Julian Wood: A Photographic Detective Story – The Curious Case of the Sultan in the Cellar

Sherlock Holmes would have loved The Courtauld. Less than three miles from his Baker Street rooms, beneath its walls lies an unsolved mystery. Within its libraries, a small, battered photograph album has lain concealing secrets from Holmes’ age. While the latter was out collecting evidence of London’s crimes, somebody else was collecting history. They assembled pictures of the first modern Olympic Games, recorded now-vanished ossuaries in Malta, and even preserved the same Turkish Sultan whom Holmes allegedly assisted – just before the Ottoman Empire vanished forever.[1] Yet, who this person was, and what their story might have been, have vanished with the places they recorded.

That is, until now. For, paradoxically, the album’s survival has also immortalised its compiler. It has left a physical relic which, although inanimate, is a testament to the agency of a living person. Every image, after all, tells a story – as does the very act of assembling them into a set. No photographs are mere imprints of momentary “truth”, but are products of human choice.

The New Mosque, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) viewed from the North. In an almost straight southward line behind it is the famous Hagia Sophia.

Through a bit of detective work, we can for the first time penetrate the lost life of this peculiar artefact. Thousands of images beneath the Courtauld have these stories to tell, and it is only now that they have been digitised that we may begin to solve their mysteries, and bring their creators back to life once more.

The Acropolis of Athens, taken from the south-east. On top is the famous Parthenon and in the foreground the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

Our first bit of sleuthing must take us towards attempting to uncover the compiler, and only two clues allow us to do this. They are a note inside the inside cover, and a manufacturer detail upon the back:

What can we unpack here? “A. L. R.” gave this album to “D. Radford” in 1896, and the album was made by “J. Barfett Clark”, based in Penzance and Tavistock. If we assume, not unreasonably, that “A.L.R.” was also a “Radford” given the shared surname letters, then we have a search on our hands. We need to find an associated pair of English speakers, of literate age in c.1896, called D. and A. L. Radford, who perhaps have links to the South West, and might have been interested in history or travel.

In times far from that of the album, online resources allow us a possible answer. We can find one A. L. Radford, who died in 1928, as a listed Recorder of Ancient Monuments for Devon during the early 20th century.[2] The same man sought, between 1921-3, to restore the medieval Norman House, on King Street in Exeter: a site which would be destroyed war bombs in May 1942.[3] Crucially, his father, one D. Radford, had lived between 1828-1900, and was settled in Tavistock. Moreover, this D. Radford not only a wealthy coal merchant but also a cultured man: active in the Devonshire Association.[4] These details fit perfectly with the album’s fragments, and so, for the time in decades, we can suggest a potential match.

So, if A. L. Radford of Devon probably compiled the album, our next question is simple: did he actually visit the sites?

This is a bit of a conundrum. In terms of a “journey”, the album contains 59 photographs, grouped in a sequence. 28 from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), then 21 from Athens, and 10 from Malta. This categorisation could suggest a reflection of a real journey, though on its own it could be as much a case of “armchair travel”. We can see that the photographs are annotated with notes in red fountain pen, which seems to match that of the dedication inside the cover: especially in the particular way in which the lowercase letter “a” is written. We do not know when these were made either, though they do help us to probe further into this issue, especially with this picture:

This photograph is perhaps the most startling in the entire album, and for one simple reason. It is catastrophically wrong. This is indeed a “Temple of Victories”: it is the “Temple of Wingless Victory”. In Athens. Not, as Radford would suggest here, in “Salonica” (the Turkish name for Thessaloniki in northern Greece, which was then still part of the Ottoman Empire).

This error is particularly puzzling because the Temple is on the Acropolis of Athens. It is right next to the famous Parthenon, and is unashamedly visible (circled in red here) in another of the album’s photographs:

There is no similar building in Thessaloniki. Despite it being extremely picturesque, there is, in fact, no other photograph from this city. The error is so significant that we are left wondering whether Radford went to Thessaloniki at all.

There are three main possibilities: Radford had an atrocious memory (or was not paying proper attention to his surroundings); he deliberately wrote down a false name (perhaps to impress the recipient?); or he did not go to Greece at all and relied on (inaccurate) second-hand information. It is impossible for us to be sure, but whichever is correct, it shows how one small detail can reveal so much about the lives of the people behind The Courtauld Libraries’ collections.

However, the detail is not alone in baffling us, for another photograph demonstrates an intriguing gap between annotation and image:

We can now confirm with certainty that Radford did not take all of the album’s photographs. While those which we have seen already could be of too high a quality to suggest this anyway, this image confirms it. It is from a professional, and attested in the 1868 collection of French photographer Pierre Gigord.[5] If Radford did venture to Istanbul himself, perhaps he picked up this photograph there, from a seller?

Yet, whether he did go is made uncertain by his annotation. The view is labelled as from the “War Office”, a three-storey building which now part of Istanbul University.[6] Yet this is not where the photograph was taken. The angle and elevation are clearly from the nearby Beyazit Tower, a separate, 85m tall structure used to monitor urban fires and weather phenomena.[7] How could Radford have known, therefore, that it was next to the War Office? He could have conflated them, having visited and seen their proximity, perhaps in order to appeal to his father with the more glamorous “War Office”?

Alternatively, Radford could have received his information from a secondary source, who had done the conflation before him. Certainly, it is intriguing that the term “War Office” was used. It had been known since 1826 as the Gate of the Serasker (a word meaning “vizier” or military commander). This had been changed in 1876 to “War Office”, though between 1890-1908 the building again reverted to the longstanding name.[8] So, when the original photograph was taken, and when this album was compiled, the misattributed building had a different name. Our conclusion must be the same as before: either Radford deliberately used the obsolete name “War Office” because it resonated with his recipient; he made a very unlikely mistake; or he did not visit Istanbul and acquired this print from somebody who knew Istanbul and/or used the obsolete name. We do not know for certain, but the evidence suggests something of a gap between the truth of the album, and the intentions of the man behind its creation.

This gap is mirrored in another way: when we appreciate how unaware Radford could have been of the significance of his photographs to posterity. This photograph is a perfect example:

This is the Nibbia Chapel in Valletta, Malta, a Roman Catholic building decorated after 1852 with skeletal remains of the dead, taken from its cemetery (and leading to the celebrated nickname “Chapel of Bones”). What Radford could not have known, however, is that – like the Norman House he tried to restore – the entire site would be levelled in 1941 by aerial bombardment, leaving nothing but fragments.[9] His album, therefore, unbeknownst to him, not only compiled history but preserved it forever.

As with other photographs, this one was not a product of his own making. This image was taken in 1881 by John Edmund Taylor, though it does not attempt to hide this.[10] Within the image itself we see a caption: “Chapel of Bones, Malta”, and this is clearly from a separate album containing this photograph, because the original by Taylor extends our view behind the caption bar to slightly further down into the ground. This shows that Radford was using photographs taken and labelled by others, and also that he was not ashamed of doing so when presenting them to his father. It raises the same question of whether he might still have picked up this image in Malta, which cannot be ruled out, as the caption’s English could be explained by the site’s popularity with tourists and by Malta’s then-status as a British Protectorate. Of course, it is also significant that Radford did just copy the photograph’s caption, and did not specify – as he does on some other photographs of Malta – that this distinct building is in Valletta. Could this suggest that Radford was merely getting his information about each photograph from a secondary source? Thereby explaining the limitations of some of them? It is hard for us to be certain, but it does suggest a distinct possibility and places another potential layer of separation between Radford and the importance of the scenes photographed within his album.

