Mary Shelton Hornsby: Anthony Kersting’s Hagia Sophia – Looking Through His Lens

AF Kersting, 20th Century British photographer, traveled to Turkey at least two times, including in 1963 and 1995, and photographed much of the significant sites of Istanbul, also known as Constantinople. Hagia Sophia, the building we see standing today (preceded by two churches and a pagan temple) was rebuilt by the Byzantines under Emperor Justinian in 432 CE. [1]

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered this area of modern-day Turkey and transformed this church into a mosque; besides some smaller renovations, this was accomplished mostly by adding the minarets. As the complex’s official site notes, “In 1934, the founder of Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ordered the building to be transformed into a museum,” the condition in which it remains to this day. Ever since 1453, the mosque has been and continues to be an inspiration for the rest of the Turkish Empire mosques.

Black and white image of a few of Kersting’s developed photographs of the Hagia Sophia scattered on a table.

A few of AF Kersting’s developed Hagia Sophia photographs. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Kersting’s View of Istanbul: Historical Preservation as Top Priority

As Kersting wrote, “Anyone visiting Istanbul for the first time might be excused for finding it difficult to realise that this City [sic.] was once the centre of the civilised world, and that under the name of Byzantium it carried on the tradition of Roman culture and learning for close on a thousand years after Rome itself had fallen…” [2] Kersting’s entire entry on this subject (and other parts of Istanbul) remains largely an objective, informative one. The question of what exactly the early 19th Century Englishman thought of Istanbul himself remains unanswered.

However, something can be gleaned from the fact that he titled the article “Changes in Istanbul” and spends roughly 90% of the paper talking about Istanbul (and the Hagia Sophia’s) history and previous state of being. Consciously or subconsciously, Kersting considered Istanbul’s entire value to be derived from its rich history rather than its condition during his own visits. He seems opposed to any modernization or changes he does mention, excepting of course the restoration of older buildings: “New motor roads are being built and in the process [m]any of the old wooden house[s], formerly such a picturesque feature of the old Turkish City [sic.] are being bulldozed away.”

Did Istanbul residents at that time not view these homes as sacred relics as Kersting did? Or did they value them as such, but did they prioritize progress and modernization as the means of restoring Istanbul to its former glory? Whatever the natives’ view may have been, this English sojourner seemed in favor of restoration and consistency (as opposed to modernization) in the city itself, and probably held the same view about the city’s icon.

Kersting’s Journal Entry: Background on the Hagia Sophia

In his entry about Istanbul, he includes snippets on just two of Istanbul’s mosques, including one about the “Hagia” or “Santa” Sophia: “The first object of pilgrimage of every tourist is probably Santa Sophia. Without doubt this is one of the greatest buildings in the world. Built by Justinian as a church in 532 AD, it was converted to a mosque at the Turkish conquest and is now a museum. Although it has suffered many vicissitudes and has undergone many changes, the remarkable [thing] is that the main fabric of the building has remained relatively intact for some 1400 years. The four minarets were added by the Turks on conversion of the building to a Mosque [sic.]. At the moment these are undergoing repair.”

The domed Santa Sophia served as the inspiration for the Mosques [sic.] built by the Turks after their conquest of Byzantium.

Black and white paper photo print showing the exterior of the Hagia Sophia from the east, several of its minarets, an Istanbul city street corner, a bus, and some passersby

An exterior shot of Hagia Sophia from the east. KER_PNT_H14625. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

The Hagia Sophia As Seen Through Kersting’s Lens

Even with just this little bit of background information, one can analyze Kersting’s photographs with the naked eye and easily notice the deliberate choices he made when photographing this magnificent house of worship.

The developed photos of the Hagia Sophia we have within the Kersting Archive at the Courtauld comprise about twenty-five different photographs, following Kersting’s careful labeling system. There are at least two photographs printed for the vast majority of each of these different shots Kersting took, but even the ones developed from the same negative can vary slightly in lighting and cropping.

The first deliberate choice one can note is that the majority of the photographs Kersting took were of the interior of the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. The majority of his photographs contain either no people at all (over one third of the total shots) or very blurred, obstructed, tiny, or barely visible people (about half of the total shots).

This decision to prioritize the architecture over the people could mean several things: a. He photographed the museum at hours or during a season that was not the peak time or season for tourists to visit. b. Kersting requested, and somehow had the leverage with the museum authorities, to clear the museum (at least mostly) of people. c. The shots in which the people are blurred indicate that Kersting purposefully left the camera shutter open for longer, theoretically for the dual purpose of having the camera focus on the Hagia Sophia building itself (rather than any moving entities) and probably to allow as much light into the camera as possible and capture the interior detail of this rather dark building.

Black and white paper photo print showing the Hagia Sophia exterior and lightly-populated, luscious green gardens on a sunny day

Hagia Sophia, exterior and gardens. KER_PNT_H17063. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Another common feature one might note is that Kersting typically selects landscape format for his exterior photographs. He does this, most likely, because he chooses to take most of his exterior shots from a distance adequate for capturing the entire rambling width of the mosque complex. We only have one developed shot where he uses portrait mode for the exterior (Fig. 2.). In it, Kersting emphasizes the verticality of the building by shooting from a shorter distance and placing one of the minarets as the focal point (in the middle ground 1/3 from the right). The only other technically exterior shot that is in portrait format is from under a covered colonnade, which actually could be considered as more of a transitional space than an exterior space.

Similarly, Kersting is more likely to place his focal point in the middle of the frame should the shot be of the exterior elevation. Except for the minaret photo mentioned earlier (Fig. 2), all of his exterior shots again showcase the mosque complex, always placed in the background, with the mosque gardens in the foreground and middle ground. Comparing these shots is especially interesting for viewing the architectural alterations made over time.

For his photos of the interior, Kersting mostly – and ingeniously – chooses one of the chandeliers for his focal points. This focal point doubles as a window of sorts, drawing the viewer initially to itself (the chandelier) and then to the background behind it which, in the case of Fig. 4., is the beautiful Arabic lettering and repurposed Greek Orthodox architecture. Because of this method, the viewer is more likely to notice the entire scene, not merely its focal point. Kersting knew that, had he chosen to focus on a singular solid object, the average viewer would walk away having disregarded the whole scene except for the one focal point.

Black and white paper photo print showing the Hagia Sophia interior, looking into the space below the largest dome, between two columns with a chandelier as focal point

Hagia Sophia, interior, chandelier as the focal point. KER_PNT_G03051. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

For his interior photos, Kersting also often uses doorways or columns to frame his scene, again a brilliant technique to provide boundaries for the photo and draw in the eye to the photograph’s central portion. Kersting uses the setting’s ready-made frames to catch the eye immediately from afar, especially if the frame provides a naturally strong contrast between light or dark areas (i.e. the brightly lit west wing popping through the dark frame of two columns and foreground in Fig. 4).

Kersting is creating chiaroscuro: using the extreme contrast of light and darkness to his advantage for the sake of creating depth and dimension. (As he was working in black-and-white, these contrasts were essential in making his photographs readable and interesting.) His framing devices also make this giant museum that is open to the public (and therefore people of all faiths and backgrounds) feel more personal and intimate. In other words, the frames make his photography of this iconic site feel less like the average tourist’s postcard and more like a special access invitation to an exclusive space.

Black and white paper photo print displaying Kersting’s use of the Hagia Sophia’s interior columns as a frame

Hagia Sophia, interior. Kersting’s use of columns as a frame. KER_PNT_H14617 and KER_PNT_H14621. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

A final observation is that, several times, Kersting chooses to capture the scaffolding and the repairs occurring at the complex, which he also is sure to mention in his journal entry. Why does Kersting choose to photograph and mention elements that others might consider an eyesore? Does he want to emphasize the events occurring contemporaneously to himself – to capture his unique personal experience (as opposed to that of the millions of other visitors who had and would come over the 1400+ years the building had existed and would continue to exist)? Or did he want to document this as history, for the sake of posterity’s knowledge? Or to commend the natives’ or government’s interest in preserving part of their heritage? Regardless, the photographer did intentionally capture this historical preservation of Istanbul’s most treasured site and did not try to crop out or curate his shots to cover up the ongoing preservation, whereas other artists may have considered this element unsightly and distracting.

Black and white paper photo print displaying the Hagia Sophia interior with scaffolding

Hagia Sophia, interior with scaffolding. KER_NEG_G29535. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Despite any of these or other unresolved speculations, we can make one claim with confidence: it was hundreds of deliberate choices like these that characterize Kersting’s architectural photography as superior to that of other photographers, choices that naturally attract the human eye and engage the human mind.

 

References

1. “Hagia Sophia Mosque,” Hagia Sophia, accessed November 23, 2019, https://www.hagiasophia.com/hagia-sophia-mosque/.

2. Kersting, Anthony, “Changes in Istanbul,” The Courtauld Libraries, Kersting Archives.


Mary Shelton Hornsby

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Placement

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

Audio Version

Text Version

 

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/

Tallulah Griffith: The Steiner Guide to Steiner – A Mini Waldorf Textbook for the Courtauld

Audio Version

Text Version

Instructions for use:

If you are accessing this guide online, please note that it is intended to be printed, as Steiner education encourages first-hand engagement. Users of the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art can also find the printed guide in box CON_B04414; the corners have been rounded, in line with Steiner school practice, so that the student can approach from any angle.

