Mihaela Elena Man: At a Crossroads – Kersting’s depiction of the Almudena Cathedral

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One photograph that Anthony Kersting took during one of his journeys through Madrid reveals a site whose open roof, skeletal towers and central cavity would easily classify it as a plain depiction of an early twentieth century abandoned architectural project.

Front and back images of a Kersting print. The back side is annotated by Anthony Kersting.

A.F. Kersting. KER_PNT_H009971 and KER_PNT_H009971b, 27 April 1956. On the back Kersting has written: “The Madrid facade of the new Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena as it now appears. The Cathedral was started in 1895, but only the Crypt was completed. Recently, however, the framework for the Twin Towers of the facade has been completed”.

As alluring as images of outmoded objects and sites are, they very often carry the intrinsic ability to make their viewers venture into a purely nostalgic cul-de-sac. American artist Robert Morris unsympathetically asserts “that all the great ruins have been so desecrated by the photograph, so reduced to banal image, and thereby so fraught with sentimentalising historical awe”[1]. I would’ve concluded with a similar statement had I not discovered the note Kersting wrote at the back of the photograph:

“The Madrid facade of the new Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena as it now appears. The Cathedral was started in 1895, but only the Crypt was completed. Recently, however, the framework for the Twin Towers of the facade has been completed.”

In his caption, Kersting introduces the subject of the image, the Almudena Cathedral “as it now appears”, which was most certainly the moment when the image was taken in 1956. It also seems that at a later date he added two other details to the description, namely a note to say that 1895 was the year when the construction of the building began, and a more recent moment, when (to his seeming surprise) the twin towers of the façade were completed. This caption, attached to the image, pencils the troubling timeline of the Cathedral’s biography.

Postal de la maqueta del proyecto de Francisco de Cubas para la Catedral de la Almudena (Madrid, España).
(Postcard of the model of Francisco de Cubas’s project for the Almudena Cathedral)
By Unknown author – Memoria de Madrid, banco de imágenes históricas del Ayuntamiento de Madrid, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77758865

Due to insufficient funding, the building of the Cathedral was put on hold shortly after the laying of its foundations in 1895. The resumption of the project was further complicated by the death of Francisco de Cubas, the architect who drafted the initial plans. As such, only the Neo-Romanesque Crypt was finished and opened to the public in 1911. The following eruption of the Spanish civil war led to a more than a two-decade stagnancy.

In the 1940s, aesthetic criteria changed. Finalising the construction in a Gothic style was no longer suitable because of the stark contrast it may create with its urban surroundings. Therefore, the Directorate General for Fine Arts organised a national contest, which selected Fernando Chueca Goitia and Carlos Sidro to complete the Cathedral’s construction in a Baroque fashion.

Not accidentally, the exercise of visualising the Cathedral’s hectic timeline is interrupted by the skeletal towers, the centrepiece of Kersting’s photograph. At first sight, the moment of Kersting’s “now”, the “now” when he clicked the shutter, captures the absent façade of the building, which was not completed until the 1960s. This corresponds to one of the periodic moments in the Cathedral’s life when a cloud of uncertainty was hovering around its construction.

Closing the timeline of the Cathedral’s building is the completion of the Baroque cloisters and façade in the 1960s, and the subsequent embellishing of its interiors in 1993. Within a prevailing Neo-Gothic nave, “statues of contemporary artists, in heterogeneous styles, from historical revivals to pop-art decor”[2] are housed. The palimpsestic nature of the Cathedral’s architecture, coupled with Kersting’s ambiguous photograph, further highlights the tumultuous process of how it eventually came to be a fully functional site. Their association also proves that “the history of images is a history of objects that are temporally impure, complex, overdetermined”.[3] 

A photographic document like Anthony Kersting’s is deceiving. It demands us to flip the “inert” or “escapist” side of the picture and read its description to realise that the captured moment is the indivisible and decisive element of the monumental timeline which concludes with the Cathedral’s eventual unveiling. In “Iteration”, Robin Schuldenfrei mentions the “barely visible”, yet visceral nature of “iterative gaps”. She gives the example of a ship, whose sailing from one destination to another is incredibly physical, in its speed through water and in the mechanics of towing, yet the “iterative gap” lingers in the uncertainty as to whether it will reach its destination.[4] Natural or technical threats constitute some of the many dependencies that such a travel embodies. These conditions are, however, predominantly neglected once the ship reaches the shore. In the case of the Cathedral, a gap is closed as the completed a place of worship in unveiled. While capturing such an iterative gap, Kersting encourages the unhealed edges of the edifice’s history to surface. Rather than a standstill, we have reached a crossroads.

