Mary Dillwyn was one of four children born to Lewis Weston Dillwyn (1778-1855) and Mary Adams (1776-1865) of the famous and beautiful Penlle’r-gaer estate near Swansea, and she was therefore in the ideal place to learn about the art of photography in the mid 19th century. Much has been written about Mary’s older brother, John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1882). Today he is regarded as Wales’s earliest photographer, but as is so often the case in historical studies, the same attention has not been given to the photographic talents of the female members of the family. Mary Dillwyn was Wales’s earliest female photographer and she is also one of Britain’s most notable early female photographers. This is the second photographic album by her to be digitised by the Library.
The album was created around 1853 before Mary married Reverend Welby in 1857 and left Penlle’r-gaer. The album was bought by the Library in 2007 from the Llysdinam Estate, Breconshire, an estate which came into the ownership of the Dillwyn Llewelyn family in the 1890s. The album is very small in size, measuring 12 x 9.7 cm, and includes 72 colourful pages and 46 photographs, with 22 of these photographs loose within the album. The album’s binding is made of beautiful dark blue leather decorated with gold leaves. The photographs are salt prints from the calotype process which was invented between 1835 and 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), a close family friend who was also the cousin of John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s wife. Salt print paper was the first type of printing paper to be used in photography. This meant that a limitless number of copies could be created out of the same image; a photographic process still in use today.
Within the album’s beautiful pages we are given a precious insight into Mary Dillwyn’s private life in the mansion. The album’s pages are adorned with photographs of flowers including primroses and wisterias, as well as photographs of dolls, birds and pet animals. Also included are photographs of family and friends, with an especially lovely photograph of a young boy with his dog. The most striking of these images is one of Mary Dillwyn with her two friends, ladies Frances Denman and Dulcie Eden, posing in their large, graceful dresses in front of Penlle’r-gaer. The image appears so natural that the spectator feels that they too are part of the photograph and demonstrates that Mary was eager to portray herself with her friends.
Mary Dillwyn's increasing interest in this new and revolutionary technology proves that she was a woman ahead of her time. The author Martin W. Sadler states: ‘Of all the inventions in a great age of innovation, it was the camera that offered women the best opportunity for creative expression’. The camera gave women a radical new independence. The academic art world had always discriminated against women, whilst photography was much more accessible to them, especially as many women were self-taught in the art.
During the Victorian Age the practice of collecting photographs and placing them in albums was very popular amongst the wives of the upper classes. This was often misconceived as an unimportant hobby which filled their endless leisure time as they did not enjoy the same social freedom as men. Asa Briggs insensitively states in A Victorian Portrait: ‘Many talented women wiled away rainy days or long winter evenings by embellishing the family photograph albums’. The truth is that these photographic albums gave women a creative voice through which they could express their identity. The author Patrizia Di Bello argues: ‘Women’s albums were an important aspect of the visual culture of the time, crucial sites in the elaboration and codification of the meaning of photography, as a new, modern visual medium’.