Placement Archive

Kitty Gurnos-Davies: Ghosts on the South Bank – A Walking Tour of the Festival of Britain

Join me on a walking tour of the Festival of Britain.

In the Summer of 1951, the wedge of land between Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge was populated by a series of temporary architectural structures built to house exhibitions that showcased innovation in British science, industry, and design. Notable amongst these were the Royal Festival Hall (still standing), the Dome of Discovery (which, at the time, was the largest dome in the world with a diameter of 365 feet), and the Skylon, a cigar-shaped steel sculpture that reached vertically into the air, visible for miles around.

London, Festival of Britain, 1951. CON_B04273_F001_046, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

A new aesthetic known as the “Festival Style” emerged from the innovative architecture, furniture, textile, and graphic design featured in the construction of the site. Inspired by International Modernism, the Festival of Britain was perceived by many to be a successful modelling of new principles of urban planning that introduced cutting-edge design to the lived environment. The festival was a success with many architects, designers, and the public alike, with around 8.5 million visitors between May and September 1951.

However, the striking development of the South Bank was not popular with everybody. The following year, a new Conservative government came to power. Headed by Churchill, the site (and the Skylon in particular) was understood to be a symbol of Labour’s successful project to lift the spirits of the post-War British public still enduring austerity and rationing. Famously, Churchill ordered that the Skylon be destroyed. Popular imagination has it that the sculpture’s cables were cut so that the structure toppled into the Thames where it still rests. The reality, of course, is far less romantic. The Skylon and the steel roof of the Dome of Discovery were melted down by a London scrap metal company and repurposed into letter knives and other commemorative souvenirs; the utopic symbol of Labour’s reform fittingly transformed by the new government into capitalist commodities.

Aside from the Royal Festival Hall, there are no physical remains of the Festival of Britain. I can’t help but wonder; what ghosts were left behind as these iconic structures were torn down? Might they have been disturbed when the London Eye was winched into place twenty years ago?

Inspired by the Conway Library’s collection of photographs of the Festival of Britain held by The Courtauld, I retrace the steps of visitors to the Festival of Great Britain to find out. You’re welcome to come with me. Armed with my medium format camera and a few rolls of black and white film (Ilford HP5, if you’re interested), I walk the length of the South Bank in search of the ghosts of festivals past.

First Stop

From the Embankment, we look across the Thames at the site occupied by the Festival of Britain in 1951. We are met with the familiar sight of the London Eye. Towering above County Hall and neighbouring high-rise office blocks, it is near-impossible to imagine what the South Bank looked like before the wheel was installed at the cusp of the last millennium.

Photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

Boats chug up and down the river and passers-by admire the view from the many bridges crisscrossing the Thames as the London Eye slowly creeps through its rotation.

Look again.

The Skylon tower has reappeared next to the London Eye. The cigar-shaped body propped up on spindly legs recalls Louise Bourgeois’s colossal spider sculpture that stood downstream, outside the Tate Modern many years after the 1951 festival. The Dome of Discovery stretches out in front of the London Eye, the boxy Sea and Ships pavilion visible in front. Look to the left of the Dome. Here, we have the swooping crescent of The People of Britain exhibition (today we might ask, which people? whose Britain?). To the left of the Skylon, the Regatta Restaurant has been replaced with the glass structure of the Power and Production exhibition. For, while the Skylon and Dome are in situ, the other exhibitions jostle for space on the South Bank. They have rearranged themselves, desperate to be seen by us again. After all, if the London Eye can coexist with the Dome of Discovery, why wouldn’t the other Festival structures shuffle around through the flattening and regeneration of the South Bank?

Second stop

Now, let’s cross the river on Westminster Bridge to investigate the site more closely. Descending down the steps on our left, we head towards the London Eye. Set behind the giant wheel is the highly manicured Jubilee Gardens. It is here that the Dome of Discovery once sat. Amidst the dreary office buildings and clinically sculpted paths that curve through the green lawn and bare trees, it is near-impossible to imagine how the vast domed structure might have fitted into such a space.

Photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

If we listen carefully we can hear a babble of excited voices. Skirts swish around the legs of two young women striding across the grass. A child plays by the side of the path.

All of a sudden, the Festival unfolds before us.

Digital collage of images from the Conway Library and a photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

The famous abacus screen designed by Edward Miller cuts diagonally across the bottom of the path, setting out the boundaries of the festival site while the Skylon towers in the background to the left of County Hall.

Let’s take a closer look at the Dome of Discovery.

Digital collage of images from the Conway Library and a photograph taken by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

Legs stretch down from the domed roof to support the UFO-shaped building, designed by architect Ralph Tubbs. Inside are exhibits on the theme of British exploration. The visitors descending the staircase on the left are returning to the South Bank from the polar regions, the depths of the sea, and outer space.

We, too, must return to the edge of Jubilee Gardens as we know it. Blink, and the Dome of Discovery has returned to its rightful place in the photograph held within the Conway Library.

Photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

London, Festival of Britain, Dome of Discovery, 1951. CON_B04273_F001_017, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

Third stop

Let’s walk under the bridge in the middle of the photograph to the back of the Royal Festival Hall, its domed roof visible towards the left of the image. From here, we’ll clamber up the stairs that lead onto the terrace overlooking the Thames.

In the early afternoon of a dreary Tuesday in December, the South Bank is all but empty. It’s hard to imagine the hustle and bustle of visitors weaving their way through the crowds to visit the different exhibitions or clustering around the glass display cases that lined the bank of the river. Yet, gazing out across the river at the rectangular buildings neatly dotted with pinpricked windows, our view is the same. So much so, in fact, that it is possible to overlay the 1951 photograph of festival-goers over the image I am currently taking.

When I return home to my little London flat this evening, I’ll develop the negatives over my bathtub. Hung to dry overnight, these will be scanned into my computer to be laid underneath the 1951 image from the Conway Library. It is only as I crouch over my laptop in the corner of my kitchen and carefully remove the background of the original image (and my photo begins to show through) that will become quite so apparent how little the vista has changed.

Digital collage of images from the Conway Library and a photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies

Final stop

Crossing to the other side of the Royal Festival Hall we walk up onto the highest level of the Hayward Gallery. Although a new addition (built in 1968), from here we can take one last look at the Festival of Britain. Laid out in front of us, the Dome of Discovery cuts across the façade of Westminster Palace silhouetted in the distance. The London Eye, as always, oversees proceedings. Old and new London are united in a single vista.

Digital collage of images from the Conway Library and a photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

Blink, and the exhibition spaces dissolve.

The Dome and Skylon have been dismantled for scrap. The Royal Festival Hall remains, but has now been incorporated into the later development, the Southbank Centre. Westminster Palace is still silhouetted in the background (although now it is Big Ben that is in scaffolding rather than the tower of the palace).

Photograph taken, developed, and scanned by Kitty Gurnos-Davies.

While nearly all traces of the Festival of Britain may be gone, its legacy continues to capture popular imagination. It endures in the living memory of many who visited the pavilions as children and stared up in awe at the Skylon towering above them while marvelling at the new technologies on display.

Like the Great Exhibition that came a century before, the Festival of Britain continues to capture popular imagination. A forward-looking statement of modernity in its time, it has since become a symbol of the past. Little remains of the site. Just as Crystal Palace was razed by a devastating fire in 1936, the empty spaces on the South Bank evoke the ghosts of what stood here before. Yet, its influence lives on. The International Modernist style of architecture that inspired the Festival’s architects mutated into the Brutalist design of the National Theatre, Hayward Gallery, and British Film Institute built in the 1960s and 1970s. Its spirit lives on. As this walking tour has shown, if you look hard enough, you too may encounter the ghosts of the South Bank.


Kitty Gurnos-Davies
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Mary Whittingdale: Yoga Vinyasa Inspired by Paul Laib’s Photographs of Barbara Hepworth’s Work

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Paul Laib (1869–1958) specialised in fine art photography working between 1898 and the 1950s. He was commissioned by many prominent British artists of his time including Oswald Birley, Philip de László, Ben Nicholson, John Piper, and John Singer Sargent. Among these, Laib’s photography of Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) and her work stand out from his collection. One of the founders of Modernist sculpture in Britain, Hepworth was a major international figure exhibiting around the globe.

In the video accompanying this blog post, I have created a vinyasa yoga practice inspired by Laib’s photography of Hepworth’s sculptures. A vinyasa is a sequence of positions, one flowing after the other, guided by the breath. This type of yoga invites exploration of Hepworth’s work particularly well – attention is brought to both the poise of the figure and the fluidity of form. Indeed, attempting to express the experience of human embodiment in her work, Hepworth stated “I rarely draw what I see. I draw what I feel in my body”. In this world of social distancing and self-isolation, I encourage you to experience the tactility and physicality of Hepworth’s work through your relationship with the body.

The sight but also sensation of natural form inspired Hepworth throughout her life; she maintained that “body experience… is the centre of creation”. Hepworth was inspired by the enclosure and embrace of the shapes in the landscape around her – be that watching a mother hold her child, the undulating terrain of the Yorkshire hills, or the hollows of rocks on the Cornish coast. Likewise, in your vinyasa practice, you may also wish to connect to the environment around you, cultivating spaciousness and balance through appreciation of Hepworth’s sculptures.


Mary Whittingdale
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Hailey Sockalingam: On Chandigarh

When Swiss architect Le Corbusier responded to popular agitation against his design of Chandigarh city, India, with the wry anecdote “I am like a lightning conductor… I attract storms”, it was clear that he had created two cities, but heeded one.

The project of Chandigarh was commissioned by Jawarharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, in 1950. Nehru imagined a city that would serve as a clear symbol of India’s break with the past, in the aftermath of its independence. It was born of a deeply paternalistic vision that, providing its architects could innovate the right formula, the shapes of its urban space would exert a transformative and “civilising” influence on its inhabitants. This remarkable confidence in spatial determinism might, in one sense, make Chandigarh the closest we come to observing a postcolonial vision. Throughout the city, Le Corbusier distils Nehru’s vision of India’s modernity into a “city of rectangles and pure volumes”; the “symbols of perfection”, as he described them. This modernist construction was one arm of a wider comprehensive plan for India, through which Nehru envisioned an enlightened state which would propel its citizens into modernity through a programme of rapid industrialisation and economic planning – all guided by the principles of rationalism, secularism and social justice.

