Yuhong Wang: a creative exploration of Anthony Kersting

Anthony Kersting was an expert photographer of architecture. He was clearly prolific, resourceful and much-travelled, this is reflected in the thousands of photographs and negatives he left to the Courtauld after he died.

Photographs themselves have an agency that goes beyond aesthetics, not just in the way they interact with the world, but in the way they change it. Creating photographs alters the way we perceive the world: photographs are not only a commentary, but they are also a component of the world. We have, therefore, altered the world with the action of capturing it in photographs.

Photographic images become new objects in the world, objects that affect and influence their perceiver and prompt new action. The vast number of photographs in this collection led me to create a list of proposals to maximise public engagement (see appendix at the bottom of this post for the full list).

One of my proposals is to make a puzzle game using Anthony Kersting’s photographs:

A screenshot of an online slide puzzle created using one of AF Kersting's images

Anthony Kersting slide puzzle example. This sliding puzzle game can be accessed via this link- https://www.proprofs.com/games/puzzle/sliding/afkersting-statue-in-pariament-square/

Anthony Kersting was an agent who was actively and constantly taking photographs in the world.

Most of his photographs focus strictly on architecture, and Anthony Kersting seems to have been committed to eliminating human presence by scheduling shoots at times when tourists and passers-by would not be expected.

AF Kersting black and white prints.

KER_PNT_H17365 and KER_PNT_H16964. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

AF Kersting black and white prints.

KER_PNT_G16980 and KER_PNT_G04099. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

I was intrigued, therefore, to find two boxes of images shot in Jordan, which contain photographs of people and urban life. The images contained in these two boxes felt deeply human. I was also left wondering: why did Kersting want to take photographs of the people here, when he doesn’t seem so interested in capturing people elsewhere?

Often, the best photos are not taken but given by the subjects, when subject and photographer are equals. In the end, a photograph is only a photograph when it meets with a spectator. The subjects in Anthony Kersting’s Middle East photos meet our gaze.

AF Kersting black and white print.

Images of two women from the Transjordan box of AF Kersting prints. Not captioned. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Exploring Anthony Kersting’s collection, I felt I was being asked to start watching rather than just look at each image – turning his photographic prints over I found his handwritten inscriptions and annotations as equally interesting as the images. The annotations vary wildly from very detailed to elusive and mysterious, written as if he might otherwise forget where the shoot took place.

Sometimes, it feels like he is planning some sort of crime – he captures particular places in forensic detail, or the way his portraits are so intimate…

Theodor Adorno says “creative art is an uncommitted crime” although I find this phrase somehow dubious, it resonates, and I enjoy the thought of “committing crimes” with Tony, in the journey of seeing through his photographs. Seeing the world through his lens.

Kersting bleck and white imagees taken from the Transjordan box showing local people.

“Transjordan. A bedouin girl, taken near the village of Wadi Moussa, in the south. She has an empty water skin on her head.”. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

I found myself exploring the ideas that photography is only complete when it meets with a spectator; that a photograph is an object in itself, and not just an image of something else.

Absorbing the ethos behind the Digitisation Project’s activities was fascinating, it was very much of my honour to contribute to researching the collection, and I had an amazing week.

Appendix:

Proposals that may never happen for engaging with Anthony Kersting’s photographs in the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House. Inspired by Peter Liversidge’s book Proposals / 1997-2005 (Belfast: Ormeau Baths Gallery, 2005, in an edition of 500).

