Volunteer Voices Archive

John Ramsey: Agnes Conway 1885–1950

At 2pm on an April day in 1914, and after an eight-hour climb, Agnes Conway reached the remote village of Lada at the top of Greece’s Langada Pass, 2000 ft above sea level. She and her companion Evelyn Radford had started at 6am and had not stopped to eat. As they entered the village they saw a man throwing a discus. He was a Greek athlete who had represented Greece at the Olympics and had won the fencing championship. He spoke fluent English, offered them food, fenced and boxed with Evelyn and found he had friends in common with Agnes.

This is one of the more surreal anecdotes recorded in A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera, published in 1917. In the same year, Agnes became Curator of the Women’s Work section at the newly established Museum of War, and Honorary Secretary of its Women’s Work Sub Committee.

This blog explores these two events in the context of her remarkable life.

The daughter of Martin Conway, who bequeathed his photographic collection to the Courtauld, Agnes was an archaeologist and historian. At the end of this blog, there is a short summary of the key dates in her life; this does not do justice to the energy and commitment she gave to her work, and the love and support she gave her family and friends.

The Women’s Work Sub Committee (WWSC)

 

The Museum of War (later the Imperial War Museum) was founded in 1917. Agnes became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Work Sub Committee (WWSC).

Working for Lady Nelson as Chair, Agnes ran the WWSC from 1917, through its most active period in the years immediately following the war, and remained involved until the Museum moved to its current site in the old Bethlem Hospital in 1929.

The WWSC’s objective was to preserve the contribution of women to the war effort. The Committee wrote to every female organisation they could find, seeking information about their work. The list was extensive. It included Government, Army and Air Force departments, as well as civilian locations where women worked, such as factories, relief centres and canteens.

Hundreds of letters were written. The committee asked for descriptions of women’s activities and statistics on their employment. It also requested objects and artefacts that could be displayed, in particular uniforms and photographs of people wearing them. It also commissioned works of art and photographs to cover particular aspects of the war. Over 3,400 illustrations were collected. These resources remain an important source of information for historians. The Imperial War Museum today holds extensive content on the WWSC and its legacy.

Agnes was central to the continuous struggle to find artefacts, funding, resources and space for the growing collection. In 1918, she organised exhibitions of the artefacts at Burlington House and Whitechapel Art Gallery, the latter attracting Royalty and 82,000 visitors. The following year she visited France to photograph the many women still working after the war.

The WWSC also recorded the names of all 700 women who died during the war. It supported the creation of a National Memorial at York Minster which includes a screen listing these names.

A full length drawing of a woman bus conductor. She wears a blue uniform and hat, and carries the distinctive bus conductor's bags with leather straps crossing her chest.

Victoria Monkhouse. A Bus Conductress, 1919 (Art.IWM ART 2316) Copyright: © IWM. Original

A Ride Through the Balkans

 

In early 1914, Agnes and Evelyn travelled to Greece, where they had been accepted to study at the British School in Athens. Almost immediately they started on a tour of the Balkans. Their purpose was to document classical ruins in the landscape, but the book is a breezy travelogue full of incident and adventure. Agnes and Evelyn Radford travelled from Athens to Constantinople, and back through Turkey, Albania, Corfu, then to Montenegro, ending in a war zone.

The narrative is full of colour as they encounter friendly locals, stubborn officials, incompetent guides, monks, soldiers, refugees and displaced peoples. They travel by foot, car, cart, mule, steamer, sailboat and trains, always 3rd class. They climb mountains and gorges, cross fertile plains and barren moorland, and marvel at the colours of the sea off Corinth.

Agnes was a close observer of the condition of women. In Greece, she was shocked by the marriage dowry system, how it impoverished families and prevented so many women from marrying. In Turkey, she travelled in train compartments reserved for women, and was surprised they smoked in public.

She commented on local dress. In Albania, rich catholic women wore trousers made from 16 to 40 yards of material for each leg, with two pairs more inside. Wearing high heeled kid boots, they did not so much walk as waddle.

Hardships are mentioned but briefly. After getting lost in an arid landscape of prickly shrub, where “tortoises were the only living creatures”, they eventually found a road where they could get a lift. Relieved and exhausted, “We sank upon the ground and ate the one remaining orange… in an ecstasy of delight”.

After having her pocket picked on the Acropolis they climbed Mt Hymettus in “four hours only”, and looked down on dozens of soaring eagles, delighted to see the gold of their feathers shining in the sun.

They did not trust the water, so made tea with a spirit lamp, much to the fascination of fellow lady travellers in the 3rd class section of a Greek train.