Photography is a forgiving medium through which to record a claim to human mastery. A photograph is necessarily reductive in some sense, and it is in this way – as a series of reductions – that we are most able to envisage Chandigarh as Le Corbusier intended; as the product of a victorious “battle of space, fought within the mind”.

The photos in the Conway Library, taken principally during the construction of the Capitol and the city’s early years, capture the instant when Nehru’s ideal loomed most plausible in the eyes of those who encountered it. Pausing at each photograph in the digitised archive some seventy years later, it is almost possible to be persuaded by them: the clean elegance of the Secretariat building, poised dramatically against an empty landscape. Le Corbusier sat soberly in front of an anthropomorphic map, on which the Capitol government complex sits elevated like the head on a human body. The “rippling, beautiful rhythm” of the Assembly Chamber, designed to give space for the circulation of high ideas – strikingly different from the classical vocabulary of the British Raj. These photos of Chandigarh at its most persuasive have gained a complex novelty, as their optimism is increasingly set apart from a growing body of works documenting their natural decay in the passage of time. Against the plethora of anxieties about the future that attend life in the twenty-first century, there is an undeniable charm to the vision of confidence offered by the photos.

Yet this evocation of rupture from the past does not bear scrutiny.

Artwork by Hailey Sockalingam. CON_B04391_F002_031, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

In taking a closer look at the ideas that undergird Chandigarh as a symbol of modernity, it becomes clear why the city falls so easily into dialogue with the architecture of the British Raj. Whilst Nehru opposed the British imperialist claim that India required western tutelage, he embraced the basic framework of human “development” upon which this was premised. This development, a historicist discourse in which human societies around the globe could be placed on a temporal scale from barbarity to civilisation, was a principal means through which Britain legitimised its imperial venture across the world from the eighteenth century. In The Discovery of India, Nehru sought to rework this framework, by drawing instead on the historic achievements of India’s Indus Valley Civilisation to posit a theory of modernity as cycles of development and decay. In this way, Nehru’s thought stops short of a complete reconstitution of imperial modes of thought, and it can be difficult to tease apart Orientalist tropes of India’s decline from his own invocations for modernisation.

The spirituality of India was one of the key targets of Nehru’s conception of backwardness. He dismissed the religiosity of people in India as “absurd”, and attributed it not to their own world experiences, but to the “exploitation of the[ir] emotions” by elites. The imperial resonances in Nehru’s vision for India can be usefully set against Gandhi’s alternative projection of Indianness, and its embracing of Orientalist depictions of village India. Taken together, they provide a powerful insight into the postcolonial dilemma; the apparent impossibility of asserting an identity that is oppositional to, but not restricted by, the terms set out by the imperial power.

If Le Corbusier understood his role as architect as commensurate with puppet-master then he, like Nehru, underestimated the agency of the city’s people in staking the terms of their lives. Even the photos in The Courtauld’s collection, taken in the city’s early years, hint at numerous sites of contestation and the quiet persistence of traditional Indian mores with Le Corbusier’s metropolis. Le Corbusier designed the city around a series of single purpose zones, neatly separating the residential, industrial, leisure and government elements of city life. He appears to have operated under the assumption that, if placed in the spatial context of a middle-class commuter lifestyle, incoming peasant masses would be transformed into a socio-economic position to fill that role.

The photos in the Conway Library hint at the way the city’s people defied Le Corbusier’s rigid prescriptions; buffalo and goats are crammed into tiny spaces outside the geometrical houses, shacks are set up next to the highway. In the residential area, dubbed the “container of family life” by the architect, residents opened small shops in the ground floor of their houses, and maintained the local principles of caste, kinship and religion in areas purportedly organised by administrative rank. We might think of Le Corbusier’s design as laying the groundwork for two cities; the perfect geometry of the Capitol, set against the rhythmic irregularities of its inhabitants’ lives.

In this light, Le Corbusier’s response to popular agitation to his stringent demands is telling. His aggrandised sense of his own monumentality as a catalyst for modernity precluded him from heeding the unshakeable influence of the city’s people in determining the quality of their own lives.


Hailey Sockalingam
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

Antonia Jameson: Still-life in Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

The topic of still-life carries a lot of art historical baggage. Immediately, for me, the baroque, commercial, and kitsch come to mind. But as art critic Herbert Furst argues, still life is often overlooked as a dull subject when it can be an “aesthetic laboratory” through which artists play around with analogy, line and colour (Tobin, 2020). Even now, contemporary art often relies on the everyday to evoke a feeling of relatability between artist’s work and audience.

Ben Nicholson is an excellent example of a modernist painter who conveyed his ideas through the subject of still life. He believed that living and painting must be “one thing” (Tobin, 2020). When I was looking through some of the photographs in the Courtauld’s Conway Library, Paul Laib’s series from the De Laszlo Collection documenting Nicholson’s arrangements of his and Barbara Hepworth’s work stood out, because there is a total lack of hierarchy between the artworks (whether it is Hepworth’s sculpture or Nicholson’s painting) and the collection of objects that surround them. These compositions are conversations. Nicholson interprets three-dimensional space into the frame of a two-dimensional painting, and then reintroduces these paintings back into a live space through his juxtaposition of everyday objects. Still-life can be approached in this way as an installation. The art collector and artist HS Jim Ede, a good friend of Nicholson’s, embodied this way of thinking with his house Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge. He kept his painting collection surrounded by objects and colours that related to them, allowing a dialogue to form between art and life. His house is maintained as he arranged it and is now a museum. Interestingly, he published a book entitled A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard, which contained photographs, poetry, and prose (Ede, 1984). While exploring each of Laib’s photographs, I could not help but list each object I found and identified. I view these lists as poems that say a lot about the accompanying image. They both indicate an order of noticeability but also highlight how seemingly random the objects are, without the distraction of Nicholson and Hepworth’s skilful visual arrangements. They expose the images in a way that feels more stripped down and obvious than any photograph could. Parallels can be drawn between Ede’s book, and its use of poetry and visual analysis.

It could be important to understand the relationship between Nicholson and Hepworth when looking at these still-life arrangements. They were both already married when they met in 1931, but they fell in love and remarried in 1938 after having triplets in 1934 (Chow, 2015). And so, they were both artistic collaborators and lovers. Hepworth was concerned with landscape, and it could be argued that her presence in Nicholson’s life shifted his focus to still-life with the inclusion of landscape, for example on a windowsill. Nicholson’s first wife, Winifred, also had a lasting impact on his use of colour beyond just the descriptive, as she was also a painter of still-lifes. I believe that the spaces (both physical and mental) in which we create things are inextricably enmeshed with the things we create. The effect of relationships and conversations among artists should not be undermined; one reason why art schools are such ripe grounds for exploration and discovery. It is noteworthy that Nicholson’s father, William Nicholson, was a painter, and Nicholson often claimed that his father’s collection of beautiful objects had an everlasting influence on his own artistic practice. His daughter with Hepworth, Rachel Nicholson, is a painter of still lifes too. And so, this love of object and painting has been handed down from generation to generation.

As a fine artist pursuing curating, I have loved arranging my own studio and drawings in this way with the intention of reworking the photos I take back into painting and then arranging them again. This loop of visual information and contextualisation could be endlessly fruitful. Do we consider Laib’s photographs as documentation or creation of new work? We could speculate the extent to which he had artistic freedom to choose what was included and left out of the frame. I gained a newfound respect for this process, as my first few attempts failed rather gloriously. Nicholson and Hepworth were clearly thinking carefully about line and contrast in their arrangements, which I found was only obvious once contained within a photo. This led to a process of trial and error as I attempted to emulate the entrancing compositions visible in Laib’s photographs. I worked with line drawings I had made from these photographs. For the sake of time and resources I used digital photography but decided to edit them as if they were glass plate negatives, then made a still life painting while thinking about Nicholson’s work. His use of colour and straight lines were very different from my usual painting practice which proved itself to be a challenge. But as a process it made me analyse my working space and consider visual elements (like the transparency of paint) that I might usually overlook.

To conclude, there is a lot to be discovered within these collaborations between Laib, Hepworth and Nicholson. I encourage you to sit for a while and take them in; each photo contains so much materiality both within the objects in Hepworth and Nicholson’s artwork but also as photographic objects themselves. Small signs of wear in fingerprints, creases and traces of editing remind us that they have a living past beyond being part of The Courtauld’s collection. There is materiality integral to the objects that surround the works of art which is heightened by the material nature of the photographs themselves. Laib’s documentation of these arrangements has not only sustained their existence but brought them into a new realm; they exist as artistic photographs in their own right.

 

Bibliography

Tobin C (2020) Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers. Critical Studies in Modernist Culture, Edinburgh, pp. 125-131.

Ede HS (1984) A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Chow A (2015) The personal and professional life of Barbara Hepworth. Available at: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-behind-artist-barbara-hepworth-work/

Ben Nicholson: From the Studio (2021) exhibition. Available at: https://pallant.org.uk/whats-on/ben-nicholson-from-the-studio/

With thanks to Louise Weller and Tom Bilson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall), Ben Nicholson OM (1943–5). Oil paint and graphite on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. © Angela Verren Taunt 2018. All rights reserved, DACS.

Still life (starfish), Antonia Jameson (2021). Acrylic on canvas board, 10 x 8 inches.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Aayushi Gupta: Why Materiality Matters

Introducing the material turn to the study of photography, visual and historical anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards (2004) encourages us to acknowledge the photograph as a three-dimensional object existing materially in the world – that is, spatially and temporally in the social and cultural experience. From Edward’s perspective, photographs are material entities because they are chemically deposited onto paper, mounted on different sized, shaped, and coloured cards, subject to changes on their surfaces, and informed by the way that they are presented.

Attention to these aspects of photographs, Edwards argues, can help us engage with the processes of intention, making, distributing, consuming, using, preserving, displaying, discarding, and recycling that are significant to the way we understand photographs as images. This approach to photography I found, also echoed in the ongoing digitisation projects at The Courtauld.

