The long dark January has given me plenty of time to peruse one of last year’s purchases, that hefty doorstep of a book ” The Families of Gogerddan in Cardiganshire and Aberglasney in Carmarthenshire“. It was launched last March at the National Library of Wales by its author, Sir David T R Lewis,and I handed over my £30 with enthusiasm for it is a subject of which I was eager to learn more.
Sir David Lewis is of Carmarthenshire farming stock whose elevation to the knightage in 2009 follows a glittering career in the law and a stint as Lord Mayor of the City of London in 2007. Taken together in this book he has assembled a large body of information and a lot of pictures about an interesting family and their homes.
The book, however, proved to be packed with surprises, the first of which was to find material from one of my blogs extensively reproduced without attribution on p217. In my Letter from Aberystwyth of 7 October 2015 I wrote about Florrie Hamer, whose grandmother had acted as wet nurse to Sir Pryse Pryse’ wife in 1869. It is funny how one can suddenly recognize one’s own words amongst those of another author. When I got out the highlighter pen I found a remarkable similarity!
His book – my text!
In 2013 I devoted a blog to the interpretation of the Anno Mundi dates upon the gate posts of Bwlchbychan and and the stables at Alltyrodin. Perhaps we were working in parallel, but the account on p201 strongly suggests my blog was his (unacknowledged) source.
I am not the only historian to have noticed an uncanny resemblance to their own work. It is ironic that the author’s copyright statement at the beginning of his book reads ‘permission is granted to quote inextensively and without photographs from the contents of this book provided attribution is made to the author with an appropriate footnote or source note’.
Soon I happened upon a splendid howler: a panel about Nanteos on p 267 revealed that the eccentric George EJ Powell was ” Etonian, scholar and friend of Byron, Swinburne, Longfellow, Rossetti and Wagner“. Powell, who lived from 1842-1882 certainly hung out with Swinburne, and he corresponded with Longfellow in seeking approval for his early poetry, but Byron! Byron died eighteen years before George was born, so this is clearly impossible. I can only think that Sir David has been influenced by the recently-placed creative name plates on the doors of Nanteos mansion in its present incarnation as a hotel. They do have a Byron room, and a Marquis de Sade room, but this is not a good historical source for nineteenth century history.
The I came across a map in which the Dovey is labelled as reaching the sea at Aberystwyth and the Ystwyth at Aberdovey.
Lewis has assembled a large amount of information, some of it his own, and illustrated it lavishly with contemporary and historic photographs. Many I recognize from the collections of the National Library of Wales, while others are new to me, and sourced from private individuals who have shared their property and are properly identified below the picture. What is surprising is that the photos held in the National Library are rarely identified as such, and in many cases the quality of reproduction suggest they have been photocopied and reproduced from earlier publications, in which the source was properly acknowledged. Such a shortcut presumably avoids the NLW reproduction fees.
Such failings of scholarly etiquette would not be surprising in a school project, but seem very cavalier on the part of an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a Member of Council of at least three Universities. His publisher might be feeling rather embarrassed .. but then, he is his own publisher.
Strata Florida, at the end of the side road out of Pontrhydfendigaid is possibly one of the least-visited Cadw sites in Wales.
On a normal day, one or two visitors may be seen passing under the remaining arched romanesque west doorway of the Cistercian abbey church, and perhaps pausing to read the huge memorial slab reminding of us of the traditional belief that the 14th century poet Dafydd ap Gwilim was buried here under a great yew tree in the graveyard. Others come to the adjoining parish church in search of a more recent grave marking the burial in 1756 of a severed leg, and part of the thigh, of Henry Hughes, who was a cooper by trade. What accident with an axe, or perhaps a great metal hoop led to this misadventure? I have read that it was survivable and that the rest of this man was laid to rest in America. Come the resurrection he would have believed in, his leg and the rest of his body would presumably be reunited over the Atlantic.
This weekend though were two most extraordinary days, in which the field was thronged with vehicles, tents and a marquee, and bands of enthusiasts of all ages gathered in the church for lectures or for tours of the abbey site, the adjoining farm buildings and the wider landscape. Just an echo perhaps of the daily bustle of the 12th century when Strata Florida Abbey controlled vast tracts of land, productive of farm produce, timber and minerals. The event marked the launch of the Strata Florida Project, a concept which has been a twinkle in the eye of Professor David Austin for a couple of decades but now seems set to burst upon the world.
On Saturday morning he was surrounded by a densely packed throng of umbrellas as he explained the importance of the site. Size alone of the excavated ground plan shows that it had been a huge monastery, larger indeed than the famed Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Professor Austin explained the basis to believe that the abbey church was erected on a preexisting Christian site, and how the ambiguous structure in the centre of the nave floor, which is not quite correctly aligned with the axis of the church, is interpreted as a holy well incorporated, perhaps to honour older beliefs, when the Cistercians set up a new house in this part of Wales. The abbey enjoyed the patronage of the Welsh prince Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, and there are clues in the sources of the carved building stones, and in the celtic motifs on the west doorway that local Welsh tradition was not entirely subjugated by the incomers.
