Mariamne’s Urn – Chained to the wall by the disabled toilet.

by The Curious Scribbler

I chanced recently upon on Mariamne’s Urn at its latest location in the National Library of Wales.  It stands in a passage adjoining the door to the disabled toilet, secured by substantial metal chains through its amphora handles, but devoid of any labelling whatever to explain its signifiicance.

It is a large white marble funerary urn standing upon a square plinth.  Two hundred years ago it graced Mariamne Johnes’ private pensile garden on an outcrop above the Ystwyth at Hafod.  This garden was, according to Thomas Johnes’ correspondence,  created for Mariamne by his friend the Scottish agriculturalist Dr Robert Anderson in 1796, when his daughter would have been aged just twelve.  In  a letter of some hyperbole he then wrote to Sir James Edward Smith “The pensile gardens of Semiramis will be a farce to it, and it will equally surprise you as it has done me. I am very well satisfied with my Gardener, and trust everything will go on well.” 

The young Mariamne showed a precocious enthusiasm for botany and corresponded with leading botanist Sir James Edward Smith.  Her private garden became a showcase for shrubs and alpine plants, although there must have been periods during her adolescent illnesses when she could scarcely have visited it herself.   She died, aged 27 in 1811. The urn, a work by celebrated sculptor Thomas Banks, is generally believed to have been created in 1802.  Banks had made other sculptures for Thomas Johnes: Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the Styx, busts of Jane and Mariamne, a fireplace for the mansion.  He was  at Hafod as Johnes’ guest  in September 1803, when Johnes recorded that he was now disabled in one arm by a paralytic stroke. On the face of the urn is a bas relief depicting a limp maiden mourning beside the body of an equally limp and rather more dishevelled small bird, dead on a small pedestal.

 

The RObin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

The Robin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

On the plinth is a three verse poem by Samuel Rogers, – I have transcribed the verses with original capitalisation, from the plinth itself.

An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast

Tread lightly here, for here tis said
When piping Winds are hush’d around
A small Note wakes from Underground
Where now his tiny Bones are laid

No more in lone and leafless Groves
With ruffled Wing and faded Breast
His friendless homeless Spirit roves;
Gone to the World where birds are blest

Where never Cat glides o’er the Green
Nor Schoolboys giant Form is seen
But Love and Joy and smiling  Spring
Inspire their little Souls to sing.

It has been customary to imagine that this sentimental outpouring was dedicated to a particular pet robin, and Mariamne’s attachment to it.  This has been claimed in Elisabeth Inglis Jones’ book Peacocks in Paradise.  But on reflection, and in the light of a perusal of the other, now seldom-read works of this once well-known poet and arbiter of taste, I believe it to be  a more generic sentimental verse.  Samuel Rogers’ first long poem in two parts, The Pleasure of Memory published in 1792, shows a sentimental  preoccupation with the romantically remembered past,  the village green and a lonely robin. I quote few couplets:

Twighlight’s soft dews steal o’er the village green
With magic tints to harmonise the scene

Or strewed with crumbs yon root inwoven seat
To lure the redbreast from his lone retreat..

…Childhood’s lov’d group revisits every scene
The tangled wood walk and the tufted green.

Certainly there are few gardens less likely than Mariamne’s remote crag to be troubled by  either schoolboys or cats!

Is this Mariamne, mourning a robin?

Is this really Mariamne, mourning her pet  robin?

Rogers has not enjoyed lasting fame as a poet, but he was a major force in the literary social life of London in the early nineteenth century.  He published and republished his poems in many editions between 1792 and 1834, with engravings of pictures  by Thomas Stothard and by W.M.Turner.  He was clearly very proud of his early works, for both The Pleasure of Memory, and The  Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast appear in editions from 1810 to 1834.  In both these editions a footnote to the Epitaph states “Inscribed on an urn in the flower garden at Hafod”.   I suggest that Rogers did not visit Hafod, and was unaware of the distinction between Mrs Johnes’ publicly acclaimed flower garden, and Mariamne’s private garden.  However Elisabeth Inglis Jones, writing in 1950, evidently recollected the urn in Mariamne’s garden, where she described it as  “overgrown with moss and ivy, almost lost among encroaching trees and bushes, it was still standing where [Banks] placed it one morning that September of 1803, nearly a century and a half later”.