When on placement at The Courtauld, I was particularly drawn to its approach towards digitisation, and its emphasis on retaining the physicality of visual objects in their digital renditions. From the images that were provided to me and my fellow interns, I was able to engage with the signs of wear and tear on archival boxes, with the multiplicity of intentions decipherable from the text – varied in font, colour, and handwriting – on the cards onto which images in the Conway Library were mounted, and with the variety of size, colour, and type of image, as well as with the materials onto which the image was printed and then mounted onto the card.

This emphasis on digitally translating physicality was especially impressive to me because I was trying to engage with these images from my laptop screen at home in Oxford, instead of interacting with them in a more multi-sensory, embodied manner in one of the rooms at The Courtauld. Indeed, as former intern Peyton Cherry (2019) predicted, I was brought into The Courtauld, without venturing into its halls to peruse and handle prints, and into the lived experience of working within collections. Despite interacting with the collections intangibly, I was still able to engage with the physicality of the image – the image as object – and even in their digital renditions, The Courtauld had managed to make the materiality of these images matter. This was quite significant to me, for The Courtauld had successfully avoided flattening tangible, three-dimensional objects, simply by choosing cameras over flatbed scanners in the digitisation process. Intrigued by this, I spent the duration of my placement reflecting upon why, for The Courtauld, materiality matters, and why indeed it should.

The Courtauld’s emphasis on the materiality of images is based on a succinct and personal manifesto presented by Bilson (2019)

Honour physical form and integrity.
Photograph, don’t scan.
Use lighting to reveal texture, structure, and composition.
Never crop to neaten.
Never retouch.
Describe where your metadata has come from.
If possible, show the source of the transcription.
Photograph backs and blank pages.
Weigh and show scale.
Record folders, boxes, and shelves.
Don’t let basis cataloguing hold back publication.

Although in digitising an archive the size of the Conway Library the project has, for practical reasons of time and the costs of storing data, omitted the manifesto’s requirement to photograph backs and blank pages and also weigh the items, Bilson, like Edwards, encourages us to honour the physical form and integrity of images by using simple photographic techniques to, for instance, reveal “the slight line of shadow” (Bilson, 2020) showing the way in which a print was stuck by human hands onto card or the fingerprints of the library visitors who might have handled the object; or to accentuate the multiplicity of textures, materials, colours, and inscriptions that compose each object.

The importance of doing so, as Bilson writes, is to encourage the global online user to appreciate the fact that “every image presented online has a physical counterpart that still sits in a library box” (2020) within the Institute. In addition, it re-directs the online user’s attention to the “set of visual cues pointing to the personalities and voices enmeshed within [the] collections” (2020) and thus demonstrates that the appearances of these images online are not their “year zero” (2020), but another milestone in their malleable history.

In essence, therefore, for The Courtauld, materiality matters because an emphasis on it indicates to its increasingly global and online audiences, that the images it is making digitally available are entangled with the tangibly embodied histories and socio-cultural experiences of all those who have interacted with them. As my fellow intern Sydney Stewart Rose notes, The Courtauld’s emphasis on materiality presents the ultimate digitised image as an “endurance” (2021) that refers to its own history of interaction with its producers, publishers, collectors, archivists, librarians, volunteers, and interns – each of whom have inscribed their intentions onto the surface of the image.

Recognising this urged me to further explore the implications of taking these intentions – and especially their material evidence on the surface of the image – into consideration when interpreting the image. I did this, specifically in relation to two sets of images of the Crystal Palace, archived in a box containing images of exhibitions in London between 1830 and 1900, in the Conway Library of The Courtauld’s collections.

The Building Itself

Figure 1. The Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London. Image via the Art and Architecture website.

The Crystal Palace was a remarkable cast iron and glass structure, originally built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, it was initially intended as a temporary building. However, a very general desire on the part of the public to preserve the Crystal Palace led Paxton to propose alterations and extensions to the original building, with the intention of converting it into a winter garden and adapting it to other scientific purposes.

The building was then taken down from its original site in Hyde Park and relocated to a site named Penge Place (now known as Crystal Palace) at the top of Sydenham Hill, between 1852 and 1854. The site at Sydenham attracted 2 million visitors a year and successfully hosted exhibitions, festivals, music concerts, football and cricket matches, and over one hundred thousand soldiers during the First World War.

Despite this initial success, however, from around the 1860s, the Palace fell into financial ruin. Due to its sheer size, the Palace was impossible to maintain financially and thus declared bankrupt in 1911. In addition to this, the Palace continuously experienced severe damage shortly after its relocation – first due to strong winds in 1861, then due to a fire that broke out in the North End of the building in 1866, and finally in 1936 when a more severe fire damaged it beyond repair.

Figure 2. The Crystal Palace fire, Sydenham, London. Image courtesy of the Science Museum Group collection.

Conway’s Documentary Intent

Martin Conway, an avid collector of photographs of architecture as a record of buildings that might suffer damage, was quite naturally drawn to the Crystal Palace – both because of its significance in the public imagination and its undeniable architectural magnificence. Conway’s intent to document the Crystal Palace and the trajectory of its life materially manifests in his collection in at least two ways.

First, this is evident from the sheer diversity – in type, size, and source – of the images of both buildings. For example, the image of the Crystal Palace in Figure 3 shows “The Progress of the Building” and is presumably a lithographic print on newsprint sourced from the Illustrated London News. Comparatively, the image of the building in Figure 4 is a watercolour and pencil drawing, signed and dated by the specialist in architectural views, Edmund Walker (1814–1882).

Figure 3. “The Progress of the Building” from Illustrated London News. CON_B04109_F001_008, CC-BY, The Courtauld.
Figure 4. Watercolour and pencil drawing, signed and dated by Edmund Walker. CON_B04109_F001_005, CC-BY, The Courtauld.

Second, Conway’s documentary intent is evident from the “set of visual cues” (Bilson, 2020) that point to his specific process of archiving by gathering diverse visual material on the same subject, from a plethora of sources, and then mounting it onto card. For example, the crease of the paper and its shadow in Figure 5, clearly show that an image cut out from The Weekly Times has been stuck over another image. Similarly, Figure 7 shows that Conway seems to have used a larger version of the print in Figure 6 to provide a detailed perspective on the same event.

Figure 5. The crease of the paper and its shadow showing that the print from The Weekly Times has been stuck over another. CON_B04109_F001_006, CC-BY, The Courtauld.

Figure 6: The Peace Fête at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. CON_B04109_F002_019, CC-BY, the Courtauld.
Figure 7: A detailed view of The Peace Fête at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. CON_B04109_F002_020, CC-BY, the Courtauld.

This material evidence of intent thus signifies the extent to which the Crystal Palace had impressed itself upon Conway’s and the wider public’s imagination. They demonstrate that Conway clearly recognised the Palace’s significance – both to the history of architecture and Britain – and therefore, dexterously included in his archive, images of the conception, construction, utilisation, renovation, relocation, and the destruction of the building. In doing so, and specifically by following his unique processes for archiving, Conway created a “synthetic object” (Edwards and Hart, 2004) – that is, a new intellectual and physical entity resulting from his attempt to impose sense, order, and his intentions upon a set of separate objects from separate sources leading separate lives.

This new “synthetic object” therefore leads its constituent parts into an institutional framework of policies, strategies, and practices different to that from which they have been sourced. For example, a watercolour drawing (Figure 4) that originally would have been handled, framed, preserved, displayed, and interpreted in a manner more typical to art history, in the context of Conway’s archive, is engaged as an important resource contributing to the documentation of a historical moment that in turn was intended to inform art history.

By creating such “synthetic objects” therefore, Conway reinforced the view that the Crystal Palace was indeed an important moment in the history of architecture and Britain, and actively constructed this building as a canon worthy of preservation for posterity. When considered accordingly, the images of the Palace in Conway’s archive thus emerge as more than simply what they depict. Rather than visual representations of the building and the events that occurred therein, these images emerge as constituents of a larger photographic object and project inscribed with the intentions of its maker.

Concluding Remarks

In my reflection on the implications of considering the materiality of images for their interpretation, it emerged that the material aspects of an image – its physicality and presentation for instance – are of great importance as they provide clues to how the value of particular images changes over time due to interactions with them.

In the example I considered, we noted that images from newspapers and artists were recontextualised as archival resources under the documentary intentions of the archivist who interacted with them. These insights could not have been as easily drawn, if indeed attention to the very material and physical evidence of the archivist’s intentions had not been paid.

Further research could examine how each layer of textual inscription (for e.g., stamps and handwriting) on more generally the cards in Conway’s archive, inform the meaning of that which the images on the cards depict. To whom do these inscriptions belong? What were their intentions when marking the “synthetic objects” that Conway initially produced? How do these material traces of their intentions inform the meaning of the images constituting those objects, and the objects themselves? Further studies could also examine how the physicality of the cards onto which Conway mounted images (for example, colour and material) interacts with the meanings of said images. Knowledge of each of these aspects can significantly contribute to our understanding of images and more importantly of how they function as visual and material objects, deeply embedded in the social and cultural experience.

 


Aayushi Gupta
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
MPhil Candidate in Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology, University of Oxford

 

References

Bilson T (2019) The Future of the Library – Architectural Information in a Post-Digital Era. Presentation at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, November 21, 2019.

Bilson T (2020) The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway Photographic Libraries: Two approaches to digitisation. Art Libraries Journal, 45 (1): 35–42. Available at: 10.1017/alj.2019.38 (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Edwards E and Hart J (2004) (Eds) Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Taylor & Francis Group. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/oxford/detail.action?docID=182226# (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Edwards E and Hart J (2004) Mixed Box. In: Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Routledge. Available at: http://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3167/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=f6ef041e-2d21-47cf-8dda-eb492bed21f4%40pdc-v-sessmgr02&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=110339&db=nlebk (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Holland G (2008) Crystal Palace: A History. BBC London. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2004/07/27/history_feature.shtml (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Peyton C (2019) Journey through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity and Distance – Digital Media. Digital Media: The Courtauld Connects’ Digitisation Project Blog. Available at: http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/digitalmedia/2019/07/01/peyton-cherry-journey-through-materiality-communicating-familiarity-and-distance/ (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Cornelia Chen: A Sequel to The “Unfinished Symphony” of Charles Sargeant Jagger

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams, who also kindly fact-checked and added screen-readable art historical detail to this blog post

Text Version

Having served in the British infantry during the First World War, Charles Sargeant Jagger was able to create realistic war memorials that made us reflect on his identity as a historian. Instead of putting a seal on the past, he channelled his first-hand experience of the ruthless side of the war – often considered a controversial topic in its aftermath – into art pieces that would be experienced by the authorities and the public. Artist Martin Jennings, on BBC’s Great Lives, described Charles Sargeant Jagger as being “arguably the first British sculptor to capture the horror of war”, but somehow his memorials seem to have eluded the attention of the general public for many years, becoming “hidden treasures” waiting to be re-discovered.

While exploring the role of photography in mediating history and memory in the Conway Library, thinking about the sensory process needed to form memories inspired me to add the dimension of sound to selected images from the Charles Sargeant Jagger collection. The audio is generated and edited using Pixelsynth – a browser-based synthesizer that reads pixelized information from each photograph. In my experimentation, I took photographic information and translated it into a digital language for each image, and finally for the image they create when viewed collectively. [1] The title is inspired by Pathé’s short film An Unfinished Symphony in Stone, (1935) which is available in the British Pathé archive.

Consistently, in Jagger’s monuments that are currently publicly displayed, the strong, almost paradoxical relationship established between the monument and their surroundings becomes a very intriguing feature. The realistic way in which he presents his subject matter, made me think of urban monuments with similar qualities in China, for instance, the group sculptures placed outside of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. These powerful and disturbing war memorial sculptures are located within the historical site of the tragedy to commemorate the victims of the tragedy and emphasize the sentiment of the memorial to visitors who have chosen the site for a visit. In contrast, some of Jaggers well-known works are on display in spaces that aren’t specifically linked to tragic war events, and that are still in regular use by residents and visitors for transport and relaxation. Examples include the Great Western Railway War Memorial in Paddington Station, and the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London. The positioning of the memorials in locations of public transit and leisure, allows individual experiences of the monuments to intersect freely, without necessarily purposeful or structural influences of interpretation.

The Conway Library includes photographs of different views of the Royal Artillery Memory at Hyde Park Corner. The memorial consists of a Portland stone cruciform base supporting a one-third over-lifesize sculpture of a howitzer (a type of artillery field gun). At the end of each arm of the cross is a sculpture of a soldier—an officer at the front (south side), a shell carrier on the east side, a driver on the west side, and at the rear (north side) a dead soldier. The sides of the base are decorated with relief sculptures depicting wartime scenes. The Conway images show the black statues of the soldiers stark against the white stone plinth, the huge squat barrel of the howitzer pointed to the sky. Another photograph shows part of the relief carved in the side of the memorial depicting two soldiers in an observation post scanning the distance, looking in the same direction as the gaze of the statue of the officer at the front of the Memorial.

C S Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 

Detail of C S Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 

Detail of C S Jagger’s Artillery Memorial, Park Corner. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

Instead of posing in a celebratory moment, Jagger’s figures are usually found standing in a guarded position to symbolize their solemn role and the terrible losses of war. Another photograph in the Conway library shows the figure of the driver on the Royal Artillery memorial [3], with his arms spread beneath his cape as if on a crucifix, his face in shadow beneath the brim of his helmet. The culminating example of Jagger’s unfiltered representation of reality lies in the choice of depicting a soldier’s corpse lying at eye level at the rear side of the Memorial, which pulls you in with the gripping realism of 20th-century warfare. The photograph, negative number 246932, is an unflinching view of this carved corpse, draped with his greatcoat, his helmet on his chest.

C S Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.


Some photographs in The Courtauld’s Conway Library capture Jagger’s presence alongside his memorials; these images document his studio work and possibly present an opportunity to investigate his condensed mode of production from 1919 to 1925, which moved to the pace of one sculpture every three months. The picture below shows Jagger as he works on the Monument to Ernest Shackleton that now stands outside the Royal Geographical Society building in Kensington, depicting the heavily clad and hooded Antarctic explorer at over-life size, dwarfing the sculptor. His enlarged casted shadow looms in the background, while his assistant works on a maquette model in the foreground.

CS Jagger working on the statue of Shackleton. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 


Although depicting a chaotic historical period, The Sentry figure which Jagger carved for the Watts Warehouse (now the Britannia Hotel) in Manchester, seems unexpectedly “calm” in his expression and execution. This sense is highlighted by the smooth and rounded edges of the soldier’s cape that drapes him, and the intricate details where Jagger sculpted the realistic textures of the cloth material.

C S Jagger, The Sentry. Maquette for the War Memorial at the Britannia Hotel, Manchester. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

While Jagger’s statues were documented in long shots in the Conway Library, his reliefs for the frieze intended to commemorate the First battle of Ypres are recorded with close-up images focusing on the details. This frieze was to feature in a proposed Hall of Remembrance that eventually was not built;  Jagger’s bronze and plaster work was given to the Imperial War Museum. The photographs show a fibreglass resin casting taken from the original, that produces a wrinkled texture in the pictured artwork, conveying the impression of a freshly unfolded scroll.

The close-up photos also bring out tender details, like the depiction in the relief around the base of the Royal Artillery Memorial of a three-in-one folding knife, fork and spoon set and a frying pan. They represent the very human condition of soldiers at war, making the contrast between the large and conceptual nature of war and the basic and practical human needs like eating and drinking. A striped towel’s texture is beautifully enhanced by the cascading pattern on the rock’s surface. The fact that the basic coexists with the heroic on the Royal Artillery Memorial balances the artist’s attention to the general living conditions during warfare and his intention to relate with and obtain the acknowledgement of the public. This next sound piece explores this domestic detail.

C S Jagger, The First Battle of Ypres. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 

Detail of C S Jagger’s Artillery Memorial. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 

Detail of C S Jagger’s The First Battle of Ypres. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

I created further sound pieces for a photograph of the Hoylake and West Kirby war memorial. This is a tall four-sided, curved-top granite obelisk; on opposite sides of the obelisk stand two bronze figures. In true Jagger style, one depicts a hooded, robed woman. On the opposite face stands a British infantry soldier, his helmet pushed back off his head.[1] The photograph in the Conway Library must have been taken before the current railings were put up around the memorial, and it emerges starkly from the surrounding scrubland.

C S Jagger, the Hoylake and West Kirby War Memorial.

 

 

The two final pieces use two different photographs of the memorial commissioned after the Great War in recognition of services rendered by the Belgian People to British Prisoners of War. The first sound responds to a photo of the monument completed and in situ in Brussels. Two soldiers – one British, one Belgian – stand centrally in the monument; to their sides are reliefs showing Belgian peasants assisting wounded British soldiers. The second piece is the sound created by a photograph of Jagger in his workshop putting finishing touches to the over-size statues of the twinned soldiers.

C S Jagger, Anglo-Belgium Memorial to British Expeditionary Force.

 




___________________________________________________________

Chen Chen
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant


References:
[1] M. Jenning, Interviewee, Martin Jennings on Charles Sargeant Jagger. [Interview]. 5 January 2016.
[2] B. Pathé, “An Unfinished Symphony In Stone (1935),” 13 April 2014. [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTo9ClKa-Sk.
[3] “Royal Artillery Memorial,” [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Artillery_Memorial.

Julian Wood: A Photographic Detective Story – The Curious Case of the Sultan in the Cellar

Audio version

Read by Meredith Loper

Text version

Sherlock Holmes would have loved The Courtauld. Less than three miles from his Baker Street rooms, beneath its walls lies an unsolved mystery. Within its libraries, a small, battered photograph album has lain concealing secrets from Holmes’ age. While the latter was out collecting evidence of London’s crimes, somebody else was collecting history. They assembled pictures of the first modern Olympic Games, recorded now-vanished ossuaries in Malta, and even preserved the same Turkish Sultan whom Holmes allegedly assisted – just before the Ottoman Empire vanished forever.[1] Yet, who this person was, and what their story might have been, have vanished with the places they recorded.

That is, until now. For, paradoxically, the album’s survival has also immortalised its compiler. It has left a physical relic which, although inanimate, is a testament to the agency of a living person. Every image, after all, tells a story – as does the very act of assembling them into a set. No photographs are mere imprints of momentary “truth”, but are products of human choice.

The New Mosque, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) viewed from the North. In an almost straight southward line behind it is the famous Hagia Sophia.

Through a bit of detective work, we can for the first time penetrate the lost life of this peculiar artefact. Thousands of images beneath the Courtauld have these stories to tell, and it is only now that they have been digitised that we may begin to solve their mysteries, and bring their creators back to life once more.

The Acropolis of Athens, taken from the south-east. On top is the famous Parthenon and in the foreground the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

Our first bit of sleuthing must take us towards attempting to uncover the compiler, and only two clues allow us to do this. They are a note inside the inside cover, and a manufacturer detail upon the back:

What can we unpack here? “A. L. R.” gave this album to “D. Radford” in 1896, and the album was made by “J. Barfett Clark”, based in Penzance and Tavistock. If we assume, not unreasonably, that “A.L.R.” was also a “Radford” given the shared surname letters, then we have a search on our hands. We need to find an associated pair of English speakers, of literate age in c.1896, called D. and A. L. Radford, who perhaps have links to the South West, and might have been interested in history or travel.

In times far from that of the album, online resources allow us a possible answer. We can find one A. L. Radford, who died in 1928, as a listed Recorder of Ancient Monuments for Devon during the early 20th century.[2] The same man sought, between 1921-3, to restore the medieval Norman House, on King Street in Exeter: a site which would be destroyed war bombs in May 1942.[3] Crucially, his father, one D. Radford, had lived between 1828-1900, and was settled in Tavistock. Moreover, this D. Radford not only a wealthy coal merchant but also a cultured man: active in the Devonshire Association.[4] These details fit perfectly with the album’s fragments, and so, for the time in decades, we can suggest a potential match.

So, if A. L. Radford of Devon probably compiled the album, our next question is simple: did he actually visit the sites?

This is a bit of a conundrum. In terms of a “journey”, the album contains 59 photographs, grouped in a sequence. 28 from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), then 21 from Athens, and 10 from Malta. This categorisation could suggest a reflection of a real journey, though on its own it could be as much a case of “armchair travel”. We can see that the photographs are annotated with notes in red fountain pen, which seems to match that of the dedication inside the cover: especially in the particular way in which the lowercase letter “a” is written. We do not know when these were made either, though they do help us to probe further into this issue, especially with this picture:

This photograph is perhaps the most startling in the entire album, and for one simple reason. It is catastrophically wrong. This is indeed a “Temple of Victories”: it is the “Temple of Wingless Victory”. In Athens. Not, as Radford would suggest here, in “Salonica” (the Turkish name for Thessaloniki in northern Greece, which was then still part of the Ottoman Empire).

This error is particularly puzzling because the Temple is on the Acropolis of Athens. It is right next to the famous Parthenon, and is unashamedly visible (circled in red here) in another of the album’s photographs:

There is no similar building in Thessaloniki. Despite it being extremely picturesque, there is, in fact, no other photograph from this city. The error is so significant that we are left wondering whether Radford went to Thessaloniki at all.

There are three main possibilities: Radford had an atrocious memory (or was not paying proper attention to his surroundings); he deliberately wrote down a false name (perhaps to impress the recipient?); or he did not go to Greece at all and relied on (inaccurate) second-hand information. It is impossible for us to be sure, but whichever is correct, it shows how one small detail can reveal so much about the lives of the people behind The Courtauld Libraries’ collections.

However, the detail is not alone in baffling us, for another photograph demonstrates an intriguing gap between annotation and image:

We can now confirm with certainty that Radford did not take all of the album’s photographs. While those which we have seen already could be of too high a quality to suggest this anyway, this image confirms it. It is from a professional, and attested in the 1868 collection of French photographer Pierre Gigord.[5] If Radford did venture to Istanbul himself, perhaps he picked up this photograph there, from a seller?

Yet, whether he did go is made uncertain by his annotation. The view is labelled as from the “War Office”, a three-storey building which now part of Istanbul University.[6] Yet this is not where the photograph was taken. The angle and elevation are clearly from the nearby Beyazit Tower, a separate, 85m tall structure used to monitor urban fires and weather phenomena.[7] How could Radford have known, therefore, that it was next to the War Office? He could have conflated them, having visited and seen their proximity, perhaps in order to appeal to his father with the more glamorous “War Office”?

Alternatively, Radford could have received his information from a secondary source, who had done the conflation before him. Certainly, it is intriguing that the term “War Office” was used. It had been known since 1826 as the Gate of the Serasker (a word meaning “vizier” or military commander). This had been changed in 1876 to “War Office”, though between 1890-1908 the building again reverted to the longstanding name.[8] So, when the original photograph was taken, and when this album was compiled, the misattributed building had a different name. Our conclusion must be the same as before: either Radford deliberately used the obsolete name “War Office” because it resonated with his recipient; he made a very unlikely mistake; or he did not visit Istanbul and acquired this print from somebody who knew Istanbul and/or used the obsolete name. We do not know for certain, but the evidence suggests something of a gap between the truth of the album, and the intentions of the man behind its creation.

This gap is mirrored in another way: when we appreciate how unaware Radford could have been of the significance of his photographs to posterity. This photograph is a perfect example:

This is the Nibbia Chapel in Valletta, Malta, a Roman Catholic building decorated after 1852 with skeletal remains of the dead, taken from its cemetery (and leading to the celebrated nickname “Chapel of Bones”). What Radford could not have known, however, is that – like the Norman House he tried to restore – the entire site would be levelled in 1941 by aerial bombardment, leaving nothing but fragments.[9] His album, therefore, unbeknownst to him, not only compiled history but preserved it forever.

As with other photographs, this one was not a product of his own making. This image was taken in 1881 by John Edmund Taylor, though it does not attempt to hide this.[10] Within the image itself we see a caption: “Chapel of Bones, Malta”, and this is clearly from a separate album containing this photograph, because the original by Taylor extends our view behind the caption bar to slightly further down into the ground. This shows that Radford was using photographs taken and labelled by others, and also that he was not ashamed of doing so when presenting them to his father. It raises the same question of whether he might still have picked up this image in Malta, which cannot be ruled out, as the caption’s English could be explained by the site’s popularity with tourists and by Malta’s then-status as a British Protectorate. Of course, it is also significant that Radford did just copy the photograph’s caption, and did not specify – as he does on some other photographs of Malta – that this distinct building is in Valletta. Could this suggest that Radford was merely getting his information about each photograph from a secondary source? Thereby explaining the limitations of some of them? It is hard for us to be certain, but it does suggest a distinct possibility and places another potential layer of separation between Radford and the importance of the scenes photographed within his album.

The same recording of a changed world is evidenced by another pre-existing print utilised by Radford:

This picture is one of the richest in the album. Here we see a snapshot of a vanished era: that of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, ruler of everything from Greece to Iraq between 1876 and 1908. He is entering the Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque, which he himself commissioned only a decade before: between 1884-1886. We cannot make out the Sultan himself – perhaps he is the figure getting out of the carriage closest to the entrance stairs, though he certainly would have emerged from this vehicle. This image was taken by the Abdullah Brothers, a notable family of Armenian photographers who served as the official court photographers of the sultans.[11]

While it captures a routine ritual, occurring every Friday during the most important of the week’s prayers, it holds more significance. The photograph depicts the same ceremony, in the same spot, probably with most of the same participants, where 9 years after Radford’s dedication the sultan would be nearly assassinated. Even more strikingly – although Radford couldn’t have known this either – it would be by an Armenian revolutionary group reacting against the sultan’s persecutions and thereby contributing to the final decline of the Ottoman Empire. The artist and the subject are linked inexorably by history, yet for A. L. Radford this would be just another sneak-peak into the customs of a distant land.

This fleeting capture of significant history, by a man with unclear intentions, reaches its climax with the most startling photographs of the album. These are the two images of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens between 6th-15th August 1896:

These two photographs record the first revival of the Games since their traditional ancient staging between 776BCE – 394CE. 241 athletes from 14 nations competed in 43 events, to a crowd of around 100,000 spectators, with the majority being held in the place shown here: the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. Much has changed since. Winners during this period won silver medals and olive branches, with copper for runners-up. More concerningly, only men, and only from Europe and the United States, took part.[12] But, these images represent the first incarnation of something that has become a modern-day tour de force. The Olympic Games even returned to the same stadium photographed here, over a century later in 2004.

Radford again did not take these images. They have been recorded in other collections, though we cannot be sure who took them.[13] The two main photographers were the German photographer Albert Meyer, and the Greek photographer Iannis Lampakis. Both took very subjective photographs of ceremonies and participants, but we do know that Lampakis favoured scenes that were more naturalistic than Meyer’s, which might suggest that these photographs were originally by the former.[14] Of course, they could also be taken by amateur photographers, who were restricted to the spaces from which these were taken. It seems odd, if Radford had attended, why there should only be two photographs of such an important event, and, likewise, why his annotation should be the minimalist “Stadium I” and “Stadium II”. This would fit with the mislabelling of “Salonica”, the confusion over the Beyazit Tower, and the visible label on the photograph of the Nibbia Chapel to suggest that Radford might have assembled these photographs into an armchair “travel” experience for his father. Perhaps his father was already ailing, given his death four years later, and this, therefore, could have been an act of compassion to provide him with escapism?

Ultimately, our efforts cannot leave us unsure of whether A. L. Radford journeyed across the Mediterranean before 1896. However, we can suggest that his album of photographs, dormant and overlooked in The Courtauld for decades, was a carefully assembled gift from father to son – possibly as a form of swansong in the twilight years of an old man’s life. If Radford went to the Mediterranean to create his gift, he did so with an almost bumbling fervour which bleeds into the errors of his album. If Radford did not go, and created his vicarious journey in Devon, then he did so clearly through immense effort, even if the stretch of that effort had to lead to some mistakes.  We may never know what the true version of events was, but we can now know something of the emotion and human presence behind this hitherto silent artefact. A. L. Radford is one of the many lost voices preserved by The Courtauld, and it is only through engagement with its treasures that we may unlock their secrets, and bring rouse them in the 21st century to speak once more.

 

Bibliography:

[1] Kayahan AB (2018) Sultan meets Sherlock Holmes: Abdülhamid II’s passion for mystery. In: Daily Sabah, 28 July. Available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/feature/2018/07/28/sultan-meets-sherlock-holmes-abdulhamid-iis-passion-for-mystery (Accessed: 12 December 2020)

[2] “Cecily Radford”, Devonshire Association Transactions, 1968. Available at: https://devonassoc.org.uk/person/radford-cecily/ (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[3] Cornforth D (2016) The Norman House – King Street. In: Exeter Memories, 13 February. Available at: http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_buildings/norman-house.php (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[4] “D. Radford”, Reports and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for The Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art, 32 (1900), pp. 43-44. Available at: https://archive.org/details/reportandtransa18artgoog/page/n51/mode/2up?q=Radford (Accessed: 10 December 2020).

[5] BEYAZIT KULESİ’NDEN PANORAMA / 1868 / 3. PARÇA. In: Eski İstanbul Fotoğrafları Arşivi, 2020. Available at: http://www.eskiistanbul.net/6296/beyazit-kulesi-nden-panorama-1868-3-parca (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[6] Brosnahan T (2019) Beyazit Square, Istanbul, Turkey. In: Turkey Travel Planner. Available at: https://turkeytravelplanner.com/go/Istanbul/Sights/Beyazit/index.html (Accessed: 14 December 2020).

[7] Sarı E (2017) Turkey Travel Guide: Turkey History and Travel Guide. Antalya, p. 25. Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Turkey_Travel_Guide/EK2sDgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=beyazit+tower+85m&pg=PA25&printsec=frontcover (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[8] Bernard L (1986) “Bāb-i Serʿaskeri”. In: The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, Volume I: A–B. Leiden, p. 838.