On Sunday a lecture by Prof Dafydd Johnston revealed a sense of the grandeur of these medieval buildings, and of the hospitality they offered. The peripatetic poets of the day wrote praise poems to their hosts, abbots and fine landed gentlemen, listing their assets, their buildings, farmlands, gardens, wives, offspring, fine food and general generosity. The picture emerges of soaring oak beams on stone arches, stained glass windows, a gleaming white tower, and lead so abundant it is described as encasing the church like armour. These poets were quite literally singing for their supper, and may have exaggerated, but they are a good historical source, perhaps far better than the more introspective utterances of poets today. In the early 15th century the abbey (which probably did supported Glyndwr’s rebellion) took severe punishment from the English army, who stabled their horses in the Abbey Church. Abbot Rhys ap Dafydd is praised for repairing the handsome refectory, and his successor Abbot Morgan for the beauty of the place.
We all know that Henry VIII brought the abbeys, quite literally, crashing down. The lucky recipients of this redistributed land and buildings were often given just a year to effectively destroy the monastic structures, perhaps adapting some parts of it for domestic use. Gentry houses thus emerged amongst the ruins. At Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire which I visited last week, the nave became a long gallery, the core of a new gentry residence. Here the great church was largely demolished and cleared away, built into walls and vernacular buildings for miles around, while the refectory became the basis of the 18th century farmhouse Mynachlog Fawr ( or the Stedman House) as it appears in the Buck print of Strata Florida in 1742, and still stands today.
That farm has a story of its own, the last 150 years in the ownership of the Arch family of farmers. Charles Arch, a cherubic octogenarian known to millions as the announcer voice of the Royal Welsh Show treated a packed church to an elegaic description of his childhood growing up at the farm, and how as errand boy for his mother he would run the one and a half miles to the village, or be hauled from his bed at night by the local doctor to act as gate-opener for a house call to distant cottages up the gated road across their land. Most of the audience felt the tears well up as he described how as a young man he realised that the farm could not support three families and elected to seek his living elsewhere. ” The day I sold the pony, and did away with my dogs – was the saddest day of my life”. His brother’s family still farm the land, and since the 1970s have occupied a comfortable bungalow not far behind the old house. With extraordinary patience the Arch family have waited and waited for Strata Florida Project to gain momentum and purchase the old family home and its farm buildings.
Richard Suggett illustrated the importance of this fine old building, barely touched by electricity or indoor plumbing, and with many period features of the 1720s. There is a paneled parlour on one side of the front door and farm kitchen on the other, in which Charles recollects the bacon hanging from the ceiling and as many as 25 neighbours dining on Friday nights. The parlour still has its buffet cupboard next to the fireplace (an antecedent of the china display cabinet) an acanthus frieze painted on the ceiling above the coving, and a frightful didactic overmantle painting on wood above the fireplace. It depicts youth choosing between the paths of virtue and vice: the former rather staid and dull, the latter really nasty. Charles found it chilling as a child.
The Strata Florida Project aspires to restore and interpret all these layers of history and the wider landscape it inhabits. It reaches out to incorporate into the story every possible Welsh icon: The Nanteos cup: claimed to have arrived there via Strata Florida Abbey, the White Book of Rhydderch: possibly transcribed in the scriptorium of Strata Florida, poet Dafydd ap Gwilim: putatively educated by the monks of Strata Florida. This quiet backwater may soon become a hub of historical and modern Welsh culture.
Sunday closed with a procession from the parish church to the putative holy well in the abbey nave led by Father Brian O’Malley, a former Cistercian monk who had yesterday enlightened us with an account of the daily routine of Cistercian prayer.
Father Brian O’Malley leads the procession. Photo copyright Tom Hutter
And displayed for the day in the adjoining ruined chantry chapel was the Nanteos Cup, on loan to its former home, courtesy of Mrs Mirylees the last inheritor of the Nanteos estate, who was also present with her daughter. For those with a spiritual bent it was an evocative day.
Prayers at the putative Holy Well Copyright Tom Hutter
For the rest there was costumed historic re-enactment, archery, pole lathe wood-turning, refreshments, stalls and much besides.
I’ve been re reading Juliette Woods article ” Nibbling Pilgrims and the Nanteos Cup: A Cardiganshire Legend” which was published in Nanteos – A Welsh house and its Families, Ed. Gerald Morgan (2001). In it the author carefully enumerates the written and the oral record to compare it with the fully fledged early 20th century legend of the Nanteos Cup. At its most florid, this damaged fragment of a wooden drinking vessel is believed to be the Holy Grail, brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, cherished by the monks at Glastonbury, some of whom, at the dissolution of their monastery, fled with it to Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire, from whence it passed into the hands of the Stedman Family of that community, and thus, by marriage to the Powells of Nanteos. In modern tradition the cup has spectacular healing powers, and its last custodian at Nanteos, Margaret Powell discretely massaged its reputation with testimonials from the healed. The cup is also sometimes alleged to be fashioned out of a fragment of the true cross – though this would not fit with the Holy Grail story in which Joseph of Arimathea caught Christ’s blood in the cup at the crucifixion.
Juliette Woods gives a lot of attention to the common mechanisms by which such local legends are invented and augmented over time, but in essence her conclusions are that there is no written evidence of its importance and apparent healing powers until the mid 19th Century, and no indication of the Grail story until the early 20th. The cup first came under public scrutiny in 1878 when George Powell, a keen aesthete and antiquarian, allowed it to be exhibited to The Cambrian Archaeological Association at Lampeter. There was no allegation about the Holy Grail back then. It and another wooden vessel owned by Thomas Thomas of Lampeter were described as “supposed to possess curative powers”. The newly-fledged “Cambrians” as this genteel antiquarian society were generally known, were on a mission to ferret out antiquities from gentry homes and churches.