THE GUIDE

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian architect, clairvoyant, esotericist and social reformer. Among his projects, he set up the first Waldorf school in 1919, to teach his principles of anthroposophy, a spiritual movement founded on the belief in an observable spiritual realm which interpenetrates the material world. Waldorf schools use a kinaesthetic, action-loaded approach to intellectual subjects, focusing on art, music, and rhythm. No textbooks are used in Steiner’s philosophy; instead, students make their own educational materials, as I have endeavoured to do here.

Extrapolating from Steiner’s elementary school reforms, anthroposophy, and the initiatives of London’s Rudolf Steiner House, I have created a guide for studying the Steiner archive using his own pedagogy. The library box, ref: CON_B04414_F005 & F006, holds early photographs of both Goetheanum buildings, which cannot be understood without Steiner’s spiritual science.

This textbook is intended for students of the Institute, those involved in Courtauld outreach and public engagement programmes, and any prospective students of Steiner.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 001.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 002.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 003.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 004.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 005.


Tallulah Griffith
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Keelin Willis: The Creative City

    “The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and is the theatre.” (Mumford, 1937: 185)

 

Devoid of the familiar bright bursts of graffiti and reliable clunks of skateboards hitting the floor, the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall pictured in the 1960s is almost unrecognisable. Standing on the site of a shot tower built as part of a lead works in 1826, this brutalist piece of architecture was retained for the Festival of Britain and was worked on by architects such as Bennett, Whittle, West and Horsefall before being opened by the Queen in 1967. As with other brutalist works of the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth Hall reflects the efforts of young designers looking for new ways to express their belief in the future. For example, this is demonstrated in their use of concrete, a traditional material, in original and experimental ways. Love it or hate it, the creativity enmeshed in the brutalist genre is incontrovertible.

Black and white image of Queen Elizabeth Hall mounted on card.

CON_B04286_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Black and white image of Queen Elizabeth Hall mounted on card.

CON_B04286_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In light of this, a building as expressive as Queen Elizabeth Hall should surely stand as the pinnacle of creativity and innovation in the city. Yet, this is not necessarily the case. In the midst of exchanges between large organisations, authoritative bodies, renowned architects and other key public and private players, the individual city dweller can become disconnected from the city that rises around them. Rather, the dictation of how the city is structured from above works to pacify citizens. In this way, people are shaped by the city, or more accurately, the power relations that shape the city in the first place. While Mumford’s (1937) metaphorical description of the city as “theatre” suggests its inhabitants are granted endless freedom in their performance, in reality, this performance must comply with a particular set of restrictions imposed from above. Perhaps the city as “container”, or even “prison”, would be more appropriate.

However, the skate park found in the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall today suggests otherwise. Despite being intended as a pedestrian walk-way, the Undercroft’s interesting features drew skaters to adopt it as an undesignated skate park – “Southbank” – in 1973. In appropriating public space for their own use, Southbank’s skaters are performers in their own theatre, regardless of restrictions imposed from above. They are active agents shaping the city, just as the city shapes them. In a broader sense, subversive actions, such as skateboarding in undesignated areas or making graffiti art, speaks to the re-politicisation of public space through the agency of the everyday citizen. As contended by Hall (1998: 7), the city is “a unique crucible of creativity” and this creativity hands every person the potential to destabilise the supposed natural order orchestrated by those above.

That said, the potential for small-scale subversive activities to make a profound difference in the contemporary urban landscape may seem limited. Indeed, a skateboarder with a can of spray-paint in hand seems unlikely to win a hypothetical battle against the Greater London Council. Collectively, however, the power of communities must not be underestimated. In 2004, the Southbank Centre temporarily closed large sections of the Undercroft for exhibitions, but closures continued until plans for a commercial redevelopment of the Undercroft as a “Festival Wing” were uncovered in 2013. In response, the Long Live Southbank campaign was set up by the Undercroft Community to resist the proposal. Following an incredibly successful campaign which saw immense public support for the Undercroft community, Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre signed an agreement guaranteeing the long-term future of the skate spot. Moreover, the Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre have been in a partnership and joint project team to restore and renovate the Undercroft as a skate area since 2016. As demonstrated by the Long Live Southbank campaign, the collective action of everyday citizens has the potential to make huge institutional changes at all levels of authority and power.

To reflect the changes made to the Undercroft by the skate community, I have graphically imposed a representation of their graffiti artwork and skateboarding onto one of the photographs taken in the 1960s. Indeed, the very action of creating artwork on top of an original photograph seemed subversive in itself. Just as artists spray-paint city walls, I felt as though I was altering property that was not mine to alter. Surely photographs stored in archives were for “proper” research with books and essays to show for it? Yet these are exactly the kind of unspoken expectations creative art forms can challenge. In using the archive in such a manner, I was performing in a theatre of endless possibility myself.

This is a derivative work by the blog's author, Keelin Willis, superimposing a colour image of the skatepark on the original southbank structure.

An adaptation of CON_B04286_F001_006 – the skate park (that can be found today) has been graphically imposed onto the original photograph of the Undercroft using GIMP. Image by Keelin Willis.


Keelin Willis
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References:

  • Hall P (1998) Cities in civilization: culture, innovation and the urban order. Weidenfield and Nicholson: London.
  • Mumford L (1937)What is a City? Architectural Record, LXXXII.

Corrina Summers – Contested Spaces: Capturing Modernist Architecture in Postcolonial India

Audio Version

Text Version

A sense of “doubleness” pervades the photographs contained within the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute, the bulk of the collection comprising of photographs of other works of art. While the majority of its million photographs feature architecture as their central focus, some of the most striking images in the collection feature human subjects, thrusting ideas about the relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and its social function into the foreground. This hybridity is especially evident in the photographs of Chandigarh in northern India, taken by both members of the architectural design team and professional photographers in its construction and early existence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Black and white photo of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_010

With construction beginning in 1952, Chandigarh is a city born out of independence and partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, ordered the creation of the city as a new capital for the new Haryana and East Punjab states of India that had been formed in the aftermath of independence; the former capital of the old state of Punjab, Lahore, had been lost to the new nation of Pakistan after partition. On a visit to the site of the new city in 1952, Nehru proclaimed “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. [1] Early postcolonial India also faced the issue of finding housing for the hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing the newly formed state of Pakistan; 80% of the original Chandigarh housing was considered “low-cost”. Thus, aesthetics and social issues in Chandigarh were inextricably linked from its inception.

Colour images of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_019

Colour image of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_014

Interestingly, the architect enlisted appointed to construct Nehru’s architectural symbol of an independent India was a westerner; prolific French modernist, Le Corbusier. With his own plan to reconstruct the central business district of Paris as a landscape of cruciform towers, octagonal street grids, and green spaces having been rejected in the 1920s, he saw the Chandigarh project as a means through which to realise his vision of the modern city. Prior to his death, Le Corbusier was the principal city planner and the architect behind the three main government buildings that occupied the city centre; the Palace of the National Assembly, the High Court of Justice, and the Palace of the Secretariat of Ministers. Indeed, these structures host many of the features outlined in his 1927 publication, Les cinq points de l’archictecture. These include the idea of the “pilotis”, the reinforced concrete pylons that act as the main components of the government buildings and are beautifully captured in Lennart Olson, Pierre Joly and Vera Cardot’s photographs, taken just after their completion.

Black and white interior shot of the Chandigarh's Royal Assembly, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04392_F002_021

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_010

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_005

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_004

Another Corbusierian motif that forms a central feature of Chandigarh is La Main Ouverte, “the open hand“, which Corbusier considered a symbol of “peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive”. [2] The sculpture in Chandigarh is one of many built by Corbusier, and arguably encompasses the unification of socio-political ideals with architecture, symbolising an India open to new opportunities. In terms of this adoption of a relatively revolutionary style of architecture and urban planning, the construction of Chandigarh can certainly be seen as a symbol of a dehistoricised, decontextualized space through which society could be transformed.

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building and Open Hand monument, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_015


Corrina Summers
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References

  1. Malhotra, A., Chandigarh Exhibited in New York (2013) <https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/08/17/chandigarh-exhibited-in-new-york/> [accessed 11 December 2019].
  2. Shipman, Gertrude (5 October 2014). Ultimate Handbook Guide to Chandigarh : (India) Travel Guide. MicJames. pp. 7–. GGKEY:32JTRTZ290J.

Ruby Gaffney: Pictures of London in the Age of Social Media

The Courtauld’s digitisation project acknowledges that the online world has radically changed who can consume culture, and how they can do so. The collection will no longer be confined to a basement library. By putting the collection online for the public to access for free, its potential reach will span to anyone anywhere, so long as they have internet access. The photographs can be put to more diverse academic purposes, but they can also be browsed recreationally or looked at through a personal viewpoint.

During the time I’ve spent interning at the Courtauld and getting involved in the digitisation process, I’ve been thinking about the digital age and how it has changed the way we both consume and create photographs. Social media means that anyone with access to a smartphone has the ability to take unlimited high-quality photos, a platform to share them, and an audience. I can scroll on Instagram and find endless pictures – it feels like another photographic library, condensed into tiny digital form.

I find a parallel between the Courtauld’s aim of converting older mounted physical photographs into new digital files, and my own aim in compiling this post: to consider the personal photography which now saturates our newsfeeds from family and friends as an accessible new form of artistic expression.

After browsing the Conway library’s many images of London, I went on social media to see how ordinary people today choose to capture the same locations from the collection. As would be expected, the comparisons show how much London has changed. For example, I barely recognised a photo dated 1963-8 of a few gloomy pillars overlooking the Thames, as Instagram is now full of colourful videos and pictures of this space – now the iconic Southbank skate park. In other comparisons, we can also see increased crowds in the background, more modern vehicles, and advanced lighting and technology (particularly prevalent in images of theatres or galleries, or of Oxford Street.)

The comparisons also show changes in what we prioritise in this new medium of photography. Our profiles are intrinsically linked with our identities, so the pictures from social media focus on people to a much greater extent than those from the library. Even if a person isn’t the focal subject of the photo, the image always contains an implicit awareness of the person behind the camera. Unless we post anonymously, no photo is impersonal. What emerges from the pictures in the Conway collection is a series of images of London at a particular time. What emerges in the photos on Instagram is someone experiencing a particular place at the time of posting.

At the same time, however, the impulse to capture and share these London landmarks is felt by both professional and recreational photographers throughout the decades. I spoke to a few Instagram users about their experiences with sharing photography on social media. Responses were varied, but most people shared a feeling that social media has increased, or created, their interest in photography, and inspired them to take pictures of their surroundings. Digitised collections like the Conway library have a similar potential to inspire online viewers.

Charing Cross:

CON_B04110_F002_003

CON_B04110_F002_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset on Charing Cross, taken from Instagram

Image @jaxcov on Instagram.

“There’s so much amazing photography on social media which easily grabs your attention. This definitely made me want to take better photos of my own!”

Thames Barrier: 

View of the Thames Barrier through pillars, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_013. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset on Thames Barrier taken from Instagram

Image @bradleywaller on Instagram.

Sunset view of the Thames Barrier from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_013B. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of sunny thames barrier

Image @sassykirkham on Instagram.

“I take pictures of the street, the sky… basically I take pictures of all around me. I don’t take many pictures of myself.”

Courts of Law:

View of the Law Courts from above, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04089_F003_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Red bus in front of royal courts of justice, taken from instagram.

Image @ambhout on Instagram.

proposed plans of the Courts of Law, dated 1871.

CON_B04089_F003_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

“Social media has made me more interested in photography – it’s hard not to get roped into the constant stream of inspiration. I always wanna try out the things I see online.”

“I have over 4000 pictures on my phone’s camera roll, and probably about 5 times that amount on my computer. I only have physical copies of a tiny fraction of these! I think that’s an exciting thing about my generation: that we have so many images of our lives.”

Kings Cross Station:

View from 2nd floor of the old St Pancras Station. From the Conway Library.

CON_B04089_F001_011. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset over King's Cross station

Image @stefaniegreen0 on Instagram.

Sunset over london's King's cross railway station

Image @stefaniegreen0 on Instagram.

“When I was younger I was highly influenced by likes, but since 3 years ago I don’t really care. I just post photos that I think are cool and interesting.”

“Taking pictures of myself forces me to look into a mirror and find the qualities that I can love.”

National Gallery:

A profile view of the National Gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04092_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of London's National Gallery

Image @kikustralala on Instagram.

“I post what I want, and pay little attention to the likes, follows and comments. When I do look, I find it interesting rather than introverting. In the past I have deleted a photo due to it not getting many likes. But recently I haven’t done that.”

Barbican estate:

Image of the Barbican estate from the Conway Library.

CON_B04266_F005_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Barbican Estate

Image @captainmcnamara on Instagram.

“I love photography in general. But social media has made me love being in front of the camera and behind the camera. I love being part of movements especially for black women like myself. I want to show their beauty through my own photography and myself.”

Image @hhhelss on Instagram.

Trellick Tower:

Image of the Trellick Tower from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of trellick tower from instagram

Image @craig85smith on Instagram.

Full image of the Trellick tower, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F002_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of Trellick Tower from Instagram

Image @ill.diary on Instagram

“I post pictures of my family and friends and things I love.”

Image @valentina___vi on Instagram.

Oxford Street:

London, Oxford Street, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04283_F001_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in Oxford Street

Image @aissis_thatsme on Instagram.

“I both like and dislike that social media has made me take more pictures. I dislike it because when I see something beautiful my first instinct is to take a picture rather than just enjoy it.”

“It has totally changed the way we view photos – the art of capture has become diluted with “clout” chasing.”

Royal Albert Hall: 

Drawing of the Royal Albert Hall, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04096_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of the Royal Albert Hall taken from Instagram

Image @loucatrin106 on Instagram.

Image of the Royal Albert Hall's staircase, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04096_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of the Royal Albert Hall

Image @littleredridingmarika on Instagram.

“I like social media because it feels like I can create my own personal catalogue of things I’ve seen and done. Even without sharing it with other people, I like that I can scroll through and see a highlights reel of memories from my life.”

“I like the idea of capturing my point of view wherever I go and sharing it with the people that I know.”

Southbank:

Image of South Bank Skate Park from Instagram

Image @oriolbech on Instagram.

Contrast view of the part of the Southbank which is now the skatepark, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04286_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of South Bank Skate Park from Instagram

Image @bernardoberbari on Instagram.

