The day after yesterday

Yesterday was the opening game of the 2015 Six Nations rugby tournament, with England beating Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I watched the game on TV from my personal box, with a strong cup of tea by my side. I live life on the edge.

This morning, I took the early train to Cardiff as I wanted to visit the museum to see an exhibition on early photography. More of that later. The train was empty, despite being an Intercity service going to London. When I got to Cardiff, I found that it, too was quiet. The only people around seemed to be the people heading off to open up and run shops. It was clear that everyone else was indoors, recovering from the night before.

It was cold and grey in the capital, and after a reviving cup of coffee, I set off for Jessops, the photographic retailer. After they went bust a few years ago, the brand was sold and a few of the shops were reopened. Cardiff has such a store. I ended up having a chat with one of the salesmen there as it turned out he went to college in Swansea, where I was a technician in the photography department. We shared some stories and caught up with the whereabouts of some of the tutors. It was a breath of fresh air, and there was no sense of sales pitching at all. I always liked the staff in Jessops, and I’m glad the brand has been resurrected.

Then it was on to the museum and straight to the exhibition. A large proportion of the displayed photographs were from or by John Dillwyn Llewelyn and his sister, Mary. JDL was an early pioneer of photography in Britain and was a contemporary of Fox Talbot, to whom he was related by marriage. His earliest images date back to 1840. His mansion at Penllegare was the centre of his photographic endeavours, and the house and grounds feature often as subjects. If you go along to Penllegare Woods to day (and you should, it’s a great place to visit), you can see many of the places and subjects JDL photographed.┬áThe mansion, sadly, is gone and the beautiful ornamental gardens are over grown but volunteers are working to restore parts of the grounds to their former state.

Some of the images on display were from the 1850s and it was amazing to see people staring out from 164 years ago. There were familiar sights – Caswell and Three Cliffs Bay, Tenby, Swansea docks and, as mentioned, Penllegare woods.

In the early days of photography the film wasn’t sensitive enough to freeze any kind of motion, so there are photographs of sailing ships in Swansea docks where their movement on the water has blurred the masts and completely hidden the rigging. It meant that people sitting for portraits had to stay motionless for up to several minutes. Neck braces were used to help keep people still. Some of the pioneering work JDL was doing was developing more sensitive films, cutting the exposure time to seconds and making possible more natural looking poses

Other photographers were represented too, some amateur, some professional. The images ranged from studio portraits to reportage and historical records. Some of the equipment and cameras used by JDL and his contemporaries were on display too. The early cameras were crude wooden boxes that weren’t immediately identifiable as photographic tools.

I enjoyed the exhibition and the fascinating insight to the early days of photography it gave. I wish there had been more photographs on display, though.

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Penllergare

I belong to a camera club in work. And this morning, we had arranged for a visit to Penllergare woods, complete with a guided tour around the formal gardens. I’ve been going to the woods for years, first with Rufus before major restoration work had begun, and lately in my quest for a photograph of the Kingfishers. I’ve been interested in the history of the site but today was an opportunity to get some specific information about the places I’d walked. As it turned out, I discovered some new places, too.

We set off from the car park, past the cafe and down to the upper lake via the terraces. These are large steps in the hillside leading down from Penllergare House, the home of the Dillwyn Llewelyns, that were lined with ornamental urns. The view down to the upper lake, slowly being cleared of decades of silt and vegetation, were striking. Our guide explained that when they started clearing away the undergrowth, paths steps and stone lining started appearing and it was a process of discovery to see how the gardens had been laid out. Much of the work is restoration rather than creation and the aim is to have the gardens looking very similar to how they would have in the mid 19th Century.

We gathered around the waterfall for a photo shoot and were shown the new bridge, constructed from stone cut and laid by the project’s stone mason. Holes have been left in the stonework for birds to nest in. A short walk along the river bank brought us back to the top of the terraces, and the bridal way that once led from Cadle to Penllergare House.

Dillwyn Llewelyn was a keen photographer right at the start of photography, and he was related to Fox Talbot. This means that there are many contemporary images of the house and gardens which has helped enormously during the restoration work. He was also an astronomer and the remains of his observatory, where the first photograph of the moon was taken, is being restored as part of the Penllergare project.

A lot more information about the Penllergare site and the trust can be found on their official website.

A (much too) brief stop at the cafe for coffee and an excellent, locally made scone ended the morning. I found the tour fascinating and discovered some new places to explore the next time I visit.

I still didn’t see any Kingfishers, though.

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