But the power of a good legend is in its ability to grow and mutate. Margaret Powell, who as a widow ruled Nanteos from 1930-1952 upheld the Grail myth, but with delicate discretion, refusing to allow the allegation to be associated with her name in print. Journalists, travel-guide authors and religiously-inclined scholars soon put in their pennyworth, and the Nanteos Cup gained followers. The Revd Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury in 1938-1940 was one such enthusiast, fired up by A.E. Waite’s book Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) which linked the grail to early Celtic Christianity. Smithett Lewis corresponded with Mrs Powell, and embellished the myth with the ‘discovery’ of a cupboard at Ozleworth Church, used by the Glastonbury monks to house the grail overnight when benighted too far from their abbey. Smithett Lewis wanted the Grail to be housed in a splendid reliquary at Glastonbury. Mrs Powell evidently did not co-operate and the correspondence ceased.
By the 1960’s the old mansion was in the hands of its first non-hereditary owner, Liverpool dealer Geoffrey Bliss, and the original cup had been transferred to a bank vault in the care of the Mrs Powell’s relative and inheritor, Mrs Mirylees. I visited Nanteos during the Bliss family occupancy, the house had been sold complete with most of its furnishings and portraits and despite the actual holes in the roof of one wing, it was open to the public as a stately home. And by then there was a facsimile holy grail to be seen in a lighted glass-fronted cabinet in the anteroom to the Library on the west end of the house. This may indeed have been the one said to have been made by a local craftsman to enable Mrs Powell to reduce wear upon the original unless its curative powers were actually required.
The ‘real’ cup meanwhile has gone from strength to strength. Throughout the 1990s you could send to America for a prayer cloth or tissue impregnated with water which has been poured from it. Presumably, as with homeopathy, this church in Seattle would allege that the greater the dilution, the more powerful the effect it would have. More recently, impregnated cloths were available from The Rt Reverend Bishop Sean Manchester, author of several non-fiction books, including “The Highgate Vampire”; “The Vampire Hunter’s Handbook”; “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know”; “From Satan To Christ”; and “The Grail Church.” However the supply dried up in 2014 when the cup was apparently stolen from the home of an elderly woman in Weston-under-Penyard, in Herefordshire.
Last year there was a further flurry of notoriety when the Grail had a spot on BBC’s Crimewatch. Muddying the history further, some news accounts showed an old photo of the missing object, ( though this was possibly a photo of Mrs Powell’s facsimile rather than the original) while others included illustrations from the Indiana Jones film starring Harrison Ford!
The Nanteos cup, or perhaps its 20th century facsimile featured in recent coverage of its loss
In June 2015 it was revealed that the cup had been returned but that no charges were being pressed. The police photo of the object they recovered closely resembles the 1888 sketch in Archaeologia Cambrensis and the early photos of the cup which are housed at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales rather than the picture above. I have recently heard that its new home is to be in the National Library of Wales.
The police photo of the recovered object looks more like the original Nanteos cup
Meanwhile new convolutions constantly develop. At Nanteos, which is now a smart country house hotel, there is a new garden feature in the old shrubbery adjoining the walled garden. A labyrinth by eco-mystic woodcraftman Bob Shaw leads on a contemplative circuit to a central sculpture which represents the Nanteos Cup, borne on a tapering plinth. The four sides of the plinth sides depict the mansion, Strata Florida, Glastonbury Tor and the Nanteos cup. Just to keep the legend alive.
The Sculpture by Ed Harrison at the centre of the new labyrinth at Nanteos
And Bob, who is a skilled craftsman working with traditional tools has also fashioned yet another Nanteos Cup, out of an ancient piece of timber he extracted from the Mawddach estuary. That will fox the carbon daters, as they strive to determine which cup is which! The wood could well be older than the true cross itself. Bob tells me that the hotel management are only too happy to keep his handiwork in their safe, and show it to favoured guests.
Then there is a further development, in the form of a historical novel, The Shadow of Nanteos, by Jane Blank published this year by Y Lolfa. Now I know this is fiction, but for many readers the distinction becomes blurred. Peacocks in Paradise, by Elisabeth Inglis Jones, which dramatises the life of Thomas Johnes of Hafod, is often perceived today as a purely biographical work. I found The Shadow of Nanteos unnerving myself because in it the very real Revd William Powell (1705-1780) who inherited on his brother Thomas’ death in 1752 is equipped with his historically correct wife, Elizabeth Owen. The book opens as he takes possession of Nanteos, his ancestral home. There however the resemblance ends: poor Elizabeth and William are supplied with quite different children, and a gothic storyline involving illegitimacy, adultery, leadmining, otter hunting, the death of their son, and finally the death of Elizabeth on the Nanteos kitchen table during a cesarean section to save the offspring of her steamy relationship with the bailiff. Ah me! What those Georgians got up to! But to return to the cup, – here all the components of the early 20th century fiction have been thoughtfully re-packaged to the mid 18th Century. Fictional Elizabeth invites round the local gentry wives and daughters, the Pryses of Gogerddan, the Lisburnes of Trawscoed and the Johnes of Hafod and they expound the whole story: Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea, Strata Florida, the Steadmans, the true cross, the Holy Grail and the nibbling pilgrims who bit pieces off the rim. ( The author must surely have read Juliet Wood’s painstaking work). Later in the book, driven to grief at the death of her eldest son, Elizabeth resorts to some very questionable frotteurism with the grail itself.