Sleeping conditions were often basic and not always clean. At a monastery, they were reassured the room had no bugs. But it did have “60,000 fleas”, and nowhere to wash. A monk solemnly gave Agnes a towel, leaving her to wonder what she was expected to do with it.

Towards the end of the journey, in May 1914 they came across refugee camps around the Turkey Albania border. In Scutari, they encountered Red Cross teams and an international peace force of English, French, German, Italian and Austrian soldiers.

The tone of the writing becomes a little more serious, although the contextual political events are barely mentioned. They were witnessing the fallout of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling and had given independence to Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. However, large numbers of ethnic populations remained under Ottoman rule, so these countries formed the Balkan League and declared war on the Ottoman empire. The League suffered internal disputes, borders were shifting, and many nationalities were trying to get back to their homelands. Serbian nationalism was particularly strong and triggered the First World War only a few weeks later in June.

Agnes was interested in the relationships between the military and the refugees. The Peace Force was led by an English officer, Colonel Phillips. Agnes admired his ability to use persuasion and humour to maintain stability, and in particular to calm the Albanians and their blood feuds.

It is curious that they must have known about the wars before they started planning the journey, and that they could find themselves in danger in border areas. Clearly, they had the confidence and determination to go ahead, knowing they were in the midst of a period of volatile international politics. Dr Amara Thornton (see note below) has pointed out that the British School in Athens would have provided a network of contacts, and that the sense of danger may well have appealed to Agnes.

She started writing the book immediately on her return but did not succeed in finding a publisher until 1916. Then there was a rush to publish, as the Allied Gallipoli Campaign was developing in areas where she had travelled, which made the book topical and marketable.

In her opening to the chapter on Scutari, Agnes wrote, “The outbreak of European War put an end to the international occupation of Scutari early in August 1914. The state of things I am describing is, therefore, a chapter in the past”. She might have added “already”, but she offers a fascinating glimpse of the repercussions of events whose consequences are still being played out today.

Refugees at Antivari, photographed by Agnes Conway Horsfield on her 1914 Balkan’s journey. From “A Ride Through the Balkans” by Agnes Conway Horsfield.
Image © www.trowelblazers.com/

A note on Evelyn Radford:

Referred to solely as E throughout the book, never named specifically. She was a classical scholar and lecturer after leaving Newnham until 1915. Thereafter, she wrote about music.

A note on Dr Amara Thornton:

In researching this blog, I came across several articles about Agnes’ life and work by Dr Thornton, who cites Agnes as the inspiration behind her interest in the history of archaeology. Dr Thornton has generously responded to my enquiries, for which I thank her enormously.

Agnes Conway – Key dates:

 

1885 ~ Born 2nd May, Daughter of Katrina and Martin Conway.

1899 ~ On her 14th birthday, fell through a skylight and fractured the base of her skull, leaving the right side of her face paralysed. Despite several operations, immediately after the fall and in later years, she remained disfigured throughout her life.

Teenage Agnes sitting on her grandma's lap.

Image taken from Joan Evans, The Conways: A History of Three Generations. 1966.

1903 ~ Read History at Newnham College Cambridge. Also studied Greek and acquired her life long passion for Archaeology.

1907 ~ Left Cambridge after passing her History Tripos.

1907 ~ Awarded a degree from University College Dublin. Oxford and Cambridge did not award degrees to women at this time, but University College was willing to do so. Oxbridge women who took this up were known as “Steamboat Ladies’’.

1908 ~ Agnes starts helping Martin to catalogue his collection of photographs.

1909 ~ Co-published The Children’s Book of Art with her father, offering accessible descriptions of famous paintings from 13th to the 19th century. Her father only wrote the preface. Agnes selected the pictures and wrote the descriptions.

1912 ~ Studied at the British School in Rome, where she added to and catalogued her father’s collection of photographs.

1914 ~ Admitted to the British School in Athens and travelled through the Balkans in the spring of 1914 with Evelyn Radford, a friend she met at Newnham.

1917 ~ Published her travelogue, A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera.

1917–1929 ~ Helped found and became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s’ Work Sub Committee (WWSC) which aimed to preserve women’s’ contribution to the First World War.

HONORARY SECRETARY AGNES ETHEL CONWAY (WWC Z-30) Honorary Secretary Agnes Ethel Conway MBE, Imperial War Museum. Copyright: © IWM.

1918 ~ Awarded MBE.

1920s ~ Continued to catalogue Martin’s photographs.

1927 ~ First visit to Petra.

