Stow High in Transit – Tyntesfield and the guano trade

A NEW exhibition of photographs at Tyntesfield near Bristol offers an oblique but fascinating insight into the history of the National Trust’s Gothic Revival mansion and estate near Bristol.

Photographer and academic Olli Hellmann has created the series of diptychs and triptychs, called Stow High in Transit, juxtaposing scenes from Tyntesfield and from the remote and barren Chincha Islands, where the guano which made the Gibbs family fortune was collected.

The merchant house of William Gibbs was a major player in the Peruvian guano (seabird dung) trade from 1842 to 1861. Guano profits funded the conversion of Tyntesfield from an ordinary country house into a grand mansion—worlds apart from the Chincha Islands where bonded labourers mined guano under the harshest of conditions.

Born in Madrid, William’s unique combination of Spanish language skills, knowledge of the South American trade and access to London finance markets put him ahead of competitors in the lucrative guano trade. Eventually, he became known as “the richest commoner in England.”

Olli Hellmann is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. His interest lies in the effects of globalisation, and in translating his academic interests into a more visual language. In this work he seeks to compare Tyntesfield’s fertile wealth with the barren landscape of the Chinchas.

He says: “What fascinates me about the story of Peru’s guano trade is that something as unremarkable as bird droppings could fuel a booming global economy. When you visit Tyntesfield you get a real sense of how much money western companies, such as the Gibbs merchant house, made from selling guano to international markets. The expensive art, the lush gardens, the various extensions to the original house, the private chapel—all of this was paid for by the excrement of sea birds.

“For Peru, however, the boom proved to be a curse. By juxtaposing Tyntesfield with the barren Chincha Islands, Peru’s main source of guano in the 1800s, I want to show that the guano wealth was not distributed evenly.”

The name of the exhibition refers to the storage of the guano on the ships returning to England. When contaminated by seawater, guano gave off methane gas, which in certain conditions caused spontaneous explosions. The cargo thus had to be stowed high enough above the waterline to avoid the risk of asphyxiation and explosion.

The exhibition continues until 22nd November.