“I like London’s diversity and how it feels like a busy yet congenial place full of all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. I like how despite its size you can still feel like part of a community.”

Tate Modern:

Tate Gallery, Clore Gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @ssphinnx on Instagram.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @ssphinnx on Instagram.

Inside view of the Tate gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @hideaway_vibes on Instagram.

“I like London because it feels like anything could happen at any time.”

Whitehall Cenotaph:

SUnshine view of the Whitehall Cenotaph, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04289_F001_033. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Protest sign reading "Will swap 1 Trump for 100000 refugees" in front of the Cenotaph, White Hall, from Instagram.

Image @dinoboy_89 on Instagram.

“You could take interesting photos anywhere in London.”

“It’s a character. I don’t think there is a part of London that isn’t photogenic.”

 


Ruby Gaffney
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Leonora Monson: The Strand Statues

The life and legacy of British-American sculptor and artist Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) remains a source of divisive and heated debate. Hailed by some as a central yet unappreciated pioneer in 20th-century British sculpture, whilst for others, the invigoratingly “modern” dynamic to his works are the markers of an iconoclast who wreaked havoc on traditional art. He is, therefore, an individual whose work demands sensitive analysis both for its significance in the historical context in which it was born and for its importance in the present day.

In the depths of the Conway Library, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, exist a series of photographs that encapsulate these divided opinions which shaped Epstein’s life as well as his artistic legacy. The photographs are of Epstein’s eighteen nude statues installed on the facade of the British Medical Association (BMA) headquarters on the Strand in London in 1908. These were depictions of archetypal subjects including, among others, primal energy, academic research, maternity, infancy and Hygieia. The statues provoked considerable controversy for their supposed indecency, they were condemned by several religious figures as overtly sexualised and morally obscene, and their appearance labelled by others as ugly and deformed, leading to campaigns for the BMA to have them removed.

After a sustained public defamation campaign led by The Evening Standard and St James Gazette, despite the BMA’s support for maintaining the statues, in 1937 the mutilation of the figures went ahead after an incident led to their designation as a danger to pedestrians. All protruding sections of the figures – including faces, shoulders, genitalia, legs, arms, and feet – were chiselled away and the statues left in the largely mutilated form that we see them today at Zimbabwe House, formerly the BMA building.

Side by side images of the statues before and after dilapidation.

Left: The statues in situ on the Strand before 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_009). Right: The same statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_020). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It is hard to comprehend that a collection of sculptures that faced such intense public scrutiny and uproar at its conception, now quietly exists, often unnoticed by pedestrians on one of the busiest streets in London. I am one such guilty Londoner, having walked down the Strand on a regular basis yet ignorant of these statues and their significance, until my time on the Digitisation Programme at the Courtauld.

Side by side images of the building before and after dilapidation.

Left: View of the BMA building on the corner of the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_005). Right: The statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_006). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The Courtauld’s collection of photographs provide a unique insight into the lifespan of the statues. The collection includes black and white photographs of casts of the statues rejected in Epstein’s initial proposal to the BMA along with those that were accepted, the statues in situ before and after their mutilation in 1937 and surviving individual fragments. Particularly thought-provoking are the Courtauld’s photographs of the nudes of a young woman posing as Maternity; an old woman cradling a baby, depicting Infancy; and Matter, represented by a man grasping a rock marked with the outline of a foetus. To me, Epstein was remarkably sensitive in his depiction of the tenderness of human relationships across the boundaries of age and gender, whilst impressive in his candid approach to the changing physical form of the human body. Indeed, his sculptural depiction of the physically changing form of the female body across different stages in life, be it age or after pregnancy, is a breath of fresh air on a street now filled with billboards boasting a narrow ideal of what “femininity” should look like.

Whilst all such statues remain physically in situ, the depictions of children, be it the foetus in “Matter” or the new-born in “Infancy”, were physically removed from their original and complete sculptural form. The authorities were making it clear: Epstein in his candid depiction of the naked human body was threatening Edwardian sensibilities regarding the sanctity of motherhood and purity of childhood. The old woman’s sagging breasts and withered flesh, and the man’s full-frontal nakedness, were central in the early-20th-century campaign against the figures, whilst they equally informed public perception of Epstein’s subsequent projects. The rest of his career was tainted with the persistent criticism that his sculptures dangerously challenged contemporary ideals surrounding beauty and sexual propriety.

The Conway Library also contains photographs of alternative casts in Epstein’s workshop that were later destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1908, including a nude of a woman holding a leaf, posing as Nature. Her open stance and unashamed nakedness were evidently seen as too shocking in the initial choice of statues to be erected on the Strand. Through the images in the Library we gain an insight into the logic behind the initial choice of figures chosen, supposedly more appropriate than several of their workshop contemporaries, and crucial photographic evidence of physical casts that no longer exist.

Side by side images of two of the statues before dilapidation.