In the 20th century the fortunes of Hafod were in serious decline, culminating in the demolition of the house, with dynamite in 1958.  The urn was purchased at auction by a relative of Jane Johnes, Major Herbert Lloyd Johnes of Dolaucothi and given into the care of the National Library.   It was sited in 1948 as a garden ornament in the  beautifully maintained rockery garden on the slope adjoining the caretaker’s cottage, marking the point where the footpath down to Llanbadarn and Caergog Terrace leaves the library drive.   I am indebted to Dr Stephen Briggs for a copy of a photo of it in this location, in 1976.

The urn in the garden of the national Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs

The urn in the garden of the National Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs.

A valuable piece, fears were expressed about the risk of theft or vandalism, and in the 1980s the urn was moved indoors, to a prestigious location on the first floor outside the Council Chamber.  That is where I first saw it.   But times change, and about 15 years ago it was moved into an atrium area of the extended library book-stacks. Here it  was  accessible only to library staff and was lost to general view.   Perhaps its significance also became lost to common memory.   Now shackled in the very antithesis of romantic chains, the urn, and an equally unattributed but rather attractive tapering marble plinth  are tucked away, like fugitives, within recesses beyond a subterranean doorway.  Only disabled members of the public and those seeking baby-changing facilities are likely to encounter it on a visit, and  they will receive no clue as to its significance.

The urn in the National Library of Wales 2016

Mariamne’s  urn is now in a corridor leading to the disabled toilets  in the National Library of Wales (2016)

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A portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones

by The Curious Scribbler

The guest of honour at the recent opening of Mrs Johnes’  garden at Hafod was new supporter, Giles Inglis Jones, a great nephew of the author Elizabeth Inglis Jones,  whose  account of Hafod did so much to resurrect the memory of Thomas Johnes when Hafod was at its nadir of destruction.

Giles Inglis Jones, assisted by his daughter, reads an extract from Richard Payne Knight's poem The Landscape a didactic poem (1794)  in praise of the Picturesque to the guests of the Hafod Trust.

Giles Inglis Jones, assisted by his daughter, reads an extract from Richard Payne Knight’s poem The Landscape a didactic poem (1794) in praise of the Picturesque to the guests of the Hafod Trust.

 

Inglis Jones’ book, Peacocks in Paradise, published by Faber in 1950, was a fictionalised biography of the Johnes family  which drew heavily upon the large collection of personal letters between Johnes and his friend Sir James Edward Smith which she discovered at the Linnean Society.  These letters have been among the most valued resources for subsequent historians and some are reproduced in Richard Moore Colyer’s A Land of Pure Delight ( Gomer 1992).

Miss Inglis Jones was approaching fifty when she turned her hand to this, the first of her biographies, and later went on to write well researched accounts of the lives of other notables,  Maria Edgeworth (1959) and Augustus Smith of Tresco Abbey in the Scilly Isles (1969).  However her debut novel in 1929 was far steamier fiction, which roused in equal parts the admiration and the indignation of the readers of Cardiganshire.  I have just finished reading Starved Fields with very considerable enjoyment  and even a little surprise that such insight and earthy sentiments should flow from the pen of an innocent young woman of good family.

Starved Fields  deals with the families of two Cardiganshire Squires, the baronet Sir Uryan Williams, squire of the crumbling eighteenth century mansion Bryn, and farming landowner Owen Morgan of Lluest his relative and neighbour.  Just as one cannot read Wuthering Heights without realising that the author had a close understanding of alcoholism, depression and mental illness, it is hard to believe that Inglis Jones’ pageant of male and female drunkenness, incompatible marriage, illegitimacy and adultery was not informed by close observation of her neighbours or even family.