Nanteos seems a particular magnet for the wild assertion! There are already a number of popular but questionable ghost stories associated with it and suggestible readers of Jane Blank’s work may soon find themselves sensing Elizabeth Powell eviscerated on the kitchen table. And there is a steady increase in the historic characters which are claimed among its house guests. Local historians have long been enraged by the early 20th century myth, first promulgated in a tourist guide to Aberystwyth, that Wagner stayed at Nanteos and wrote Parsifal there. There is no closer connection than that the aesthetically inclined George Powell ( 1842-1882) was an admirer of his, and planned a journey to Munich with his friend Algernon Swinburne, the poet, to witness the Ring Cycle. Algernon Swinburne and George also shared an interest in flagellation and the works of the Marquis de Sade. But that connection scarcely justifies the current naming of one of Nanteos’ rooms as ‘The Marquis de Sade room’, nor the recent assertion that Robert Browning stayed there too!
The hotel website http://www.nanteos.com/news_detail.php?ID=51 reads as follows: Culture is all-pervasive at Nanteos Mansion with associations with leading European figures such as the composer Wagner and the poet Browning. It’s an easy concept to grasp, they are famous cultural figures and they both stayed at the Mansion while touring the country.
But they didn’t. Though hotel guests will enjoy believing that they did.
I have been reading the transcript ship’s log written by a distant relative of my husband, a navy captain named Lieutenant Edward Riou. In 1789 this gentleman was given command of the naval frigate HMS Guardian, a fifth rate frigate built to carry some 250 men and 44 big guns. But his voyage was not a military one: immediately before his command, the ship had been returned to dock in 1787 and refitted as a transport ship, to carry stores and convicts to the newly established penal colony at Port Jackson, now Sydney, Australia. Founded with the arrival of the first convicts in 1788 the colony was little more than a tented village set in sandy scrub. Nothing edible was growing there, and all supplies must therefore be brought in by ship until such time as agriculture could be established. The navy was charged with delivering every possible necessity, and more convicts, both male and female in the following months.
Riou’s journey was not a success. On leaving the Cape of Good Hope he met with a gigantic iceberg in the South Atlantic and later on Christmas Eve collided with it in the fog. In the ensuing disorder on Christmas Day the boats were launched and some of the crew disembarked on a launch. Others drowned in the attempt. The capacity of the boats was nowhere near sufficient for the entire crew and the 25 convicts. Riou and 60 men and a 10 year old girl remained on board the severely leaking and rudderless ship and after an extraordinary eight weeks at sea, pumping and baling constantly with the lower deck filled with water, they limped into Table Bay, Capetown. The ship proved to be irretrievably damaged, and most of the contents rotted or destroyed. Only a quantity of salt pork, salt beef and the convicts and their superintendents were eventually transported by other ships to their Australian destination. Not till the summer of 1791 did Riou and the last of his crew make their way home.
A fascinating detail of the account is the lists of goods, food and livestock which was packed aboard the Guardian for the use of the nascent colony in Australia. In London no less a figure than Sir Joseph Banks involved himself in the design and construction of a greenhouse on the deck of the Guardian, to accommodate 100 large plant pots on shelves, and fertilizer, mulch and all necessities for the use of the ship’s gardener, James Smith. He itemized his charges as follows:
Artichokes 2, Horseradish, Sorrel 2, Balm 2, Sage, Aloe, Mint 2, Tea Tree 2, Chives 2, Tarragon 2, Camomile, Hyssop, Marjorum, Tansy, Penny Royal, Rumbullion Gooseberry, Greengage Gooseberry, Red Dutch Currant, White Dutch Currant, Filberts, Raspberries 2, Large Blue Fig 2, Large White Fig 2, Almond 2, Mulberry 2, Walnuts 2, Pomegranate, Ginkgo biloba, Roman nectarine 2, Red Magdalen Peach 2, Royal George Peach 2, Newington Peach , Brussels Apricot, Cherry 3, Morello Cherry 2, Early May Cherry, Orange Tree, Lemon Tree, Shadock, Royal Muscadine Vine, Syrian Vine, Muscat of Alexander Vine, White Fronteniac Vine, Gibraltar Vine, Black Hamburgh Vine, Claret Vine, St peter’s Vine, White Muscadine Vine, Black Fronteniac Vine, Blue Morecils Vine, Black Sweetwater Vine, Red Fronteniac Vine, Burgundy Vine, White Sweetwater vine, Grisley Fronteniac Vine, Black Orlean Vine, Uruge nectarine, Italian Nectarine, Brugner Nectarine, Nonesuch apple 2, Dutch Codlin apple 2. 93 pots under my care.
Most of this list is of herbs, fruits and vines which could form the basis of productive farming in the colony. The superintendents and the convicts had themselves been selected for those with some agricultural experience or skills which could be put to use. Banks clearly envisioned a Mediterranean style settlement of vineyards and orchards in sunny Australia. But there is one remarkable exception – The Ginkgo biloba.