1929 ~ Member of the team led by George Horsfield which undertook the first scientific excavation of Petra. [1]

1930 ~ Published the results, Historical and Topographical Notes on Edom, with an Account of the First Excavations at Petra.

1931 ~ Martin Conway donated his collection to the Courtauld. He gave Agnes the public recognition that her help was central to its preparation.

1932 ~ Married Horsfield in Jerusalem. They lived in Jerash in what was then Transjordan (Horsfield was Chief Inspector of Antiquities for the Transjordan government).

George andAgnes Horsfield at Jerash, 1935. Agnes is wearing a keffiyeh.

Image taken from Joan Evans, The Conways: A History of Three Generations. 1966.

1932 ~ Excavated in Kilwa (a medieval trading settlement in modern-day Tanzania).

1936 ~ Left Transjordan and travelled the Mediterranean before settling in England during Second World War.

1950 ~ Died in England.

References:

 

Conway A (1917) A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera. London: R. Scott. Available at: https://archive.org/details/ridethroughbalka00conwrich/page/n8/mode/2up (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Evans J (1966) The Conways: A History of Three Generations. London: Museum Press.

Imperial War Museum, The Women’s Work Collection. Available at: www.IWM.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Thornton A (2018) Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People. London: UCL Press. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv3hvc9k (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Thornton A, Research Blog. Available at: www.readingroomnotes.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Trowel Blazers, Women in Archaeology, Geology, and Paleontology. Available at: www.Trowelblazers.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Notes:

 

[1] Fascinating research and analysis of the excavation’s diary by Dr Amara Thornton at www.petra1929.co.uk. UCL Institute of Archaeology keeps an archive of personal photographs, letters, postcards, and excavation notes.

Agnes Conway wearing a keffiyeh.

Agnes Conway Horsfield at Damieh, Transjordan. Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology. Image taken from Trowel Blazers.

Martin’s inscription recognising Agnes as the true author of The Historical Paintings in the Houses of Parliament.

 


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Ben Britton: “The New Towns are no longer new” – Basildon in the Conway Archive

Black and white Conway image of the whole Brooke House and Basildon Town Centre mounted on board

Brooke House and Basildon Town Centre. CON_B04252_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

In 1956, before Brooke House was built, or any part of Basildon for that matter, there was a sign in its place that read: “This is the site of Basildon Town Centre”. Over the next few years, the first buildings of what was already Basildon were put up, fulfilling the sign’s prophetic message. I was particularly intrigued to find a folder in the Conway Library containing 20th Century municipal and residential architecture, not least of all because it is shelved directly opposite several boxes-worth of photographs of the Hagia Sofia, which is about as iconic as European architecture gets. There is something important to be gained, I think, from recognising the aesthetic and historic value of a medium-sized post-war town in Essex, alongside so much other human achievement.

Black and white Conway image of East Walk, Basildon, featuring mostly low-rise buildings. The image is mounted on board.

A predominantly low-rise town. CON_B04252_F001_009. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

“The New Towns are no longer new”[1] reads a parliamentary select committee’s investigation into the problems now faced by the swathe of purpose-built towns following the end of the Second World War. These towns were, in theory, a continuation of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision to house those displaced by slum-clearance in an overcrowded London. There is certainly a shared utopian ideal between the New Towns and the Garden Cities, and not one mutually exclusive of pragmatism. But there the similarities end, as finally the avant-garde of British architects were given permission, and funding, to build the modern sorts of towns that they had always dreamed about.

Among them was Sir Basil Spence, who, having won the contract to redesign Coventry Cathedral (beating competition from Giles Gilbert Scott), rose to prominence and became Britain’s most prolific modernist architect. He, along with A.B. Davis, designed Brooke House and the vast majority of Basildon’s town centre.

Black and white Conway image of Brooke House taken from below. The image is mounted on board

A view of Brooke House divorced from its surroundings. CON_B04252_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

It is tempting, as with so much Brutalist architecture, to make claims of the building’s dominance over the low-rise landscape, and certainly it is possible to indicate this with a Rodchenko-esque photograph (see above). But the general impression given by the pictures in the Conway Archive is not one of overbearing concrete. Both up close and from a distance, we are able to see how the entirely residential building inhabits a humbler space at the centre of town, acting as a sheltered forecourt for the surrounding shops. Even the undoubtedly massive pylons even have a slight slimness to them, to the point of looking vaguely insectoid and flimsy under the immense weight they support.

A black and white image of Brooke House's forecourt, mounted on card.

