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Thomas Rothwell. Views of Swansea in the 1790s

by Michael Gibbs and Bernard Morris (edited by Patricia Moore)

ISBN 0 905 243 24 2

Published 1991

Paperback 56 pages

As anyone who has an interest in the history of Swansea is aware, quality images of the town before the nineteenth century are quite scarce. Mindful of this fact, the publication of a collection of eighteenth century engravings of the town is all the more welcome.

The basis of the book is a series of ten engravings of Swansea and its environs in the early l790s. The engravings were all the work of Thomas Rothwell and were completed during his employment at the Cambrian Pottery. The ten views are now published together for the first time in a convenient and accessible format. The booklet also includes a biography of Thomas Rothwell by Michael Gibbs and an historical discussion by Bernard Morris. In addition, each engraving is accompanied by an interpretative text highlighting notable features in the artist’s work. The inclusion of a pen and wash panorama by Paul Padley, a contemporary of Rothwell, completes the volume. 

Michael Gibbs’ biography of Rothwell examines his origins in Liverpool and follows his career - first as an enamel painter and later as an engraver. By his early twenties, Rothwell and his young family had moved to one of the centres of the pottery industry at Hanley in Staffordshire. A move to Birmingham and a development of his career into producing book engravings ensued shortly thereafter. The date of Rothwell’s move to Swansea is uncertain, although he was certainly living in the Strand by 1790. Gibbs digresses to give an intriguing and readable insight into the development of the Cambrian Pottery and the activities of George Haynes, its shrewd manager, who was intent on reorganising the Cambrian Pottery in the style of Josiah Wedgewood. Space is also devoted to a consideration of the technical basis of the production of the Rothwell engravings and, in particular, the possible uniqueness of a number of engravings which are printed on plaster.

Gibbs moves on to discuss two unsigned oil paintings in the collection of the Royal Institution of South Wales and now attributed to Rothwell. The paintings, depicting scenes of Oxwich, are well reproduced in colour in the book. There is some interesting speculation concerning the origin of the paintings and Rothwell’s later topographic work as a result of encouragement by the clever businessman Haynes, intent on profiting from Rothwell’s talent. By 1794, it would seem that Rothwell’s career had taken him to London, perhaps never to return. 

Bernard Morris’ section discusses the historical geography of the town in the l790s. It is, perhaps, one of the most interesting periods in the history of the town. Rothwell’s work shows us the town in the years before river and harbour improvements obliterated the form of the medieval port. Morris goes on to discuss the geography of the eighteenth century town in fine detail. It is, perhaps, a subject which, through his extensive knowledge of Swansea maps and illustrations, he has made his own. He makes one observation which deserves to be repeated here; that it was the renewal of Swansea’s centre as a result of nineteenth century prosperity rather than the air raids of World War Two which erased so much of the medieval town.

Thus, supplied with two well written and authoritative chapters, the reader moves on to consider the engravings themselves. Without doubt, Rothwell’s work is a source of fascination and wonder, giving up new information on each inspection. To those of us who conduct research into the history of Swansea, their value is undoubted. The detail in Rothwell’s work can be quite delightful to discover. The inclusion throughout the book of a number of enlargements emphasises the point. Examples of Rothwell’s talent abound; the details of the bathing machines at the bathing house, the sweeping lines of the western side of the harbour and river which were obliterated by subsequent improvements, the detail of the Beau fort Arms and the Mount. There are deeper messages also; the view of Swansea from the north-east includes the massive banks of ballast dumped on the eastern side of the Tawe by visiting ships. The ballast was dumped on the river bank to avoid the problems of excessive silting up of the river which had plagued earlier centuries.

Mention should also be made of the magnificent Padley sketch, also completed in the l790s. This will surely be of intense interest to anyone who has taken time to enjoy the view of Swansea from the same viewpoint that Padley had on Townhill.

The list of sources at the back of the book is of more use as a reading list than as a source of academic references but this should not detract from the fact that this is an attractive and well written book which will have a deserved and enduring appeal.



The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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