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John Thomas, Photographer (1838-1905)


A photographer whose portraits and landscapes provide a snapshot of life in nineteenth century Wales.


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The church and inn, Cellan, c. 1875

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Eryr Carn Ingli

Early life




Born in Cellan, Ceredigion in 1838, John Thomas was the son of labourer David Thomas and his wife Jane. Following his education in Cellan, first as a pupil and then a pupil-teacher, Thomas began an apprenticeship at a tailor shop in Lampeter. In 1853 he moved to Liverpool to work in a draper but was forced to leave after ten years to find work in the open air due to ill health. It was due to this that he began work as a traveller for a firm dealing in writing materials and photographs of famous people. Small photographs of celebrities, known as ‘carte-de-visite’ photographs, were extremely popular at that time and made for a very lucrative business.



But, during his travels, John Thomas noticed that there was a lack of photographs of Welsh celebrities. This was inspiration enough for a new business and so, having learnt the rudiments of photography, he began taking photographs of famous Welsh people. He began by asking well-known preachers to sit for their portraits.




Photography




His venture was a success and in 1867 he established his own photographic business, The Cambrian Gallery. Travelling the length and breadth of Wales, he photographed celebrities, ‘characters’, chapels, churches, homes and buildings and landscapes, though he remained based in Liverpool throughout his career. Undertaking photography of this style, and on such a scale, was not an easy task. Photographic techniques remained rudimentary for the purposes of external photography, and travel was not easy at this time.



Despite this, John Thomas succeeded in capturing individuals, landscapes and buildings in every corner of Wales during his thirty-year career. The worth of his vast collection was great. He realised its importance and chose some 3,000 glass plates which he sold to O. M. Edwards for a very reasonable price. Thomas had worked for O. M. for many years, supplying him with images for the magazine Cymru and his images would continue to illustrate the magazine even after his retirement.



John Thomas died in October 1905. The negatives bought by O. M. Edwards now form part of the photographic collection of The National Library of Wales and are an important contribution to People’s Collection Wales.

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