A view of the forecourt. CON_B04252_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

What this goes to show is the humanist bent of the design of the New Towns. Certainly they are monumental (the problems they were attempting to remedy necessitated their scale) but equally they were a radical approach to the problems of working-class living conditions at the time. The Liberal MP Lord Beveridge, whose work laid the foundations for Britain’s welfare state, described the ideal New Town as one of “beauty and happiness and community spirit”.[2] It is the effort towards these ideals that I think is captured in these photographs, before the subsequent economic downturn and regeneration programs undergone by Basildon.

Black and white Conway image of Blenheim House, mounted on board.

John Gordon’s mosaic on the façade of Blenheim House (formerly home to the Locarno Ballroom), the largest of its kind in Britain at the time. CON_B04252_F001_009. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

It is not the case, as the Parliamentary select committee’s report seems to suggest, that New Towns such as Basildon were always devoid of community cultural centres. Instead that these facilities (a cinema, an arts centre, a library etc.) required a consistent investment which the New Towns, unfortunately, did not receive. Equally, accusations of the towns’ lack of heritage in the 2008 report contradict the assertion that they “are no longer new”.

Indeed, in Basildon’s case, just before the release of the 2008 report, National Lottery funding had been used to establish a heritage trail through the town focussing on its post-war architecture. And the aesthetic effect of this architecture has its own heritage in England’s radical humanist tradition, of the likes of Milton’s poetics, or More’s Utopia. So to find photographs of Basildon amongst so much readily-accepted great architecture is a reassurance; its place in an archive of this significance is a foothold for its place in the grand scheme of British architectural history. And, in its own way, it is an investment, of sorts.


Ben Britton
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Ben Britton is a writer based in London with an interest in modernist aesthetics and cultural heritage.

References:

[1] House of Commons, Communities and Local Government Committee. ‘New Towns: Follow Up’. Ninth Report of Session 2007-08. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmcomloc/889/889.pdf

[2] Boughton J (2018) Municipal Dreams. London: Verso Books, p. 79.

Useful links:

John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams blog: https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/

John Ramsey: The Oxen of Laon Cathedral

Laon, a town in North-East France, has an immense and beautiful cathedral on top of a 200-metre hill, the location of the medieval walled town. It is one of the most important examples of early Gothic architecture.

Sixteen life-size statues of oxen look down from the top of the two western towers. As far as I can ascertain, such a number and size of sculpture is unique.

An image of the front facade of the Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral taken in July 2009 on a sunny day. The Cathedral is a pale yellow stone colour on a bright sky blue background.

Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral in July 2009. Image by Martoss8 [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons.

Medieval scholars mention them as an afterthought in their analysis of the cathedral’s architecture and history of development. Laon tourist web sites start with them, as if to say, hey, come to Laon and see the cows in the sky!

There is no documentation to explain the oxen’s presence. Local custom explains that they recognise the importance of oxen in the building of the cathedral, given it’s on top of a high steep hill. Leading on from this, folklore tells of an ox dying of exhaustion as it climbed the hill. The carter, desperate to get his load to the building site, was amazed when another ox appeared from nowhere, helped pull the load to the top, then disappeared before the carter could decide what to do with it. Another variation believes that the cart contained holy relics, and the appearance of the ox an act of God. The statues, therefore, record the miracle of oxen appearing out of thin air.

Putting aside the miracle option, the basic folklore is not immediately convincing:

  • People used oxen throughout the medieval world as their standard beast of burden, and continued to rely on them until the advent of 19th-century industrialisation, yet they appear only rarely in medieval sculpture.
  • As Laon’s location is high up on a steep hill, teams of oxen must have been a continuous daily feature as they must have been used to deliver supplies. However, many other towns and cities were located strategically on hilltops, but there is no evidence that inhabitants felt the need to record their reliance on the ox.
  • The oxen did not need to transport stone, as this came from the limestone covering the plateau of the hilltop.
  • If, however, the scale of the Laon climb was unusually severe, it does not explain why it was necessary to have as many as sixteen sculptures.
A second image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_027. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

As there is no firm evidence for their placement, medieval scholars simply acknowledge their existence, record the folklore and may make brief reference to the miracle story. My understanding is that it is not considered proper scholarship to speculate on secular sculpture and carving. This is understandable, so I have attempted to consider what circumstantial evidence may be available to indicate why the oxen are there:

  • They may be the medieval equivalent of a vanity project. Cathedral construction was funded only in part by the church and the crown. Most funding was raised from the local townspeople, creating tensions with the clergy, and delays in building when funds were exhausted. Laon was built in 5 protracted phases, completing in 1230. Laon is surrounded by a huge flat plain, which in the Middle Ages was given to arable farming and vineyards. The farms would have used oxen extensively for ploughing and haulage. There may have been such a deep affection for the animal, that a wealthy landowner decided to provide funding to immortalise them in stone.
  • Certainly, paintings of livestock became popular in subsequent centuries. It is known that the 17th-century Dutch painter, Aelbert Cuyp, was successful in selling his paintings of cows to a European market and to British landowners in particular.
  • Medieval Laon was a major regional centre and popular with the French monarchy. The Carolingian and Capetian kings used it as their base in North East France. They may have also provided funding for the cathedral, although this is unlikely. Nevertheless, I wondered if oxen or bulls (the terms were interchangeable in the Middle Ages) were symbols in their heraldry, but can find nothing.
  • The numbers of animals may be significant, in that medieval ox teams consisted of multiples of two up to a maximum of eight. So, each tower could represent one full team, potentially the size required to make the climb to Laon.
  • One commentary suggests that they are not all oxen, but a mix of animals real and imagined. The photographs show they all seem to be wearing a harness, and although many have lost their horns and ears, they all look broadly the same.

All of the above is, of course, more speculation than circumstantial evidence, so I am not going to make it as a medievalist with this essay. I have considered the influences of the local economy, the town’s geography, the cathedral’s funding, the presence of the monarchy, and would be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on other angles to consider, or if they are aware of similar sculpture elsewhere.

Perhaps the final word should come from WW Clark, author of Laon Cathedral Architecture (1983), who argued that the use of sculpture reached an unprecedented richness in Laon:

Their precise meaning remains elusive… they can be understood compositionally as the final accents in a design that integrates sculpture, both formally and iconographically, as inseparable constituent elements, beginning with the detail of the three portals.

Meanwhile, I may well feel the need to go and see them for myself.

Image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

 

References:

  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 1 by WW Clark and R King
  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 2: The aesthetics of Space, Plan and Structure
    by WW Clark
  • The Ox in the Middle Ages by John H Moore Article in Agricultural History journal No 35 1961

Muny Morgan: Photographic Memories of Ravello, Italy

Having volunteered on the digitisation project at the Courtauld for two years in April (can’t believe it!) I always had my eye on the Italian section of the Conway collection. We process the boxes the order they appear on the shelf, which is alphabetical, so I knew it would take us a while to get to Italy.

I was so delighted on a recent shift when I had been asked to brief a new fellow volunteer on the accessioning task. We walked down to the Italian section of the library and, much to my delight, the next folder to sort was Ravello! I felt like I had won the lottery – though I’m not familiar with that feeling!

This stunning, magical, charming, quiet little town, for those of you who don’t know, sits 365m above the Tyrrhenian sea on the magnificent Amalfi coast, away from the bustling tourist havens of Sorrento and Positano, and has a very special place in my heart. I went there on my first holiday with my now husband and we loved it so much we initially planned to have our wedding in Villa Cimbrone, known as the terrace of infinity, though it didn’t happen in the end, as it was too complicated logistically.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I have to say that at first, apart from the odd Kersting image, I didn’t think that the box had captured the beauty and magnificence of this place.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

When I got home after my shift that morning I had a look at my photos to compare them to some of the places I recognised in the archive collection. I thought we had stacks (as we do now when we go on holiday with our children and with the less selective use of our digital cameras) but we didn’t. At the time we visited, digital cameras were not so affordably available and I also much preferred my SLR.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F006_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It made me wonder: had all my visual memories of this town been imprinted in my mind? Is the mind the best place to record our most enjoyable and visually memorable experiences, rather than on photographic paper or as a digital file stored on our computer? When I explored this idea and thought about all my travels abroad, I realized that the most memorable places and times in my experience do not have an extensive photographic record.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Perhaps I am romanticising my memories of this special place. But I can vividly recall the quiet glamour of the Villa Cimbrone, and the Ravello Festival concert in the grounds of Villa Rufolo that we happened upon as we made our way along the small winding streets with dramatic views of hilltop houses and the beautiful coastline to the Hotel Parsifal, the converted convent where we were to stay. And I can’t help but imagine that my experiences were similar to those of Escher, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Woolf, Robert Wagner and Jacqueline Kennedy and other famous visitors who have come here seeking inspiration.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_023. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We always said we would return to this charming, magical place, but it would have to be for a very special occasion indeed to experience it all over again and alter the memories we have.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Irma Delmonte: AF Kersting and The Picturesque

Looking at the world as if it were a picture is a relatively recent phenomenon, yet nowadays, with the advent of smartphones and social media, the practice of producing pictures is embedded in our daily routine, and the term “picturesque” is more relevant than ever.

