Welsh National Costume: the origins of a painting – Part 1

Having recently used some turn of the last century c. late 1800’s early 1900’s pictures from a book, my Dad found at a car boot sale, to put up around Aberconwy House, I was intrigued by the pictures of the women folk in what we consider now as the Welsh National costume.

Indeed, we have had a copy of the Welsh national icon picture ‘Salem’ displayed in the guest house, but I have never thought to research it. This blog entry is part 1 as I believe the history behind this work of art deserves it’s own entry and then part 2 will look at the origins of the Welsh hat and costume in more detail.

Salem_painting_1908.jpegThe painting was completed in 1908 by the English artist Curnow Vosper as a piece for Lord Leverhulme in 1909 for one hundred guineas (£105). It’s popularity was boosted by Lever Brothers who used it as a marketing tool for their Sunlight Soap.

soap1By collecting vouchers from the packets of the soap and sending them in to Lever Brothers they could claim a colour print of the work.  This proved very popular all over, England, Scotland and Wales.   However, the vision it portrayed of a ‘typical’ congregation of a Welsh chapel of the time is not quite the truth.

By that time the fashion of wearing large detailed shawls was no longer, with smaller, simpler patterned ones more widely and inexpensively available. Vosper borrowed the shawl in the painting from a Mrs Williams who lived at Harlech vicarage. The wearing of what is now considered the ‘Welsh hat’ was not now, if it had ever been, a daily event.  Indeed, there could only be one hat found for the painting and it had to be modelled on three different heads!

Most of the people in the painting are real people, Sian Owen is the lady in the shawl, beneath the clock is Robert Williams, Deacon of Salem. Beside him, partially showing is Laura Williams and with his back against the wall is Owen Jones. The small boy is Evan Edward Lloyd and by his side is Mary Rowland. Vosper paid them each sixpence and hour for sitting. The figure with his head bowed is William Jones, brother of Owen Jones and the figure to the right of Owen is not from life.

The chapel too exists, it is a small Baptist chapel  in Cefn Cymerau, Llanbedr, near Harlech, North Wales and was built in 1850.  Vosper holidayed in the area and often visited the chapel.

But the most intriguing thing about this painting was the inferred meaning about the painting and it’s characters.  It was thought that the painting is depicting a parishioner coming into chapel late, the clock shows the time just before 10, during the customary moments of silence and reflection.  So what? I hear you say, are yes, but the reason for the lateness was the sin of vanity in picking out such a decorative shawl and coming into chapel late enough to ensure a good audience for her entrance. Some believe that in the folds of the shawl on Sian’s left arm, you can  see the devil’s face. The paisley pattern forms the horn, the folds his eye and nose and the trim of the shawl his beard!

What do you think?

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