Faces of Wales

The portrait collection at Amgueddfa Cymru illustrates a variety of diverse faces that have contributed over the centuries to the cultural, political and economic life of Wales. Many of the sitters are established Welsh figures, while others have strong Welsh associations. Some are internationally famous people whose Welsh ancestry is little known.

Early portrait painting

Katheryn of Berain, 'The Mother of Wales' (1534-1591)

Adriaen van Cronenburgh (c.1520/25-c.1604)
Katheryn of Berain, 'The Mother of Wales' (1534-1591)
1568 - oil on panel

Sir Watkin Williams Wynn (1749-1789), Thomas Apperley and Captain Edward Hamilton

Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
Sir Watkin Williams Wynn (1749-1789), Thomas Apperley (1734-1819) and Captain Edward Hamilton

1768-72 - oil on canvas

Up until the 18th century, it was only the country's powerful landowners and merchants who could afford to have portraits painted. Wales, unlike Scotland or Ireland, had no large towns or a capital city before the mid-18th century, so the Welsh elite often had their portraits painted abroad or in London. For example, the earliest portraits represented in the Museum's collection are the 1st Earl of Pembroke (painted in 1565) and Katheryn of Berain (painted in 1568), both of which were painted abroad.

In the 18th century, some of the major landowning families, such as Williams Wynn and Pennant, regularly used successful English portrait painters in London. Therefore, no native Welsh portrait school developed during this period, as it did in Scotland. Although the great Welsh 18th century artist Richard Wilson began his career as a portrait painter, he later turned to landscape, which he found more profitable, as did his pupil, Thomas Jones.

The Industrial Revolution

By the end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution in Wales allowed a new group of wealthy industrialists such as Thomas Williams, the 'King of Copper', to have their likenesses painted by leading London artists.

The increasing distribution of wealth among the middle classes in Wales in the 19th century meant that more people could now have their faces recorded for posterity.

Photography transformed the nature of portraiture in Wales. Painted portraits continued however, with the production of some iconic images such as Augustus John's famous portrait of the poet Dylan Thomas. The rich industrial history of Wales also inspired some heroic representations of workers, as well as of the mine owners themselves. For example, Evan Walters' A Welsh Collier of 1936, in which the sitter has only recently been identified.

The earliest bronze sculpture in Britain

Portrait sculpture has always been popular in Wales. Examples range from Le Sueur's bronze bust of Lord Herbert, commissioned during the reign of Charles I and one of the earliest bronze busts in Britain, to Peter Lambda's bust of Aneurin Bevan in 1945.

The Welsh sculptor Sir William Goscombe John, who died in 1952, was a key cultural figure in Wales, playing a major role in the formation of the Welsh national collection of art. Born in Cardiff, he was an invaluable member of the Museum's Council, regularly making generous donations. He produced public statues, memorials and portrait busts, including one of Wales's most important politicians of the 20th century, David, 1st Earl Lloyd George.

The portraits here are from the Museum's collection; further examples and an archive of Welsh portraiture can be seen at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, which has collected portraiture since its foundation, and in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Article Date: 26 March 2007

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Glossary

Portrait
A painting, drawing, sculpture, photograph, or other representation of a real person, living or dead, especially of the face. An artist who specializes in portraits is known as a portraitist.

Industrialist
Someone who manages or has significant financial interest in an industrial enterprise.

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