The Rievaulx Terrace at Duncombe Park in Yorkshire triggered my interest as it makes such a picturesque use of the exquisitely ruined Cistercian abbey nearby. Both sites are well recorded in a photo reportage I found in the Conway Library while digitising the box. The focus of the photo series, partly conducted for Country Life, are the temples, especially the rotunda, which gives us a trustworthy example of how the Rotunda in Stowe, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, should have looked like before Borra remodelled it. Of all 113 pictures, two are clearly outstanding; they were taken by Anthony Kersting.

CON_B00966_F003_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B00966_F003_027. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Despite being described forty years ago as the foremost photographer of his generation, there are no publications dedicated to Anthony Kersting’s work. Although evaluating Kersting as the best photographer of his generation is a matter of personal judgement and every scholar or critic has his favourites, what is undeniable is the value of his contribution to the British photographic scene and his place alongside photographers like Yersbury, De Mare and especially Edwin Smith. Carefully selected and framed, their pictures poignantly explored another Britain, prizing evolution rather than revolution, variety, rootedness, and respect for landscape and vernacular architecture.

If we analyse Kersting’s pictures in detail, we can trace his painstaking and meticulous approach to framing architecture. Looking at the negatives, the brightly centre-lit abbey stands out immediately as the protagonist of the composition. The horizon is high in the picture – above the centre line – which places emphasis on the nature of the landscape. Indeed, the vantage point chosen by the photographer perfectly positions the viewer to enjoy the content of each plane of the image. Our sight of the distant hills might have been blocked by the foliage that dominates both sides of the photographs but, as it is, this position gives us an all-encompassing view, as in Claude Lorrain’s paintings. The abbey, like the two temples, stands perfectly vertical, framed between the wavy grass lawn and a dramatic cloudy sky – Kersting’s signature. In the image of the Ionic Temple the vantage point chosen is especially significant: to obtain his chosen angle, Kersting would have had to walk down the slope to position his tripod and wait until all the columns were fully lit.

To conclude, Rievaulx Terrace constitutes a unique example of landscape moulded on a picture’s composition before photography came along. Even if the visitor – an 18th-century guest of Duncombe or 21th-century influencer – perceives the Rievaulx landscape as natural and spontaneous, it is in fact totally constructed on a vantage point to recreate the effect of picturesque paintings. Likewise, looking at Kersting’s photographs through his framing device – a half plate camera – we can see that he didn’t just construct a picture, he also altered the vertical lines, as though he were a painter.


Irma Delmonte
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Ferhat Ulusu: Unexpected Music in the Conway Library

Did I really sign up for this?

This is what I asked myself as soon as I walked into the building.
A pretty lady, nicely presented with a red lipstick smiled at me and swiftly asked for my name.

As a volunteer, I was preparing myself to either welcome guests or help with the drinks…
The email said: confirmation – you have been approved for Gallery Music: new compositions from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama between 15.00-16.00 on Sunday 19th of May.

For the last three years, students have been inspired to use the Courtauld’s collections, history and location as a starting point for their pieces. On this occasion, the pieces would be performed in the library, and I was in the audience.

Operatic singers, musicians, partitions, a clarinet, a cello, a viola, and a blue helium balloon took over the Conway Library amongst the iconic scarlet boxes.
What a contemporary concert: magical, unique and breathtaking… and YES I am glad I signed up for it.

Image by Ferhat Ulusu

Ferhat Ulusu

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer


Curated by Dr Charlotte de Mille with Dr Bretton Brown and Dr Cassandra Miller, the pieces performed were:

Ben Jonson Settings  – Harry Harrison
The text in this piece is taken from three Jacobean “entertainments” by Ben Jonson. They were presented to Queen Anne of Denmark, who moved into Somerset House upon her arrival into London in 1603. Queen Anne patronised and supported many artists and composers during her lifetime, and her extravagant and daring masques were a crucial development in women’s performance.
Rosemarie Morgan, soprano; Thomas Pickering, recorder

Tractatus – Efe Yuksel
…one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be…
Tom Mole, baritone; Henrietta Hill, viola

Upon the Battlements – Ben Pease Barton
A dramatic musical exploration of identity, self-acceptance, loneliness and despair, setting text from four alternative translations of Kafka’s novel The Castle. On browsing the Conway Library, I came across a wonderful historic photograph of Karlstejn Castle in the Czech Republic, perched upon a mountain and soaring high above a sunken village in the forested valley below. I was reminded of the Czech scenery in which Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle, is set.
Faryl Smith, soprano; Aline Christ, cello

