Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn, selenophotographer

October 29, 2019 7 Comments
Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn (possibly by John Dillwyn Llewelyn)

If you visit the Penllergare Valley Woods, as we did last week, you can’t leave without developing a strong respect for the estate’s chief creator, John Dillwyn Llewelyn.  Photographic pioneer, astronomer, botanist, orchid collector, landscapist, inventor – he used his wealth, leisure and connections, after inheriting the estate as a boy from his grandfather in 1817, to make important contributions to many fields, at a time when Swansea was fizzing with scientific and technological innovation.  At the weekend I explored Parc Llewelyn, near Morriston – not one of Swansea’s best-known parks, but with fine views in all directions – and discovered that it had been gifted to the people of Swansea by John Dillwyn Llewellyn.  He donated what was then farmland at Cnap Llwyd at the suggestion of William Thomas of Lan, the pioneer of the Welsh Open Spaces Movement – and a man who also deserves to be remembered (his statue stands in Victoria Park in Swansea).

Thereza with telescope at Caswell Bay (possibly by John Dillwyn Llewelyn)

One of the most interesting characteristics of members of the Dillwyn family, who were originally Quakers, was their readiness to give opportunities to the women of the family – at a time when Victorian mores so often barred them from men’s activities.  John included his wife Emma in his photographic experimentation.  His sister, Mary Dillwyn, became a skilled photographer alongside her brother, and has recently received a little of the attention she deserves (there’s now a Mary Dillwyn pub not far away).  His eldest daughter Thereza, though, is still to gain recognition: she doesn’t yet feature in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or the Dictionary of Welsh Biography.

Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn with her microscope (John Dillwyn Llewelyn)

Thereza was born in 1834 at Penllergare House and was the eldest of John and Emma’s six children.  She received much more than the usual limited and genteel education of a nineteenth-century gentry daughter.  She was encouraged to share her father’s interest in botany, and the interest of her father and her aunt in the rapidly developing techniques of photography.  Another of her very early concerns was astronomy.  In a memoir written in 1923, when she was 89 years old, she recalls

As a little nursery child … sitting alone behind the nursery curtain to watch the great resplendent planet [Venus] in the evening sky near sunset.  The wonder and deep admiration I felt was surely something quite outside me, coming from another side of existence, of which I knew nothing; only that it was enchanting.

Penllergare observatory

As a sixteenth birthday present – not the most conventional one, even in the most unusual and wealthiest Victorian families – her father gave her an astronomical observatory.  With its domed telescope chamber and rectangular laboratory attached, it’s the only building to survive to the present day from the Victorian estate, and has been partially restored after a period of neglect.

Penllergare observatory (John Dillwyn Llewelyn)

In a letter to her father Thereza wrote in July 1851:

I laid the foundation stone of the observatory today, July 7th. When Grandpa and Grandmama were here on Saturday we told them about it and they were so very kind as to come over here today and to see the first stone laid; so we went in procession to the place; they had got some stone already and after I had laid the first stone [my younger sisters] Emma laid the second and Elinor the third, which she was very much delighted to do

There are photos of Thereza peering down a microscope – perhaps another paternal present – but we know little about Thereza’s botanical work.  She was encouraged to collect pressed flowers by George Bentham when he came to Penllergare during the visit to Swansea of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1848.  She compiled a herbarium, and had a brief report read at the Linnaean Society in 1857 (presumably she wouldn’t have been allowed to read it herself).  It was published in the of the Proceedings of the Society as a ‘Note on some young plants of Cardamine hirsuta growing from buds formed on the upper surface of old leaves of that plant’, by ‘Miss Llewelyn of Penllergaer near Swansea’.

Thereza with dickies (possibly by John Dillwyn Llewelyn)

John Dillwyn Llewelyn has also interested in meteorology, and Thereza helped him to submit local weather data she had logged to the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

A little more is known about Thereza’s astronomical activities, and about the crucial interface between astronomy and photography.  But her reputation as a photographer has suffered because it’s proved difficult to disentangle photographs she took from those taken by other members of her family.  The late Richard Morris maintained that most of the unattributed photos in the volume conventionally called the ‘Mary Dillwyn album’ of forty-two photos, acquired by the National Library of Wales in 2002, were not actually by Mary but by her niece.  It’s an attractive theory, but it’s circumstantial and can’t be proved.