Left: “Maternity” in situ on the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_044). Right: Cast for “Nature” destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1907 (CON_B07186_F003_054). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We can, however, see the vandalism of the “Strand Statues” as a somewhat pyrrhic victory for Epstein’s critics. Epstein’s now mutilated figures remain in situ in the heart of Central London, a powerful visual manifestation of the historic constraints placed on artistic freedom whilst also a reminder that a work of art should be understood beyond the aesthetic value attached to it in its initial finished form. The photographs in the Courtauld archives also reveal the subsequent story of the fragments removed in 1937 and the efforts of individuals to ensure that they remained an important part of the narrative surrounding the impact of contemporary sensibilities on artistic practice. Several of the photographs are of fragments following their removal from the Strand site and after an extensive cleaning programme at the National Gallery of Canada in 1961. These fragments now exist in an international museum in which their stories can be told to a global audience.

Side by side images of a statue before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: “Infancy” in situ, prior to 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_060). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Infancy” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_064). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Side by side images of a Epstein next to one of the statues before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: A model for “Matter” in Epstein’s workshop (CON_B07186_F003_050). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Matter” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_067). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The diversifying platforms and subsequently expanding audience to which photographic illustration to the story of the “Strand Statues” can be accessed has been enhanced immeasurably by the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme. The programme aims to provide an expansive online archive through which a variety of audiences will be able to access and study the Courtauld photographic libraries for themselves, including the images of the “Strand Statues”. It is indeed timely that one of the main criticisms of Epstein’s figures was that they were not confined to a museum or art gallery where those with suitable artistic and moral sensibilities could engage with these works of art appropriately. Their location on a main street for anyone and everyone to see was viewed as a dangerous threat to established Edwardian perceptions regarding who could truly comprehend art. On Friday 26th June 1908, The South London Press reported the complaints levelled against the statues by Fr. Bernard Vaughan to a gathering of Catholics in South London. His outrage was based upon fury at the laxity of the authorities in their initial decision to “thrust these statues upon their public highways” rather than dictating an exclusive location and subsequent audience to which such statues were accessible. Such an audience was defined as those with the suitable “artistic temperament” to be trusted to recognise the dangerous dynamic inherent in these sculptures and respond accordingly. Such statuary, he argued should be confined to “art galleries and museums, or where people had to go out of their way to find it.” In light of the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme, I wonder what Fr. Bernard Vaughan would be thinking now?


Leonora Monson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Mia Gainsford: Utopia or Incubator? Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation as Photographed by Lucien Hervé

La maison du fada, or rather “the madman’s house”, is the colloquial name given to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles. The name arouses intrigue and renders the project a diversion. It has a childish appeal, like the building itself, which jumps out of its surroundings and sings colour from its windows.

Image in colour of housing project

CON_B04326_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

L’Unité d’Habitation was Le Corbusier’s attempt at a utopia. Completed in 1952, it was an architectural project which sought to heal the wounds of post-war Marseilles and incubate the next generation. In photographing Le Corbusier’s housing project, Lucien Hervé made children his focus. However, it is important to stress just how rare human subjects are, of any age, in architectural photography; if people are photographed, they are photographed with a purpose. Thus, in Hervé’s photography it is important to ask whether the focus of children intends to enhance the optimism of Le Corbusier’s architectural utopia, employing them as a symbol of hope, or if instead, they are chosen as subjects susceptible to the “madman’s” diverting.

Young girl pushing on the door

CON_B04326_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In discovering Hervé’s photographs amongst the Courtauld’s Conway archive and participating in the broader volunteering scheme, I could not help but reflect upon the act of labelling and giving something a name. Each image has its own code which refers to its box, folder and then place in a sequence. This act of labelling creates its own narrative; the code tells the wider story of the Courtauld’s efforts to organise and digitise the Conway photographs with the help of hundreds of volunteers, and in this, humanise the archive too.

Although this narrative is of a second order to the narrative of the photographs themselves, the Courtauld’s emphasis on retaining the physicality of the photographs, from the fibre of the brown paper they are mounted upon to the spidery annotations around an image, means that no narrative is prioritised over another. The Courtauld is striving to aggrandise the photograph’s status as object, rather than objectifying an image completely on the institute’s own terms and erasing its history. The Conway digitisation project honours how an image has been objectified in the past, and with this, creates a layering of meaning and proffers a plethora of stories which frustrates the idea that labelling is an industrial process and therefore a reductive or homogenising way to treat the photos.

In the Marseillaises’s nicknaming of Le Corbusier’s work “the madman’s house”, we see a similar supplementing and creation of narrative to that of the Courtauld. However, here the name personifies the housing project, rather than objectifying it by commenting on its physical form, like its other name “the Radiant City” does. This character of the “madman” disrupts Le Corbusier’s naïve, attempted narrative of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia. The invocation of madness becomes confusingly human. We can imagine this mythologised figure in the same vein as Carroll’s Mad Hatter, dancing with joy and performing his hospitality, but if “madman” is to be taken more literally, he becomes a victim of the trauma of war too, a man haunted by the contemporaneous austerity, as well as the past, and still suffering below his colourful pretence. Le Corbusier saw L’Unité d’Habitation as a remedy to «les maladies de villes» but for the Marseillaises, the project, as a person, was still ill.

Black and white image mounted on card of the building's profile.

CON_B04326_F001_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The two narratives of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia, as well as a place of great instability and pretence, are in opposition. The full extent of the connotations which derive from naming a housing development “the madman’s house” unsettles Le Corbusier’s idealistic vision. The colloquial label is more understanding of the history before L’Unité d’Habitation; it is an interaction with the past, which acknowledges the preceding trauma rather than reacting to it like Le Corbusier’s project does. It is this idea of interacting over reacting, and subsequently overwriting a narrative, which founds the Courtauld’s sensitive approach to handling the Conway archive too.

Old Man staring out of window

CON_B04326_F001_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Moreover, as subjects in Hervé’s photography, the children probe at the dual nature of L’Unité d’Habitation. The child’s indiscriminate and unassuming qualities mean that their interactions with the housing project are not marred by history like the adult’s. In Hervé’s work, adults are clearly preoccupied, turning away from the camera and staring listlessly at that which lies outside of the development. However, the children do not remember that which Le Corbusier is trying to forget with L’Unité d’Habitation. By consequence, they simultaneously complement the utopian idea of starting again, but also offer a vulnerability to the photographs, akin to believing that this so-called “unity of living” is the norm.

Children playing in light

CON_B04326_F001_026. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Hervé’s photographs which comprise children chasing each other between shafts of light and shadow come to represent the housing project’s competing aspects of the hopeful and the haunted. To the children, contradiction becomes a game, the light and shade facilitate play, they are suspended in L’Unité d’Habitation’s utopian narrative, creating imagined stories of their own, only related to Le Corbusier’s project through location. Through play, the radiance of the housing project with its floor to ceiling windows is equated to shadows created by the sun overhead. Here, the implications of the two names are not in opposition for the children; the children’s presence in the photographs becomes rehabilitative of competition and divisions in all their forms and thus inform the most pertinent of all the post-war reflections to come from the housing project, that unity can be found anywhere.

In July 2016, Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation project in Marseilles and its other iterations in major cities such as Berlin and Nantes were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. This accolade adds yet another label to Le Corbusier’s work and develops the narrative further. It is Le Corbusier’s utopia which meets the criterion of “providing an outstanding response to certain fundamental architectural and social challenges of the 20th century”, rather than the public’s “madman”. However, again, through Hervé’s photography of children and L’Unité d’Habitation, we see a visual recalibration and simplification of this criterion, as for a child, the project has succeeded if it makes him or her feel safe and content.

Children playing on roof terrace

CON_B04326_F001_050. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I was very moved by the happiness captured in this photograph by Hervé. The mother, who stares directly at the camera playing with her child, bypasses the adults’ preoccupation seen elsewhere in Hervé’s work; she is present in the moment, laughing and diverting the children herself. The skyline in the background creates a heavenly quality to the scene, the community of mothers and children are propelled above their surroundings, no longer contained by their apartments. Whilst the climbing frames themselves, with their abstract shapes and sloping angles, suggest another world entirely. The euphoria of this image becomes unearthly. The children and mothers are in a place together which supersedes the tangibility of Le Corbusier’s utopia and the “madman’s house”. They are genuinely happy and bolstered by a new-found sense of safety and longevity in this contentment. In this image, Hervé recognises that happiness alone is unchartered territory in the wake of the war, before we begin to consider the new spatial sensation of housing projects like Le Corbusier’s.

Ultimately then, Hervé’s work is no more about the children propagating an ideology of hope as it is about them being distracted from the outside world by an eccentric figure who himself, is somewhat afraid of the outside. Rather, I want to say that the photographs centre on a notion of individual transportation, a building of a habitat within above slotting oneself into a pre-packaged utopia. Whilst Le Corbusier’s architecture is certainly instrumental, and credited so in Hervé’s photography, to facilitating the contentment of the children, it only does so on a superficial basis. The children care for the light and shadows created by the huge windows and the paddling pool on the roof terrace, they do not care for, nor have need for the ideology behind their way of life. Children can make themselves happy through the living out of their own narratives, in both times of adversity and security. Furthermore, as with the Conway archive, narratives surpass labels in their power to evoke real emotion, and it is Hervé’s subversion of his own label, “architectural photographer”, which gave way to such touching and thought-provoking responses to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation.

Black and white image of children heading to the roof swimming pool.

CON_B04326_F001_042. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Mia Gainsford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: The Oxen of Laon Cathedral

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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