[9] Drury M (2019) Lost Maltese treasures: Valletta’s Chapel of Bones was decorated with human skeletons. In: GuideMeMalta, 16 January. Available at: https://www.guidememalta.com/en/lost-maltese-treasures-valletta-s-chapel-of-bones-was-decorated-with-human-skeletons (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[10] ‘An altar bearing a Latin inscription surrounded by an array of human skulls and bones and a cloaked skeleton. Photograph by J. Taylor, c. 1881’, Wellcome Library no. 32810. Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/y8e6chnz (Accessed: 12 December 2020).

[11] “Image 2B00P0J” CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo, 2010. Available at: https://www.alamy.com/turkey-ottoman-ceremony-at-the-hamidiye-mosque-in-yildiz-district-istanbul-photograph-by-the-abdullah-brothers-fl-1858-1900-c-1890-the-yldz-hamidiye-mosque-also-called-the-yldz-mosque-turkish-yldz-hamidiye-camii-yldz-camii-is-an-ottoman-imperial-mosque-located-in-yldz-neighbourhood-of-beikta-district-in-istanbul-turkey-on-the-way-to-yldz-palace-the-mosque-was-commissioned-by-the-ottoman-sultan-abdul-hamid-ii-and-constructed-between-1884-and-1886-the-architecture-of-the-mosque-is-a-combination-of-neo-gothic-style-and-classical-ottoman-motifs-image344224626.html (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

Shaw WMK (2003) Possessors and possessed : museums, archaeology, and the visualization of history in the late Ottoman Empire. Berkeley, p. 141. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=v65XlSj4ud8C&lpg=PA141&dq=abdullah%20freres&pg=PA141#v=onepage&q=abdullah%20freres&f=false (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[12] Athens 1896. In: Olympic.org, 2020. Available at: https://www.olympic.org/athens-1896 (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[13] View Of The First Modern Olympic Games In Athens 1896. In: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images, 2020. Available at: https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/view-of-the-first-modern-olympic-games-in-athens-1896-news-photo/804435202 (Accessed: 12 December 2020).

[14] Veja imagens da primeira olimpíada da era moderna em Atenas – 1896’. In: arte ref, 17 June, 2016. Available at: https://arteref.com/fotografia/veja-imagens-da-primeira-olimpiada-da-era-moderna-em-atenas-1896/ (Accessed: 14 December 2020).

Florence Heyworth: London’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon – Alexandra Road Estate Then and Now

Audio version

Read by Ellie

Text Version

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council's Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council’s Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

        ‘Huge picture windows look out over a peaceful oasis of greenery and mature
        trees. Many a time I have sat and been simply uplifted by this lush view of
        nature or been
stunned by the beauty of the sun burnishing the windows
        opposite with a copper glow’.
[1]

        Su Cross, resident of the Alexandra Road Estate

A photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate at sunset, showing lush greenery on the balcony gardens, by @whereisfenchurch on Instagram.

A photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate at sunset, showing lush greenery on the balcony gardens, by @whereisfenchurch on Instagram.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, social housing developments transformed city skylines across Britain. High-rise tower blocks were idealised as utopian ‘streets in the sky’. By the mid-1960s, however, far from being hailed as innovative feats of architecture, tower blocks were condemned by residents and architects alike as undesirable, inconvenient and structurally unsound. The partial collapse of Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block, in May 1968, fuelled growing calls for a change in direction.

Neave Brown, a New York-born British architect (1929-2018), envisioned a new style of social housing. He believed that ‘ziggurat style terraces’ could revolutionise publicly-owned estates: the sloping structure would provide residents with access to their own outdoor space, in the form of private balconies and terraces, and provide each home with its own front door opening directly onto the street.[2]    

In 1968, Brown designed what would become the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, London. One of the most significant issues which the project needed to address was the sound and vibration from trains which passed directly adjacent to the site. Brown designed an 8-story stepped building which would block noise from the trains, built on rubber pads to minimise the vibration.[3] His plan consisted of 520 apartments, to house over 1600 people[4], a school, a community centre, a youth club, a heating complex, a care home, a special needs school and a park. When Brown presented his model for the development to the Camden Council in 1969, the councillors applauded its ‘ambitious and imaginative quality’.[5] 

Exterior view of Alexandra Road flats backing onto a train track.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, NW8, London, England. Camden Architects Department. negative number: B88/811. The Courtauld Institute of Art. Accessioned at CON_B04264_F003_001.

Tweet from @Rob_Feihn on twitter, showing photographs of the Alexandra Road Estate. "Early morning visit... still looking visionary!".

Tweet from @Rob_Feihn on twitter, showing photographs of the Alexandra Road Estate. “Early morning visit… still looking visionary!”.

Construction work on the project began in 1972, and this marked the beginning of a succession of unfortunate events, including unforeseen foundation problems and external issues such as high rates of inflation and shortages of reinforcement steel. The project ultimately cost £19,150,000 (over double the anticipated £7,200,000) and took 6 years to complete (rather than the anticipated 3 and a half).[6] Alexandra Road was deemed a ‘wildly expensive’ ‘disaster’ in the media, and Neave Brown never worked as an architect in Britain again.[7] However, despite its reputation in the press, Camden’s housing department found that the flats at Alexandra Road ‘were probably the easiest ever to let’.[8]

Su Cross, a resident of the estate, describes her first impression of Rowley Way (the main street): ‘the dazzling white concrete structures had such a jolly Mediterranean feel. It was immediately possible to visualize its potential as London’s equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’.[9]

An adaptation of CON_B04264_F003_004. Also includes image by Latheev Deepan Kolad. Collage by Bella Watts and Florence Heyworth.

An adaptation of CON_B04264_F003_004. Also includes image by Latheev Deepan Kolad. Collage by Bella Watts and Florence Heyworth.

The striking architecture, easy parking and straightforward access to the estate has made it a popular area for location scouts.[10] Scenes of the estate can be seen in BBC shows such as Spooks, Silent Witness and London Spy; films such as Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); as well as numerous music videos including J Hus’s ‘Calling Me’ (2015) and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’ (2016).

Stills from Slewdem Mafia’s Nothing Like Yours; Fatima’s Somebody Else; and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’.

Stills from Slewdem Mafia’s Nothing Like Yours; Fatima’s Somebody Else; and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’.

In SPID Theatre’s 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’, filmed on the Alexandra Road Estate, one young person said: ‘I know it definitely made me proud to say yeah, my estate was filmed in Kingsman, my estate was filmed in different documentaries’.

However, filming in the area is not popular with everybody: other residents interviewed in the documentary were worried that frequent filming diverts attention away from poor conditions and maintenance issues. One resident explained how ‘there isn’t a day that goes by where you’re not seeing some film crew or photographer or model. For the people living on the estate, it’s a double-edged sword’. She felt that ‘their privacy is being invaded or… that it’s just for show’, and expressed concern that ‘how they live is not necessarily being taken care of, so things like the repairs and maintenance is probably the most important thing in the front of their mind and they just want the council to sort it out’. Polena Barbagallo similarly described how ‘we have people filming here every day’, but ‘underneath all that the structure is decaying.’[11]

Residents have also expressed concern over how the estate is being represented in the media. Council estates have often been used in TV and film as a ‘shorthand for crime and deprivation’,[12] perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes. Residents have noted how set decorators will often ‘dirty up the estate with fake graffiti and rubbish and generally [make] it look threatening’, which ‘totally misrepresents the estate’.[13]

Equally, there is the issue of the ‘fetishization’ of council estates, whereby ‘urban’ and working-class aesthetics are monetised by labels and celebrities for profit,[14] while the challenges facing the residents of such estates are side-lined and neglected. As of 2012, only 18% of the estate’s flats were leasehold, [15] but estates like Alexandra Road are quickly becoming gentrified, with private flats on the estate now costing anything upwards of £500,000 to purchase.[16]

The misrepresentations of the estate in the media have led to several community-led documentary projects, including the 2012 documentary ‘One Below the Queen’ and the 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’. For more information about filming on the estate, see http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film

Exterior view of Rowley Way, the main street on the Alexandra Road Estate. NW8, London, England.

Camden Architects Department. Negative number: B88/810. The Courtauld Institute of Art. Accessioned at CON_B04264_F003_005.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, showing beautiful green growing on the balconies, posted by @gregorzoyzoyla on instagram, 18 August 2017.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, showing beautiful green growing on the balconies, posted by @gregorzoyzoyla on Instagram, 18 August 2017.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, with a wintry, yellow-grey sunrise light, posted by @votre__prenom on instagram, 16 December 2018.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, with a wintry, yellow-grey sunrise light, posted by @votre__prenom on instagram, 16 December 2018.

In 1994, Peter Brooke, then National Heritage Secretary, hailed the Alexandra Road Estate as ‘one of the most distinguished groups of buildings in England since the Second World War’.[17] In 1995, Andrew Freear (recipient of the Architectural League of New York’s President’s Medal) declared Alexandra Road to be ‘the last great social housing project’.[18]  However, the estate is by no means a relic of the past. In 2012-13, a group of residents put forward a bid to the National Heritage Lottery and received £2 million to put towards developing the park, a project which was completed in 2015. Since 2012, the Tenants Hall has begun to be used as a space for yoga classes, table tennis and a fruit and vegetable food cooperative.[19] The ever-evolving nature of the estate is captured by Elizabeth Knowles, a long-term resident: ‘When I think about Alexandra Road it seems it has taken on a life all of its own — and there seems to be no stopping it.’[20]  

 

Further material:

Alexandra Road Estate Spotify Playlist
I hope you enjoy this ‘Alexandra Road Estate’ playlist I have created – all the music videos for these songs were shot on location at the Alexandra Road Estate!

Blogs to Explore
See Sophie Bailey’s I Suppose It’s Not The Place’s Fault and Ben Britton’s The New Towns Are No Longer New for fascinating insights into the social housing of the 1950s.

Bibliography:
Professor Mark Swenarton. Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
Wei W (2008) Housing terraces in the UK (Part II). 7 July. Available on: https://kosmyryk.typepad.com/wu_wei/2008/07/housing-terra-2.html
Andrew M (1993) Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing? In: The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993): 14-15.
Report: Alexandra Road Estate Investigated by National Building Agency. In: The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 173, no. 8 (1981): 339.
Swenarton M (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981. In: Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
McLennan W (2017) Our estate, the movie set? We just want you to fix our boilers, say residents. Camden New Journal, 7 December. Available on: http://camdennewjournal.com/article/our-estate-the-movie-set-we-just-want-you-to-fix-our-boilers-say-residents

Endnotes:
[1] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html
[2] Professor Mark Swenarton. Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
[3] https://kosmyryk.typepad.com/wu_wei/2008/07/housing-terra-2.html
[4] Mead, Andrew. “Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing?” The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993). 14
[5] London Borough of Camden, Housing Committee, 1 April 1969. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
[6] Report: Alexandra Road Estate Investigated by the National Building Agency.” The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 173, no. 8 (1981): 339.
[7] Mark Swenarton (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981, Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
[8] Mark Swenarton (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981, Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
[9] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html
[10] http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
[11] http://camdennewjournal.com/article/our-estate-the-movie-set-we-just-want-you-to-fix-our-boilers-say-residents
[12] https://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/02/10/stop-portraying-council-estates-as-crime-ridden-and
[13] http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
[14] https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/working-class-streetwear-high-fashion
[15] https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/the-alexandra-road-estate-camden-a-magical-moment-for-english-housing/
[16] https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/brutal-attraction-meet-the-londoners-who-live-in-the-citys-most-controversial-buildings-a3278566.html
[17] Mead, Andrew. “Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing?” The Architects’ Journal (Archive : 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993). 14.
[18] Andrew Freear, “Alexandra Road: The last great social housing project,” AA Files, vol. 30, 1995, 35.
[19] News Update (September 2015). http://www.rowleyway.org.uk
[20] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html


Florence Heyworth
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Lara Drew: Winning and Losing – Photographs of Works of Art

Audio Version

Read by Francesca Nardone

Text Version

The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway libraries hold almost one million mounted photographs and over 60,000 negatives. They act as a comprehensive record of western art and global architecture, including cuttings, reproductions, publications and photographs of works of art and landmarks. One entire room is filled with over 20,000 negatives by a single fine art photographer, Paul Laib, who captured works of art by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their studios. Elsewhere stacks are filled with photographs of sculpture spanning more than two millennia.

Red filing boxes in the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art

Conway Library Shelves

Performing the slightly meta process of taking perfectly lit, high-resolution photographs of photographs of works of art and sculpture as part of the digitisation project gets you thinking about the value of taking photographs of works of art. It is an inescapable fact that as jaw-dropping as the sheer number of stacks, shelves, boxes, folders and individual photographs is in its physical manifestation, it is minuscule compared to the billions of images on the internet (over 95 million are shared on Instagram alone daily).

My iPhone’s algorithm identifies over 650 photos in my camera roll which contain “art”. I have definitely been guilty of marching around museums and art exhibitions “camera-first”, viewing the art mainly through my phone screen and capturing images which disappear into the black hole of my camera roll and are rarely viewed again.

Museums buy into our need to capture visually our experience of art with selfie points and hashtags. However, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam made headlines in 2016 when it banned photography, writing “in today’s world of mobile phones and media a visit to a museum is often a passive and superficial experience. Visitors are easily distracted and do not truly experience beauty, magic and wonder”. They encourage the more old-fashioned image-making technique of sketching, arguing that it forces you to look more closely and appreciate a work’s finer details.

As well as having an impact on the museum experience, photography also changes the basic significance of the artwork photographed. John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing “when a camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of the image”. The image of an artwork becomes ubiquitous, released from a single location. The significance of the image then lies in it being the original of all its reproductions, rather in what it uniquely represents. The “release”, multiplication, and dissemination of the artwork’s image escape the authority of the museum or location in which it is housed and their curatorial efforts to create meaning through labels and dialogue with the works situated around it.

Even before a photograph makes it online, the photographer decides exactly what to include or exclude from her shot and can crop and edit at will once the image is taken. I was struck by what was lost in the images of Picasso’s sculptures I found in the Conway library: the three-dimensional objects are confined in 6×4 inch, 2D, black and white rectangles. The images of the sculptures give no sense of scale, colour, texture or physical space, and, without being able to walk around them, the viewer can only experience the angles chosen by the photographer. The images below highlight how different a work can appear in different photographs. The translation of an artwork into another art form shifts the meaning between artist, curator, and photographer just like the translation of literature into different languages.

Detail of three items from the Conway library showing Picasso's Head of a Woman sculpture from three different angles.

Picasso, Head of a Woman, 1932, 128 x 81 x 61cm. Details from CON_B07487_F001_003, CON_B07487_F001_004 and CON_B07487_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Although the losses inherent in the photography of works of art are real, the reproducibility and editing power enabled by the process can have real advantages too. John Berger is not all doom and gloom: he writes, immediately after the quotation above, “the painting enters each viewer’s house… it lends its meaning to their meaning. At the same time it enters a million other houses and, in each of them, is seen in a different context”.

An artwork’s meaning is not destroyed when it is photographed, but rather multiplied, and our preference to taking photographs works of art ourselves rather than buying postcards in gift shops suggests we prefer the personal significance. The phenomena of “museum selfies” highlights this: what we see, appear with, and post on social media constructs our identity. Art brings a certain cache that reaches beyond personal Instagram feeds and into culture as we know it, as The Carters’ 2018 music video for APES**T filmed in the Louvre reflects.

A still from the music video of The Carters' Apes**t showing Beyonce and Jay-Z posing in front of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre

Beyonce and Jay-Z in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in their music video, APES**T.

Photographing artworks is an important aspect in the democratisation and accessibility of museums and collections too. The Courtauld Digitisation project’s aim is to make the libraries accessible anywhere to anyone who might have access to the internet. It enables a greater number of people to appreciate works of art globally, especially those who can’t access the original artworks, for geographical, financial or disability reasons. Museums concerned that allowing digital reproduction of their physical objects might decrease their value and make their physical space irrelevant needn’t worry: capitalising upon the photography of artworks provides free advertising and actually encourages people to visit the physical space and experience it for themselves.

Another advantage of photographing art is that it enables us to capture the artwork from a single perspective in a single location at a single moment in time. While an artwork can survive largely unchanged for hundreds of years, photographs can chart its journey through space and time and can serve an important historical purpose. For example, I could visit the work of art that is Rodin’s tomb, in Paris, but I would never see it as it looked on the day of his funeral, dwarfing the thousands of people who flocked around it, emphasising the legendary reputation of the sculptor. The photograph which captures this moment has value separate from the work of art it represents.

Black and white image drom the Conway Library depicting Rodin's funeral.

Rodin’s funeral, 24th November 1917, photograph by Choumoff. CON_B06898_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Photography’s ability to document is invaluable to the preservation of works of art. In the Conway library, I recognised one photograph of the Assyrian Lamassu, or human-headed winged bull, carved in the 7th century BC. It was taken in Iraq in 1950. The same statue can be found on Youtube, in a video in which members of Isis deface it, together with other works of art in Mosul museum. This work of art no longer physically exists, what survives are the photographs taken by hundreds of people, from architectural photographers such as Anthony Kersting, who took this image, to the most casual tourists.

Image of the now lost statue of the winged bull of Niveh.

“Iraq: Winged bulls at Ninveh, outside Mosul”, AF Kersting. KER_PNT_N0026.

An organisation called Rekrei (from the Esperanto for “recreate”) has crowd-sourced images of the works of art destroyed by Isis from which digital models can be produced by a process called “photogrammetry”. The viewer can zoom in and rotate the models to recreate the experience of moving around a sculpture and viewing it from different perspectives. 40,000 people have visited the website and uploaded images since its launch.

Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari has gone one step further, creating 3D-printed resin sculptures from the digital models produced using photogrammetry. These replicas cannot replace the originals but act as a stand-in, just as photographs did before them. Allahyari‘s 3D-prints physically represent the lost artwork but also act as time capsules, as they contain flash drives with images and documents relative to the original art object, creating an alternative, democratic way of preserving heritage.

Image of translucent 3D printed sculpture by artist Morehshin Allahyari

Morehshin Allahyari – Material Speculation – Lamassu

In truth, the photography of art will always be a debated issue. As we come to the end of the decade in which Instagram was invented, we acknowledge that the ways in which we experience art and culture have shifted and sped up dramatically and irreversibly. However, after a week with the Courtauld Digitisation Project spent realising the vital importance of preserving images of works now lost or in danger, I conclude that there is a lot more winning than losing in the photography of art.


Lara Drew

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Brittany Ellis: “North Iraq A Yezidi Girl” – Memory and Forgetting in the Kersting Photographic Archive

Audio Version

Text Version

AF Kersting black and white print.

“North Iraq, A Yezidi Girl,” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

I don’t know her name. I don’t know the name of the young woman who stares out at me from the photograph I hold by its slightly curved edges. I’ve stared at this photograph for days, coming back to it and to her. She is elaborately dressed, wearing beaded necklaces with big metal pendants piled in great layers around her neck.

Her hair is mostly wound up in a headscarf but pieces have come loose and fall around her face. It’s her face that lingers in my memory. Large dark eyes, serious expression, black lines and dots punctuating her skin. With one hand she holds a woman partially cut off by the framing of the photograph. Her mother? A friend?

I flip the glossy photograph over, hoping for more insight. “NORTH IRAQ A YEZIDI GIRL” in pencil at the top of the page. A set of numbers that has been crossed out, another set written below. F48-51. F11-57. And then an address, A.F. Kersting, 37 Frewin Road, London. S.W.18. But no name, no clue to who she was or how she came to be photographed – her image now kept in a bulging stack of similar glossy black and white images in a pale blue box on a shelf of similar pale blue boxes in a chilly London basement library.

The pale blue boxes containing thousands of photographs, together with boxes of negatives and tattered hand-written ledger books, form the archive of the English photographer Anthony Kersting (1916–2008), which now resides in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute.

Since its entrance into the library’s collection, Kersting’s work has fascinated many, as evidenced by the blog posts from other digitisation interns who have been caught up in the ongoing endeavor of trying to make sense of these enigmatic images and their enigmatic creator. The majority of Kersting’s images reflect his career as a photographer of architectural sites in Britain and abroad, but there is a smaller set of pale blue boxes that contain piles of pictures of people.