To a Mouse – Mara Pruna
The piece follows the narrative of the famous poem with the same name, by Robert Burns. The flowing character and the subtly onomatopoeic texture reminds the listener of the fragile communion between humans and nature. The numerous musical surprises outline the idea that things don’t go to plan, even when one tries their hardest.
Mary Walker, soprano; Michael Stowe, cor anglais

Get Well Soon – Mathis Saunier
This is a homage to David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive. Trapped between dream and reality, Bettie, a young star of Hollywood, suddenly realises that her entire life is not a lie but a dream, and that what she has just committed is indelible.
Manon Gleizes, soprano; Rachael Hannigan, bass clarinet

Wilderness – Cloe Hotham
Wilderness is the title of a collection of lost poetry written by Jim Morrison, the lead singer of 60s psychedelic rock band The Doors. I am hugely inspired by the artistic links Morrison made between the work of Aldous Huxley, William Blake, and other great writers in his own work, and sought to do something similar with my piece by blending Beat-like poetry written by a rock musician, with my own “classical” music, and find music and art from the time of the beat generation to be wonderfully raw and powerful in trying to express the human condition, which was something that was important to explore to both me and my singer, Emily Peace, in this collaboration. I have a strong interest in writing vocal and operatic music, drawing inspiration from literature spanning from the medieval period up to working with living writers to create new works. The setting of the Courtauld, and especially the Conway Library, has been a wonderful reminder to think of my work as not existing in a contemporary music vacuum, and to continue to be inspired by older works of art, literature, and music as well as the contemporary arts scene.
Emily Peace, soprano; Charlotte Walker, cello

Image by Ferhat Ulusu

 

Jane Macintyre on Northampton Architecture and Mr Bassett-Lowke

This is the second of two posts about Northampton architecture featured in the Conway library that I came across during a visit to the town, you can read the first post here.

Energetic local businessman W.J. Bassett-Lowke (1877–1953), or “WJ”, was the man behind the development of the UK’s model railway industry. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of modernism and this led him to engage two leading architects of the early 20th century to design his homes: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Peter Behrens.

In 1916, WJ’s father purchased a modest Georgian terrace house as his son’s wedding present. But ahead of the marriage WJ decided to remodel the house and asked Mackintosh to provide the redesign. The work was carried out during the difficult circumstances of WW1.

78 Derngate – back garden with Mrs Bassett-Lowke. CON_B04291_F001_011. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The new interior was striking, especially the decoration of the hall lounge with black walls and a golden frieze. It has been suggested that the couple found the scheme somewhat overpowering because soon WJ asked Mackintosh to lighten it. This second version is depicted in the photograph in the Conway library.

78 Derngate interior – hall lounge. CON_B04291_F001_012. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

You can still see the original design because it has been reinstated at 78 Derngate which is now a museum.

The Bassett-Lowkes had not been at 78 Derngate long before they decided to move. They wanted a brand new home further away from the River Nene, hoping that this would be more comfortable for Mrs Bassett-Lowke who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Mackintosh was in poor health by the time WJ was ready to commission the work. Unable to find a British architect with modern ideas that matched his taste, WJ turned to the pioneering German architect and designer, Peter Behrens. The result was New Ways, probably the first modernist house in the UK and the only one in this country designed by Behrens. It perfectly suited the Bassett-Lowkes whose home it remained for many years.

New Ways exterior – frontage. CON_B04291_F001_014. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

New Ways interior – lounge. CON_B04291_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Modest from the outside, but decidedly modern throughout, this Grade II* listed house was recently on the market and, at the time of writing, could be yours for £875,000.

 


Jane Macintyre
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Jane Macintyre on Northampton Architecture: the Guildhall

During a recent visit to Northampton I soon realised that this Midlands town is a treasure-trove of interesting architecture and so it seemed like a good idea to find out what images the Conway library holds.

The first building I came across was the Guildhall, a striking example of the high Victorian Gothic revival by architect E.W. Godwin and completed in 1864. It is wonderfully ornate (or horribly ornate depending on your point of view):

CON_B04117_F002_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

This was Godwin’s pièce de résistance and established his reputation. He was only 26 when he won the commission to design it.

Amongst the many friezes and sculptures adorning the building is a series of scenes of Northampton life, carved on the capitals of the columns. At the time, Northampton’s most important industry was shoe-making, but it also had a racecourse. Both these are referenced in the Conway, along with many more:

CON_B04117_F002_043. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B04117_F002_048. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

These capitals are by R.L. Boulton who had a successful business in Cheltenham. He worked on a wide variety of sculptures, mostly ecclesiastical, for many of the well-known architects of the day, including Pugin.