Side view of the cathedral under a cloudy sky.

Main facade of Almudena Cathedral.
By Little Savage – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27077669

 

[1] R. Morris, 1970. The Present Tense of Space, in Continuous Project Altered Daily.

[2] Almudena Cathedral – Madrid Tourist Attractions. (n.d.). http://www.madridtourist.info/almudena_cathedral.html

[3] G. Didi-Huberman, 2000. Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism, in Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History.

[4] R. Schuldenfrei, 2020. Iteration: Episodes in the Mediation of Art and Architecture.


Mihaela Elena Man

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: Castle Howard

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In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited two friends, Charles and Sebastian, lounge in the colonnade of Brideshead Castle, the stately home of Sebastian’s family. They have just come down from their first year at Oxford. It is a peerless summer’s day. Charles is sketching an ornamental fountain.

Referring to the main house, Charles says, “Is the dome by Inigo Jones, too? It looks later”.

Sebastian replies, “Oh Charles, don’t be such a tourist”.

It is believed that Waugh based Brideshead on Castle Howard, the only stately home of England to have a dome. It also has its own box in the Conway Library, with many photographs taken by Anthony Kersting. One image, showing the south front from the fountain, looked wrong somehow. Why? The dome had disappeared.

Image of Castle Howard from afar, no dome visible.

The south front of the house with the dome missing. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. CON_B00944_F002_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Inspired by the photographs in the Conway, I visited Castle Howard on another peerless summers day, two years ago, and discovered the story.

During the Second World War, stately homes were either requisitioned by the army or by private schools needing to move away from towns and cities. The owners preferred the schools, as the army would damage the structure and ruin the landscaped gardens. Castle Howard became a girls’ school. Tragically, this apparent good fortune did not prevent damage to the structure. In November 1940, a fire broke out in the South-East wing and swept through the house into the Great Hall, destroying the dome. The Howard family were determined to rebuild the house and to live in it again. The dome was finally completed in 1962.

 

Image of Castle Howard taken from afar, in it we can see the dome clearly.

The south front with the dome restored. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. CON_B00944_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Work still continues, as time, money and opportunities permit. In conjunction with the filming of the TV serial, Brideshead Revisited, in 1981, the Garden Hall was rebuilt. Apparently, many tourists believe that the novel was based on historical events, and the characters on real people.

The reference to Inigo Jones is also a fiction. The architect was John Vanburgh, best known at the time as a Restoration playwright. He was a member of the elite Kit Kat Club, along with the then owner of Castle Howard, Lord Carlisle, who was looking for an architect to rebuild his medieval castle. Vanburgh had trained as an architect but had never built anything. However, Carlisle believed Vanburgh could design a structure of appropriate grandeur and dignity, that reflected the spirit of the age. Vanburgh had toured Europe extensively and the result is a sumptuous blend of the Baroque and the Palladian: ornate sculpture and decoration, with symmetry, arched windows, and temple-like features. He was supported by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral and was the architect of several City churches rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.

I am not sure why being a tourist was such an insult. Presumably, the aristocracy at the time could afford to despise the idea of visitors paying to see their estates. It crops up later in the novel when Charles and Sebastian visit Venice, and “become tourists” themselves.

Please do be a tourist and visit Castle Howard. It is a completely wonderful experience, and they still need the money.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Lorraine Stoker: The Keats-Shelley House in Rome

Audio Version

Read by Bill Bryant

Text Version

Rome is a very special place to me and this is a small, perfect jewel in its crown. The Keats-Shelley House on the Spanish Steps in Rome is a museum dedicated to the second-generation English romantic poets who lived in, and were inspired by Italy. The house hosted PB and Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron, but more importantly, it was the final home of John Keats. I am not a lover of poetry, having endured Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at school, but the various Odes by Keats and Paradise Lost by Milton somehow embedded themselves in my artistic imagination. Ode to a Nightingale by Keats is a personal favourite, it even recently prompted the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association’s 2020 Keats-Shelley Writing Prize theme of Songbird.

Anthony Kersting’s black and white photograph of the house, with its half-shuttered windows, patchy exterior paintwork and the overall dilapidated appearance, exudes a post-war feeling of decay – almost a reflection of Keats’ own situation – tired, worn out, dying. The building appears almost tragic – reflecting a tragic life and story. Ode to a Nightingale was written two years before Keats died in this building in 1821 and yet the following stanza captures the ‘beauty’ and essence of this photograph.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
         What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
                        And leaden-eyed despairs,
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
                Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.  [read more]

Anthony Kersting, “Rome, John Keats’ House, and the Spanish Steps”, 30 September 1961, KER_PNT_G01600. View of the Keats-Shelley House from the Spanish Steps, 2007, uploaded by user Keats1795 to Wikipedia, public domain.

Anthony Kersting, “Rome, John Keats’ House, and the Spanish Steps”, 30 September 1961, KER_PNT_G01600. View of the Keats-Shelley House from the Spanish Steps, 2007, uploaded by user Keats1795 to Wikipedia, public domain.

Today, the striking, renovated building, has a secure future, thanks to the ongoing programme of maintenance and restorations to the interior and exterior of the House. So, before climbing the 138 Spanish steps, It is worth taking a walk through a series of beautiful rooms, containing many treasures and curiosities associated with the lives and works of the Romantic poets, as well as one of the finest libraries of Romantic literature in the world, now numbering more than 8,000 volumes.

In addition to the museum, library and exhibition rooms, there are two spacious terraces boasting stunning views, a book and gift shop, and a small cinema room. The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (London) purchased the house in 1906 and oversees this house, as well as the Keats House in London, and his grave in Rome.

 


Lorraine Stoker
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

“You are listening to the audio version of the Courtauld Digital Media blog…”

We have long had an ambition to make this Digital Media blog more accessible by adding audio versions. Since lockdown began in March, most of our day-to-day library-based digitisation activities have been re-jigged so that we can do them remotely. A silver lining to the change of pace is that the team have had to design alternative activities that volunteers can do at home. These activities are all aligned with the aims of the project, and also fit around people’s changed schedules alongside the stress and difficulty of lockdown.

One such opportunity has been to record audio versions of blog posts. We have been wary that not everyone can participate in volunteering from home because of a lack of the right equipment. However, audio recording is something that a lot of people can do using something they carry around in their pockets every day. Most phones now have free voice recording apps, which, combined with some tweaks to the home recording environment, produce a pretty good sound.

Home studio shared by journalist @RebeccaRideal

Pillow fort / podcast studio of @jameswmorland, researcher and podcaster for Queen Mary University Pathologies of Solitude project

Posts on social media from journalists and podcasters show that almost anyone can create a makeshift recording studio: crouching under duvets, throwing blankets over children’s bunk-beds, or making a pillow fort all suddenly become very serious, professional activities!

Our volunteers really rose to the challenge! Pictured below are John and Tanya: John rearranged furniture to create his home studio, while Tanya went for the old fashioned duvet-over-the-head approach. Other volunteers used a cheaply-available yet extremely effective clip-on mic, or nestled in a walk-in wardrobe – anything to reduce the ‘sound of silence’ (all rooms have a drone or buzz!), external noises, and echo.

John home studio with rearranged furniture

Tanya’s tried and tested under a duvet recording studio

We also held an audio skills video chat, and volunteers shared their recording tips (smile as you read) and pitfalls (prop the duvet up on a clothes horse for much-needed ventilation) with each other. A huge thank you to Norman, Tanya’s partner, who is a vocal and performance coach, who shared some brilliant advice on breathing and speaking clearly https://sway.office.com/EsjdpNM0H7uPbtgC?ref=Link.

With the outtakes now on the cutting room floor (I admit I have had an empathetic giggle at some of the frustrated noises, self-coaching, and occasional cursing that comes with making a recording) the first wave of 25 recordings are now available to listen to!

A huge, enormous thank you to everyone who wrote the blogs to begin with. And a massive cheer and many thanks to everyone who read them so beautifully: Amanda Roberts, Anna Thompson, Anne Hutchings, Ben Britton, Bill Bryant, Christopher Williams, Elena Vardon, Francesca Humi, Francesca Nardone, Gill Stoker, John Ramsey, Megan Stevenson, Peyton Cherry, Sam Cheney, Tanya Goodman-Bailey, and Verity Babbs.

 

Behind-the-scenes of the Digitisation project

 

Modernist and post-war architecture

 

 

Anthony Kersting

 

 

See the world through the eyes of Conway photographs

 

 

Art, design, sculpture and contemporary installations

 

 

You can also listen to the audio versions of the blog on a range of podcast services, see our Anchor.fm profile for the full list: https://anchor.fm/courtauld-digitisation

Or you listen right here on the Spotify player embedded just below! Happy listening!


Fran Allfrey
Courtauld Connects Volunteer Officer

John Ramsey: A Sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral

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This sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite of George Zarnecki, former librarian of the Conway and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. In the latter part of the 20th century, he was a leading authority on sculpture of the Norman or Romanesque period.

Detail of capital 9 in St Gabriel's Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral depicting two partying goats.

St. Gabriel’s Chapel, Capital N.9. Canterbury Cathedral. Attribution: G. Zarnecki. CON_B00089_F002_026.

For his book English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140, he chose it as the image for the front cover. It is a carving on a capital of a pillar in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. It dates from 1070 and shows two animals playing musical instruments. The inspiration for the images came from local illuminated manuscripts.

Zarnecki acknowledged that showing animals playing musical instruments was a popular theme, as they featured in humorous folk tales and fables. However, he had not seen any other work to compare with the sophistication shown here. He was struck by the complex composition, the richness of the imagination and the superior quality of the draughtsmanship and modelling.

The purpose of the sculpture

 

In medieval thinking, the universe was divinely ordered so therefore everything could be given a theological explanation, and everything on earth reflected different aspects of Heaven.

In the middle ages, most people were illiterate, so sculpture and painting provided the images and pictures to illustrate sermons and stories. People lived in a harsh world full of superstition and fear of the unknown. They had the same IQ as ourselves, and exercised it through powerful imaginations, myth-making and storytelling, as they tried to make sense of the world.  Meanwhile, the Church aimed to secure a sense of awe and apprehension, a fear of divine retribution. So, popular images could be used to illustrate a moral message.

Churches were carved all over and painted. It was believed that they were seen not only by people but also by God, so symbolism had to be everywhere. 

Animals in the Medieval imagination

 

Medieval stories have attracted an extensive field of academic research, which tends to analyse stories as:

  • Fables with a strong moral tone, e.g. Aesop’s fables from the 5th century BC;
  • Myths: creation stories, focussed on Gods and mortals;
  • Folk tales, designed both for entertainment and for moral guidance. They were more playful and less structured. Stories were told and retold, continually changing and adapting, to reflect the point to be made, or the circumstances of the time. They were not written down until the 16th.

These categories overlapped of course. Also, stories travelled widely around the world along the trade routes and picked up many influences. Animals featured strongly. They developed specific characteristics, and many fantastical, mythical animals were created. Animals were seen as sources of instruction, as in the Book of Job: ‘’Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee – and the fowls of the air’’ [Job 12:7]. 

Animal symbolism and musical instruments

 

Here are just a few examples, to provide some context for the animals in this picture:

  • A cat – represents laziness and lechery;
  • Playing a fiddle – suggests a mewing sound;
  • Dog – faithful, loyal, but also can be stupid and lustful;
  • Donkey – Christ’s beast of burden, or used derogatorily to represent either stupid or lower class people, but can also be lustful;
  • Goat – loves the mountains like Jesus, represents fertility but also the horned devil. Can represent intelligence and mischievousness. And lust.
  • Sheep – can represent Christ/the lamb of God. Indicates purity, gentleness, wisdom, but not as canny as goats. (It’s the only animal I can find who is not associated with lust!)
  • Playing a lute – suggests a bleating sound.

Sheep and goats were the earliest animals to be domesticated and feature heavily in folk stories. Animals from all over the world were introduced as these stories circulated, so non-indigenous types such as a mountain goat or ibex would feature in English folk tales.

What this carving shows

 

In order to understand it, I drew it as a simplified picture to clarify the detail that is hard to decipher from the photograph. I have also added in some features that look to have become worn or broken.

What I think I see is a sheep, an ibex, and a fantastical creature.

A sketch by John Ramsey.

The sheep is female and playing a violin or maybe a lute with a bow. She has a human torso which is smooth like skin, a human breast and hands, but hooves for feet. The sheep also has wings, is standing upright and appears to be singing.

The sex of the ibex is not visible, but it is playing a cornet or trumpet, so my assumption is that he is male. He has the head and body of a goat. He is playing the horn with his cloven forefeet. His hind feet, however, are human. His right foot appears to be wearing a shoe and is between the sheep’s instrument and her leg, possibly pointing towards her groin.

He is riding a creature which has the head of a dog, front legs with hooves but the tail of a fish. The creature is stretching back to bite the ibex, which may indicate that the ibex is planning mischief, or is making too much noise. (Where medieval animals are seen biting themselves, this means they have made a mistake and are punishing themselves. E.g. a wolf bites his foreleg if he treads on a stick and makes a noise as he creeps up on a chicken shed.)

Conclusion: The ibex is trying to seduce the sheep, who is pure. The instruments may indicate their respective voices or symbolise their sexual parts. One senses the sheep is wise and the ibex will have his work cut out!

What is the story?

 

There are many story and reference books, but from what I can find online there is no obviously popular story that could feature this scene. The crypt of Canterbury was a pilgrimage destination, so perhaps this and other wonderful carvings there were used to entertain them or to remind them of a clear moral point.

Would anyone like to write the story? Or offer an alternative interpretation of the picture?

References:

 

Zarnecki G (1951) English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140. London: Tiranti.

Kahn D (1991) Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Sculpture. Austin: University of Texas Press. (Deborah Kahn was a pupil of Zarnecki and her work remains the definitive analysis of Canterbury Cathedral’s sculpture.)


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

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

Audio Version

Read by Francesca Nardone

Text Version

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

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

Conway Library Shelves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of translucent 3D printed sculpture by artist Morehshin Allahyari

Morehshin Allahyari – Material Speculation – Lamassu

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


Lara Drew

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

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

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Text Version

AF Kersting black and white print.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching the Archive

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

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

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

The Iran and Iraq Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverse of the image showing Kersting’s handwritten annotations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Materiality in the Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quieter than Silence”

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

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

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

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

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


Brittany Ellis

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: Agnes Conway 1885–1950

Audio Version

Read by Amanda Roberts

Text Version

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

Sophie Buckman: the serene beauty of Robert Byron’s Isfahan

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

Being presented with immediate free rein in The Courtauld’s Conway photographic library was delightfully overwhelming, and I spent much of my first day flitting between folders of images of Cumbrian churches, the Callipygian Venus, and Florentine stained glass.

Eventually and unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section of files on the architecture of Iran, and soon came across the two on Isfahan. Having visited the city a few years ago, I was curious to see the photographs of what I remember as one of the most beautiful cities in the country of my family. An ancient Silk Road city, Isfahan flourished in the Safavid period, and its skyline is still marked by the imperial sandstone of Shah Abbas’ golden age.

The domes and minarets of Isfahan’s mosques and palaces colour the city a vibrant blue, evoking memories of invading Mongols and their eastern ceramics. In The Road to Oxiana (1937), travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron (1905 – 1941) saw reflections of this dominating colour in the Zayandehrud river which cuts through the city; he describes it “catching that blue in its muddy silver… and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures”.

Expelled from Merton College, Oxford, Robert Byron was a member of the infamously flamboyant Hypocrites Club, and in the 1920s a “bright young thing” of the London social scene. While the excess of his early years was immortalised in novels by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, much of Byron’s life was spent travelling and soon he became a wildly successful travel writer, ahead of his death in combat in 1941.

Here at the Courtauld can be found Byron’s own photos from his Middle Eastern trip of 1933–34, taken during the writing of his most famous work, The Road to Oxiana.

Item from the Conway Library. Two images of Isfahan, Persia, showing the bridge.

CON_B02478_F001_002 Robert Byron, a view along Khaju Bridge from the imperial box in its centre. The throne from where Shah Abbas II would have enjoyed summer evenings is long gone.

Central to his view of Isfahan, is the river, “Zayandeh” literally meaning “life-giver”, and its two main bridges, Pol-e-Khaju, Khaju Bridge, and Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of 33 Arches.

Pol-e-khaju and Si-o-se Pol were both built in the seventeenth century, and function as pedestrian bridges as well as weirs. In Byron’s photographs the Zayandehrud tears between their arches, whilst in more recent years the waterbed has been dry.

The river’s pilgrimage from the Zagros Mountains has fallen short every summer for 10 years now. Some blame bureaucratic mismanagement and the over-allocation of water to steelworks and farms upstream, whilst officials have been quoted as instead blaming the immorality of Isfahanis for the drying of the river.[1]

Item from the Conway Library, two black and white images of the bridge from different angles.

Robert Byron, Khaju Bridge, low water. CON_B02478_F001_001.

Robert Byron’s several visits to the city over those two years provide evidence of the instability of the Zayandehrud’s water levels. In one photograph of Pol-e-Khaju the water is low enough to allow locals to wash and bathe on the crumbling Safavid steps.

In one of Byron’s photos of Si-o-se pol, a group of people seem stranded in his symmetrical framing, the water rising, with several of the men staring deep into the camera’s lens, almost imploring the viewer for help. Photographing this middle section of the bridge isolates these pedestrians, eliminating any view of escape from the Zayandehrud, reframing a simple social scene into a near biblical scene of flooding.

Item from the Conway Library, two black and white images of people standing on the bridge, under the arches.

Robert Byron, high water. CON_B02478_F007_002.

The two bridges have served as meeting-places and social spaces for Isfahanis since their inception, particularly in the evenings, when the workday ends and crowds are drawn to the aureate glow of the lit arcades and arches.

Byron describes the foot passages on Si-o-se Pol being as overwhelmed as the river; “it was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory”.

Despite Byron’s poetic synonymity of crowd and water, the drought of recent years have allowed for the continued tradition of singing underneath the arches of Khaju. Groups of men drink tea, smoke shisha pipes, or “hubble-bubbles” as Byron called them, and sing in groups or unison, their voices echoing off the high, curved roof of the cavernous spaces.

The sound is haunting, and one almost feels transported to a bygone era in awe of this storied tradition.

Robert Byron, daytime under Khaju Bridge, 1933. CON_B02478_F001_005.

A photograph from my visit to Isfahan in 2017, nighttime under Khaju Bridge, with singers.

Much of Byron’s journey through Persia in The Road to Oxiana is impeded by bureaucracy and illness. Many of the entries of his many weeks stuck in Tehran start with some defeated variation of “Still here”. By contrast, the verdant splendour of Isfahan is celebrated, in what I find to be the most beautiful passage of the book:

“The bridge encloses the road by arched walls, on the outside of which runs a miniature arcade for foot passengers. This was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory. The lights came out. A little breeze stirred, and for the first time in four months I felt a wind that had no chill in it. I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine. So much it meant to have escaped from Teheran.”     Robert Byron on Si-o-se Pol, The Road to Oxiana 

For the first summer in ten years, 2019 saw the Khaju and Si-o-se bridges flushed with water once again. Through drought and flood, from their building in the 1600s, to Byron’s 1930s, to the present, the serene beauty of these “cafe-au-lait” bridges endures.

[1] The Independent, June 2016, “Iranian women’s clothing “causing rivers to run dry”, says senior cleric” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iranian-womens-clothing-is-causing-a-river-to-run-dry-cleric-says-a7077021.html


Sophie Buckman

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

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/