Giles Inglis Jones has loaned to the Hafod Trust an oil painting of his great aunt as a young woman, painted by the New Zealand portrait artist Cecil Jameson.  She is a pretty girl with a short 1920’s bob of hair, wearing a simple shift and a necklace of amber beads.  She was brought up at the south Cardiganshire mansion of Derry Ormond though I have heard it said that she and her brother considered their childhood deeply unhappy and shed few tears at the eventual demolition of their family home.

The portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones by Cecil Jameson

The portrait of Elizabeth Inglis Jones by Cecil Jameson

The men she depicts in her first novel tend to be spineless, inconsistent characters, at best charming but wet, and at worst drunken and entirely selfish.   Perhaps that is why she never married.  The strands of her story all paint entirely believable characters, but only one for whom the author shows real compassion.  This is her heroine, Gaynor, daughter of the baronet, who ends up balancing the role of adulterous mistress and farm manager to her feckless first love, Owen Morgan, with that of dutiful daughter to her enfeebled and alcoholic parents.

Also loaned from Giles Inglis Jones’ deceased great aunt’s possessions came a number of deeds and notebooks some of which I have been perusing. One contains a transcription of 21 letter received in 1929 as a result of the publication of Starved Fields. While all the writers congratulated her on her work, readers struggled with such depravity set in the Cardiganshire of the 1890s.  The Principal of St David’s, Lampeter, Canon Maurice Jones  wrote     “Where you have gone wrong,  if I may venture to say so,  is in setting your period a century late.  I cannot believe that the life you describe is true of Cardiganshire only 30 years ago, whereas the book gives a fairly clear and honest description of life in many parts of Wales in the 18th Century  …. I’m afraid you will not be popular with the “county” after your remorseless revelations of what life can have been like in Cardiganshire at any period in its history”.     Mrs Perrin ( author of 21 novels ) declared “What you must cultivate if you want a wide public is more restraint  –  your construction and technique are good but remember too much realism isn’t art”.

Miss Mary Lewis of Trefilan tempered her congratulations with a rebuke “Now there are aspects of Starved Fields I don’t like my dear Elizabeth, but I’m not going to enlarge on what is a matter of taste except to say that Society in Cardiganshire during the Nineties wasn’t really at all what your book implies – You weren’t born then, but I was (unfortunately) grown up and going about in those days so I know .  The Spectator’s reviewer took the view that the novel could only have been written by a man.

On the basis of these letters, it seems that actually the gentry were less offended than the middle classes.  A letter from her cousin, Wilmot Vaughan of Trawscoed  states “I do think you have got the Welsh country people to a T, let alone strange, weird drunken squires who one has known in the flesh.”

Lady Lloyd of Bronwydd  was simply thrilled.  “ What an amazing child you are!  I must congratulate you on your wonderful book, not a nice character in it!!  But your perspectives are quite an astonishment and it is terribly true and interesting and I own to simply screaming over it until Marteine  got quite angry, but he couldn’t put it down!! “  More prosaically she added “ I expect your mother is very proud of you, I should be. Will you dare go back to Derry [Ormond]?”

I don’t know whether Elizabeth did return home, but certainly by 1937 she was a permanent resident in London.  I believe that the remoteness of their homes and the relative poverty of even the premier families in Cardiganshire made it very difficult for many gentry girls from West Wales to secure suitable husbands.  Elisabeth certainly made her escape into London and literature, and by her middle years had started mining the historic record rather than her own life for what are now her better known books.

Her pretty portrait will soon be presiding over new nuptials in the Hafod Estate Office  which is now a venue for civil marriage ceremonies.  Inoffensive young woman that she appears, her clear gaze should make brides closely inspect their motives, and keep new husbands on the straight and narrow!

The critical gaze of the young Elizabeth Inglis Jones

The critical gaze of the young Elizabeth Inglis Jones

 

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The Coade stone Heads at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

In its heyday the arched doorways through the drystone wall of Mrs Johnes’s garden at Hafod  were each embellished on the garden side with rusticated dressings with a keystone  depicting a stone head: a mischievious male face – a Satyr, and a gentle female visage, – a Nymph.  These must have looked down upon Mrs Johnes, her  guests and  her gardeners as they passed out of the garden, towards the Peirian Cascade  or along the Lady’s Walk beside the river Ystwyth.