A look around the eighteenth century mansions of Britain is enough to demonstrate the social significance at the time of this newly-discovered Chinese tree. Kew Gardens has one known to have been planted in 1762, Blaise Castle House ( built 1796) in Bristol has a huge one adjoining the mansion and the picturesque dairy by John Nash. Ashton Court, another wealthy Bristol merchant’s estate, has three.
The ornamental Dairy (1806) adjoining Blaise Castle House. and a large Ginkgo to the left in view
Nanteos mansion here in Ceredigion boasts a group of three of which one is the largest in our county, standing in the pleasure ground adjoining the mansion and screening the garden wall. Significant houses have at least one of these exotica placed as specimens close to the house. Towards the end of his career ‘Capability’ Brown routinely included a Ginkgo, a Cedar of Lebanon, and perhaps an Oriental Plane or a purple beech in plantings viewed from the mansion.
It is reasonable to conclude then that the Ginkgo was destined to complement the Governor’s residence at Port Jackson, though this was probably little more than a shed at that time. It ended its days cast overboard from HMS Guardian along with the cattle, sheep, horses and pigs taken on board at the Cape. Governor A Phillip of the new colony reported to the Admiralty that in the absence of the expected supplies much of the colony’s small stock of livestock had to be slaughtered for food, and that the convicts, on half rations, were too enfeebled to make much headway with building the store houses and accommodation. With 1000 convicts shortly to be dispatched to his jurisdiction, the loss of the ginkgo was probably the least of his worries.
Source: HMS Guardian and the Island of Ice compiled and annotated by Rod Dickson. Hesperian Press 2012
William Edward Powell was one of the more colourful squires of Nanteos. Born in 1788 the eldest son of Thomas Powell, his father had died when he was just nine years old. After a bruising childhood educated at Westminster School and domiciled largely in London with his mother and younger siblings, he rapidly setting about making his mark on attaining his majority on 16 February 1809. The young Captain in the Royal Horse Guards held a lavish coming of age party at Nanteos at which his mother and sisters were perforce absent, exiled by debt to Dublin. In the preceding months he had been living it up in Bath, and sending for game from his estate to feed his guests. Gossip had already linked him to a beautiful young lady – one of a numerous family – and the Nanteos Agent Hugh Hughes recorded the rumour that Powell would be married by 16th February and that the Birthday would be also a wedding visit.
Within the year he had reclaimed management of the Nanteos estate, commissioned the valuation of the Nanteos plate (1757 ounces of silver valued at £527.6s 10d) and commissioned a handsome survey of the many Powell properties in Aberystwyth. Demands on the estate included his mother’s substantial unpaid debts, amounting to £5,500 and the likely dowry requirements of his sister Elizabeth who would be owed £5000 at marriage or on attaining the age of 21. None of this deterred him from an early marriage, on 4 October 1810 to Laura Phelp, who was probably the sweetheart with whom his name had been linked the previous year. In the same year Laura’s brother Edward sought the hand of Powell’s sister Ellen Elizabeth, thus creating a second link between the impecunious Phelp family of Leicestershire, and the financially embarrassed Powells. They were married in 1811.
Recently come to light through the researches of a descendant of the animal artist Thomas Weaver are some letters from Powell’s father-in-law, Mr James Phelp to the artist. On 29 July 1812 James Phelp wrote:
“I suppose you have heard that Captn Phelp is married to Miss Powell, a sister of his brother-in-law, a nice, sensible, agreeable young woman, and one I hope and trust will have a proper influence over him”
Reporting on his three unmarried daughters, Julia, Octavia and Fanny, he continued: “Powell has taken the majority of Cardiganshire and is now with Fanny at Lochrea Ireland. Julia and Octavia are at present on a visit near Bath. They were not at the Cardiff races which ended about ten days since and was numerously attended, although the sport was not good owing to the goodness of Powell’s horses, Banker and Ad Libitum. They won everything and are expected to do the Principality. I wish at the time we were at Hunters – you could have contrived to have paid us a visit there as you was to have painted them and Prospero who is the finest horse I think in England if not in Europe”.
Nothing I have found in the Nanteos archive mentions Powell’s racehorses Banker and and Ad Libitum so we may speculate as to whether Powell’s investment in racing was prolonged or a success. The tone of this letter implies that his horses were in fact too good for the Cardiff races, and so the betting was unexciting. Prospero may also have been Powell’s horse, or alternatively another horse which James Phelp greatly admired and wished his friend and protegee Weaver to paint. I hope that a racing historian may eventually throw light upon these names.
William Edward Powell in costume of Lord Lieutenant of Cardiganshire
What is certain is that while Powell pursued the enthusiasms of a young gentleman of his class, his financial situation was extremely perilous, and remained so. In February 1810 he had also received the nomination for High Sheriff of Cardiganshire, a post obliging the holder to entertain in lavish fashion. Powell’s lawyer was so alarmed at the prospect that he advised Powell to obtain notes from his physician and apothecary in support of his inability to do business of any kind. Powell did not heed this advice and continued to duck and dive through the following years, neglecting his wife Laura, supporting a mistress, and consorting in the Prince Regent’s entourage in London. In 1822 Laura died, and the next year Powell narrowly avoided bankruptcy, only by the sale of unentailed land in Montgomeryshire.
