Taster session: History of Welsh Art: Portraiture

Taster session: History of Welsh Art: Portraiture (Course CA202)

As an introduction to the study of Welsh art, focussing on portraiture, we can either choose to look at images of famous Welsh figures or at images produced by a Welsh artist. There are many images to choose from, particularly from the extensive collection at The National Library of Wales so, as a taster before starting the module, we will look more closely at Miss Vulcana!

Kate Roberts – Miss Vulcana c1895 copyright National Library of Wales

First impressions:

  • She is the central figure in the composition, with strong horizontal and vertical lines contrasting with the softer rounded form of the figure
  • Words that come to mind the first time you see the photograph – note the pose is striking, facing the viewer, strong and intimidating, challenging even. It is a masculine pose rather than that of a genteel Victorian lady typical for that era
  • The setting has a plain backdrop but in the forefront there are bricks and tiles surrounding her as she stands on the steps
  • Clothes suggest someone from the stage, circus or fairground maybe? Only the arms, neck and head are uncovered but the shape of the darker costume on the top suggests a risqué pose. An interesting contrast with the garter below the knee!
  • The subject – she is a very attractive young woman, seems quite ‘modern’ with the unfussy short hairstyle rather than long curled hair typical of the period. Interesting proportions for the figure overall – would it appear out of proportion if in a painting rather than a photograph? For instance, the length of the legs in relation to the upper torso.

Discussion: Who is this person?

It is assumed that contemporary viewers (at least in Wales) would recognise her as she has had a professional photograph produced. As we have noted, the costume suggests the stage or public performance so we can assume some fame or notoriety – but, beware of assuming too much from a sitter’s pose or costume as it was common for people to dress as characters from history or the stage at this time.

This is Miss Vulcana – the “legendary strongwoman of Wales”! She lived in Abergavenny with her husband William Roberts, who ran a local gym for women, and she had 6 children during their 50 years together. She had a strong interest in women’s health and was said to deplore corsets. She performed on stage, lifting a man above her head using one hand and is said to have supported two horses, and their handlers, on a board resting on her stomach as she did a backbend! Clearly, she deserved her magnificent title.

Tasks:

  • Research her background at National Library of Wales plus any other reference sources (such as history of the music hall) you can find. If you cannot get to the library, view the image online if possible.
  • Compare her portrait with a typical photograph of that period, such as “Portrait of an old Lady” c1885 who wears traditional costume and the pose suggests dignity and modesty.

Conclusions

  • A photographic portrait captures a real likeness of the sitter making them recognisable for their contemporaries. But, also remember early examples such as this required the sitter to stay perfectly still for some time so poses did appear unnaturally stiff.
  • The choice of pose and items that make up the background are carefully chosen to reflect some element of the person’s character. In this case, the costume too is an integral part of Miss Vulcana’s persona.
  • You might consider whether this could be captured so well in a painting rather than a photograph. What style could be used to good effect – maybe early Welsh Primitive style, or that of Augustus John or William Roos? For Kate Roberts, this seems to be the ideal medium for presenting an image of the legendary strong woman of Wales.
  • You do need to research into the background of the portrait as well as observing it closely – as we have seen, sitters can always choose a theatrical costume that does not necessarily give any specific clues about their identity. 

References:

The National Library of Wales photograph collection:

Portrait of Kate Roberts ref NLW Acc No 200312819/12 New Photograph Album 3904

-  Portrait of an old Lady ref JT/KK15

 Fishlock, Trevor “In this place”, The National Library of Wales, published 2007 to celebrate the NLW Centenary

- Kate Roberts – page 156, plate 222

- Portrait of an old Lady – page 140, plate 188