The Western garden arch as viewed from outside is of local stone

As the garden reached its nadir of dereliction after the demolition of the mansion, and the driving of a forestry road through the garden walls, someone ‘rescued’ these keystones, and for many years they resided in the private collection of Margaret Evans, parts of whose hoard of costume, artefacts and memorabilia used to be displayed in the Railway station building in Aberystwyth.  Many fragments of masonry from Hafod migrated during these years, some to nearby garden features and rockeries, others to the hands of descendents of former owners and tenants of the Estate.

Original Coade Stone Heads

The original Coade stones heads, now in the Ceredigion Museum

 

But Hafod, even at its most neglected, retained its fascination for those who knew it.  One of the earliest projects generated by local enthusiasts, the Friends of Hafod,  led to the repair and repointing of the damaged arches.  Margaret Evans remained fierce custodian of the keystones so the restoration involved the insertion of a pair of modern moulded concrete heads in place of the missing originals.  The heads were male and female faces, and the garden, still lost in the forestry plantation, became known locally as the  Adam and Eve garden.

Another Hafod enthusiast persuaded Margaret Evans to allow casts to be made of the original heads in her collection, and a replica pair were made. The interest of the originals is considerable for they are made of a ceramic artificial stone, “ Coade Stone” invented and marketed by Miss Eleanor Coade and dated 1793. Much of the ornamentation of London’s Georgian buildings and many well known statues are of Coade stone, a marvellously durable material little weathered by the passing years.  Mrs Coade called her invention ‘Lithodypyra’ literally meaning twice-fired stone.  It was a very skilled process to get the firing temperatures prolonged and correct in the kilns of the day.  A fine example of Coade stone ornamentation is at Belmont House,  Mrs Coade’s country home at Lyme Regis where nymph keystones  adorn the ground floor windows.

Belmont House, Eleanor Coade’s country house in Lyme Regis is elaborately ornamented with her patent Coade Stone

The Coade stone heads had suffered a good deal from their time in the neglected garden and the nymph in particular had lost a substantial portion of her chin.  The casting process gave the opportunity to do some facial reconstruction and the handsome facsimile casts, fashioned in a modern resin, are crisper and more perfect than the originals.  They were held in the collections of the Friends of Hafod.

The decades rolled on and both Mrs Evans’ collection and the Friends of Hafod collection found their way eventually to the custody of the Ceredigion Museum.  Almost an embarrassment of riches, for the Museum thus held  both the original and the facsimile heads.  It has been a happy co-incidence that the serious restoration of Mrs Johnes’s garden has allowed the installation of the high quality facsimiles in the place of the original keystones.  The many visitors who passed through the gates last weekend entered beneath the gaze of the very characters which once looked down on Mrs Johnes.

The facsimile heads now installed in Mrs Johnes’s Garden

 

Refreshed with the facsimile Nymph, the Western exit from Mrs Johnes’ garden

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Hafod – A garden in the wilderness

by The Curious Scribbler

Few scenes could be more unexpected than the appearance of a marquee in a manicured garden in the middle of a forestry estate in upland Ceredigion.  Even more improbable, perhaps, is that on 2 June the sun should blaze in a cloudless sky, while the midges were banished by a gently cooling breeze.  Converging from the local community and from far flung corners of Wales were some 150 guests assembled for a traditional Welsh tea and to celebrate the restoration and re-planting of Mrs Johnes’ Georgian flower garden.

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Guests arriving for the opening of the restored Mrs Johnes’s Flower garden

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A Victorian-style afternoon tea was enjoyed by 150 guests

The location was Hafod Uchtryd, the pioneering Picturesque landscape created by Thomas Johnes in the late 18th Century in the then barren landscape of the Upper Ystwyth valley 15 miles inland from Aberystwyth.  His story has been told many times: how he settled here with his second wife Jane Johnes and steadily poured his massive wealth from other properties into creating his personal Xanadu, a Gothic house by the architects Thomas Baldwin and John Nash, a model farm, huge plantations of oak, beech and larch, miles of carefully graded walking paths leading the visitor through the landscape of gnarled trees, pools, cascades and rock cut tunnels and viewpoints.  All the aesthetic cognoscenti came to visit Hafod and like other great houses the gardener could, for a consideration be persuaded to allow a visit to the gardens and the long conservatory before pointing his charges off onto one of the two circuit walks: the Lady’s Walk which took in the Church, and the more strenuous Gentleman’s Walk on the contours of the southern flank of the valley.

Johnes and his wife had one child, Mariamne, something of a child prodigy with a great flair for botany and a crippling infirmity which caused her to be at times encased in a gigantic metal spinal brace.   Notwithstanding this, she had her own private garden, an alpine garden perched on a crag east of the house, while her mother had a flower garden near the carriage drive out of sight of the house.  As early as 1788 Jane Johnes was writing to her brother “this place is in higher beauty than ever I saw it, my flower garden full of flowers”.  Among the many records by 19th century tourists I offer a quotation from B.H. Malkin (The Scenery, Antiquities and Bibliography of South Wales published 1804) “A gaudy flower garden, with its wreathing and fragrant plats bordered by shaven turf, with a smooth gravel walk carried around, is dropped, like an ornamental gem among wild and towering rocks, in the very heart of boundless woods. The spot contains about two acres, swelling gently to meet the sunbeams, and teeming with every variety of shrub and flower”.

 

Hafod has had a chequered history since those glory days, and by the mid 20th century the landscape was being planted with serried ranks of conifers, its gardens long forgotten and the great mansion stripped of its fixtures and reduced to rubble with dynamite.  Many British country houses met a similar fate in those years.  The circular wall of Mrs Johnes garden was breached by a forestry road, and its interior became a plantation of Sitka Spruce. When I first saw the garden it was through one of the two arched doorways to the garden, wreathed in brambles and dwarfed by the gloom of the densely planted 40 year old trees.   It seems inconceivable that in the last six years the road has been moved outside the original perimeter, the trees felled, and their stumps plucked from the soil by a giant yellow machine shaking the soil off the roots like a human hand weeding groundsel!

 

Uprooting the tree stumps in Mrs Johnes’s Garden in March 2009

The wall was rebuilt, the cleared ground graded, and the path reinstated close to its original route. In 2012 we saw the first planting, of carefully selected shrubs and herbaceous plants which would have been available to Jane Johnes in 1788.  Several contemporary commentators called it an American Garden, and a number of gentry gardeners, some of them Jane’s friends and correspondents were creating American gardens at this time.  The new planting, designed by landscape architect Ros Laidlaw, reproduces the American flavour of the time, with shrubs, chiefly from the eastern seaboard of North America which were known to have been introduced to British gardens in the 18th century.

Leucothoe fontanasiana ( Fetter Bush) was introduced in 1765 from the USA

Calycanthus floridus ( Carolina Allspice)  was introduced in 1726 from the USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a proud day for the Hafod Trust, which over the past twenty years has co-ordinated a partnership with the Forestry Commission to reinstate the ten miles of paths, the bridges, the viewpoints and the gardens.  Grant aid for Mrs Johnes’ Garden has come from the Cefn Croes Wind Farm Community Trust, The Finnis Scott Foundation, Tidy Towns Wales and many individual donors.  In future you could hold an afternoon tea party or a champagne reception in this tranquil enclosure.  You could even get married in the picturesque little church, Eglwys Newydd, just up the streamside footpath, or in the Hafod Stables meeting room, which is now licensed for civil ceremonies.

The mansion is unlikely ever to rise from its ruins, but the modern visitor with a taste for solitude, silence and starlight can spend a short or long break in the heart of the estate in the comfortably furnished Hawthorn Cottage ( Pwll Pendre) which overlooks a pool on the meadow between the mansion site and Mariamne’s garden.

Hawthorn Cottage ( Pwll Pendre) at Hafod is a furnished holiday cottage

For more about the Hafod Estate  visit www.hafod.org

 

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