The same recording of a changed world is evidenced by another pre-existing print utilised by Radford:

This picture is one of the richest in the album. Here we see a snapshot of a vanished era: that of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, ruler of everything from Greece to Iraq between 1876 and 1908. He is entering the Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque, which he himself commissioned only a decade before: between 1884-1886. We cannot make out the Sultan himself – perhaps he is the figure getting out of the carriage closest to the entrance stairs, though he certainly would have emerged from this vehicle. This image was taken by the Abdullah Brothers, a notable family of Armenian photographers who served as the official court photographers of the sultans.[11]

While it captures a routine ritual, occurring every Friday during the most important of the week’s prayers, it holds more significance. The photograph depicts the same ceremony, in the same spot, probably with most of the same participants, where 9 years after Radford’s dedication the sultan would be nearly assassinated. Even more strikingly – although Radford couldn’t have known this either – it would be by an Armenian revolutionary group reacting against the sultan’s persecutions and thereby contributing to the final decline of the Ottoman Empire. The artist and the subject are linked inexorably by history, yet for A. L. Radford this would be just another sneak-peak into the customs of a distant land.

This fleeting capture of significant history, by a man with unclear intentions, reaches its climax with the most startling photographs of the album. These are the two images of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens between 6th-15th August 1896:

These two photographs record the first revival of the Games since their traditional ancient staging between 776BCE – 394CE. 241 athletes from 14 nations competed in 43 events, to a crowd of around 100,000 spectators, with the majority being held in the place shown here: the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. Much has changed since. Winners during this period won silver medals and olive branches, with copper for runners-up. More concerningly, only men, and only from Europe and the United States, took part.[12] But, these images represent the first incarnation of something that has become a modern-day tour de force. The Olympic Games even returned to the same stadium photographed here, over a century later in 2004.

Radford again did not take these images. They have been recorded in other collections, though we cannot be sure who took them.[13] The two main photographers were the German photographer Albert Meyer, and the Greek photographer Iannis Lampakis. Both took very subjective photographs of ceremonies and participants, but we do know that Lampakis favoured scenes that were more naturalistic than Meyer’s, which might suggest that these photographs were originally by the former.[14] Of course, they could also be taken by amateur photographers, who were restricted to the spaces from which these were taken. It seems odd, if Radford had attended, why there should only be two photographs of such an important event, and, likewise, why his annotation should be the minimalist “Stadium I” and “Stadium II”. This would fit with the mislabelling of “Salonica”, the confusion over the Beyazit Tower, and the visible label on the photograph of the Nibbia Chapel to suggest that Radford might have assembled these photographs into an armchair “travel” experience for his father. Perhaps his father was already ailing, given his death four years later, and this, therefore, could have been an act of compassion to provide him with escapism?

Ultimately, our efforts cannot leave us unsure of whether A. L. Radford journeyed across the Mediterranean before 1896. However, we can suggest that his album of photographs, dormant and overlooked in The Courtauld for decades, was a carefully assembled gift from father to son – possibly as a form of swansong in the twilight years of an old man’s life. If Radford went to the Mediterranean to create his gift, he did so with an almost bumbling fervour which bleeds into the errors of his album. If Radford did not go, and created his vicarious journey in Devon, then he did so clearly through immense effort, even if the stretch of that effort had to lead to some mistakes.  We may never know what the true version of events was, but we can now know something of the emotion and human presence behind this hitherto silent artefact. A. L. Radford is one of the many lost voices preserved by The Courtauld, and it is only through engagement with its treasures that we may unlock their secrets, and bring rouse them in the 21st century to speak once more.

 

Bibliography:

[1] Kayahan AB (2018) Sultan meets Sherlock Holmes: Abdülhamid II’s passion for mystery. In: Daily Sabah, 28 July. Available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/feature/2018/07/28/sultan-meets-sherlock-holmes-abdulhamid-iis-passion-for-mystery (Accessed: 12 December 2020)

[2] “Cecily Radford”, Devonshire Association Transactions, 1968. Available at: https://devonassoc.org.uk/person/radford-cecily/ (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[3] Cornforth D (2016) The Norman House – King Street. In: Exeter Memories, 13 February. Available at: http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_buildings/norman-house.php (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[4] “D. Radford”, Reports and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for The Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art, 32 (1900), pp. 43-44. Available at: https://archive.org/details/reportandtransa18artgoog/page/n51/mode/2up?q=Radford (Accessed: 10 December 2020).

[5] BEYAZIT KULESİ’NDEN PANORAMA / 1868 / 3. PARÇA. In: Eski İstanbul Fotoğrafları Arşivi, 2020. Available at: http://www.eskiistanbul.net/6296/beyazit-kulesi-nden-panorama-1868-3-parca (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[6] Brosnahan T (2019) Beyazit Square, Istanbul, Turkey. In: Turkey Travel Planner. Available at: https://turkeytravelplanner.com/go/Istanbul/Sights/Beyazit/index.html (Accessed: 14 December 2020).

[7] Sarı E (2017) Turkey Travel Guide: Turkey History and Travel Guide. Antalya, p. 25. Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Turkey_Travel_Guide/EK2sDgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=beyazit+tower+85m&pg=PA25&printsec=frontcover (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[8] Bernard L (1986) “Bāb-i Serʿaskeri”. In: The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, Volume I: A–B. Leiden, p. 838.

[9] Drury M (2019) Lost Maltese treasures: Valletta’s Chapel of Bones was decorated with human skeletons. In: GuideMeMalta, 16 January. Available at: https://www.guidememalta.com/en/lost-maltese-treasures-valletta-s-chapel-of-bones-was-decorated-with-human-skeletons (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[10] ‘An altar bearing a Latin inscription surrounded by an array of human skulls and bones and a cloaked skeleton. Photograph by J. Taylor, c. 1881’, Wellcome Library no. 32810. Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/y8e6chnz (Accessed: 12 December 2020).

[11] “Image 2B00P0J” CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo, 2010. Available at: https://www.alamy.com/turkey-ottoman-ceremony-at-the-hamidiye-mosque-in-yildiz-district-istanbul-photograph-by-the-abdullah-brothers-fl-1858-1900-c-1890-the-yldz-hamidiye-mosque-also-called-the-yldz-mosque-turkish-yldz-hamidiye-camii-yldz-camii-is-an-ottoman-imperial-mosque-located-in-yldz-neighbourhood-of-beikta-district-in-istanbul-turkey-on-the-way-to-yldz-palace-the-mosque-was-commissioned-by-the-ottoman-sultan-abdul-hamid-ii-and-constructed-between-1884-and-1886-the-architecture-of-the-mosque-is-a-combination-of-neo-gothic-style-and-classical-ottoman-motifs-image344224626.html (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

Shaw WMK (2003) Possessors and possessed : museums, archaeology, and the visualization of history in the late Ottoman Empire. Berkeley, p. 141. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=v65XlSj4ud8C&lpg=PA141&dq=abdullah%20freres&pg=PA141#v=onepage&q=abdullah%20freres&f=false (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[12] Athens 1896. In: Olympic.org, 2020. Available at: https://www.olympic.org/athens-1896 (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[13] View Of The First Modern Olympic Games In Athens 1896. In: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images, 2020. Available at: https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/view-of-the-first-modern-olympic-games-in-athens-1896-news-photo/804435202 (Accessed: 12 December 2020).