The moon (by John Dillwyn and Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn)

The same uncertainty surrounds the photographs taken of the moon from Thereza’s observatory.  In her memoir she recalled,

About 1855 he [JDL] made a photo of the moon, and as moon light requires much longer exposure it was my business to keep the Telescope moving steadily as there was no clockwork action.  That photograph was one of the first made of the moon. 

(Actually, photos had been taken of the moon much earlier.  The first was apparently a daguerreotype taken by J.W. Draper of New York in 1840, and the first taken in the UK was in 1852.)

The moon (by John Dillwyn and Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn)

It would be natural to assume that some of the moon photos were taken by Thereza rather than her father.  We know that Thereza was given a stereo camera by her father in 1856 (another birthday present), which she used to make stereo photographic images.  But which of all the Penllergare photos that survive are by Thereza no one has yet been able to tell (by contrast, there are many images of Thereza herself.)  These problems of authorship and collaboration have been referred to as part of the ‘politics of assignation’ – the politics being gender politics.

Penllergare woods (possibly by Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn)

In 1858 Thereza married Nevil Story Maskelyne, a chemist and mineralogist who has interested in photography and had been a frequent visitor to Penllergare.  She moved away to live with him in England, and had three daughters.  It’s hard to say whether she continued with her photography, or whether she abandoned it (many Victorian intellectual women set aside their work on marriage).  She certainly continued her botanical studies.  She corresponded with Charles Darwin and Darwin cited her work on birds attacking flowers in an article in Nature in 1874.

Fern (possibly by Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn)

As so often, remarkable women need to be ‘rescued’ by researchers from the dismissal and condescension of men, at the time and since, before their achievements can be seen in a new light.  Maybe Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn will be able to emerge from the historical gloom and the shadow of her father, especially now that her memoirs and journals, previously in private hands, have been deposited in the British Library and are starting to be explored.  And it’s not only historians who are coming to the rescue.  Artists are also helping.  The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery hosted a show in 2017 called The moon and a smile, in which nine international women artists responded to the Penllergare photos.  One of them, Sophy Rickett, now has a new exhibition in the same venue, ‘Cupid and the curious moaning of Kenfig Burrow’, which takes as its starting point the remarkable work of Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn.

Sophy Rickett’s exhibition is at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea until 24 November. There’s an accompanying booklet with an essay by Anouchka Grose, and a book, The curious moaning of Kenfig Burrows, published by GOST Books, which includes reproductions of Rickett’s photos and texts, and an interview with David Campany. Both are available from the Glynn Vivian.

Comments (7)

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  1. sue shannon-jones says:

    Many thanks for this. I have been researching this young lady for a while and reading her diaries in the British Library. The pandemic has brought a temporary stop to this.
    Once I can get to London again, I shall continue. She comes over as a gentle, kind soul who was concerned for her fellow man whether friend or servant.
    All the best

  2. Katharina Steidl says:

    Hi there, just came across your blog. I think it’s now years! ago since I have been to Swansea, but actually came to see some originals (photogenic drawings of ferns) of Thereza Llewelyn. My PhD thesis has already been published, actually in german, but there is a little chapter on Thereza Llewelyn.


    • Andrew Green says:

      Thank you, Katharina, that’s wonderful. Maybe you’d be interested in publishing an article on Thereza’s work in Gower or the Swansea History Journal?

  3. Deb Checkland says:

    Hiya Andrew, very interested in your article, and wondering if you were able to gether any follow up info from Katherina ans Sue? I am working on trying to make a case for Thereza to become a remarkable woman of Wales, and merit a Purple Plaque. any thoughts would be welcome. Thanks.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Many thanks, Deb. No, I’ve not heard more from either, I’m afraid. A plaque would be an excellent idea.

  4. Jenny Sabine says:

    Hello Andrew, thanks for writing so much information about Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn. I’ve long been interested in the fact that so many women in that extended family were able to pursue their scientific interests. I really think more should be known about these remarkable Swansea women!

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