In my last entry I reflected upon the phenomenon whereby volunteer organisations seem to be prone to particularly vicious in-fighting.
Seeking respite from the present I found myself in the library looking for evidence of the long-deceased animal painter, Thomas Weaver 1774–1843. Weaver painted handsome four square portraits of sheep and cattle with tiny heads and a sturdy leg at each corner. Unpublished correspondence also shows that Col Phelp of Coston, the father of Laura Powell of Nanteos, would have liked to get Weaver, who lived at Shrewsbury, to paint his daughters. I did not find any evidence that he actually did so, but, through one of those plausible false alarms I found myself reading the obituary of another gentleman of the same name, a certain Thomas Weaver who died in 1852, who appears in a bound collection of published sermons on microfilm at the National Library of Wales. This Thomas Weaver, who was buried at Shrewsbury had served as a clergyman for 53 years.
Much of the sermon was to, 21st century readers, almost intelligible, drawing upon references to very obscure aspects of the old testament, and with a fine rolling oratorial style which made it even more difficult to follow.
However when we got to the biographical part it was far more illuminating.
He obtained his ministerial education at Hoxton College in London: and upon receiving a cordial invitation from the church assembling in this place he settled among them as their pastor in the year 1798: not, however, till after some hesitation about such a step, arising from the depressed nature of the congregation, and the somewhat repulsive aspect, spiritually viewed, of some of its members. His decision seems to have been made under the advice of a ministerial friend, who, in reference to some of those who were least attractive to him, quaintly and quietly said ” Death will soon help you there”.
His ministry, commenced under such disadvantageous circumstances, proved, by the blessing of God, successful.
Did the funeral congregation allow themselves an approving chuckle at this ‘quaint and quiet counsel’? We seem to be far more reluctant, these days, to publicly count our future blessings in the form of the anticipated death of those of whom we disapprove. How, after all, could the Revd Thomas Weaver be confident that the population of Hoxton would not be swelled by an equal number younger and healthier, yet equally spiritually repulsive individuals, perhaps even the spawn of his old adversaries?
Judged with hindsight, it seems to me that to leave posterity with a really nice portrait of a foursquare cow is probably a more enduring form of immortality than ministering to the residents of Hoxton.
A brindled shorthorn cow bred at Calke. 1831 Thomas Weaver, artist. National Trust.
I ended my last blog wondering whether the poet Longfellow had acceded to George Powell’s somewhat histrionic request that he burn his poems the works of ‘Miölnir’ and trample the ashes into the ground.
The answer proved, in the digital age surprisingly easy to find.
From my computer I could access the Harvard library catalogue, Hollis, and typed in the author’s name Miölnir. And there it was, Poems Miölnir [pseudo.] 2nd series published by J. Cox Aberystwyth 1861. A second click opened the very book, online, in Google Books. And on the title page I found the cramped dedication in George Powell’s handwriting:
George Powell’s dedication to Prof Longfellow on the title page of his book
H.W. Longfellow Esq., and Prof. With the sincere respects of the author G Powell.
And on the second page of the volume is the bookplate marking the donation of the Longfellow Collection to Harvard College Library.
Bookplate from the Longfellow donation to Harvard Library
Gift of Miss Alice M Longfellow, 20 Dec.1894
So Powell’s gift was not destroyed, joined the library of Longfellow, and was donated by his daughter to Harvard, where he taught.
Reeling from the public criticism in the Spectator, George, in a letter to Longfellow in 1862, whittled down his poems in this volume to just eight which he felt possibly worthy of approval, and listed these in the letter which bewailed his treatment by the critics. By his own reckoning his best poems were those on pages 41, 68, 95, 102, 107, 138, 140, 141
Another revelation from this piece of armchair research is that I was wrong to presume that the double volume of both Miölnir books was sent to Longfellow, or indeed to The Spectator. Even the cover of Longfellow’s copy is reproduced online, and it is in the original cream binding lined and decorated in black and red.
The cover of Longfellow’s copy of Miolnir’s verses, Series II
The text is amended here and there for typographic errors which escaped the author’s attention in proof. The amendments are in George’s hand.
So I must contradict my earlier post. I now believe that Mr Chater’s copy is a unique one, bound for George some considerable time after his humiliation. He, like, everyone else, had had the two separate books, one green, one cream, and thus he had dedicated each of his own copies, lovingly, to himself. It is these which were later unbound and rebound together in green leather.
Arthur Chater’s copy of the volume by Miölnir
In the first series of poems were two pieces of comic verse which, by the time of the second series, Powell had already repudiated in favour of his more aesthetic and gloomy style. In the Epilogue to the second series, before he had suffered the ignominy of the Spectator review, he wrote ‘I have refrained in this volume from attempting any “comic strains”. They were in the last one, such a lamentable failure, were so forced and inexpressibly weak, that I shall take very good care in future – at any rate till my mind be more matured – not to let my pen compromise me so much’. Significantly these two poems have been unceremoniously ripped from this edition.
Personally I find comic verse easier to digest than works of tortured beauty and elevated sensitivity which are Powell’s predominant style. I therefore reproduce, for the first time since 1860 one of George Powell’s youthful ‘betises’ as it appears in an undamaged copy of his first volume .
‘Agriculture by a Facetious Farmer’. A humorous verse in the first volume, which George was later to regret.
I am startled by the brutality of reviewers writing for The Spectator in the 1860s. I had been browsing in search of reaction to the publication of a volume of poems by George Powell, and I soon discovered that the flavour of poetical criticism in 1861 – 1862 was stinging indeed.
In August 1861, for example, I found a long review of poems penned by a clergyman. “The Rev. John Graham has done a very foolish thing in ever devoting an hour from his time to writing verses. He has done an infinitely more foolish thing in venturing to print them. He ought never to write without burning all he writes as soon as it is written……….. We close Poems: Sacred, Didactic and Descriptive in bewilderment and dismay”.
Another new work, Athelstan, A Poem by Edward Moxon received similar derision “ Mr Tennyson may sleep secure. His laurels are still safe….. Whatever else he may be, the author of Athelstan is certainly not a poet, either by birth or manufacture”.
A review entitled Poetry Tearful and Tremulous discussed two new volumes: Cypress Leaves by WHCN (an Etonian) and Poems by Ingle Dew BA. “—we re-iterate our hope that these remarks may induce Mr Ingle Dew BA, and WHCN to feel heartily ashamed of their literary escapades and to attach for the future as little importance to the twitterings of their own emotions as those exceedingly few persons who will read their work are certain to attach to them.”
Aspirant poets must have retired to sob at such a drubbing.
George Powell, was amongst these poets. The son and heir of Nanteos mansion he was, like WHCN, an Etonian and by 1861 an undergraduate at Brasenose College Oxford. He had already published in 1860, at his own or more probably his father’s expense, a collection of five short stories which as far as I am aware never received critical attention.
George Powell first published a small volume of 31 poems, entitled Poems of Life and Death in 1860 under the pseudonym Miölnir. His epilogue excuses any deficiencies in the light of his own youth and inexperience. However he leads the reader to his cause: “First attempts are in all cases, even those of great genius, defective to a certain extent. They should be regarded as, not perfect works, but a foreshadowing of perfect works or more perfect works: as exercises not as models, as footlights not as stars”. He signs off as Miölnir, Brussels, December 3rd 1860, and before the year was out a slim book with a dark green embossed cover was printed for the author by J Cox of Pier Street, Aberystwyth. Perhaps it was distributed as Christmas presents.
Nanteos, portrayed in Nicholas’ Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales 1872
A second volume was soon under way, arranged in four parts with many personal dedications, most significantly part 3 to the poet Longfellow, whom he did not know, but admired from afar. The final poem added only in press was an elegy to the Prince Consort who had died on the 14 December 1861. The second volume was signed off on 20 December 1861, and appeared in a cream cloth binding.
There were also some copies in which both parts were bound as a single volume. One such copy went to The Spectator, and another was posted with the compliments of the author, Miölnir, to the poet H.W. Longfellow at Cambridge, Boston, Massachusetts.
Longfellow’s home in Cambridge Massachusetts
A third of these combined volumes has found its way via the second hand trade into the hands of Mr Arthur Chater.
Arthur Chater’s copy of the volume by Miölnir
This is a puzzling volume, for on the title pages of both the first and the second series of poems is a dedication, “GEJ Powell with the best love of the Author, Miölnir”
Poems by Miölnir, the dedication at the beginning of the first volume
and “George EJ Powell with the best love of the Author”
The handwritten dedication from Miölnir to George Powell
A comparison of the handwriting with that of George Powell’s letters to Longfellow confirms that it is in the same hand. George Powell, perhaps in order to be able to claim close acquaintance with his alter ego, was in effect sending himself his love!
On 1 March 1862 Powell must have opened The Spectator with keen anticipation. He read as follows;
“The premature mild spring weather is bringing out the minor poets, and ere long the cuckoo will be heard in the land. The most pretentious of verse makers is Mr W.C. Kent—- Though it may not be necessary that the driver of fat oxen should himself be fat, it is at least necessary that the writer of poetry should be something of a poet – which Mr Kent decidedly is not. A more feeble, but at the same time a far more modest versifier is one who assumes the pseudonym of Miölnir. Indeed his only merit is the negative one of self abasement, which he carries to the extreme point of simplicity. He is evidently an amiable and ingenuous youth, whose naïveté and genuineness of character will command many friends, too staunch to be alienated by the meagreness of his poetic faculty.”
Powell was obviously smarting when he wrote again to Longfellow on 14 March 1862. “ I most unwisely sent it to The Spectator for review, a thing I ought never to have done with a work printed for private circulation”. After a prolonged account of the review and its limitations he concluded “ I will not trouble you with a long account of my petty woes, which I have quite recovered from” .
Clearly he had not recovered his composure at all and wrote another long letter to Longfellow in June. “ being compelled to leave Oxford by continued ill health, and perpetual gloom and low spirits, the former induced, I believe, by the damp unwholesome air, and the latter by my insurmountable distaste for members of the College by whom I found myself surrounded – I wished for as complete a change as possible so came here [to Reykavik].
