Ruixian Zhang: 18th Century China Under the Pen of William Alexander – an Amazing Journey Following the British Embassy

In 1792, William Alexander, a British artist born in Maidstone, Kent, was chosen to accompany Lord Macartney’s embassy to China as a junior draughtsman at the age of 25. Very few of his works dating from before this journey are known, so it is likely that this was Alexander’s first proper commission and it is known as the first ever British diplomatic mission to China.

The goal was to meet Qianlong Emperor to relax the restriction on British merchants’ trade port in China due to the growing demand for tea and other Chinese products like porcelain and silk and introduce new British products to Chinese market, further to get new ports and a small island. They also tried to promote a direct line of communication between the two governments by establishing a permanent embassy in Beijing. It can be seen that the embassy did an elaborate preparation by providing gifts with superior quality including clocks, telescopes, weapons, textiles, and other products of technology, intending to reflect Britain’s national character of ingenuity, exploration, and curiosity about the natural world.

 

May – June 1793, Vietnam

According to the Witt Library’s collection and online records, there are a couple of Alexander’s drawings of people he met at today’s Turon Bay in Vietnam, where the embassy resided during May – June 1793 before the landing in China.

“Mandarin with Pipe Bearer” in Tourane Bay.

“Natives of Cochinchina Playing a Shuttlecock”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19 – 23 June 1793, Macau

After a total of nearly 10-month voyage starting from Portsmouth, England, the full squadron finally arrived at Macau, China on 19 June 1793. There, the embassy disembarked to meet with officials of the East India Company. As they carried many large, precious items that might be damaged if taken overland, they got permission from the emperor to change route to the closest port of Tianjin instead of the official port of Guangdong. On June 23rd, the embassy got to continue by sea to the northeast to meet Emperor Qianlong – the goal of this journey.

“Portrait of the Purveyor to Lord Macartney’s Embassy”, Macau.

Map: Macau to Beijing to Chengde

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21 August 1793, Beijing

Through one of the western gates, the Ping-tze Gate, they entered Beijing on August 21st. “Our arrival was announced by the firing of guns and refreshments were made ready for all the gentlemen, at a resting place within the gate…” (Authentic Account, vol.2, p.116, Staunton).

Pingze Men

 

August 1793, Beijing

On August 25th, four days after their arrival in Beijing, Alexander seemed to be attracted by a building in front of him – the Audience Hall, main hall of the Old Summer Palace (Yuan-ming Yuan) – as his journal says: “Before this magnificent building is a platform of granite on which are four large urns of brass. They are handsomely ornamented and used for burning perfumes when the Emperor is present. The Cornice of the Hall on the outside is very rich being gilt and coloured red and green in a very splendid manner. The front and sides have narrow folding doors from bottom to the top any of which can be opened for the admission of air…”

“A Front View of the Audience Hall at Yuan-ming Yuan”

“A View in the Gardens of the Imperial Palace at Pekin”

 

It was there that the gifts brought by the embassy were stored amongst other tribute items. Two members of the embassy were responsible for assembling and arranging the gifts. The most important item, the planetarium, was so complex that it took 18 days to assemble.

The Old Summer Palace (Yuan-ming Yuan), widely perceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design, was devastated by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860 – it was so large that it took 4000 men three days of burning to destroy it. The reason for this destruction remains highly controversial today. What is known is that it consisted of extensive collection of gardens, numerous art and historical treasures of China, Europe, Tibet and Mongolia and its former splendour can be seen from the stolen sculptures, porcelain, jade, silk robes, elaborate textiles, gold objects now in 47 museums around the world and the ruins in Beijing.

 

2 September 1793, Departure from Beijing

Since it was autumn, Qianlong was leading a ritual hunting expedition north of the Great Wall at Jehol (today’s Chengde), an inherited tradition from his grandfather.

Great Wall of China

Having left behind the planetarium and other gifts at the Old Summer Palace, about seventy members of the mission, among them forty soldiers, departed Beijing on September 2nd, heading north towards Jehol. The group crossed the Great Wall of China, where they were greeted by ceremonial gunfire and several companies of troops of the Qing military. They made a survey of the Great Wall’s fortifications, thereby contributing to the intelligence-gathering aspect of the mission, though at the expense of arousing suspicion among their Chinese hosts. Some of the men, meanwhile, took bricks from the Wall as souvenirs.

 

14 September 1793, Chengde

The Emperor of China “Approaching His Tent in Tartary to Receive the British Ambassador, Lord Macartney”

This drawing above shows the meeting taking place on 14 September 1793, in the imperial park at Jehol. The ceremony was to be held in the imperial tent, a large yellow yurt which contained the emperor’s throne at the centre of a raised platform. Several thousand attendees were present, including other foreign visitors, the viceroy and the emperor’s son, the future Jiaqing Emperor. “The Emperor soon appeared from behind a high and perpendicular mountain, skirted with trees as if from a sacred grove, preceded by a number of persons busied in proclaiming aloud his virtues and his power…” (Authentic Account, vol. 2, p. 229, Staunton)  Macartney entered the tent along with George and Thomas Staunton, and their Chinese interpreter. The others waited outside.

“Ch’ien Lung Presenting a Purse to George Thomas Staunton Inside the Imperial Tent at Jehol”

Macartney stepped up to the platform first, kneeling once, exchanging gifts with Qianlong and presenting King George III’s letter. He was followed by George Staunton, and finally Thomas Staunton. As Thomas had studied the Chinese language, the Qianlong Emperor beckoned him to speak a few words. The British were followed by other envoys, about whom little is written. A banquet was then held to conclude the day’s events. The British were seated on the emperor’s left, in the most prestigious position.

However, it made one wonder why it depicted the figure of Thomas Staunton so small. In my opinion, the emperor, who appeared imposing and arrogant, was in fact fearful and worried and wanted to disguise this in the embassy. In his early years, Qianlong was known for his attractive and affable personality, his long reign (he was one of the longest-reigning rulers in the history of the world) reached the most splendid and prosperous era in the Qing Empire, boasting an extremely large population and economy and having completed military campaigns which had expanded the dynastic territory to the largest extent. However, by 1793 he was spoiled with power and glory, disillusioned and complacent in his reign, the court was full of corruption and the civil society was stagnating. The outcome was that in the letter he gave Macartney for the British king he said “This also is a flagrant infringement of the usage of my Empire and cannot possibly be entertained.” And even used the word “barbarian” to foreign merchants. His old and crazy belief that China was still the “central kingdom” informed his refusal to take on the British advancements in science and technology, impeding China’s journey to modernization. However, under this arrogant appearance is his concern for the safety of his country, for the internal unrest and the transformations of Chinese society that might result from unrestricted foreign access. The huge ship of China was too large to change her heading.

The letter was an excuse and Qianlong had sensed an unavoidable conflict between the two nations. Even though later Qianlong placated the British with unspecified promises in order to avoid military conflicts, the big unbalanced trade difference then led to British traders’ smuggling large quantities of opium to southern China, causing a national addiction crisis and resulting in the Opium War, which compromised China’s sovereignty and economic power for almost a century. The huge but fragile ship dashed to pieces 50 years later.

It is surprising to me that there is a large number of people in Alexander’s drawing who are smoking tobacco with a long pipe which forms a clue for the popularity of the product of opium in China years later, thus the wars. The people depicted are of smoking regardless of their gender, class or even age. “I imagine smoking to be more practiced in China than any other part of the world…” Alexander said.

 

 

September 1793, The Journey Forward                

Though some contemporaries of Alexander were able to visit China, none could venture far inland due to the restriction to certain trading ports. After his return and the publishing of his work in the early 19th century, China became an extremely strong inspiration in British art and design, one particularly noteworthy example being the interior design of the Royal Pavilion. This fascination owes much to the new, reliable and exciting glimpses into Chinese landscape, architecture, people and art that Alexander provided like no artist before. Alexander shaped the West’s image of this far away country.

 

13 October 1793, Tianjin

“The Temporary Pavilion Erected for the Landing of the Embassador”

Map: Chengde to Tianjin

The building was constructed by order of the chief Mandarin of the city for the purpose of complimenting the ambassador and entertaining him and his suite with refreshments. “…The entertainment consisted of a profusion of poultry, confectionary, fresh fruits, preserves and jars of wine…”

 

4 November 1793, the Golden Island in the Yangtze River

“In crossing the river our attention was directed to an island situated in the middle of the river, called Chin-shan, or the Golden Mountain, which rose almost perpendicularly out of the river and is interspersed with gardens and pleasure houses. Art and nature seemed to have combined to give this spot the appearance of enchantment…” There was a beautiful legend which was transformed into a very popular Chinese opera “Legend of the White Snake”.

“The Golden Island in the Yang-tse-kiang”

Map: Tianjin to the GoldenIsland

 

7 November 1793,  Suzhou

On November 7th, the embassy reached Suzhou where the combination of boats and bustling figures stuck an immediate chord on Alexander’s mind: “At 2 pm arrived at the famous and flourishing city of Suzhou… many houses project over the canal reminding me of Canaletto’s views in Venice.” It was so crowded here that it took them 3 hours to pass before reaching the city, which perhaps left enough time for Alexander to depict everything in such detail. He had even included himself sketching (circled in blue). If you compare the small figure of himself to the whole picture you can better understand the vastness of the scene.

“On the River at Suchow”

Map: Suzhou

 

16 November 1793, Hangzhou

“Economy of Time and Labour Exemplified in a Chinese Waterman at Han-Choo-Foo”

Map: Hangzhou and departure

 

This drawing is particularly delightful to me. Alexander seems interested in how this waterman is sailing his boat: “The waterman was uncommonly expert, and it was not unusual to see a large boat entirely managed by one man, who rowed, sailed, steered and smoked his pipe at the same time.”

 

References:

《中国近代史》蒋廷黻

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macartney_Embassy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qianlong_Emperor#Macartney_Embassy

http://www.china.org.cn/china/2015-01/30/content_34686142.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_Wars

https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2016/09/01/shaping-an-image-of-china-in-the-west-william-alexander-1767-1816/

 


Ruixian Zhang
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

Jessie Palmer: AF Kersting, Canary Wharf, and the removal of the fat cat

My key interest for the past year has been in the figure of the “Fat Cat”[1], to which none of the images I was looking at in the Conway Library could give a literal face. Yet, the collection of AF Kersting seemed to offer some light on my desire to continue looking at this select group of people through his record of the Canary Wharf commercial estate in the early 1990s.

“LONDON, CANARY WHARF, The Tower.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Leafing through the collection of Kersting’s work held by the Conway Library, one begins to form an image of a photographer who scrutinised his subject matter until no question was left for the imagination. There are only four images he took of Canary Wharf and they stand in stark contrast to the rest of the collection, which features a multitude of similar images taken from minutely different angles, recording as much as possible of an object, building or landscape.

Kersting’s photographs show us Canary Wharf in the early 1990s standing at the opposing side of the river, and take us all the way through to the marble halls of the West Ferry Circus property at the most western side of the site. Thirty years old today, these images are outstanding documents of the architecture of Canary Wharf in the early days of its redevelopment. The images place 1 Canada Square high up in the London skyline and relay a reality far from the built-up area we know today. The relationship between Kersting’s habit of not including people in his images of buildings and landscapes, and the current intensive and pedantic control of the site’s media coverage, lends itself to a new conversation about the presentation of the financial industry.

“LONDON, CANARY WHARF, From the River.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Arguably, there is much to glean from an image that documents something that only wants us to see its surface. For example, the empty and flawless nuances of each image reiterate the appearance the financial world wishes to portray to its global audience. The single interior photograph shows a vestibule leading into something of an endless tunnel of infinite reflections, the shuttering of the repetitive architecture rejects our attempt to try and identify ourselves with this alien space of wealth. Similarly the exterior of the Westferry Circus and “The Tower”, (which is referring to 1 Canada Square, the second tallest building at the time of its completion in 1991), suggests, through its scale and uniform appearance, that there are no cracks in its literal physical structure in which to insert ourselves psychologically.

“LONDON, WESTFERRY CIRCUS, CANARY WHARF, The Vestibule.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In Henrich Wöfflin’s doctoral dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture, 1886)[2], he focuses on the concept of the psychology of aesthetics and suggests that there is an empathy that we have with objects which influences their design. His particular focus is on architecture and its proportions which, he argues, are understood by viewers in relation to their own: humans actively create buildings that correspond to their own physiques. An example he gives is that facades of buildings are the same as human faces.

Kersting’s documentation of these buildings within Canary Wharf rings true to such a proposal. The design exhibits the nature of the clientele who rent these office floors, actively displaying their wealth and desire for privacy. The structures themselves behave not only in alignment with their inhabitants – the city skyline mirroring the companies’ power and international reach – but also with the inaccessible and largely unknown movements of the financial market, which prefers to be left alone to do its job as the largest grossing industry in the UK.

The tone set by these structures is one of distance and exclusivity. Furthermore, the symbolism of these buildings, in particular the success and association that they have with their “starchitects”, has become something of a novel and “must-have” aspect to new developments cropping up across global capitals. 1 Canada Square’s architects, César Pelli & Associates, who also designed the World Financial Centre in New York, only reiterate how these buildings have been made to accommodate and act as a representation of those inhabiting it.

“LONDON, WESTFERRY CIRCUS, CANARY WHARF.” AF Kersting CON_B04268_F003_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

My curiosity wishes to revisit how these images might have been created, particularly when restrictions placed by the owners of Canary Wharf, Canary Wharf Group Plc, are so tightly regulated today. Though we are being given access privileges that might not exist again, the images are largely dictated by Kersting’s style. From behind the lens, he has the ability to crop out the rest of the landscape. Perhaps the photograph from the other side of the river suggests that Canary Wharf has become an island, a disconnected metropolis from the rest of the city? Kersting’s reiteration to his audience of this distance between these developments and the rest of the city becomes an increasingly alarming parallel when one inserts the companies into the offices that tower 50 floors into the sky. I feel a far clearer message relayed, however, is the immense power and money these structures represent. And the way they stand as early symbols of the city against the largely unpopulated docklands of the time.

The faceless nature of the fat cat lets us forget the individuals of the financial machine. It is not necessarily the individuals who see the need to remove themselves but, for example, Canary Wharf Group Plc who is the umbrella voice surrounding the property and enforces film and photography permits. With Kersting’s choice to not include people in the images these photographs only flatten the facade we are presented and, arguably, the face of this industry even more. The flatness compacts and constricts itself even tighter, so that it gives as little information as it possibly can. The flatness of our knowledge is emanated by these buildings’ faces. Its desire to create privacy reflects our image back to ourselves, looking at the light catching on the windows. What else Kersting saw, we will never know. The fat cat wins again.

[1] Fat Cat: If you refer to a businessman or politician as a fat cat, you are indicating that you disapprove of the way they use their wealth and power. www.collinsdictionary.com

[2] Wölfflin, H., 1886. Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, München.

 


Jessie Palmer
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

Aya Bolt: Finbsury, Lubetkin’s Socialist Utopia

The Courtauld Institute of Art’s Conway Library houses an impressive photographic collection of architecture from a vast array of periods and locations. Some of the collection’s earliest photos are dated from the 1850s and these are a mere couple of decades older than the oldest surviving photograph of an image formed in camera. Given the seemingly endless opportunities to do some armchair, or rather office chair, travelling and discover some of the world’s most significant structures (many now destroyed to both war and time), it may perhaps seem strange that one would choose to focus on photographs of twentieth-century British architecture. However, these often under-loved and over-looked buildings have a story of their own to tell. Through this blog post, I hope to offer an exposé of the collaborative work between Finsbury Council and architect Berthold Lubetkin from the inter and post-war period.

Lubetkin’s success in Britain started with the establishment of the architecture firm Tecton. Formed in the 1930s, the firm was an instrumental pioneer in bringing continental modernism to Britain. Whilst some of Tecton’s most iconic builds are London Zoo’s penguin pool and gorilla enclosure, founding architect Lubetkin is, in fact, responsible for some of London’s more recognisable and perhaps infamous landmark social housing. His personal maxim was “nothing is too good for ordinary people!” and he strove to improve the living conditions of the working class. Spa Green Estate was the first of many projects designed to offer luxury features to working class families, including lifts, central heating, electrical and gas appliances, running water, a waste-disposal system, balconies and a laundry-drying roof terrace. The amenities offered far exceeded those enjoyed by the majority of the population at the time.   

Spa Green Estate in Finsbury, EC1, opened in 1949. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Born in what is now Georgia, Lubetkin emigrated to the UK in the early 1930s. His formal training was completed in the USSR at VKhUTEMAS, a state funded art and technical school in Moscow where Lubetkin witnessed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, allegedly from his bedroom window. It was undoubtedly this formation, both creative and political, which led to his neo-constructivist style. Particularly taken with the idea of the “artist engineer” who uses industrial techniques to produce socially useful objects, Lubetkin was committed to socially driven architecture. Arguably, no structure embodies his ideals more than the Finsbury Health Centre. Commissioned by Finsbury council, led by devout socialist Alderman Harold Riley, and backed by the chairman of the public health committee, Dr Chuni Lal Katial, the Finsbury Health Centre marked the dawning of a new era of Public Health Service. Planning and construction began in 1935 and the centre was ready for opening in 1938, a full decade before the advent of Britain’s National Healthcare System.

The Finsbury Health Centre Façade, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

However, the opening of the centre was unfortunate timing as World War Two broke out soon after and the building needed to be protected rather than up and running – although it was used as a bandaging centre for civilian causalities throughout the war. In order to limit damage from bombing, the centre was covered in sandbags, cracking many of the glass bricks in the façade and wings which then needed to be repaired. This cost of this repair work combined with post-war austerity meant that the building’s finishes, such as the plumbing, could not be completed according to Lubetkin’s plans and standards.

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

As the fighting escalated, society was increasingly committed to providing more equality and fairness come peacetime. The ever-growing labour party promised a utopian fantasy of what the future could be, and this was reflected in the modernist architecture of new municipal buildings that councils were erecting. Modernism represented hope and potential, as the poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre by Abram Games highlights. The contrast between the shiny new centre and the derelict slums behind it underline the sub-par living conditions of the working class prior to and during the war. The 1943 poster was purportedly banned by Churchill as he believed that it exaggerated the state the poor in slums were living in (many of whom had fought in the war) and shed a negative light on the conservative party who had been in power for the majority of the twentieth century.

Poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre, 1943 by Abram Games, Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM PST 2911)

A better quality of life which included good health was being promised to those for whom lack of information, neglect and inaccessibility to health care had been cutting life short.

The mural in the health centre with slogans such as “chest diseases are preventable and curable” create a sense of hope but also illustrate how illnesses that now seem easily treatable were once fatal to many. Come 1948, the NHS looked to the Finsbury Health centre to found many of its ideals as it was upheld as a model structure for the provision of public healthcare. The centre’s aims were to unite the borough’s divided health care services, create a standardised system and provide free health care for all of the borough’s residents. A true testament to the daring vision of early British socialism and Lubetkin’s constructivist design, the Finsbury Health Centre has been awarded Grade 1 listing and thanks to the efforts of the FHC Preservation Trust and NHS Property Services, is still serving patients to this day.

The Finsbury Health Centre Mural by Gordon Cullen, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

 


Aya Bolt
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

Samuel Cheney: Meeting the Photographer’s Gaze – Absence and Presence in Anthony Kersting’s Images of Nepal

Anthony Kersting (1916–2008) has primarily been remembered as Britain’s pre-eminent architectural photographer of the twentieth century, having extensively documented buildings across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Yet, by delving into a specific collection held in The Courtauld Institute’s vast Conway Library, we can see that it was not just the aesthetic pleasures of great buildings that caught the photographer’s eye. With many human portraits punctuating his architectural studies, Kersting seemingly had as much of a passion for people as he did for architecture. Human interactions with the built environment that surrounded them repeatedly grabbed the photographer’s attention. A look through his photographs of Nepal can show how Kersting attempted to provide an impression of the country by representing both humanity and architectural landscapes in one continuum.

A short trip to Nepal in February 1971 yielded tens of images which show Kersting’s observations of people within their built environment. This image of Durbar Square in the Nepalese city of Lalitpur exemplifies this, as Kersting adopts a distant vantage point to depict the bustle of urban living among the majestic surrounds of Newar architecture.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. Durbar Square, Patan”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08923. CC BY NC.

A more intimate interaction between person and landscape is portrayed in the study of the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple in Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon), north-east of Kathmandu. While the image is dominated by the imposing structure itself, our attention is drawn toward two separate pairs of figures. An adult man and a young girl stride nonchalantly past each other in the foreground, neglecting to look at this impressive building that may have, to them, become quotidian. And, sitting on the temple’s entrance steps, a second girl and a much younger child scrutinise something in between them, blissfully unaware (or so it seems) of the watchful gaze of the photographer’s lens.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. Bhadgaon, Pashupatinath Temple”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08932. CC BY NC.

Alongside depicting the Nepalese architectural landscape, Kersting was clearly also concerned with documenting the people who ubiquitously appear in interaction with their built surroundings. This was highly significant for Kersting’s photographic craft. Through attempting to depict a rounded picture of Nepalese life, both people and architecture become the objects of his urban scene. This objectification depends on a lack of agency, both humans and buildings exist in the photo exclusively as things to be seen. Kersting does not want to interact with these subjects, he only seeks to observe them from the outside. This sustains the supposed authenticity of his scenes – by consciously trying to absent himself from his photographs, Kersting attempts to show how Nepal would appear even if he were not looking. To perpetuate this illusion of being an absent observer, Kersting doesn’t seem to want the individuals in his photographs to appear in interaction with him in any way. Robbed of their ability to act, people regularly become monumentalised in these pictures, just like the buildings that surround them.

This image of a Kathmandu street scene epitomises the usual arrangement of individuals in Kersting’s Nepal collection. The illusion of Kersting’s absence from this scene is maintained by the most prominent figure resisting the temptation to meet the photographer’s gaze. The people who are seemingly unaware of being observed, alongside the carry-poles and market stalls, imbue this snapshot of the Nepalese capital with a flavour of authenticity.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. A street scene in Kathmandu”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_F051-093A. CC BY NC.

However, occasionally Kersting cannot remain hidden in his photographs. In some images, this phantasmagorical English photographer captures the exact moment when various Nepalese people spot his presence. A few photos in the collection show some of Kersting’s subjects meet his gaze, as they stare directly back at his voyeuristic lens. Rather than remaining the disconnected objects of Kersting’s photographic gaze, this disturbs the illusion of Kersting documenting an undisturbed Nepal, as he becomes implicated in the images which he has attempted to remain absent from.

One such image is Kersting’s photograph of the Golden Gate of Bhaktapur. The Nepalese woman guarding the doorway does not act as if unobserved but, shielding her eyes from the sun’s obscuring rays, visibly strains to examine the photographer.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. The Golden Gate in Bhadgaon”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08929. CC BY NC.

In the centre of the image, an older girl drags her younger companion (perhaps her sister) through the square. While the taller child rushes across the picture frame, as just another object signifying the bustle of a Nepalese city, the smaller girl noticeably slows, struck with curiosity at the imposing figure of Kersting who is capturing her image for posterity. Along with the closest figure, a man who glances back mid-stride to meet the gaze of the cameraman, this girl causes the illusion of Kersting’s absence to shatter. We are left wondering about Kersting’s positioning within this scene, as the sole European standing alone in this central-Himalayan city square, fuelling the interests of the Nepalese people who encircle him. Kersting is similarly implicated in another photo showing the Golden Gate and the adjacent Palace of Fifty-Five Windows. The foregrounding of his architectural scene is suffused with movement. Like his other photographs of Nepalese squares, Kersting attempts to show the rush of everyday life continuing undisturbed by his photographic intrusion. Yet, Kersting actually captures a moment that makes this photograph the most beautiful of all his images of Nepal.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal, Durbar Square, Bhadgaon. Showing the Golden Gate and the Palace of 55 Windows”. KER_PNT_G08918. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Most of the images we have from Kersting’s 1971 trip to Nepal show one side of the photographic process, only exposing the view of the man wielding the camera. However, we should remember that photography is a symbiotic exchange between photographer and subject. Despite his attempts to inculcate the illusion of absence in his photographs, when Kersting looked at the people of Nepal in order to capture their image, the people of Nepal would have looked back at him. Unfortunately, the thoughts of Kersting’s Nepalese subjects are lost, and we are left with only speculations about how these people felt about having their pictures taken or whether they wanted to be photographed at all.

The compositional style of Kersting’s photographs can seduce us into believing that the photographer was a man who wasn’t there. However, by meeting the gaze of our cameraman, Kersting’s Nepalese subjects highlight the photographer’s eternal presence in the images he created.

 


Samuel Cheney
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

 

The man who wasn’t there

Observing portraiture through the eyes of Anthony Kersting

 

When I first started my internship, I was in awe at the large collection of archives kept everywhere around the Witt and Conway library which is situated in the basement of The Courtauld Institute. I was so intrigued that I simply wanted to open every archive box I could without being tagged as the new nosey intern. I am happy to say that I now proudly hold that title even before I opened all the boxes. However, being nosey can somehow have its perks! After asking so many questions regarding the stacks of blue labeled boxes around the staff section of the Conway, I was introduced to the mysterious and yet enchanting world of the British photographer Anthony Kersting. What struck me most was the number of boxes labeled with the name of one person, and also the number of countries mentioned under his name on the boxes. I was curious about how much this man achieved, traveled and explored throughout his life.

Kersting’s journal entries [36- Tangier, Morocco on 7/11- Beeston, Nottingham on 15/11…]

Anthony Kersting was a photographer whose interest around the world focused on religious monuments, landscapes, portraits and sometimes private homes. Tony, for short, was born on the 7 November 1916 and died on 2 September 2008. Although frequent traveling was still unusual in his early years of activity as a photographer, and the breadth of his travels rather hard to believe, his photographs and journal entries represent irrefutable proof of his gallivanting around the world. I was really impressed by the number of places he visited in a short period of time, especially in the 1930s when traveling was expensive and, more often than not, hazardous. Indeed, he traveled to places such as Norway, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco and The Bahamas. Kersting’s photographs perfectly find comfort within their habitat. I was quite intrigued as to what methods he used to create this effortless relationship between him and his subjects. I chose to analyze portraiture as a theme because it reflects reality through the eyes of the beholder; as it is, in effect, a window to Kersting’s personality.

Kersting’s camera reel (random selection)

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