These unexpected images come largely from Kersting’s trips to Transjordan, Iraq, and Iran in the 1940s. Tom Bilson, the Head of Digital Media at the Courtauld and Kersting’s biographer, emphasized how surprising these images of people, festivals, and daily life are in relation to Kersting’s broader corpus, where people are usually entirely eliminated from his shots.

Author’s photograph of a box of Anthony Kersting’s prints in the Conway Library

I have spent my brief stint at the Courtauld immersed in these images of people, partly because of my own research interests in visual culture and the Middle East but also because these images unsettle me with their unknowns. I have spent the week asking questions of them. I’ve received only fragmented whispers.

Approaching the Archive

I am an anthropologist and an archaeologist with a particular interest in museums and material objects – the artifacts of the everyday. But I am also captivated by the lines of connection and meaning that extend from objects, connecting, overlapping, and severing as things and people move through space and time.

Unsurprisingly, photographs and archives are like catnip to me. They’re physical things that have been made and shaped by people and institutions over time while also being visual records of places, events, and people. The photographs in the Kersting collection preserve both Kersting and his subjects, albeit only ever in a partial way.

My background leads me to approach these photographs in particular ways, focusing in turn on their histories and contexts, their material properties, and their silences. These multiple approaches complement and complicate each other but cannot ever offer a complete explanation of these images.

The Iran and Iraq Images

I am going to focus specifically on Kersting’s photographs from Iraq and Iran during 1944. From a historical perspective, we know that Kersting visited Iraq in August 1944. A logbook, in which he recorded what and where he photographed, shows that he was in Iraq for at least 11 days beginning in Amadya and Mosul and ending in Baghdad. During this time he photographed people and places in Dohuk, Kirkuk, Hatra, Al Kosh, and Lalish.

The photograph of the Yezidi girl comes from his time in Lalish, when he photographed a Yezidi religious festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi. His photographs show scenes of baptism, dancing and music, and feasting together during the festival. According to the same ledger, Kersting visited Iran for at least 9 days in November and December of the same year. He travelled less widely according to captions on the images and the ledger, spending most of his time in Tehran, Isfahan, Ray, and Delijan.

R.A.F. Nairn Bus, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

There are several copies of a photograph of a large R.A.F. bus against the desert landscape which gives some insight into Kersting’s method of travel. On the back of one of the copies, Kersting has written “Trip to Iran,” while on another, “Modern desert travel. The Nairn bus running between Baghdad and Damascus. When this photograph was taken, the bus was being used by the R.A.F.” As an addendum and in different ink, “The R.A.F. Nairn Bus: Habbanniya to Damascus.”

The different captions are confusing. Was this taken on the route between the R.A.F. base in Habbanniya, Iraq, to Damascus, Syria? Or near Baghdad? Or in Iran? Why was he on a military bus in the first place? Who are the other people – some in uniforms but one in the foreground clearly not – in the image?

Tom Bilson informed me that Kersting was part of the R.A.F. for a period of time, but it is unclear whether he was on military business during these trips to Iraq and Iran. It certainly would not be unusual for an intelligence personnel to use photography as a cover for espionage, particularly in 1944 during WWII in this region, which had experienced the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran and the Anglo-Iraqi War just three years earlier.

This political history is largely absent from Kersting’s images themselves, save for two intriguing photographs taken in Duhok, Iraq. The first is a group of men, some in traditional Iraqi dress and others in suits and even shorts, outside of an unmarked building. On the back Kersting has written:

“Iraq, A group round the M.O.I. reading room in Dahook [sic], a Kurdish town between Amadia and Mosul. Allen, M.O.I. public relations officer in Mosul, who arranged my transport for me, is in the centre of the group. A. F. Kersting. Aug 1944”

Group of men outside of M.O.I. reading room in Duhok, Iraq, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Reverse of the image showing Kersting’s handwritten annotations.

M.O.I. is often used as an acronym for both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Information, though Ministry of Information might be more appropriate here in the context of a reading room. “Allen” is not mentioned in any other images or in Kersting’s ledger.

In a second image, a group of men read magazines and books together, possibly in the mentioned reading room. Arabic and English maps on the rear wall show theaters of war. “War Map of the USA and Japan” reads one.

These photographs obliquely show Kersting’s historical setting and his network of contacts, military and governmental, that made his journeys possible, but they also raise questions about the purpose of Kersting’s trips in the region, which was still an active site of British military negotiation and surveillance.

Viewed today, these photographs are still politically relevant, especially considering the persecution and violence faced by both Kurdish and Yezidi people. Kersting’s photographs highlight visibility and cultural vibrancy, providing a record of these communities’ traditions, longevity, and physical presence.

Unannotated photography of men reading with war maps in the background, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Besides trying to situate these photographs and Kersting himself in a particular historical and political moment, I’ve also tried to approach these images as cultural records. They simultaneously portray different ethnic and national communities and also record Kersting’s own understanding and classifications of these groups.

The images from Iraq, in particular, I think, reflect Kersting’s interest in the communities he met. On the back of a photograph (Image 9) of a Kurdish man, Kersting has written, “Iraq, A typical Kurd, inhabitant of Kurdistan in North Iraq. He wears the typical colored trousers, and carries a rifle, with a band of ammunition round his waist.” He gives some context to the man’s clothing as well as Kurdish people’s geographic presence in Iraq.

The photographs of the Yezidi festival at Sheikh Adi, in particular, are somewhat ethnographic, that is, trying to portray the experiences of people engaged in a specific activity or way of life. They show the smoke from pipes and incense, musicians mid-song, dancers moving together, children running around, mothers carrying children to baptisms. Kersting isn’t just capturing an event but an atmosphere.

“North Iraq, Musicians playing for the Yezidi dance known as the Debka atet eh annual festival at Sheikh Adi. A row of dancers can be seen immediately behind.” Photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Unannotated photograph of Yezidi men at the festival at Sheikh Adi, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

However, like photographs taken and used by anthropologists in the early and mid-twentieth century, Kersting’s photographs and captions are reductive. “A typical Kurd,” “A Yezidi girl,” “Yezidi man,” “A typical Assyrian.” By these captions and categories, Kersting appears more interested in (stereo)types of people rather than specific individuals. Hence the lack of names.

I wonder about Kersting’s interactions with the people he met and photographed. Did Kersting ask to take people’s photographs? Were they excited or made anxious about this? Did they ever see the photographs of themselves? How would they or living relatives feel about these anonymized images sitting in a box in London?

“Iraq, A Typical Kurd…” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

Materiality in the Archive

In addition to being visual images, these photographs are physical objects. They take up space in boxes and shelves. Their curved edges and stains show age and wear and damage over time. They contain the physical marks of Kersting’s pen and pencil, recording the movements of his hands. Some theorists in anthropology have suggested thinking about the biographies of objects – their moments of coming into being, moving through the world, and their eventual “deaths.”

“North Iraq, A Typical Yezidi”, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

A biography of these images provides yet another way of looking at them. We could think about the technologies, materials, and skills required to produce them. Kersting worked with multiple cameras, which would have taken up space and required particular environments to prepare properly. The images would have been rendered on glass plates treated with special chemical solutions. They would have had to be printed onto specific kinds of paper using yet more chemicals to render the image and fix it in place.

After printing, Kersting inscribed them with dates, log numbers, descriptions, copyright stamps, his name and address. And while there are copies of certain images, no two are exactly the same because his descriptions vary. Some copies have additional, intriguing marks from R.A.F. censors or printed marks indicating that the paper is government-issued. What kinds of review processes did these images go through? And why do only some of them show signs of being reviewed or processed by the military?

“Iraq, A Typical Iraqi girl, from the country north of Mosul,” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

It’s intriguing to think about the lifespan of these images. Did Kersting keep them in an album or display them in his home? Were these travel photographs shown off to friends? Were they commissioned by a particular organization? Did he consider them to be documentation of “exotic” people (a term now considered highly problematic but which circulated in popular discourse in his time), personal mementoes, or fine artworks? Why were some printed on glossy paper and others on flat matte paper? These are questions for which we don’t know the answers. But we do know more about these images’ futures.

These images, like the rest of the Conway Library’s photographic and print collections, are in the process of being digitized so that they can be stored and accessed online. The digitization process is an immense one, requiring hundreds of volunteers to help sort, label, photograph, and categorize all the images in the library.

So these photographs will live on in a digital form even after their physical forms degrade. But does our experience of an image change when it becomes pixels and code instead of photographic solution and paper? I can’t have the same experience of handling a photograph and flipping it over in eager anticipation of more information. But rendering high-quality images for a digital collection does make these images more accessible, potentially even allowing their circulation within the communities in Iraq and Iran that they portray.

“Quieter than Silence”

The anthropologist David Zeitlyn describes archives as spaces between memory and forgetting. They’re repositories of information, stories, and moments, but they also can outlive their subjects and makers, becoming ghosts of bygone people and places. Working in archives is extremely gratifying because it provides opportunities for rediscovery but it can also be frustrating as more and more question marks develop. 

The more I look at these photographs through different analytical lenses the more I realize just how much I don’t know and will probably never know about them. Through digitization, crowdsourcing, and circulating the photographs back within their communities of origin certain individuals could potentially be identified, but Kersting’s motivations remain unknown.

Unannotated photograph of Yezidi musicians and attendants of the annual festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944. I am particularly struck by the young men in the bottom left corner who stare curiously into the lens of Kersting’s camera.

The photographs are even more ghostlike and frustrating to me, too, because they emphasize just how much is missing in appreciating the moment or person that is captured. It reminds me of the musical performance Quieter than Silence by Mehdi Aminian and Mohamad Zatari. In their fusion of Syrian and Iranian traditional music and poetry, the two men reflect on friendship, loss, and conflict. They emphasize the pain that comes with knowing that there should be sound or life in a moment but not being able to find it – experiences that seem quieter than silence.

These images seem quieter than silence to me in some ways because these places and people were not still and silent but teeming with movement, noise, color, and life. In the photographs, though, they have been frozen, silenced, detached. I long to reinvest these images with sound, smell, taste, and touch. So as I hold the photograph of the Yezidi girl, I think of her necklaces clinking together. I imagine the textures that surround her, the noise of a celebration, the click of a camera’s shutter closing.


Brittany Ellis

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant