Caterina Domeneghini: Beyond Ruins – New Insights into the War Damage Collection in the Conway Library

Has not that ruin, say he, a good effect?
A Dialogue on Stowe, 1746

The Conway Library

War-time ruins have always exerted an inexplicable fascination on the observer – a puzzling and not infrequently morbid sentiment that has been targeted as a serious object of academic enquiry since at least the aftermath of World War II. Besides provoking an undeniable and undeniably problematic aesthetic pleasure – one should only think of Albert Speer’s theory of Ruin Value (Ruinenwerttheorie), by which he persuaded Hitler that they should only employ materials that would make “good ruins” in the event of collapse during their architectural plans for the Third Reich – ruined monuments and buildings have also been exploited as a political tool. They have been constantly overwritten, either literally or figuratively, by the activities of bulldozers and cranes, bricklayers and architects, as well as journalists and photographers commissioned to record the revival of a city.

The purpose of the following article is, broadly speaking, to explore concepts of ruination and transformation, drawing from the war damage collection in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Known informally as the Ministry of Works bequest, it comprises several hundred photographs taken by soldiers, historians and architects across Europe towards the end of World War II. The collection is part of the Conway Library, which takes its name from writer, traveller and mountaineer Martin Conway. The first Director General of the Imperial Museum of London and Professor of Art at Liverpool and Cambridge, one of Conway’s chief interests was photography as a record of buildings that might suffer war damage. The Ministry of Works images continue precisely that tradition: taken by allied troops chiefly from the US, Britain and Poland, they record in often shocking detail the destruction of cityscapes as collateral or deliberate acts of annihilation.

What these pictures capture, as we shall clearly see, is the pars destruens. They crystallize a single moment, and that moment is desolation, devastation, destruction. But this is not the whole narrative. As much as the images speak for themselves, they also leave much unsaid. There is a hidden story behind these photographs, a story of human efforts and contributions to the process of preservation, rebuilding and revival, which successive generations have perpetrated in written documents and oral narratives. At a time when cultural heritage is still dangerously under threat in many corners of the globe, it is all the more imperative to continue to fill in the gaps. This article encourages us to do just that. We desperately need a pars construens; that part will be equally explored here, by taking advantage of the invaluable potential of ruined infrastructures to present themselves as a challenge to be either replaced or restored – as they were, in fact. The unfinished nature of ruins, by definition, creates a sense of superseding that invites the observer to inscribe them into a narrative of progress. For every part we see in the Ministry of Works photographs, there is a part that we do not see, which acts as a catalyst of imagination, an engine of speculation. A ruin bears the trace of unscripted possibilities. In so doing, it generates questions on the process of reconstruction and its dilemmas: whether to reconstruct or to preserve; how much to reconstruct; whether to construct anew rather than to rebuild.

The Pleasure of Ruins, and Beyond

In 1953, English writer Rose Macaulay, a civil servant in the War Office, published a ground-breaking and controversial study on ruination, the first of its kind, entitled Pleasure of Ruins. Her approach, as her introduction and the title of the book itself point out, is that of a pleasurist (some would rather say of a voyeur…). Often criticized for being excessively self-indulgent, Macaulay offers complacent incursions into “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind”. She argues that “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol”. Starting with the ancient world, her account ends with a two-page coda, “On the new ruins”, foregrounding the conjecture that the devastation evident across post-war London and other parts of Britain will one day be looked on with admiration, just like we now admire the ruins of antiquity.
On a very superficial level, Macaulay must be right. There is an undeniable aesthetic component to decaying buildings and crumbling monuments: they provide a treasure trove of encounters with the eerie and the unexpected. As we first approach the Ministry of Works photographs without context, we might gaze in awe, for a moment, at the oddly unique shapes that missing bricks and huge cracks conferred onto the architecture captured in a snapshot (figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. The Conway Library

Fig. 2. The Conway Library

There is an element of honesty to these photographs, which equates them to the apocalyptic stories and dystopian novels that many of us also adore. Even if they represent the worst possible scenario, such narratives still feel real to us as we know too well that human beings are capable of committing the worst crimes. The devastation of WWII, so harshly and honestly depicted in the images, is probably the closest to apocalypse we have ever drawn (figs. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3. The Conway Library

Fig. 4. The Conway Library

In addition to that, stories predicting the future speak to an innate desire to have control over our fate; we seem to appreciate ruins because, in a similar way, they trigger our imagination. They encourage us to think of elsewhere, a phenomenon that works in two directions. One the one hand, to perceive a ruin is to recognize that it has once been otherwise, and thus to travel back in time; on the other hand, the ruins captured in the photographs increase awareness of the present and future condition of our society. As photographer Yves Marchand, co-author of Ruins of Detroit, puts it, “To us, the ruin allows you to see the past, as well as your present condition, and what you’re going to be – you can see all those three at the same time”.

The main limit of Macaulay’s approach is that it is unidirectional. She makes the example of traveller Mr Thomas Coryat, who arrived on the Trojan shore opposite Tenedos in 1612. After seeing extensive ruins, the remains of a goodly fortress, marble pillars and sepulchres, he spent his afternoon guessing: one of the sepulchres must have belonged to King Priam; the fragments of the great buttressed wall on his left were first built by Ilium when he enlarged the city, and then rebuilt by Priam. I suggest we need to go further than that. We cannot simply self-indulge in the pleasure of fantasizing about what was once there, driven by mere antiquarian frenzy; when looking at these photographs, we must think of what is now there, just like the soldiers and civilians in situ must have imagined what was going to be there once restoration was completed. “Exploring abandoned buildings isn’t about revelling in their collapse at all,” argues Dylan Thuras, author of the foreword to Dan Barasch’s Ruin and Redemption in Architecture. Upon recalling an adolescence spent in the thrall of deserted flour mills in Minneapolis, now partially restored structures, he evaluates such imperfect architecture as occupying “a shadowy liminal space between self-destruction and the possibility of rebirth”.

We can infer from the visual examples below how this whole process of imagination, moving in limbo between destruction and rebirth, might have worked for the observers of the time, looking grimly at the ruined buildings around them, and works equally well for us today as we examine such buildings in the photographs. In images 5 and 6, René Levavasseur – the architect charged by the French government with the preservation of historical monuments in the Department of La Manche – is caught scrutinizing the damage of two churches in Normandy.

In fig. 5, he lists damage to the beautifully sculpted bell of the Church of St Jacques of Montebourg, before making plans for repair of the tower – an unfortunate victim of the fighting for the beachheads nearby. Confronted by ruins without being intimidated by them, his serious and attentive gaze makes us think that he was already anticipating in his head the steps and strategies through which the reconstruction of the tower might be carried out, leading us to wonder in turn whether and how this actually took place at all. Here, imagination gives way to historical documentation: archives of Le Monuments Historiques inform us that reconstruction works were undertaken in 1949, after a deeper and more resistant foundation for the church had been secured. The square floor of the bell tower was completed in February 1950, followed by the stone spire in August of the same year. Finally, in October 1952, the building was returned to worship. In fig. 6, similarly, Levavasseur is shown holding a gargoyle “knocked loose from the tower of the cathedral at Carentan before American forces drove the Nazis from the area”. There is both intimacy and remoteness in this picture. The architect holds the gargoyle firmly with both hands, as if a father with his child, but also keeps it at a distance, in order to better scrutinize it. Again, his expression suggests he has full awareness of the exact spot the piece will occupy after reconstruction. This photograph gives out very strong ritual vibes. Levavasseur almost looks like a priest holding a newborn during some religious service, laden with symbolic meanings. A new life is brought into the community and exhibited triumphantly before the eyes of its participants. A new life, by the same metaphorical token, is also given to the cathedral: the gargoyle will be inset back into the tower.

Fig. 5. The Conway Library

Fig. 6. The Conway Library

Ruins and Bodies

I found it a funny coincidence that so many of the buildings hit by the blow of war were cathedrals, churches, places of worship. In these images, the desolation of conflict blends with a vacuous, sinister spirituality, almost verging on mysticism. Ruins shelter the spectres of the past while standing for an uncontrolled present. And such is a present in which very little faith remains. “There is Auschwitz, therefore there can be no God”, Primo Levi famously asserted. Just as God has abandoned men, men seem to have abandoned God. In the images below, the crucifix, the only element left intact among ruins in a deserted land, becomes an almost surreal symbol of such a legacy. In fig. 7, a crucifix still hangs from the rafters of a severely ruined church in Erkelenz, Germany, damaged by artillery fire in February 1945; in fig. 8, a battered cross survives, bending, in a battle-scarred roadside shrine in Dahnen, where no trace of human presence can be found. The Church, no longer the living and breathing body of those assembled in worship, is reduced to a speechless mound of matter. Yet at the same time the very integrity of the cross, a leftover functioning as an ironic symbol of defiance in the midst of so much destruction, must have represented a glimmer of hope for many a passerby. Perhaps it is true, as Professor Charles Lock has written, that one of the secrets of ruins is that “inasmuch as they retain a trace of spirit, of motion, they speak to us of something other than perdition”.

Fig. 7. The Conway Library

Fig. 8. The Conway Library

That must be as true for monuments as it is for bodies. In fact, the architecture and people in the photographs seem to share similar histories. Buildings are as maimed as the invisible corpses of soldiers and civilians who fought around and for them. Indeed, a fallen stone or one still standing might be analogous to the human body, Lock has suggested: “the upright stone reminds us of a person standing, liturgically; that which is cast down was once, like a corpse, a spirit’s dwelling”. The collection offers some glaring testimony of the tense, uneasy co-existence of ruins and civilians, whose complex relationship would only be fully healed with the passage of time, by means of concrete urban intervention and re-planning. Fig. 9 shows a man cycling undisturbed through the streets of Palermo, in spite of the bleak view of crumbing Palazzo Trabucco marked in the background by cracks resembling the bites of giant jaws. Life goes on amidst wreckage: not giving up your daily business was as powerful a form of resistance as concrete military manoeuvres, sometimes. The same sort of disquieting blending is manifest in fig. 10, depicting the interior of the Cathedral in Messina – which underwent a controversial and not fully transparent plan of reconstruction from June 1943 to August 1947. The photograph captures a man standing still, as if striking a pose amidst debris of wood. In so doing, he almost becomes part of the triptych behind him, the Altar of the Pietà.

Fig. 9. The Conway Library

Fig. 10. The Conway Library

On the other hand, several pictures from the collection keep for themselves some crucial hidden truths, and it is down to us to uncover these through historical research. It is not so widely known, for example, that the urgency of starting reconstruction works at Montecassino – where the famous Abbey had been reduced to little more than a sandcastle by the bombing of May 1944 – was dictated by a humanitarian motive other than a merely moral, or for that matter artistic, one (fig. 11). The bodies of dozens of civilian victims who had not been able to leave the monastery before the bombing lay buried under the debris. Their discovery and burial would only have been possible with the removal of the rubble. When people can finally stand up and pull themselves back together, then it is also the right time for monuments to rise again from the ashes. Succisa virescit are the words that can be read on the coat of arms of the Abbey – literally meaning “cut, it grows back”. And indeed for the fifth time in its history, despite the difficulties caused by the post-war period and its widespread destruction, the Abbey of Montecassino was brought back to the light. The restoration aimed to reproduce the original structure and was carried out from 1948 to 1956, under the direction of engineer Giuseppe Breccia Fratadocchi. Two hundred and fifty workers took part in the project, working side by side with the monks embodying the mantra of their master Benedict buried there: ora et labora. The statues of the benefactors – popes, kings and princes – which had originally occupied the Chiostro dei Benefattori (Cloister of the Benefactors) were placed under a canopy. In a rather curious turn of events, the statues now looked at these other humble benefactors working with zeal, having no treasures or privileges to bestow but their hands. All the church coverings, marbles, mosaics and sculptures were also restored.

Fig. 11. The Conway Library

We can contrast this extraordinary story of successful cooperation and resilience with a less fortunate one, again from Italy, which can nevertheless function as a memento to the importance of implementing strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage in times of conflict. The Church of Santa Maria in Passione on the hill of Castello, Genova, was severely damaged by two aerial bombardments; the first, on 22 October 1942, caused the roof to catch fire, but the most destructive was a second attack on 4 September 1944, which almost razed the top of the hill of Castello to the ground. The bombardments almost completely destroyed the frescoes and caused serious damage to the outer walls, some of which had to be demolished (fig. 12). The monastic complex remained in ruins for decades. Then, in the 1970s, a project devised by the Municipality of Genoa and supervised by architect Ignazio Gardella gave the go-ahead for the restoration of the area with the construction of the new headquarters of the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Genoa on the site of the former convent of San Silvestro, the Niccolò Paganini Foundation and the headquarters of the Permanent Urban Observatory, created to promote initiatives for the rehabilitation and enhancement of the historic centre. Starting in the 1990s, another project (“Progetto Civis Sistema”) envisaged more conservation and restoration work. However, this was interrupted in 1997 and the site was completely abandoned. Everything was enclosed with barbed wire. It was only in 2012 that a group of students decided to break the fences and clean up the area. Since then, Santa Maria in Passione lives almost exclusively thanks to the support of citizens through donations and voluntary work.

Fig. 12. The Conway Library

Concluding Remarks

So, to reprise the question from which this article started: do ruins have a good effect after all? The answer is yes, I would say. But it should be remembered that for every good effect there is always a price to pay. In tracing a history of destruction and reconstruction through painstaking human efforts, I have tried to raise awareness of how essential the preservation of cultural heritage is for the wealth of communities. Several collaborative strategies have been implemented for this purpose both before and during World War II, as we have seen.  Examples feature the Service des Monuments Historiques in France, of which the abovementioned Levavasseur was a member, founded in 1830 and charged with several “passive defense” and reconstruction measures as early as 1935; or the Roberts Commission in the US, leading to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the allied armies (the “Monuments Men”) with the aim of both protecting works of art and buildings from deliberate destruction and of returning them, so far as possible, to their owners or the appropriate local authorities. Similarly, after the conflict, international organizations acknowledged the urgency to create conventions to protect sites and artifacts in conflict zones. UNESCO, among others, was established in 1945. However, as several speakers at the Courtauld talk Post-conflict: Art History and Cultural Heritage in Dialogue on 15 June 2021 illustrated, UNESCO and world heritage have been criticized for many failures in recent years, including that of deterring the destruction of heritage during times of war. There is need for greater cooperation between different groups – professionals in the field and governmental authorities in primis, but also scholars, local organizations, and no less the general public. As the example of Santa Maria in Passione demonstrates, ordinary citizens are often in a unique position to help when the threat of destruction, deterioration or looting looms over them. The very significance of the Ministry of Works collection, which has never before seen in its entirety as a consequence of being spread across hundreds of boxes, is now being understood thanks to a major digitisation project at the Courtauld, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported entirely by volunteers. If ruins, as it has often been suggested, are essentially “democratic” – their appeal is for everyone, from children visiting a site for the first time to experienced archaeologists – then their protection and revival becomes, by the same token, a universal responsibility.

 


Caterina Domeneghini
Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Humanities, Oxford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Who made the Conway Library?

Audio Version

Read by Gill Stoker

 

Text Version

Much loved and perused by staff, students, and the general public in the know, the Conway Library is a collection of 9764 red boxes containing brown manila folders. The photographs glued on the brown manila mounts are black and white original prints showing places of architectural notice, often in painstaking detail. The variety, detail and beauty of the photographs, as well as the value of this research resource are well documented in this blog.

Martin Conway, who had started collecting art in 1887, “spent a great many of the pre-war years occupied with his photographs, developing the system of mounting, annotating and arranging which can still be found today” (Higgon, 2006). His glamorous American wife, Katrina Glidden, and their daughter, Agnes, joined him in his passion and continued to further enrich the collection. Towards the end of his life, Martin Conway busied himself with the foundation of the Courtauld Institute, to which he donated his much-beloved collection (“The Conway Library archive contains some photographs taken at the Himalayan base camp, where a member of the team made a bust of Martin out of snow, adding a pipe and an incongruous wreath of local vegetation!” Higgon, 2006).

 

What is less well known about the collection is who took the photos after it moved to the Courtauld

 

One of the tasks available to the volunteers, Attributions, seeks to answer that very question. In capturing the names of the photographers, inked, pencilled or stamped predominantly on the back of the mounts, the volunteers compiled, for the first time in the history of the collection, a definitive list of the hundreds of people who contributed photos to the Conway after Conway.

The list of photographers tells a completely new story about the library. No longer simply the story of the initial collectors, this is now also the story of the hundreds of people – students, staff or independent supporters – who donated the images.

The attribution list could tell us the story of the development of these photographers’ interest in specific research fields and the beginning of their careers, or perhaps the story of a small foray into a life they chose not to pursue. It could reveal the arc of development of personal photographic styles and visions, or maybe just the sheer determination of non-photographers to capture and document all sites objectively and in as much detail as possible.

Already, just by looking at the names, we know that it was a truly collective effort and that women were very much represented.

 

In capturing these names, we set out to research the photographers who made the Conway, and credit their work

 

The volunteers carrying out the Attributions task came across famous (and infamous!) contributors such as Anthony F. Kersting, Robert Byron, Tim Benton and Anthony Blunt, but they also came across many names that were scribbled illegibly or reported in too little detail to be tracked reliably.

The easiest photographers to transcribe and research were those who had their names stamped clearly – such as F.H. Crossley – the unmistakeably unique – such as Edzard Eilert Baumann – or those with names reported in full and with aliases – such as Dr Amanda Simpson a.k.a. Amanda Tomlinson.

The most difficult names to research are those whose surnames are more common and those for which we either don’t have first names or we only have initials – such as “M. Wall”, “Mrs Booty”, “Nunn”, “P. Clayton”, Kidson or Lindley.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, we assigned our volunteers the task of researching these names and find out as much biographic information as possible, looking in particular for reliable sources to fill in their research forms. Once the forms were filled in and returned, they went out again to other volunteers for cross-checking and the second part of the task began.

We scheduled Wikipedia editing training sessions and asked the volunteers to try their luck creating new pages for our photographers, and adding information about their involvement with the Conway Library to the biography of photographers with existing pages.

The result, we hope, will give the collection even more visibility, and let us share its fascinating genesis.

Do you know anything more about the Conway photographers?

 

For the full list of names please continue reading.

Continue…

Ferhat Ulusu: Unexpected Music in the Conway Library

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

 

Did I really sign up for this?

This is what I asked myself as soon as I walked into the building.
A pretty lady, nicely presented with a red lipstick smiled at me and swiftly asked for my name.

As a volunteer, I was preparing myself to either welcome guests or help with the drinks…
The email said: confirmation – you have been approved for Gallery Music: new compositions from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama between 15.00-16.00 on Sunday 19th of May.

For the last three years, students have been inspired to use the Courtauld’s collections, history and location as a starting point for their pieces. On this occasion, the pieces would be performed in the library, and I was in the audience.

Operatic singers, musicians, partitions, a clarinet, a cello, a viola, and a blue helium balloon took over the Conway Library amongst the iconic scarlet boxes.
What a contemporary concert: magical, unique and breathtaking… and YES I am glad I signed up for it.

Image by Ferhat Ulusu

Ferhat Ulusu

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer


Curated by Dr Charlotte de Mille with Dr Bretton Brown and Dr Cassandra Miller, the pieces performed were:

Ben Jonson Settings  – Harry Harrison
The text in this piece is taken from three Jacobean “entertainments” by Ben Jonson. They were presented to Queen Anne of Denmark, who moved into Somerset House upon her arrival into London in 1603. Queen Anne patronised and supported many artists and composers during her lifetime, and her extravagant and daring masques were a crucial development in women’s performance.
Rosemarie Morgan, soprano; Thomas Pickering, recorder

Tractatus – Efe Yuksel
…one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be…
Tom Mole, baritone; Henrietta Hill, viola

Upon the Battlements – Ben Pease Barton
A dramatic musical exploration of identity, self-acceptance, loneliness and despair, setting text from four alternative translations of Kafka’s novel The Castle. On browsing the Conway Library, I came across a wonderful historic photograph of Karlstejn Castle in the Czech Republic, perched upon a mountain and soaring high above a sunken village in the forested valley below. I was reminded of the Czech scenery in which Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle, is set.
Faryl Smith, soprano; Aline Christ, cello

To a Mouse – Mara Pruna
The piece follows the narrative of the famous poem with the same name, by Robert Burns. The flowing character and the subtly onomatopoeic texture reminds the listener of the fragile communion between humans and nature. The numerous musical surprises outline the idea that things don’t go to plan, even when one tries their hardest.
Mary Walker, soprano; Michael Stowe, cor anglais

Get Well Soon – Mathis Saunier
This is a homage to David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive. Trapped between dream and reality, Bettie, a young star of Hollywood, suddenly realises that her entire life is not a lie but a dream, and that what she has just committed is indelible.
Manon Gleizes, soprano; Rachael Hannigan, bass clarinet

Wilderness – Cloe Hotham
Wilderness is the title of a collection of lost poetry written by Jim Morrison, the lead singer of 60s psychedelic rock band The Doors. I am hugely inspired by the artistic links Morrison made between the work of Aldous Huxley, William Blake, and other great writers in his own work, and sought to do something similar with my piece by blending Beat-like poetry written by a rock musician, with my own “classical” music, and find music and art from the time of the beat generation to be wonderfully raw and powerful in trying to express the human condition, which was something that was important to explore to both me and my singer, Emily Peace, in this collaboration. I have a strong interest in writing vocal and operatic music, drawing inspiration from literature spanning from the medieval period up to working with living writers to create new works. The setting of the Courtauld, and especially the Conway Library, has been a wonderful reminder to think of my work as not existing in a contemporary music vacuum, and to continue to be inspired by older works of art, literature, and music as well as the contemporary arts scene.
Emily Peace, soprano; Charlotte Walker, cello

Image by Ferhat Ulusu

 

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

Audio Version

Text Version

 

Black and white Conway image of the whole Brooke House and Basildon Town Centre mounted on board

Brooke House and Basildon Town Centre. CON_B04252_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

In 1956, before Brooke House was built, or any part of Basildon for that matter, there was a sign in its place that read: “This is the site of Basildon Town Centre”. Over the next few years, the first buildings of what was already Basildon were put up, fulfilling the sign’s prophetic message. I was particularly intrigued to find a folder in the Conway Library containing 20th Century municipal and residential architecture, not least of all because it is shelved directly opposite several boxes-worth of photographs of the Hagia Sofia, which is about as iconic as European architecture gets. There is something important to be gained, I think, from recognising the aesthetic and historic value of a medium-sized post-war town in Essex, alongside so much other human achievement.

Black and white Conway image of East Walk, Basildon, featuring mostly low-rise buildings. The image is mounted on board.

A predominantly low-rise town. CON_B04252_F001_009. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

“The New Towns are no longer new”[1] reads a parliamentary select committee’s investigation into the problems now faced by the swathe of purpose-built towns following the end of the Second World War. These towns were, in theory, a continuation of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision to house those displaced by slum-clearance in an overcrowded London. There is certainly a shared utopian ideal between the New Towns and the Garden Cities, and not one mutually exclusive of pragmatism. But there the similarities end, as finally the avant-garde of British architects were given permission, and funding, to build the modern sorts of towns that they had always dreamed about.

Among them was Sir Basil Spence, who, having won the contract to redesign Coventry Cathedral (beating competition from Giles Gilbert Scott), rose to prominence and became Britain’s most prolific modernist architect. He, along with A.B. Davis, designed Brooke House and the vast majority of Basildon’s town centre.

Black and white Conway image of Brooke House taken from below. The image is mounted on board

A view of Brooke House divorced from its surroundings. CON_B04252_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

It is tempting, as with so much Brutalist architecture, to make claims of the building’s dominance over the low-rise landscape, and certainly it is possible to indicate this with a Rodchenko-esque photograph (see above). But the general impression given by the pictures in the Conway Archive is not one of overbearing concrete. Both up close and from a distance, we are able to see how the entirely residential building inhabits a humbler space at the centre of town, acting as a sheltered forecourt for the surrounding shops. Even the undoubtedly massive pylons even have a slight slimness to them, to the point of looking vaguely insectoid and flimsy under the immense weight they support.

A black and white image of Brooke House's forecourt, mounted on card.

A view of the forecourt. CON_B04252_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

What this goes to show is the humanist bent of the design of the New Towns. Certainly they are monumental (the problems they were attempting to remedy necessitated their scale) but equally they were a radical approach to the problems of working-class living conditions at the time. The Liberal MP Lord Beveridge, whose work laid the foundations for Britain’s welfare state, described the ideal New Town as one of “beauty and happiness and community spirit”.[2] It is the effort towards these ideals that I think is captured in these photographs, before the subsequent economic downturn and regeneration programs undergone by Basildon.

Black and white Conway image of Blenheim House, mounted on board.

John Gordon’s mosaic on the façade of Blenheim House (formerly home to the Locarno Ballroom), the largest of its kind in Britain at the time. CON_B04252_F001_009. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

It is not the case, as the Parliamentary select committee’s report seems to suggest, that New Towns such as Basildon were always devoid of community cultural centres. Instead that these facilities (a cinema, an arts centre, a library etc.) required a consistent investment which the New Towns, unfortunately, did not receive. Equally, accusations of the towns’ lack of heritage in the 2008 report contradict the assertion that they “are no longer new”.

Indeed, in Basildon’s case, just before the release of the 2008 report, National Lottery funding had been used to establish a heritage trail through the town focussing on its post-war architecture. And the aesthetic effect of this architecture has its own heritage in England’s radical humanist tradition, of the likes of Milton’s poetics, or More’s Utopia. So to find photographs of Basildon amongst so much readily-accepted great architecture is a reassurance; its place in an archive of this significance is a foothold for its place in the grand scheme of British architectural history. And, in its own way, it is an investment, of sorts.


Ben Britton
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Ben Britton is a writer based in London with an interest in modernist aesthetics and cultural heritage.

References:

[1] House of Commons, Communities and Local Government Committee. ‘New Towns: Follow Up’. Ninth Report of Session 2007-08. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmcomloc/889/889.pdf

[2] Boughton J (2018) Municipal Dreams. London: Verso Books, p. 79.

Useful links:

John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams blog: https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/

Sarah Way: Interpreting the Conway with BeyondAutism

Audio Version

Read by Gill Stoker

Text Version

One of the main aims of digitising our amazing photographic archive and putting it online for the public to access for free is to allow our materials to connect with new audiences. We want to allow our images to become resources for a myriad of endeavours, from academic to recreational to personal and everything in between!

Part of the benefit of working with such a large group of volunteers is that we are able to hear ideas from many people with diverse experiences every day and test them right from the start of the digitisation process. We have some great examples of that here in this blog – but what about creative members of the community who aren’t able to frame their interpretations into a blog post or to help us digitise our images because of their physical and learning needs? What would they make of our collection?

This summer we were lucky enough to have a chance to answer this question through a partnership with BeyondAutism and their Post-19 service. BeyondAutism is a pioneering service led by the Head, David Anthony.  The college offers young adults with complex needs aged 19 to 25 “an individualised personal curriculum.”

This image shows students and teachers at BeyondAutism as they cut copies of the Conway digitised images and paste them onto large canvas supports to create collages.

BeyondAutism students and teachers creating the artwork

“Our students follow a programme of study that best prepares them for adulthood, focusing on the skills required for independent or supported living, training and employment, health and wellbeing and community participation.”

This image shows Courtauld staff and interns enjoying the creation process with students and teachers at BeyondAutism as they cut copies of the Conway digitised images and paste them onto large canvas supports to create collages.

Courtauld Digitisation staff and interns getting involved in the creative process

After an initial meeting, we decided to start a collaboration. The wealth of creativity amongst their cohort and the bountiful diversity of images in our collection made us confident we could find some way to forge a meaningful workshop. A few weeks later David struck gold: we could use our library of London architectural photography to allow his students to explore ideas for independent or supported living. The students would creatively interpret what being part of the community of London meant to them in a very instinctual, tactile way.

A tactile approach to our image collection

We provided hundreds of images and large canvases while the team at BeyondAutism provided specialist support, tactile materials and lots of PVA glue. Eight brilliantly dedicated students, the college staff, our Digital Media team and interns all got involved in co-producing. We started tentatively with a few images stuck on a very large blank canvas in the morning but by the afternoon we were pouring glue freely over multi-textural work and brightly coloured feathers contrasting the Conway’s black and white images of iconic skyscrapers and monuments.

This image shows a particular student at BeyondAutism who benefits most from working in a room alone with his teacher so that they can concentrate undisturbed.

A student at BeyondAutism working on a solo project with his teacher

The results were a very sensory, sticky and wonderfully original set of collages, all unique in their outcome, all reflective of a much bigger process of coming together, learning from each other and understanding the beauty of diversity. We built our digitisation project around Samuel Courtauld’s vision of “Art for All” and this experience has made us determined to be bolder in exploring what this can mean at every level.

This is a tilted image showing all four collages created at the BeyondAutism workshop

The finished works at the close of day

We will exhibit the collages in The Courtauld’s Conway Library this autumn, so if you are interested in attending the opening and hearing more about this topic do contact us at: digitisation.volunteering@courtauld.ac.uk.

This is a picture of the first artwork. It is a collage of neat cut outs of London buildings in black and white with limited colour accents in green and red at the top

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 1

This is a picture of the second artwork. It is a collage of roughly ripped cut outs of London buildings in black and white with red feathers, blue transparent film, and yellow tiger print elements, as well as a dinosaur sticker and a stylised man

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 2

This is a picture of the third artwork. It is a collage of roughly ripped cut outs of London buildings in black and white with yellow, green and orange feathers, blue transparent film, and yellow tiger print elements.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 3

This is a picture of the third artwork. It is a collage of neat cut outs of London buildings in black and white with blue transparent film, pink paper a red pooling element and a stylised man.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 4

This is the fifth and final canvas created in the BeyondAutism workshop. It is a collage of pieces of images from the Conway Library depicting mainly London buildings.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 5


Sarah Way
Courtauld Connects Volunteer Manager

Lorraine Stoker: Modernity in the Conway

Audio Version

Read by Anna Thompson

Text Version

When I started volunteering on the digitisation programme, I never thought it would reignite my interest in the history of art. Yet here I am in the second year of a part-time M.A. in History of Art and Photography, and loving every moment of the challenge. I am about to start my final essay before commencing the dissertation, and I have chosen as my final option This is Tomorrow – Architecture and Modernity in Britain and its Empire, 1930-60.

CON_B04266_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Professor Mark Crinson (University of London) describes the option module as a study of the entanglements of architecture and ideas of modernity, the home and the city in mid-twentieth century Britain, as well as how these issues related to Britain’s place in the world and its relation to its empire. Modernity, whether through the arrival of modernism or the various forms of state modernisation, has long been the focus of written accounts of modern architecture in Britain.

CON_B04266_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The Conway library has led to this and is already proving a fantastic resource in my initial reading and research. There is an excellent collection of London photographs, which I am slowly helping to label, while also identifying useful images for use in the Architecture and Modernism essay and for discussion in seminars.
While I am looking forward to studying the Conway photographs in relation to mainstream Modernism, the influence of émigré architects and the search for utopia is already evident and enthralling in the photographs I have labelled and catalogued. The amazing Bevin Court (a personal favourite) is one of several post-war modernist housing projects in London designed by the Tecton architecture practice, led by Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian architect and pioneer of modernist design in the 1930s.

CON_B04279_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

An organised visit to the penthouse at The Isokon Building (Lawn Green Flats) was impressive. Built in 1934, The Isokon is a rare Grade 1 listed modernist building and an example of a progressive experiment in urban living at the time. The building was home to Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer, designer of modernist furniture, and László Maholy-Nagy, headteacher of art at the Bauhaus school. Early advertising stated: “All you have to bring with you is a rug, an armchair and a picture.” Acquired by Camden Borough Council in 1972, it gradually deteriorated until the 1990s, when it was abandoned completely. Avanti Architects, specialists in refurbishing modernist buildings, restored the Isokon in 2004. The Conway photographs and images from the current sales listing of the Isokon penthouse – at nearly a million pounds – provides a fascinating insight into the concept of ‘one-room living’.

CON_B04279_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Then there is BRUTALISM! I really am spoilt for choice, as photographs of key Brutalist buildings in London are also found in the Conway archives. Watch this space, as I delve further into this incredible resource and identify a research title worthy of the Conway collection of London’s 20th century architecture.

 


Lorraine Stoker
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Antonia Jameson: Still-life in Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

The topic of still-life carries a lot of art historical baggage. Immediately, for me, the baroque, commercial, and kitsch come to mind. But as art critic Herbert Furst argues, still life is often overlooked as a dull subject when it can be an “aesthetic laboratory” through which artists play around with analogy, line and colour (Tobin, 2020). Even now, contemporary art often relies on the everyday to evoke a feeling of relatability between artist’s work and audience.

