By the 1850s, prints and paintings of Welsh costume were supplemented by early photographs. From the very beginning, Welsh costume was the subject of staged photographs, and when sets of cartes de visite and stereo photographs of Welsh landscapes were produced in the 1850s and 1860s, a series entitled ‘Welsh Costume’ by Bedford accompanied them.
From the 1850s few illustrations of ordinary women in their normal work wear were produced. The majority of paintings, prints and photographs of women were staged and produced for the tourist market (and possibly, in the case of the bilingual prints produced by Rock and Co in the 1850s, for the Welsh market too).
Quite why so many images of Welsh women in traditional costume were produced at this time is not evident: similar pictures of Scottish, Irish and English women are far less common. Visitors to Wales were lamenting the loss of Welsh costume by the mid 19th century and as early as 1834 Lady Llanover noted in passing its loss as a subjects for artists to study.
During the 1870s and 80s, large numbers of carte de visite portrait photographs were produced but only a small proportion of these were of women in Welsh costume. (For example, Album 350 in the National Library of Wales, contains about 250 small carte de visite portraits of people, mostly by Welsh photographers dating to the 1870s and 1880s. Of these, 66 are of women, only four of which are in Welsh costume, and of these, only two have Welsh hats.)
This may reflect the cost of the photographs – only those who could afford fashionable costumes could also afford to be photographed and the exceptions may be either patriotic women who chose to be photographed in traditional costume (which may have been borrowed from the photographer), or women whom the photographer chose to photograph because they made interesting portraits in their own traditional costume.
In contrast to the commissioned portraits of individuals, there are several numbered series of cartes de visite which show young women, normally in a studio setting, modelling Welsh costume. For example one series by an unknown photographer entitled ‘Welsh Costumes’ (no. 12 in the series is in the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television/Science & Society Picture Library, 1990-5036_6042_0023); a series by C.S. Allen of Tenby and a similar series by an unknown photographer
John Thomas produced a set of about 80 superb quality images, mostly of north Wales women. These are now famous as illustrations of Welsh costume but they show young women dressed in the same three borrowed costumes: the older women are probably wearing their own best costumes. These and the carte de visite portraits were taken in studios mostly of women dressed up for the occasion and were not published at the time. Their value lies in the fact that they are often of named women and are some are dated.
A break in the record
Some poor quality prints, including a few based on early photographs, were produced until the end of the 19th century, but generally photographs dominated. However, these were not produced in large numbers until the arrival of the postcard in the late 1890s. Other than the sets of stereo photographs of Welsh costume produced during the 1860s, few photographs were mass-produced during the century, and it seems likely that the image of the Welsh woman in traditional costume was beginning to fade.
Other group photographs appear to be of women wearing working dress.