It turns out that the Conway does not carry any general photographs of the interior of the Guildhall, so here is a snapshot of the colourful main hall:

Interior. Image by Jane Mcintyre.


Jane Mcintyre
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

(If you enjoyed this post, you will also love the second Jane wrote on Northampton architecture.)

 

Sabrina Gardiner: a Love Affair with Canada

For almost ten years, I have had an intense love affair with Canada. Why exactly I love Canada has always eluded me; maybe it’s the friendliness of the people, or the vastness and natural beauty of its varied landscapes from sea to shining sea, or the numerous films and TV shows that are reeled out every year.

While the entire country inspires me, no other region of Canada inspires me more than the east coast. My dream of visiting Canada was finally realised a couple of years ago, when I visited Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for a week – in the midst of winter. Although the weather was far less than ideal, it did help me discover what life in Canada was really like, away from how I’d imagined it to be in my mind.

CON_B01160_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

During my time at the Courtauld, browsing the Conway Library I discovered some old photos taken around Canada. Although it is a rather young country by political and geographical standards (it only became an independent dominion in 1867, and finally ratified its own constitution in 1982), Canada nevertheless does have a rich history – both socially and architecturally.

These photographs were taken in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, in possibly the 19th century. PEI is very close to Nova Scotia, the province I went to, so I was naturally very attracted to these photos. The province is well known for being the setting of the classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables, about a redheaded orphan girl with braids, Anne Shirley, adopted by a family on PEI. The family originally wanted a boy, but Anne – originally from Nova Scotia – was sent instead as a mistake. The story has enchanted many generations and has been adapted into TV shows and films countless times, including – most recently – a series release with a major online content provider.

CON_B01160_F003_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

As the former capital of New France (Nouvelle-France) and now the capital of Francophone Canada, Quebec is often called the Europe of North America. Its architecture is greatly inspired by Old France, with the castle-esque Chateau Frontenac – now a hotel – majestically overlooking the historic French fortress and the St. Lawrence River with its verdigris domed roof.

Quebec is one of Canada’s largest inland ports, being an important stop along the St. Lawrence River for cargo and passenger ships heading out to the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a pleasure port, as can be seen in this drawing, where rowers sail their boat along the river waves. Quebec’s history as a French fortress is clearly visible, as the city is raised above the river on a cliff.

CON_B01160_F003_012. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

I often watch a TV show called Murdoch Mysteries. Set in Toronto around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the titular character is often called Canada’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Using methods contemporary to the period, William Murdoch is on the trail of crime in Toronto, even meeting a few icons of the day in his pursuits, like Alexander Graham Bell and even Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock himself.

Upon seeing this photo, I immediately thought of Murdoch Mysteries and the Toronto of the turn of the century. Even the fashions of the people and the horses and carts remind me of the characters and how they get around the city on the journey to a crime scene, so if I didn’t know this was a real photograph, I would’ve thought this was a scene from the show itself.

So far, I’ve only seen two places in Canada – namely Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – but I want to go on a road trip there one day, visiting all the sights and cities that grace the country, and even make it my home.

 


Sabrina Gardiner
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Mark Long: Vignetting in Archive Photographs

CON_B00756_F007_025. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Whilst digitising the Conway Library, I often come across confusing visual anomalies like the one at the bottom left of item CON_B00756_F007_025. Understanding what has caused the image fault requires a bit of a technical explanation. In this case, what we are seeing is an example of vignetting, which happens when using large format cameras capable of perspective adjustments.

CON_B00734_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Anyone interested in mastering these issues should study the fantastic Ansel AdamsThe Camera, in which he states the vignetting “occurs when part of the negative area falls outside the image-circle of the lens and thus receives no exposure” (see chapter 10 “View-Camera Adjustments”).

In this image we can see that the photographer has adjusted the camera movements to control perspective in order to construct an accurate representation of the building that is aesthetically pleasing and free from distortion. However, in making such adjustments, they have inadvertently moved the lens out of the negative area, cutting off part of their image (either by tilting or shifting the front standard too far).

These kind of errors are fascinating as they exhibit the high levels of control required to practice the medium of photography successfully. This type of image control is still carried out by architectural photographers today when they choose to utilise tilt/shift lenses on modern digital cameras. Here, minimising lens distortion and configuring perspective to meet highly rigorous visual requirements.

Reference:

Adams, A (2003) The Ansel Adams Photography Series 1 The Camera. Little, Brown and Company.

 


Mark Long
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer