The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study

Moira Vincentelli

  Women and Welsh identity

  Although this image is based on late nineteenth century urban middle-class culture it makes an interesting comparison with what became one of the most popular icons of Welsh culture: the Welsh tea-party, where women in Welsh costume sit at a table with teacups. Such Welsh ladies have been dubbed 'the demure and passive doll of the posters and postcards'.4 The setting is entirely constructed, the costumes taken from the photographers basket of Welsh costumes - but this is how some Welsh women chose to have themselves photographed. In 1877 an advertisement for Humphreys Fine Art Gallery, Caernavon at the time of the National Eisteddfod reads:

First Class Photographic Studio…
Public men - including bards, Literary characters, Ministers, Musicians, etc., are respectfully invited to pay a visit to the Studio, as H.H. intends forming a Gallery of WELSH CELEBRITIES.Welsh Costumes (on hire) for Ladies wishing to be taken in the same.

Advertisement from the Eisteddfod catalogue 1877, Caernarvon advertising photographic services in order to create 'a gallery of distinguished Welsh men' while, at the same time, offering Welsh costume for hire for women sitters.



In other words the photography will record Welsh men as 'great and successful' in public life whereas women have become the symbols of 'Welshness' the bearers of cultural identity epitomised by the costume which has its own interesting history as 'an invented tradition' but was not really worn in the way that a superficial reading of such images might suggest.5

But to return to the tea-party I want to suggest the teacup also stands as a signifier - a signifier of respectable feminine identity. In 1847 the Education Report on Wales, the 'Blue Books', had accused the Welsh of barbaric customs and Welsh women of sexual laxity because of the custom of bundling where couples were allowed to spend the night together before marriage. In part at least, in response to this, and in conjunction with the rise of Welsh Nonconformism, female sexuality was strictly policed.6 At the same time, in association with the religious revivals, women became leading participants in the Temperance Movement. The Welsh tea-party became a national icon focused around the respectable activity of drinking tea as opposed to the non respectable activity of drinking beer. The collecting of china and glass for display on the dresser became interwoven with a Welsh feminine identity. The place where they were displayed - the dresser - became a signifier of both Welshness and female domestic prowess.

We have seen how ceramic display can be associated with conspicuous consumption and therefore luxury but an obvious manifestation of this would hardly be acceptable in a society where nonconfirmist values dominated. What objects would be available to Welsh nineteenth century society? Jewellery would have been unacceptable as it was so strongly associated with worldliness and vanity. Framed pictures were certainly to be found, but mainly in the form of improving texts or portraits - most commonly prints after paintings of famous preachers.7 The great attraction of ceramics, I would suggest, was that such wares as teacups and jugs were ostensibly functional and hence they avoided the worst sin of being merely ornamental, although we shall return to this point later.

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4. D. Beddoe, 'Images of Welsh Women', in T.Curtis (ed.), Wales: the Imagined Nation, Bridgend, Poetry Wales Press, 1986, 237. back to article

5. For a further discussion of this see Prys Morgan, 'The Hunt for the Welsh Past in the Romantic Period' in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1983, and Deirdre Beddoe, 'Images of Welsh Women' in T.Curtis, Wales. back to article

6. What came to be known as 'The Treason of the Blue Books' was an attempt to deal with problems of political unrest, religious dissent and the Welsh language but was ostensibly an enquiry into the state of education in Wales. The writers went beyond the brief of producing a report on education and manifest little understanding of cultural differences measuring the Welsh against middleclass English norms. See Prys Morgan, 'The Hunt for the Welsh Past', 92-3. For a further discussion see, for example I.G.Jones, Mid-Victorian Wales: the Observers and the Observed, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1992, 103-165. For a discussion of the response to this in the nineteenth century see Sian Rhiannon Williams, 'The True "Cymraes": Images of Women in Women's Nineteenth-Century Welsh Periodicals', in A.V. John (ed.), Our Mother's Land: Chapters in Welsh Women's History 1830-1939, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1991,70. back to article

7. See Peter Lord, Gwenllian, Essays on Visual Culture, Llandysul, Gomer, 1994,43-72. back to article

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Women and Welsh identity

The Dresser in Wales

Dresser and Seld

The Wedding presents

Objects and Stories

Tradition and Innovation in Display



Appendix 1


The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study • Issue 1