Penlle'r-gaer, to most people these days, is a small village on the outskirts of Swansea. Few people realise that secluded in a sheltered valley nearby once stood a small mansion surrounded by boating lakes, orchid houses, an observatory, an artificial waterfall and landscaped gardens planted with a true botanist's eye. The house itself has been demolished but the boating lakes, waterfalls, observatory and a few of the carefully selected trees and shrubs survive. The Penlle'r-gaer estate is now almost forgotten though one legacy remains to the present day.
The Dillwyn Llewelyn family at Penlle'r-gaer
Penlle'r-gaer was the home of the Dillwyn Llewelyn family from 1817-1936. Its heyday was undoubtedly during the years in which John Dillwyn Llewelyn and his family resided at Penlle'r-gaer. This cultured family shared numerous diverse interests including astronomy, botany, art and photography. It is for the latter pursuit that their place in posterity is assured.
In 1839, when William Henry Fox Talbot announced the discovery of his negative/positive photographic process to the world, it came as no surprise at Penlle'r-gaer. Sharing many of the family's interests he was a regular visitor to the Swansea area and had been acquainted with the Dillwyn Llewelyn family since childhood. Emma, John Dillwyn Llewelyn's wife, was his cousin. Finding kindred spirits he kept them informed of his photographic experiments, which were eagerly replicated, analysed and commented upon by his Welsh acquaintances.
Photography at Penlle'r-gaer
The most prolific period for photography at Penlle'r-gaer was the period 1841-1856. The National Library of Wales has five albums of photographs dating from this period as well as a number of single images. The albums combine informal family portraits with landscapes, still life studies and architectural studies. Within the Dillwyn Llywelyn circle identification of the creators of individual photographs can be difficult. This is in part due to photography being regarded as a family pastime with different family members involved in different stages of the process. These albums contain prints prepared from calotypes and wet collodion negatives. The relaxed nature of those family members and friends depicted in these early photographs is in stark contrast to the formal studio portraits of the time. It is their ease in front of the camera that betrays the familiarity with which the Dillwyn Llewelyn family and acquaintances felt for photography. It was not for another fifty years that the world at large would share this ease in front of the camera.
The end of an era
Interest in photography amongst the circle waned during the late 1850's. Both Thereza and Mary married and moved away from Penlle'r-gaer whilst Calvert Richard Jones is not known to have taken any further interest in photography after 1856.
By the 1860's photography had become increasingly commercial. Further technological advances had made the process of taking photographs easier and studios started to appear on every high street. An era that has assured a place in posterity for Penlle'r-gaer and the circle of people who gathered there was at an end, beautifully preserved in sepia.