[14] Veja imagens da primeira olimpíada da era moderna em Atenas – 1896’. In: arte ref, 17 June, 2016. Available at: https://arteref.com/fotografia/veja-imagens-da-primeira-olimpiada-da-era-moderna-em-atenas-1896/ (Accessed: 14 December 2020).

Surya Bowyer: 9,763 Red Boxes

Audio version

Read by Christopher Williams.

Text version

 

Minimalist ink drawing showing the figure of a person sitting at a table in the Conway Library, surrounded by red filing boxes.

Illustration by Simba Baylon @simbalenciaga

It begins with a box. Not a large or particularly remarkable box. Similar in size and shape to a foolscap box file. But different: an ever-so-slightly curved spine, a coarse fabric exterior.

Actually, it begins before the box. Walk down a spiral staircase and then along the aisles. Read the spine labels. Pick a box. Take it off its shelf.

Open the box. What’s next? There are two options. Two types of looking.

Option one: place it on a table under a camera.

**

Look at your phone. The blue-yellow light of its screen. Look at an image on it. Where has this come from? When we look at an image on a screen, on a phone, laptop, tablet, we seldom think of its story.

Inside the box: paper folders, held together without glue, with creases and folds and tabs pushed into slits. A tiny structural wonder. Inside each folder, a pile of papers. On each piece of paper, an image.

Officially: The Conway Library contains over one million images: photographs and cuttings of world architecture, architectural drawings and publications, sculpture, ivories, seals, metalwork, manuscript illumination, stained glass, wall paintings, panel paintings and textiles.

Place each image, in turn, on a table, under a camera.

In Sontag’s words: The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning. [1]

In Barthelme’s opening sentence: The captured woman asks if I will take her picture. [2]

In Blake’s lines:

He caught me in his silken net,

         And shut me in his golden cage.

 He loves to sit and hear me sing,

         Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;

Then stretches out my golden wing,

         And mocks my loss of liberty. [3]

Yet something, invariably, escapes. Slips out through the gaps in the cage. And the thing that remains behind bars is not the same as the thing escaped. The camera might capture something of the image, but when you see the resulting photograph, on a phone, laptop, or tablet, something else is not there. Paper to pixel. Physicality foregone. The object’s matter remains at large.

What does it mean to capture – partially – an object? Each morning, you click off the lights. You click on the camera, the computer. Before you have touched a box, you place a piece of thick plastic on the table under the camera. A grid of squares, each a different colour. Whimsically named a Macbeth chart. You’re not sure why. The click of the shutter; the chart flashes up on the computer’s screen.

This photograph on the screen is used (officially) to adjust the colour, the exposure, the saturation. Yet as you adjust these things, readying the apparatus for the task that will follow, it becomes clear that for everything you do capture, you must miss something else. To catch the detail of a dark area, you must expose a lighter expanse. The camera sketches the object on the table under it. The thing on the table is itself a reproduction. A drawing of a drawing of a drawing.

The camera sketches the object on the table under it, but to sketch is to approximate, to decide what to keep. Something, invariably, escapes. Perhaps this is the nature of drawing.

But not all of the red boxes are ready for this yet.

**

Minimalist ink drawing of two persons sitting at a table sorting and labelling the contents of red filing boxes.

Illustration by Simba Baylon @simbalenciaga

Officially: There are 9,763 boxes in the Conway Library. Inside the boxes the items are divided into folders. A folder can correspond to a town, a building, a section of a building, or smaller features. Folders are sorted alphabetically within each box.

To ready the papers, continue inward. Within each folder, the task (officially): to recreate the experience of moving closer to the building. Option two.

**

A front projection of a building. Below the drawing, a date, 1729, in a scratchy serif, words around it, some capitalised, seemingly at random. The pillars catch my eyes, returning them to the drawing above. I blink.

I am on a path I have not yet walked. It winds forward, manicured grass on either side, trees with undressed boughs. A regal edifice up ahead, the path snakes around it. I blink.

The side of the building, closer. White framed windows, curved at the top, darkness beyond them. Blink.

A doorway, cherubs carved into its lunette. Blink. A geometric marble floor, a carved wood ceiling, space (lots of it) in between. Blink. Another room, smaller, softer, a chaise longue, a fireplace, objet d’arts on the mantel above it. Blink. Two children playing, long strands of ivy encompassing them, carved in dark metal, covering an abyss; on either side, oak leaves, carved in stone; above, the same mantel. Blink.

**

I drag a pencil across a page, charting a path I have not walked. These images – photographs, cuttings – these drawings, with them I create the experience of moving closer to the building.

A caged building. Alike but not one with the other: bricks and mortar and stone and metal that I have not touched. The other which remains at large, and unvisited. With this pile of papers (now ordered) on the table in front of me, I have created a building.

I put the papers back in the folder, the folder back in the box. Close the box. Return the box to its shelf. Pause. Then: It begins, again, with a box.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Anchor Books, 1977), p. 55.

[2] Donald Barthelme, “The Captured Woman”, in Sixty Stories (Penguin, 2003), p. 280.

[3] William Blake, “Song: How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field”.

 


Surya Bowyer
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
https://twitter.com/suryabowyer

Illustrations by Simba Baylon
https://www.instagram.com/simbalenciaga/ 

 

Alessandro Torresi: Craco and the fascination for the abandoned

I was 16 years old when I moved to my current house on the hill in Marsicovetere, Italy. I remember that the first thing I did, after throwing my stuff on the bed, was to put on a pair of comfortable shoes to reach the tiny, abandoned stone house I could see from my terrace. I ran along a footpath by the wooded coast directly to the entrance of what I later learnt was, in the late 1960s, the humble house of a family of farmers. I imagined some children looking out from the turquoise window, spying on their parents working the land, checking if they had enough time to plan a bit of mischief. That ordinary abandoned house became a powerful spark that made my imagination and curiosity wonder and flourish.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite days of the year was Good Friday, when the entire village would walk the Way of The Cross. Through the narrow streets of the old town, we would march to reach the abandoned monastery at the base of the mountain which, once a year, became the designated spot for the representation of the last stations of the Passion of Christ. For me, the folklore of this unique day was better represented by the image of the abandoned monastery; a ruined place, inaccessible for 364 days of the year, that for just one day could be reborn as an agora (meeting place) for all the peasants.

I have always been fascinated by abandoned places and by the special mystery of worlds that could have been but, for adverse reasons, stopped accomplishing the purpose for which they were built – I bet that each one of you reading this piece has at least one memory that took place in an abandoned site. Maybe it is because we like the idea of finding ourselves in a situation of danger (perhaps we even dare to imagine being witnesses of nefarious night-time crimes). Maybe it is because everyone has felt abandoned at least once in their lives; so it’s like we can claim to be the temporary owners of places that have seen a multitude of lonely explorers stepping inside and thinking they are the first to have discovered such a mysterious spot all for themselves.

