Discovering treasure

Last week I headed up to Aberystwyth to the National Library of Wales to do some research for the latest project I’ve been invited to take part in.

26 Treasures has been set up by writers’ organisation This year’s project follows on from the successful partnership with the V&A last year.

I’m one of 26 writers who have been paired with an object, or ‘treasure’ from the National Library of Wales.  Each of us has to write exactly 62 words in response to the piece we’ve been allocated.

Some of the writers will be writing in Welsh, others in English.  Each response will be translated into the other language, giving the project a lovely bilingual element (it will also be part of the Translation Challenge at the National Eisteddfod).

The first step was to make an appointment to meet my treasure in person.  So off I set, admiring the Welsh countryside and enjoying the companionship of Radio 4 as I drove.  All I had to go on was a title ‘Two Sisters of Llanfechell’ and that it was a photo.  I have to admit, I was intrigued.

I’d already registered online, and when I arrived I had to have my photo taken for a reader’s card so I could access the reading rooms.  With security checks and guardians appeased, I was finally able to see my treasure.

The photograph dates back to c. 1875, and is of two servant girls, Cadi and Sioned.  I sat and contemplated it for a while, wondering what these women would think if they knew that I’d travelled all that way to see their photo, years later in the 21st century.

Then I started doing a little digging.  It turned out that there’s an even more fascinating story behind the photo.  It’s part of the John Thomas collection held by the National Library of Wales. Thomas made his living as a photographer travelling around Wales from the 1860s onwards.  This was a time of great change – the railways had opened up the country, and the traditional way of life was changing.  It was also the time when photographs were becoming very popular, and even the working classes collected small portrait photographs of the celebrities of the time, from popular preachers to the royal family or society figures.

But what John Thomas also did was unusual, radical even, for the time.  He took working class people and travellers and dressed them up in fine clothes, photographing them with a fancy backdrop.  He made them appear as if they were something other than what they actually were, subverting Victorian conventions in a very modern way.

My photograph shows Cadi and Sioned in their working clothes, but there’s a twin with them dressed up in finer apparel.  I wonder what they thought of that?

Onto the writing.  Now how am I going to fit all that into a mere 62 words?