  1. I propose that users are able to access the archive photographs in various interactive online formats. This way, users might watch the photographs as though they were actual events, rather than observing them passively. The game should be called Knowing Anthony Kersting.
  2. I propose making Anthony Kersting’s photographs into puzzles. These can be organised by content and difficulty levels. Next to the puzzle, a description should provide the context of the photograph, or reproduce the back of the photograph with Kersting’s handwriting with his detective-like description of the context of the information about the photograph.
  3. I propose linking all the photographs together and making them into a VR experience.
  4. Users could learn how to type or improve their touch-typing skills by copying AF Kersting’s handwriting on the back of his photographs, and completing the typing within a certain time frame. (See the typing practice game- Kingsoft TypeEasy).
  5. I propose to make a drawing game, either on a flat computer screen or inside a VR simulator. Users would trace all of the outlines of the photograph [using a mouse or, in VR, a controller]. Once finished outlining a photograph, individuals can save their drawings without the photograph on the back. Or they could have choices, draw from the photograph, make the photograph next to it, make it into a digital drawing session. When the drawing is done, there could be pop-ups or animations of the content. Also, a social space where individuals can share their works too.
  6. A painting or mind map using Kersting’s photographs as inspiration. An exercise focussed on transforming and interpreting photographs, turning them into other things, thinking about issues that are beyond the photograph.
  7. A travel plan based on all the places Kersting visited, showing mostly street photography and architecture sites, and linking to personal photographs of those places. This project could be named “How much land do I know”.
  8. Looking at his images felt like we were sneaking around together, “committing crimes”. The idea would be to replicate the shots of locations devoid of people.
  9. A Snake Game on Google Maps, tracking all the places in which we have been to, with individual players as the snakes, when we reach every destination of Anthony’s photographic descriptions, we get a point and we can also track how big the avatar Snake has grown.
  10. We could map out all the places that he has been to in Google Maps and explore those places with 360 virtual tours on Google Earth, and make a film out of it. Travelling around Europe while being in the house.
  11. Using the portraiture that Kersting took in Jordan to retrace his steps and try to find out who those people are or were.
  12. Come back to the Courtauld another day and volunteer in here, focussing on Anthony Kersting’s collections especially.

Yuhong Wang

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Lorraine Stoker: The Illegible Kersting

Audio Version

Read by Anne Hutchings

Text Version

While transcribing one of the A.F. Kersting’s ledgers, a volunteer came across an illegible entry: KER_NEG_W1013-6. It was posted on SLACK for all the volunteers involved in the Courtauld Connects digitisation project and yet despite our best efforts the entry remained unidentified.

Illegible entries
Anthony Kersting Archive © The Courtauld Institute of Art

The clues were numerous but confusing: Revivalist or Georgian, Heraldic or Masonic, double-headed eagle or griffin, Country house or lodge, demolished or renovated. Although the town was illegible, it was agreed that the county was Northamptonshire, which became our starting point. Pattishall, Puxley, Pytchley, Padley? I think we researched every town in the county beginning with the capital P.

The Drawing Room
Anthony Kersting Archive, KER_NEG_W0014 © The Courtauld Institute of Art

I contacted the foremost expert on Northamptonshire country houses, who worked with Pevsner, HHA, Historic England, images of England, the AA, and Country Life photographic archives; and Nick Kingsley, archivist and architectural historian, but none could identify the images. One suggestion was that it could be a scheme by Claud Phillimore or even an early work by David Hicks, which led me in another direction for a short time.

I made a last-ditch attempt to identify the building by contacting the Northamptonshire Heritage Group, the National Council on Archives, and the National Archives. However, it was while in Brixton library, reading through the Arthur Mee and Nicolas Pevsner Northamptonshire editions within The Buildings of England Series and Pevsner Architectural Guides, that I started to question if it was indeed Northamptonshire.

The Drawing Room
Anthony Kersting Archive, KER_NEG_W0013 © The Courtauld Institute of Art.

After this exhaustive research into architecture, I decided to turn to the paintings. I emailed several experts and Paul Cox, Associate Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, kindly took the time to compare one of the portraits with many from the late 1590s-c1610, but again with no success. I am known as a passionate advocate of contemporary art but a visit to the National Portrait Gallery reminded me of the beauty of 16th century Tudor portraiture.

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown continental artist
oil on panel, circa 1575
NPG 2082
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The clothing in the stunning portrait painting at the bottom of the stairs in the mystery house identified the period as early 20th century, and this led to some fascinating and extensive research into the work of several British artists. A visit to the National Portrait Gallery and its newly refurbished 20th century gallery confirmed I was in the right artistic period and I was amazed that early 20th century British realist painting is so under-rated.