While working on the classification of the photographic collection of The Courtauld’s Conway Library on Zooniverse, a series of pictures of St. Hilarion Castle in Cyprus caught my attention. Before I could even realise, I started to imagine what it must have been like when the castle was at the height of its use as a defensive fortification during the Byzantine Era.

The first picture below shows the ruins of the cistern of the castle. What was once one of the most vital places of the site – since a high storage of drinkable water can play a significant role for an island with drought problems like Cyprus – is now a cistern of abandoned memories that cannot be re-discovered anymore. I thought about the splendour of Byzantine chapels, with their iconic coloured cupolas, and I felt a sense of nostalgia and melancholia when I saw the second picture, which shows the remains of a once-glorious chapel. St. Hilarion Castle appears to be perched up high, and its rock walls defend a past made of secular traditions that cannot be replicated. It is as if the stone walls of the third picture were hiding a mythological creature who is asleep and waiting to live again.

Of course, this is only my perception but what I really want to stress is that heritage sites like St. Hilarion Castle are fundamental for our cultural consciousness. They stimulate our curiosity towards the past, but they stimulate also new visions of the future pushing us to think about how we can avoid the same mistakes that led these beautiful sites to perish, and how can we start again.

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This image is blurred at the top (a finger over the lens, or maybe some fog!). In the bottom 2 thirds of this landscape oriented photo you can see an old stone wall with an arched wooden doorway nestled in the middle. The place looks like a ruin, but it's a close up shot so hard to tell what the surrounding area looks like.

St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F002_016, bottom right on mount. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

 

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This image is taken inside the ruined castle. Here the damage is clear: what was once a domed or vaulted roof is now open to the sky. The walls are in various states of disrepair, with jagged brickwork exposed. This must once have been a grand room, but now it's empty.

St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

 

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This photo is down the hill, looking up at the castle. From here, it looks like the castle is perched on the edge of a sheer rock face. The castle is clearly overgrown with plants, and the roof is clearly damaged. It's a plain, square, stone building, stark against the landscape.

St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F002_016, bottom left on mount. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

What intrigued me the most about the images of St. Hilarion Castle was their resemblance to the memories I had of a once abandoned Italian village called Craco, nowadays a popular touristic destination.

Craco, perched high on a hill. Photo c. Alessandro Torresi.

In 1963 a landslide forced the inhabitants of this little stone village of the Basilicata region, situated at the top of a hill surrounded by gullies, to move to a newer town named Craco Peschiera. They had to leave their homes abruptly, abandoning Craco and turning it into a “ghost town”. As the years went by, nature gradually took over, creating an evocative environment where time seems to have stopped. This atypical setting re-entered the centre of the conversation when it was chosen as the location of important international film productions such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion (2004). Suddenly, institutions started to realize the unlimited potential of abandoned heritage sites like Craco. They represent a past that for many years we tried to forget, because they could not fit in the narrative of the fast world, of industrialized and smart cities. Places like Craco, or even the nearby Matera that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been “shameful” for many Governments who saw in them the failure of their vision of progress. They were cut off from the public conversation, existing only in the bitter memories of the people who once lived there.

However, in 2020 we witness how quickly cities stopped being the safest and most desirable place to be. The high density of social contacts in urban areas meant a higher density of Covid-19 cases, and, as a result, large numbers of people decided to move, permanently or temporarily, to the countryside, putting the spotlight on those places that never had the chance to “shine”, and for which conservation and preservation are now of primary importance for the social and cultural wellbeing of the rural inhabitants.

Maybe, my fascination with abandoned sites lies in the idea of rebirth and second chances. A place with no present can have many possible futures. Craco has had its rebirth in 2011; from that year onwards it has been possible to visit the main street of the village with a guided tour that touches on the ancient palaces and convent as well as the ruins of the once inhabited houses. Wearing a protective helmet, you can take a trip through time, travelling back to the 1960s and experiencing a different side of the Italian dolce vita.

Inside an abandoned building, Craco. A single wooden chair is off-centre inside a once-grand, now crumbling room with barrel-vaulted ceilings. A tree is growing, indoors, on the back wall. Photo c. Alessandro Torresi.

I visited the beautiful yet mysterious Craco last summer. I am used to the slow life of the Italian southern villages, however, I was not expecting to feel such a realistic impression of being stuck in an ancient medieval village, where the only signs of modernity were the “explorers” taking pictures (as you can see from the pictures below, taken during my visit to the heritage site in 2020). I was even more surprised to see many international tourists, which is (unfortunately) quite uncommon for heritage sites in my region.

Scenes from Craco, Italy. Tourists in hard hats explore the ruined streets. Donkeys roam on the cobbles. The buildings are so decayed it’s easy to imagine they are growing out of the hill, rather than falling back into it. Photos c. Alessandro Torresi.

Craco can represent a succesful model, exportable everywhere, of sustainable fruition of an heritage site where human intervention is resepctful of the place’s history and natural environement, while representing an invaluable asset for the local cultural and economic development. It’s abandonment, and its resulting mysterious atmosphere, may therefore save it.


Alessandro Torresi
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Lorraine Stoker: London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square

Audio version

Read by Celia Cockburn.

Text version

As a child, growing up in a socialist household with a trade union activist as a parent, the 1960s were full of London marches and meetings. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and anti-Vietnam War causes were high on the list of mid-week and weekend activities – along with visiting art galleries, although a football match came before art! On reflection, it was a fascinating, innovative, fast-moving time, albeit an ominous and frightening decade overall.

In 1962, the US and the USSR had engaged in a 13-day political and military stand-off, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Robert Kennedy would also be assassinated in 1968. The Vietnam war raged on, the British government pursued a Cold War nuclear policy, which saw squadrons of V- bombers armed with nuclear warheads. The government also continued with a commercial nuclear reactor programme – Sellafield and Dungeness, for example.

CND marches were held annually from 1959 to 1963 when the International Test Ban Treaty was signed, which partially banned nuclear tests. The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston was always the destination for the CND annual march, starting at Trafalgar Square. These Aldermaston Marches, the CND symbol and their slogan “Ban the Bomb” became icons and part of the youth culture of the 1960s.

This photograph by Anthony Kersting bears the inscription “London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square” and seemingly captures the youth culture of the 1960s.  Are we seeing the aftermath of a political demonstration, students waiting for the end of march speeches? Deep-political discussion after listening to Joan Baez and Donovan play and address the crowds at an anti-Vietnam protest?

“London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square”, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_U02, The Courtauld, CC-BY-0.4.

And what did Kersting mean to evoke by his caption, ‘Beatniks and Barefoot Girls’? The media sold a stereotypical description of the Beatnik that consisted of dark clothing, turtleneck sweaters, berets and glasses – and women would go barefoot. Free love and drug-taking were also associated with the Beatnik style. Even Kersting appears to have bought into the stereotype. Yet it was always more a state of mind than a way of dressing.

But when were these beatniks in Trafalgar Square and why? It took some time, and several fruitless attempts to find the date of the photograph, but eventually the year 1965 was identified from another image held within the Collection Archive for Art and History, Berlin. This image captures the moment just seconds before the photograph held in The Courtauld library was taken.

You can imagine Anthony Kersting, armed with his camera, hanging over the concrete balustrades in front of the National Gallery, trying to capture the “perfect image”. Whereas the first photograph is far “too loose” and poorly composed, the one Kersting captures seconds later is strikingly composed, divided into two almost equal sections by a strong diagonal yet linked by engaged and connected figures. The heavily textured and rather dark top half is beautifully balanced by the lighter bottom half with its horizontal shadows and the out of focus balustrade. The image reveals a range of tones full of blacks and whites, with dark shadows and bright highlights. The high viewpoint is a creative way to enhance composition, giving the photographer an aesthetic advantage. Such subtle changes in viewpoint can add a deeper meaning or feeling to an image.

It is the physical connection seen within the line of people that draws the eye from one side of the photograph to the other side, weaving in and out of both the seated and standing figures. It is easy to become immersed in their conversations, eavesdrop on their political discussions or their thoughts of the key speakers at the demonstration.

There is a real possibility that the Anthony Kersting photograph was taken during the anti-war in Vietnam demonstration rally in Trafalgar Square where American folk singer Joan Baez, a political activist as well as a singer/songwriter, performed. Joan Baez was a fixture at marches and protests, especially in the Sixties, preaching a philosophy of nonviolence. In fact, she was everywhere – in the Village with Bob Dylan, Mississippi with Martin Luther King Jr. and Palo Alto with Steve Jobs. Both Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs were her lovers at various times. She also famously often went barefoot – although at this particular rally she was wearing shoes.

At the Trafalgar Square demonstration, Baez sang Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing. The 5th verse captures the rejection of the more conventional society:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changing

If we make a reasonable assumption that the Kersting photograph in the Conway Library was taken on the 29th May 1965, it does indeed encapsulate the period itself. In the early 1960s, the Beatles’ Help premiered in the London Pavilion, National Service/Conscription was ended, and comprehensive education was introduced. Feminism became a more influential ideology, while recreational drugs became more commonly used. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Anti-Apartheid picketing continued outside South Africa House and 1968 saw the Ford Dagenham women’s strike for equal pay, while Barbara Castle became the first woman to hold the position of First Secretary of State. In March 1968, a crowd of 10,000 demonstrated against US involvement in the Vietnam War before marching to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, yet a year later in 1969 we saw the first men on the moon. It was a period of rising living standards in the UK but still dire poverty for many. A decade which was so full of promise but also disappointment and frustration.

It is also ironic that Trafalgar Square, built to separate the rich from the poor and, years later, modified to prevent public gatherings (the fountains were built solely for this purpose) would become the focus of protest, rebellion, demonstration and celebratory social gatherings.

The general public sees Trafalgar Square as a place to express freedom of speech and the ability to create change in the space. Scholars argue that change takes place when public space is used for strong protests and the historic presence of protests taken place in Trafalgar Square make it a significant area for the public.

From experience, the “space” does become a rallying point, a resting place, an enveloping space, offering comfort and safety… for the most part. Some academics have labelled the square as a “liminal space”, but introspective as opposed to uncomfortable, a place holding one on the threshold of new experiences. As a beatnik in 1965, having listened to Joan Baez in Trafalgar Square, and now talking to friends, this would indeed become a reflective, introspective space.

If Trafalgar Square is this in-between space, it is often these days geographically half-way between the start and end of a demonstration. Sometimes, one rests in the square before moving on to Parliament Square, or Whitehall. It is the space when you are “on the verge” of something new: you are between “what was” and “what will be”. A transitional space, a transformative space – as was and still is.


Lorraine Stoker
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Muny Morgan: Stepping Back in Mind, South East Asia

Audio version

Read by Tianyu.

Text version

Looking at Anthony Kersting images from the Conway Library at first glance took me back to my youth. It’s fascinating how a photograph – familiar or unfamiliar – can conjure up images of your experiences from a period in your life. It might do so directly – capturing a specific detail of a known building – or indirectly – by having a similarity with another place entirely. Almost like an aroma, or perfume, it can take you back to a specific memory, experience, time or place.

When I make this statement, I am referring to this image of Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok.

Bangkok, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G28266, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Although at first glance I thought: “this is the temple I visited on one of my many trips to Bangkok whilst residing in Singapore”, it occurred to me that I saw so many temples in Thailand that I might be mistaken. It was only after going through my personal, disorganised archive of photographs that I could confirm that it was indeed the same one, although I couldn’t locate the image of the reclining Buddha inside the temple.

Image of the temple taken by Muny Morgan. In it we can see the golden spear behind the protective walls.

Image by Muny Morgan.

When I looked at the images I selected for this blog, they took me back to a period in my life when I had just completed my postgraduate studies in Architecture. At the time, there was a recession in the UK and the building industry is often one of the sectors that are negatively impacted first. There were no jobs for budding, enthusiastic, young architects with no work experience, like me. But this took me, thankfully, to my first job abroad in Singapore, where I lived and worked for two years, and from which I could travel around South East Asia.

The images taken by Kersting in Singapore took me back 20 years in an instant. I recall my weekend walks (in the extremely high humidity temperatures), searching for the historical context of colonial architecture, contrasting with the dizzying heights of banks, hotels and condominiums that tower over the domestic-scaled “shop-houses” on this tiny sovereign island city-state in South East Asia.

St Andrews Cathedral, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30646, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

An image of a rugby and football playing ground, with skyscrapers rising in the distance

Cricket Ground near City Hall, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30645, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Old Supreme Court, now National Gallery, Singapore, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_G30640, The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

Kersting captured St Andrews Cathedral, white as icing on a wedding cake, and the Cricket Ground near City Hall, where you could envisage, under colonial rule, a game of cricket being played. These were all on my daily route to the office I worked in, as well as the Old Supreme Court which was the last building to be built in the Classical style in the former British Colony. This building is now part of the National Gallery.

Image by Muny Morgan.

I marvelled at the way this island expands at such speed from a construction perspective and at the amazing architecture that exists. The skyline continues to progress and increase in density, and the structures become more and more challenging. For this reason, this is a place I always want to revisit.

The last time I was fortunate enough to travel to Singapore was ten years after I had worked and lived there and I couldn’t believe the number of new buildings that had emerged. 

Image by Muny Morgan.

It made me think of the images of places that have been recorded in history and time, buildings that have disappeared forever due to wars, human intervention and natural disasters, many of which are captured in the Conway Library.

Photography is an important tool for recording places and people as they are in a particular time. This makes the Conway Library, and other photographic archives of this kind, vital to reconstructing our heritage and history and makes the efforts to digitise it and present it to the public even more important. Preserving these items is to preserve that time and place forever, making it accessible to all across the globe, enabling research and consultation for whatever purpose.

Sat here in London on a rainy November day during lockdown 2, exploring Kersting’s photographs was a wonderful moment of escapism that transported me in an instant from my current burdening thoughts and worries to memories of the past. It made me feel more hopeful for the future, during a year of overwhelming disruption and changes to life as we know it.

Finally, for readers looking to spend some time with a good book on memories and olfactory triggers, I recommend Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by German writer Patrick Süskind.


Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Florence Heyworth: London’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon – Alexandra Road Estate Then and Now

Audio version

Read by Ellie

Text Version

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council's Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council’s Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

        ‘Huge picture windows look out over a peaceful oasis of greenery and mature
        trees. Many a time I have sat and been simply uplifted by this lush view of
        nature or been
stunned by the beauty of the sun burnishing the windows
        opposite with a copper glow’.
[1]

        Su Cross, resident of the Alexandra Road Estate

A photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate at sunset, showing lush greenery on the balcony gardens, by @whereisfenchurch on Instagram.

A photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate at sunset, showing lush greenery on the balcony gardens, by @whereisfenchurch on Instagram.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, social housing developments transformed city skylines across Britain. High-rise tower blocks were idealised as utopian ‘streets in the sky’. By the mid-1960s, however, far from being hailed as innovative feats of architecture, tower blocks were condemned by residents and architects alike as undesirable, inconvenient and structurally unsound. The partial collapse of Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block, in May 1968, fuelled growing calls for a change in direction.

Neave Brown, a New York-born British architect (1929-2018), envisioned a new style of social housing. He believed that ‘ziggurat style terraces’ could revolutionise publicly-owned estates: the sloping structure would provide residents with access to their own outdoor space, in the form of private balconies and terraces, and provide each home with its own front door opening directly onto the street.[2]    

In 1968, Brown designed what would become the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, London. One of the most significant issues which the project needed to address was the sound and vibration from trains which passed directly adjacent to the site. Brown designed an 8-story stepped building which would block noise from the trains, built on rubber pads to minimise the vibration.[3] His plan consisted of 520 apartments, to house over 1600 people[4], a school, a community centre, a youth club, a heating complex, a care home, a special needs school and a park. When Brown presented his model for the development to the Camden Council in 1969, the councillors applauded its ‘ambitious and imaginative quality’.[5] 

Exterior view of Alexandra Road flats backing onto a train track.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, NW8, London, England. Camden Architects Department. negative number: B88/811. The Courtauld Institute of Art. Accessioned at CON_B04264_F003_001.

Tweet from @Rob_Feihn on twitter, showing photographs of the Alexandra Road Estate. "Early morning visit... still looking visionary!".

Tweet from @Rob_Feihn on twitter, showing photographs of the Alexandra Road Estate. “Early morning visit… still looking visionary!”.

Construction work on the project began in 1972, and this marked the beginning of a succession of unfortunate events, including unforeseen foundation problems and external issues such as high rates of inflation and shortages of reinforcement steel. The project ultimately cost £19,150,000 (over double the anticipated £7,200,000) and took 6 years to complete (rather than the anticipated 3 and a half).[6] Alexandra Road was deemed a ‘wildly expensive’ ‘disaster’ in the media, and Neave Brown never worked as an architect in Britain again.[7] However, despite its reputation in the press, Camden’s housing department found that the flats at Alexandra Road ‘were probably the easiest ever to let’.[8]

Su Cross, a resident of the estate, describes her first impression of Rowley Way (the main street): ‘the dazzling white concrete structures had such a jolly Mediterranean feel. It was immediately possible to visualize its potential as London’s equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’.[9]

An adaptation of CON_B04264_F003_004. Also includes image by Latheev Deepan Kolad. Collage by Bella Watts and Florence Heyworth.

An adaptation of CON_B04264_F003_004. Also includes image by Latheev Deepan Kolad. Collage by Bella Watts and Florence Heyworth.

The striking architecture, easy parking and straightforward access to the estate has made it a popular area for location scouts.[10] Scenes of the estate can be seen in BBC shows such as Spooks, Silent Witness and London Spy; films such as Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); as well as numerous music videos including J Hus’s ‘Calling Me’ (2015) and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’ (2016).

Stills from Slewdem Mafia’s Nothing Like Yours; Fatima’s Somebody Else; and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’.

Stills from Slewdem Mafia’s Nothing Like Yours; Fatima’s Somebody Else; and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’.

In SPID Theatre’s 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’, filmed on the Alexandra Road Estate, one young person said: ‘I know it definitely made me proud to say yeah, my estate was filmed in Kingsman, my estate was filmed in different documentaries’.

However, filming in the area is not popular with everybody: other residents interviewed in the documentary were worried that frequent filming diverts attention away from poor conditions and maintenance issues. One resident explained how ‘there isn’t a day that goes by where you’re not seeing some film crew or photographer or model. For the people living on the estate, it’s a double-edged sword’. She felt that ‘their privacy is being invaded or… that it’s just for show’, and expressed concern that ‘how they live is not necessarily being taken care of, so things like the repairs and maintenance is probably the most important thing in the front of their mind and they just want the council to sort it out’. Polena Barbagallo similarly described how ‘we have people filming here every day’, but ‘underneath all that the structure is decaying.’[11]

Residents have also expressed concern over how the estate is being represented in the media. Council estates have often been used in TV and film as a ‘shorthand for crime and deprivation’,[12] perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes. Residents have noted how set decorators will often ‘dirty up the estate with fake graffiti and rubbish and generally [make] it look threatening’, which ‘totally misrepresents the estate’.[13]

Equally, there is the issue of the ‘fetishization’ of council estates, whereby ‘urban’ and working-class aesthetics are monetised by labels and celebrities for profit,[14] while the challenges facing the residents of such estates are side-lined and neglected. As of 2012, only 18% of the estate’s flats were leasehold, [15] but estates like Alexandra Road are quickly becoming gentrified, with private flats on the estate now costing anything upwards of £500,000 to purchase.[16]

The misrepresentations of the estate in the media have led to several community-led documentary projects, including the 2012 documentary ‘One Below the Queen’ and the 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’. For more information about filming on the estate, see http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film

Exterior view of Rowley Way, the main street on the Alexandra Road Estate. NW8, London, England.

Camden Architects Department. Negative number: B88/810. The Courtauld Institute of Art. Accessioned at CON_B04264_F003_005.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, showing beautiful green growing on the balconies, posted by @gregorzoyzoyla on instagram, 18 August 2017.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, showing beautiful green growing on the balconies, posted by @gregorzoyzoyla on Instagram, 18 August 2017.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, with a wintry, yellow-grey sunrise light, posted by @votre__prenom on instagram, 16 December 2018.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, with a wintry, yellow-grey sunrise light, posted by @votre__prenom on instagram, 16 December 2018.

In 1994, Peter Brooke, then National Heritage Secretary, hailed the Alexandra Road Estate as ‘one of the most distinguished groups of buildings in England since the Second World War’.[17] In 1995, Andrew Freear (recipient of the Architectural League of New York’s President’s Medal) declared Alexandra Road to be ‘the last great social housing project’.[18]  However, the estate is by no means a relic of the past. In 2012-13, a group of residents put forward a bid to the National Heritage Lottery and received £2 million to put towards developing the park, a project which was completed in 2015. Since 2012, the Tenants Hall has begun to be used as a space for yoga classes, table tennis and a fruit and vegetable food cooperative.[19] The ever-evolving nature of the estate is captured by Elizabeth Knowles, a long-term resident: ‘When I think about Alexandra Road it seems it has taken on a life all of its own — and there seems to be no stopping it.’[20]  

 

Further material:

Alexandra Road Estate Spotify Playlist
I hope you enjoy this ‘Alexandra Road Estate’ playlist I have created – all the music videos for these songs were shot on location at the Alexandra Road Estate!

Blogs to Explore
See Sophie Bailey’s I Suppose It’s Not The Place’s Fault and Ben Britton’s The New Towns Are No Longer New for fascinating insights into the social housing of the 1950s.

Bibliography:
Professor Mark Swenarton. Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
Wei W (2008) Housing terraces in the UK (Part II). 7 July. Available on: https://kosmyryk.typepad.com/wu_wei/2008/07/housing-terra-2.html
Andrew M (1993) Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing? In: The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993): 14-15.
Report: Alexandra Road Estate Investigated by National Building Agency. In: The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 173, no. 8 (1981): 339.
Swenarton M (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981. In: Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
McLennan W (2017) Our estate, the movie set? We just want you to fix our boilers, say residents. Camden New Journal, 7 December. Available on: http://camdennewjournal.com/article/our-estate-the-movie-set-we-just-want-you-to-fix-our-boilers-say-residents

Endnotes:
[1] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html
[2] Professor Mark Swenarton. Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
[3] https://kosmyryk.typepad.com/wu_wei/2008/07/housing-terra-2.html
[4] Mead, Andrew. “Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing?” The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993). 14
[5] London Borough of Camden, Housing Committee, 1 April 1969. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
[6] Report: Alexandra Road Estate Investigated by the National Building Agency.” The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 173, no. 8 (1981): 339.
[7] Mark Swenarton (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981, Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
[8] Mark Swenarton (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981, Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
[9] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html
[10] http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
[11] http://camdennewjournal.com/article/our-estate-the-movie-set-we-just-want-you-to-fix-our-boilers-say-residents
[12] https://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/02/10/stop-portraying-council-estates-as-crime-ridden-and
[13] http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
[14] https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/working-class-streetwear-high-fashion
[15] https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/the-alexandra-road-estate-camden-a-magical-moment-for-english-housing/
[16] https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/brutal-attraction-meet-the-londoners-who-live-in-the-citys-most-controversial-buildings-a3278566.html
[17] Mead, Andrew. “Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing?” The Architects’ Journal (Archive : 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993). 14.
[18] Andrew Freear, “Alexandra Road: The last great social housing project,” AA Files, vol. 30, 1995, 35.
[19] News Update (September 2015). http://www.rowleyway.org.uk
[20] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html


Florence Heyworth
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Victoria Bennett: Worker/Housewife – Designing the Frankfurt Kitchen

Audio version

Read by Celia Cockburn

Text version

The mid-1920s in Frankfurt, Germany saw a desperate housing shortage. The First World War had swept through the city a few years prior, leaving the need for much of its housing to be re-built. In 1925, architect and city planner Ernst May was employed to head a new social housing project, known as the New Frankfurt, which would see the construction of 10,000 new homes for the working classes. It would be the largest social housing project of the Weimar years.

A modernist designer with utopian ideals, May saw the New Frankfurt project as an opportunity for increased domestic liberation through design. Inspired by the emerging theories of ‘efficiency engineering’ and household rationalisation – ideas which promoted the time-saving possibilities of ‘better’ object placement and applied them to the home – May believed that a well-designed home could make life easier for its occupants. He enlisted the help of Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky – Austria’s first female architect and fellow efficiency advocate – to design a new and thoroughly modern kitchen, befitting of this vision. The Frankfurt Kitchen, as it has come to be known, is arguably the most important legacy of the New Frankfurt project and is widely recognised as the first example of the modern fitted kitchen, as we know it today.

An exterior shot of the building showing wisteria arranged under the windows

Ernst May House, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04373_F002_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.


The 1920s were a time of social change for women in Germany. Declared to be the equals of men, women were granted the vote under the Weimar constitution. Increasingly, women were single, working, and less interested in family life, and the figure of the ‘New Woman’ emerged as a symbol – with her shorter hair and traditionally ‘unfeminine’ attire – depicting this shift.

The New Woman symbolised a lifestyle of work and leisure, following the expansion of employment and education opportunities that became available to women during the War. However, many took an aversion to this new sense of female independence. Conservatives worried about the long-term effect the New Woman might have on traditional values, as more women were in university than men, male joblessness was high, and the birth rate had dropped. Fewer women were working as servants, and so many middle-class homes also found themselves at a loss. A coalition of interest groups began to steadily form, seeking to readdress the woman’s place as being in the home, and the idea of the ‘professional’ housewife emerged, using efficiency engineering – specifically, its scientific language and approach – to intellectualise the idea of housekeeping. Suddenly, the same notion of rationalisation so embraced by modernist architects for its critique of traditional design was being used in socio-political terms to argue that the home would provide a suitable and modern experience for women, and, thanks to its new methodology, would be held in the same regard as a man’s professional work. This campaign to reaffirm the domestic sphere resulted in the introduction of a state policy called ‘Female Redomestication’, and education and employment options for women were largely diminished once again, as they returned to the home.

Back in Frankfurt, Lihotzky was designing her efficient kitchen. She consulted housewives and experts, drew inspiration from the spatial design of factory floors and train dining cars, and studied psychological and material evaluations. She realised that by placing the sink, stove and workspaces in a triangle, less time was spent walking between each. Her final design came pre-equipped – for the first time – with built-in storage, a gas stove, fold-down ironing board, adjustable ceiling light and a swivel stool. It was the first German kitchen with electricity. Efficiency was in every detail: the cupboards were painted blue as it was understood to be fly-repellent; cutting surfaces were made from beech to resist staining and knife marks; aluminium chutes were designed to hold staples such as flour and sugar for easy storage and pouring. The floor space, measuring in at just 1.9 x 3.44 metres, was decreed optimum for carrying out the tasks therein, and the room could be shut away with its sliding door.

It was designed as a gleaming embrace of technology and the future. It waved goodbye to the time-consuming and labour-intensive traditional kitchen: poorly ventilated, dimly lit, disorganised, and badly furnished. Lihotzky had optimised domesticity. She would later say that by doing so, it acted ‘very well as propaganda’ for the ‘bourgeois ideas of the time that a woman essentially worked at home in the kitchen’, and was aware that her gender, as designer, added to this narrative. Nevertheless, she would describe her time spent on the New Frankfurt project as amongst “a group that stood up for certain principles and architectural ideas, and fought for them uncompromisingly”.

How is it possible for such different interpretations of efficiency (conservative ideas of re-domestication, and modernist ideas of liberation through design) to co-exist? The answer lies in a 1923 book by author and housewife Christine Frederick, titled ‘Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home’, which has been referred to as the ‘the bible of progressive architects of the 1920s’.

long and narrow kitchen fitted with functionality in mind

The Frankfurt Kitchen. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04374_F001_034. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.


“Couldn’t we standardise dishwashing by raising the height of the sink? Did we not waste time and needless walking in poorly arranged kitchens? I came to earnestly believe that scientific management could, and must, solve housework problems as it had already solved other work problems”.

The quote above – from the introduction of Household Engineering – begins a rallying cry for improved health, design and efficiency in the home. Frederick coined the concept of scientific home management after she began to apply the same principles used by her husband (who worked as an Efficiency Engineer) to her work as housewife, realising its time-saving potential. Her husband’s profession gave her writing credence and an ideological slant: with better working practices, the housewife would be freer. Architects used the practical advice in Household Engineering and applied it to their floorplans, and May and Lihotzky recognised the evolutionary role that considered design could have for the occupants of their social housing. However, this is perhaps where the cross-over of progressive design and domestication ends. While Household Engineering explores in detail how best to carry out housework, it takes a less radical approach towards who will be doing this work. Frederick frequently refers to the person in the kitchen as ‘the worker’, and it’s clear from Household Engineering’s floorplans of accompanying servant quarters that working-class women were expected to provide labour for middle-class households as servants still, only now with ‘scientific’ guidance on which tasks it would be acceptable for them to sit down during: “This permits the worker to give her entire energy to it, thus resulting in quicker and better work”.

If there was any question as to what the New Woman would do with her newly saved time, Frederick seems to imply the answer is more work. Indeed, Frederick herself admits to pouring her saved time back into improving her workflow, to every minor detail: “Every day I tried to find new ways, new methods and new short cuts in my home problems. If I made out a good schedule of work for one week I tried to improve on it for the week following. No housework detail was too small or too unimportant”. 

A question naturally arises from this: how did the architects and designers of the New Frankfurt envision occupants using their newly rationalised space?

Velvet sofa positioned with its back away from the window. Window lined with spiky plants like agave and aloe.

Architect’s House. Photograph by Tim Benton. CON_B04373_F002_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-4.0.

Throughout the project, May published a journal of the same name (Das Neue Frankfurt) and a 1927 article titled “The new apartment and the household effects” (Die Neue Wohnung und der Hausrat) written by Franz Schuster (architect and furniture designer) sheds a light on the team’s vision for women and their labour. It suggests intellectual pastimes in place of housework, and views the latter as unimportant and to be done quickly through improved efficiency: “The woman no longer wants to spend the entire day cleaning the house and doing meaningless things; she wants to be able to take part in contemporary intellectual life, and must be able to survive in the economic competition. She can no longer afford to waste her thought and effort on trivial things, whether she is a mother, or wife, or on her own – she wants to be a valuable comrade-in-arms in the building of a new Era. Thus she must demand of her home – as we do from everything else – that it not restrict the development of our best and most vital powers, but rather advance them; no one would claim that dusting, cleaning, and furniture brushing are particularly valuable in themselves. Thus the Era itself demands the new [efficient] household”.

It has been said before that the modernist movement set out to change more than architecture, and the Frankfurt Kitchen is a good example of this. Its design was intended to make life easier for Frankfurt inhabitants, helping women to spend less time on their own chores. The main criticism of its design at the time centred on the small scope for individualisation that the built-in furnishings allowed for, particularly at a time where women were spending more time at home. However, Lihotkzy has maintained that herself and the wider Frankfurt team considered the efficient kitchen an emancipatory space, describing it as “a modern laboratory where work was able to be done as quickly as possible”. She hoped to create a culture of less housework, and her kitchen is a successful piece of design which improved – with lasting effects – convenience, technology, health and safety and workflow within the home. It would go on to influence kitchen design through to current day, and it served as Lihotzky’s contribution to the issue of housework.

The Frankfurt Kitchen provided a means, rather than an end, to a problem.

However, it did so by designing a vision of the future where efficiency equated to greater freedoms (both leisurely and intellectually) – so that when society was ready to move in the same direction, the structures for positive change would be already in place.


Victoria Bennett 
Digitisation Assistant

Lorraine Stoker: Kersting – Nassau – Bahamas – Chelsea Pottery

Audio version

Read by Anne Hutchings

Text version

The mix of European sculpture such as a George and the dragon sculpture and a European bust, alongside a young Bahamian apprentice, busy glazing a plate, piqued my interest.

A black and white photograph by Anthony Kersting showing a collection of various sculptures and a young black man wearing a white tshirt and jeans decorating a plate.

Anthony Kersting, “Nassau, Bahamas, Chelsea Pottery“.

Kersting’s hand-written note on the back of the photograph reads Nassau, Bahamas and Chelsea Pottery.

To put the Kersting photograph into context, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw Nassau as the playground of the rich and famous, who arrived to sample the social scene – the sun, the wild parties and one of the most important and prestigious motor racing events on the race calendar! At the same time, more American and European money began flowing through Nassau, and there was a market for fine pottery, especially among foreign tourists and the affluent ex-pat community in Nassau.

Obviously, Chelsea Pottery was the first line of enquiry. In fact, Chelsea was the brainchild of David Rawnsley, a highly gifted and innovative man who had trained as an architect and engineer but who had also worked as a very successful art director in the British Film Industry. For those of us old enough to have watched the following in the 1960s with our grandparents or parents – One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and In Which We Serve (1942). His film innovations were widely ridiculed by the Rank film crews. Despite this, David Rawnsley developed independent frame storyboarding and back projection, both radical improvements to the filmmaking process.

At the end of the war, Rawnsley had already set up an ‘atelier libre’ in Paris, followed by another in London 1952, where painters and sculptors could work alongside each other exploring the use of clay and sharing ideas and experiences, for a daily charge. Yet, he decided to leave Chelsea London and set up a pottery along similar lines, in Nassau in the Bahamas.

Four examples of Chelsea Pottery plates

A newspaper article – Chelsea Pottery of London comes to the Bahamas 1958, published January 11th, 1958, in the Miami Times describes this branch of his famous London pottery house headed by David Rawnsley and assisted by two European ceramic artists. Two Bahamians, George Huyler and Kendal Hanna, were permanently employed.

Instead of pursuing the Chelsea pottery line of enquiry, I wondered about the young man in the photograph… was he one of the apprentices or full-time employees George or Kendal?

Trawling through online articles and photographs of the Chelsea pottery in Nassau, two images showed a young man identified as Maxwell Taylor, who became a much admired and respected Bahamian artist. I contacted Max Taylor and he kindly confirmed that it was him in the Anthony Kersting photograph.

So how did this young Bahamian who trained as a ceramicist in the Chelsea Pottery eventually become one of the greatest Bahamian artists, renown as a painter, sculptor and printmaker?

In an interview conducted by Anita Malhotra for Artsmania in November 2014, Maxwell Taylor revealed that it was working for Chelsea Pottery that really got him started in art.

Along with Brent Malone and Kendal Hanna, Maxwell became one of the first apprentices of the Chelsea Pottery in Nassau. He always had a strong desire to draw and paint and admitted that David Rawnsley was instrumental in instructing and encouraging him. After the pottery closed, he later moved to New York and studied at the Art Students League of New York. Maxwell left New York after 20 years and travelled to South Carolina and Europe.

Maxwell Taylor as a young man in the late ’50s decorating a religious piece for Chelsea Pottery (photo courtesy of Maxwell and Therese Taylor)

Over the past 40 years, Maxell Taylor has dealt with issues which reflect his own life experiences, such as Bahamian women as single mothers, immigration, political satire and political commentary, the Middle Passage and Slavery – celebration and misery.

A woodcut print by Maxwell Taylor titled “The Immigrants (Rwanda)” recently auctioned and sold.

Maxwell Taylor, the young man who against all odds worked to become an artist, became a teacher, a highly accomplished craftsperson and is now renowned for his ceramics, paintings, and printmaking.

He certainly had an interesting life from his time as an apprentice in Chelsea Pottery, when Anthony Kersting photographed him, to his well-earned status as one of the greatest – possibly the first – Bahamian artist.


Lorraine Stoker
Digitisation Volunteer

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

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Text Version

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