The following January George was back at Nanteos but the injury was still very much on his mind. “ Six or seven months have toned down wonderfully even my limited admiration for my own poems in so much that I now look with loathing upon that last volume….. If I had only attended to Horace’s ‘Nonum prematur in annum’ I should have been spared the mortification of exposing the weakness and folly of my mental childhood. May I entreat you to burn the volume of Miölnir’s poems and trample its ashes underfoot.”
It is not known whether Longfellow acted upon this entreaty by the humiliated poet, but clearly George could not bring himself to burn his own personal volume, so affectionately dedicated to himself. He published no further poetry but found a new outlet for his writing as a translator of Icelandic sagas.
Footnote: Nonum(que) prematur in annum translates as Let it ( your first draft) be kept back from publication until the ninth year.
When I visited the Chelsea Physic Garden a couple of years ago I received a charming little ticket inscribed in the blank middle ‘Admit One’. The 18th century engraved decoration of the card showed exotic palms, banana trees, agaves, a well-built and scantily clad lady, ( The Goddess Flora I presume?) and a sturdy and equally flimsily veiled cherub, or more accurately, a putto. Flora rests her bare foot upon the works of Philip Miller, (gardener of the Physic Garden and author of eight editions of the Gardener’s Dictionary 1732-1768) and of Hans Sloane, the garden’s benefactor.
Day entry ticket for Chelsea Physic Garden
I had seen this design before. Amongst the ephemera of one of Ceredigion’s great houses I came across an original, in which, instead of the terse “Admit One” the central panel reads: Mr David Lewis The Bearer, a Member of the Society of Apothecaries of London, is intitled to visit their Garden at Chelsea, as often as he pleases, at convenient Hours. No servant is to receive from him any acknowledgement on that Account.
Membership pass: Mr David Lewis, a member of the Society of Apothecaries of London
On the reverse were written three names: Hugh French, Master, E.D.G. Fafield, and Wm. Henry Higden, Wardens.
The Archivist at the Chelsea Physic Garden was able to tell me that the Society of Apothecaries appointed a new Master annually, so Mr David Lewis’s card was issued in 1807-1808.
Lewis is not a rare name in Wales, but this David Lewis was almost certainly a local gentleman, the owner of a 199 acre estate, Cefn yr Yn, which was located about 12 miles inland from Aberaeron in the fertile Aeron Valley. His estate was surveyed in 1787 and showed it divided into four tenanted farms, two of which had very extensive gardens which may have produced herbs.
His membership pass to the Apothecaries Garden ended up in the archives of Nanteos (see last post) amongst unsorted papers dating from the life of William Edward Powell. W.E. Powell inherited Nanteos, one of the four great estates of Ceredgion, in 1809 at age 21 and promptly set about an extensive program of house and garden improvements, egged on by the influence of Welsh architect John Nash and his circle. Very possibly he borrowed David Lewis’ membership card in order to familiarise himself with the most fashionable trees and plants in London. Certainly a Tulip tree, a gigantic Ginkgo and an Oriental Plane are among the prestigious trees which mark out Nanteos as a historic garden of distinction.
Nanteos in 1995 before its recent refurbishment as a country house hotel
My daughter was married last Saturday in the 18th century mirrored Music Room of nearby Nanteos mansion. Welsh weather can be relied upon to be unreliable, but the showery day brought great clarity to the air and rich tones to the oaks and beeches of the Regency parkland beyond. Her flowers were a blaze of burnt orange and burgundy. Raids with the secauteurs to kind friends’ gardens provided dark red hydrangeas, ice plant (Sedum spectabile), Garrya elliptica, and the last few surviving deep purple dahlias to complement commercial flowers in the floral arrangements. The hedgerows yielded deep red hawthorn berries, sculptural ivy flowers and orange rose hips.
The bride and groom outside Nanteos
After dark the party moved on for dinner at the Conrah Hotel at Chancery. For the table centrepieces we grew our own pumpkins, removed their tops and filled them with dahlias, chrysanthemums, ivy and autumn berries. Warm white LED fairylights hung in swags around the walls, and when the music started they could be switched to twinkling mode around the dancers.
Pumpkin table centrepieces filled with flowers
I wrote one of the readings for the ceremony, which was conducted with just the right mixture of solemnity and joy by the Registrar Melda Grantham. While I hesitate to place myself with the other chosen authors, Mark Twain and Roger McGough, I reproduce it here. I was immensely flattered that several guests felt it would come in handy at their own sons’ and daughters’ future nuptials.
A marriage starts with vows exchanged
And hatted, suited guests all ranged
To witness you, the gilded pair
Who shortly will descend the stair
With gleaming rings as tokens of
Your freshly burnished vows of love.
To reach this point you’ve both used skill
Negotiating good and ill
Establishing a shared existence
Through compromise and calm persistence.
A complex mixture – Life is varied –
Won’t be simpler now you’re married.
But we wish you all those things
Symbolised by giving rings.
Mutual comfort, never lonely
House or Hovel – warm and homely
Worthwhile jobs and cheerful babies
Dogs, and cats, and chickens maybe?
Holidays in sunny places
Kindly wrinkles on your faces
As the passing years progress
May you want for less and less.
Counsel often comes amiss
Proffered by parents at times like this.
But with the privilege of my station
I offer just one observation:
Happy is not a continuous state
It comes in small parcels and sometimes you wait
Through bad times and sad times or moments of strife.
Keep the happy bits coming
The whole of your life!