Mystery Painting
Anthony Kersting Archive
Detail of KER_NEG_W0016
© The Courtauld Institute of Art

 

The Hall
Anthony Kersting Archive, KER_NEG_W0015 © The Courtauld Institute of Art

At the same time, I continued to delve into the mystery of the double-headed eagle. I discovered a 1780 Satirical print of the arms of the Feilding family superimposed on the Habsburg double-headed eagle lacking one head, dedicated to the Garter King of Arms and mocking the family’s pretensions at ancestral connections to the Habsburg dynasty and the Feilding family of Warwickshire.

Aquila Hapsburghiensis
J,2.8,
AN77210001
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Thus, Warwickshire and the Feilding family became to focus of the next stage of this investigation. To cut a long story short, research into the Feilding family and their fascinating history led me to Newham Paddock, the family home in Warwickshire.

It was interesting to read that Lady Dorothie Feilding-Moore became a highly decorated volunteer nurse and ambulance driver on the Western Front during World War 1. She was the first woman to be awarded the Military medal for bravery in the field.  She also received the 1914 Star, the Croix de Guerre and the order of Leopold II.

By Belgian Photographer
(The Illustrated War News)
[Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

The Feilding family have been Lords of Newnham Paddox since 1433. In 1622, James I made William Feilding first Earl of Denbigh, and this was an important clue which led to Monks Kirby, the home to the Earls of Denbigh, and their estate at Newnham Paddox.

Monks Kirby and the Earls of Denbigh led to Pailton House, and although there was no initial evidence, I did believe that Pailton House was our mystery Kersting.

Pailton House and gardens. 1910s
IMAGE LOCATION: (Warwickshire County Record Office)
Reference: PH, 352/105/55, img: 6462
Reproduced from the “Our Warwickshire” website

Looking through The Tatler 1940, I found that Lord and Lady Denbigh had lived at Pailton House while Newnham Paddock was being used as a convent school.

Tom Bilson, Head of Digital Media at The Courtauld Institute of Art, found some images online where the architrave resembled Pailton House. However, the banisters were different and the beautiful oval hallway was still proving elusive.

I contacted the renovation company and their reply stated that the house had actually been split into two residences some time ago, as confirmed by a local tradesman. Tom Bilson then discovered some plans for Pailton House on eBay.

I decided to contact the Denbigh family directly, sending the Kersting photographs via email and was pleasantly surprised when Lady Denbigh graciously replied:

Dear Lorraine, thank you for your message. Yes, it is Pailton House, Pailton, Warwickshire CV23. The house at Newnham Paddox was demolished in 1953 and Billy and Betty (the 10th Earl and Countess) lived at Pailton House until his death. Betty then sold the house and it was divided up into 5 houses. Betty then built a wooden house on what would have been the carriage turning circle of the old mansion, we live in that today.

As for the paintings – the large portrait is by Harold Harvey painted in 1936 I think, of Betty.  In the dining room the portrait is of Elizabeth Aston, mother of the first Earl – (along with the other oldest portrait, attributed to Zuccaro, but unlikely!). The other smaller one is also by Harold Harvey. The other picture in the drawing room is now with Billy and Betty’s daughter, Lady Clare Simonian. I hope this helps – I am afraid I cannot comment on the oval room as I have never seen it, by the time of our marriage in 1996 it had long been sold”.

Recently, Lady Suzy Denbigh, The Countess of Denbigh at Newnham Paddox, kindly sent information and photographs of the actual paintings.

Elizabeth Aston
Courtesy of Lady Suzy Denbigh, Countess of Denbigh at Newnham Paddox

Sir Basil Feilding
Courtesy of Lady Suzy Denbigh, Countess of Denbigh at Newnham Paddox

Betty, Countess of Denbigh by Harold Harvey, c1931
Courtesy of Lady Suzy Denbigh, Countess of Denbigh at Newnham Paddox

Personally, it was a fascinating ‘journey’, informative and great fun to research. Jane MacIntyre and I have now moved on from this success and onto over 400 Kersting ‘illegibles’, which we have just completed, albeit with one or two individual words remaining to be identified. The challenge is now to revisit the entire Anthony Kersting ledgers.


By Lorraine Stoker, Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer