Marble Bust of prolific Merthyr scholar rediscovered

Posted on 17 March 2016
Thomas Stephens

The bust of Thomas Stephens of Merthyr Tydfil, Photo: Aberystwyth University

A marble bust of the nineteenth-century Merthyr Tydfil scholar, historian and social reformer Thomas Stephens (1821-1875), which had been missing since the 1950s, has been discovered in an under-stairs cupboard in the Old College at Aberystwyth University.

Originally reported by Aberystwyth University earlier in the week, the bust, by eminent Welsh sculptor Joseph Edwards (1814-1882), is believed to have reached the Old College together with Thomas Stephen’s papers, which were donated by his widow’s family to the National Library of Wales early in the twentieth century.

When the National Library and all its archives moved to its new building in the late 1930s, it seems the bust must have been overlooked.

Stephens, a pharmacist by profession, and largely self-taught, became one of Wales’s most innovative nineteenth-century scholars, social reformers and cultural critics. An important public figure in Merthyr Tydfil, he was one of the founders of its public library, campaigned for its Board of Health, took a leading role in the construction of its Temperance Hall, and acted as a go-between between workers and iron masters.

On a national scale, he strove to reinvent the Eisteddfod as a modern institution, to standardize the Welsh orthography and to further the education of Welsh children. Stephens was one of the first Welshmen to apply the critical approach to historical sources developed in Prussia, and his 1849 volume The Literature of the Kymry was the first scientific study of medieval Welsh literature. For his critical examination of Welsh history and its sources Stephens was admired by modern scholars throughout Europe.

Stephens is currently the focus of a two year Leverhulme-funded research Project at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS). Entitled Knowledge Transfer and Social Networks: European Learning and the Revolution in Welsh Victorian Scholarship, the project is exploring the life, times and European connections of Stephens and his patrons. They allow fascinating insights into how the exchange of knowledge between countries like Germany, Wales and Ireland worked, often by correspondence, thus enabling modern research concepts and methods to reach Wales.

Project leader Dr Marion Löffler was clearly delighted with the find when Aberstwyth University contacted her, and told them:

“This bust is an important part of Welsh intellectual and art history. Thomas Stephens is one of the best examples of a self-made Welsh Victorian entrepreneur and he also represents European amateur scholarship at its best. The fact that this bust by him of another well-known Merthyr man, Joseph Edwards, has been found, will make the people of Merthyr Tydfil very proud.”

The story of the commissioning of the bust speaks volumes itself, as Dr Löffler explained:

“When Stephens retired from his post as secretary of Merthyr Library on grounds of severe illness in 1862, a collection was made, but he refused to accept any money. The committee decided to commission Joseph Edwards, to create a commemorative artwork for him. Surviving letters between the two men show that they tried to surpass each other in kindness, refusing moneys and reimbursing servants”

Over 500 letters written to Stephens from all corners of the world, as well as numerous essays in manuscript and newspaper articles by him, are currently held at the National Library of Wales. The Project has transcribed them and jointly organised an exhibition at the National Library of Wales at the end of 2015.

Entitled Correspondent, Historian, Reformer: Thomas Stephens of Merthyr Tydfil, the exhibition not only featured letters by European scholars and expatriate Welshman, Stephens’s essays and notes, but also stunningly beautiful objects like the inkhorn Stephens won as a prize at an eisteddfod in 1840, when he was only 19 years old.

It is envisaged that as part of a co-operation between CAWCS, the National Library of Wales and Merthyr Tydfil Libraries, the exhibition will travel to Merthyr Tydfil Central Library in 2016, enabling the public of south Wales and Merthyr Tydfil to gain close access to the life and work of one of its great sons.

To read the original article on Aberystwyth University’s website click here.

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