Thursday blog at the Eisteddfod

Manon Steffan Ros, Eisteddfod

There’s no doubt that National Trust properties deliver exactly what its website promises: ‘a fun day out’. But this morning’s talk at the Eisteddfod has reminded me that its properties can also offer something far more profound.

Our speaker was the award-winning Welsh novelist, dramatist and artist Manon Steffan Ross. She is one of this year’s artists in residence at Penrhyn Castle and was visiting our stand to talk about her 12 Stori / 12 Story exhibition, which runs until the 4th of November.

When Manon arrived, she seemed remarkably relaxed considering that she had an amazingly busy schedule. It was announced yesterday that she had won the Eisteddfod’s prestigious prose medal, and she’s suddenly in demand for media interviews and at a myriad of cultural locations throughout the Eisteddfod.

But with her calm, understated and thoughtful way, she took us through the main elements of exhibition. Manon is a native of the quarrying communities that were harshly subjugated by the Second Baron Penrhyn, George Sholto Douglas-Pennant, and although this has influenced her work greatly, it is the plight of the family’s Jamaica slaves that is the powerful focus of her work at their neo-Norman fortified home at Penrhyn Castle. Defiantly located in the inner sanctum of the Lord’s empire, George Sholto’s private apartments, Manon has positioned half a dozen pieces which are subtle at first glance, but deliver an emotionally powerful impact, when the full horror of their relevance is considered.

The scene is set by the first piece, Lady Penrhyn’s dispassionate request – found in the family archives – to the plantation manager not to over-work the cattle and slaves, which has been delicately embroidered with feminine gentleness onto white cotton. In the Lord’s office, a collection of small black figures – cut-outs from that infamous contemporary drawing of a slave ship – are strewn like play-things about a handkerchief and ringed by a ring of embroidered shackles.

But most powerful of all is the flickering image of a black boy, who fixes us with his gaze from within the Lord’s reinforced filing system. On leaving, the visitor is left with the abolitionist campaigner William Wilberforce’s memorable quote “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know”, which carries as much relevance to today’s injustices as it did when it was written two hundred years ago.

As the Trust takes its Challenging Histories programme to cover protest and change in people’s rights, I look forward to seeing it realise the potential of so many of its properties to deliver much, much more than a fun day out.