellyn's astronomical photography, however she is probably best-known for setting the fashion in early portraits; both as the subject and photographer.

The Moon and a Smile runs at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery until 23 April, and also features work by contemporary photographers Greta Alfaro, Anna Fox, Astrid Kruse Jensen, Neeta Madahar, Melanie Rose, Sharon Morris, Sophy Rickett, Helen Sear and Patricia Ziad.

Councillor Robert Francis-Davies, Swansea council's Cabinet Member for Enterprise, Development and Regeneration, said: "Photography is such a popular pastime in communities across the world nowadays, but many might not know that a Swansea family were among the leading global pioneers of the technology when it was first introduced in the mid-19th Century.

"As well as allowing people to experience a rich and fascinating collection of 19th Century photography, this exhibition will also introduce gallery visitors to works by leading contemporary international artists."

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