Ben Nicholson is an excellent example of a modernist painter who conveyed his ideas through the subject of still life. He believed that living and painting must be “one thing” (Tobin, 2020). When I was looking through some of the photographs in the Courtauld’s Conway Library, Paul Laib’s series from the De Laszlo Collection documenting Nicholson’s arrangements of his and Barbara Hepworth’s work stood out, because there is a total lack of hierarchy between the artworks (whether it is Hepworth’s sculpture or Nicholson’s painting) and the collection of objects that surround them. These compositions are conversations. Nicholson interprets three-dimensional space into the frame of a two-dimensional painting, and then reintroduces these paintings back into a live space through his juxtaposition of everyday objects. Still-life can be approached in this way as an installation. The art collector and artist HS Jim Ede, a good friend of Nicholson’s, embodied this way of thinking with his house Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge. He kept his painting collection surrounded by objects and colours that related to them, allowing a dialogue to form between art and life. His house is maintained as he arranged it and is now a museum. Interestingly, he published a book entitled A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard, which contained photographs, poetry, and prose (Ede, 1984). While exploring each of Laib’s photographs, I could not help but list each object I found and identified. I view these lists as poems that say a lot about the accompanying image. They both indicate an order of noticeability but also highlight how seemingly random the objects are, without the distraction of Nicholson and Hepworth’s skilful visual arrangements. They expose the images in a way that feels more stripped down and obvious than any photograph could. Parallels can be drawn between Ede’s book, and its use of poetry and visual analysis.

It could be important to understand the relationship between Nicholson and Hepworth when looking at these still-life arrangements. They were both already married when they met in 1931, but they fell in love and remarried in 1938 after having triplets in 1934 (Chow, 2015). And so, they were both artistic collaborators and lovers. Hepworth was concerned with landscape, and it could be argued that her presence in Nicholson’s life shifted his focus to still-life with the inclusion of landscape, for example on a windowsill. Nicholson’s first wife, Winifred, also had a lasting impact on his use of colour beyond just the descriptive, as she was also a painter of still-lifes. I believe that the spaces (both physical and mental) in which we create things are inextricably enmeshed with the things we create. The effect of relationships and conversations among artists should not be undermined; one reason why art schools are such ripe grounds for exploration and discovery. It is noteworthy that Nicholson’s father, William Nicholson, was a painter, and Nicholson often claimed that his father’s collection of beautiful objects had an everlasting influence on his own artistic practice. His daughter with Hepworth, Rachel Nicholson, is a painter of still lifes too. And so, this love of object and painting has been handed down from generation to generation.

As a fine artist pursuing curating, I have loved arranging my own studio and drawings in this way with the intention of reworking the photos I take back into painting and then arranging them again. This loop of visual information and contextualisation could be endlessly fruitful. Do we consider Laib’s photographs as documentation or creation of new work? We could speculate the extent to which he had artistic freedom to choose what was included and left out of the frame. I gained a newfound respect for this process, as my first few attempts failed rather gloriously. Nicholson and Hepworth were clearly thinking carefully about line and contrast in their arrangements, which I found was only obvious once contained within a photo. This led to a process of trial and error as I attempted to emulate the entrancing compositions visible in Laib’s photographs. I worked with line drawings I had made from these photographs. For the sake of time and resources I used digital photography but decided to edit them as if they were glass plate negatives, then made a still life painting while thinking about Nicholson’s work. His use of colour and straight lines were very different from my usual painting practice which proved itself to be a challenge. But as a process it made me analyse my working space and consider visual elements (like the transparency of paint) that I might usually overlook.

To conclude, there is a lot to be discovered within these collaborations between Laib, Hepworth and Nicholson. I encourage you to sit for a while and take them in; each photo contains so much materiality both within the objects in Hepworth and Nicholson’s artwork but also as photographic objects themselves. Small signs of wear in fingerprints, creases and traces of editing remind us that they have a living past beyond being part of The Courtauld’s collection. There is materiality integral to the objects that surround the works of art which is heightened by the material nature of the photographs themselves. Laib’s documentation of these arrangements has not only sustained their existence but brought them into a new realm; they exist as artistic photographs in their own right.

 

Bibliography

Tobin C (2020) Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers. Critical Studies in Modernist Culture, Edinburgh, pp. 125-131.

Ede HS (1984) A Way of Life: Kettle’s Yard. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Chow A (2015) The personal and professional life of Barbara Hepworth. Available at: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-behind-artist-barbara-hepworth-work/

Ben Nicholson: From the Studio (2021) exhibition. Available at: https://pallant.org.uk/whats-on/ben-nicholson-from-the-studio/

With thanks to Louise Weller and Tom Bilson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall), Ben Nicholson OM (1943–5). Oil paint and graphite on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. © Angela Verren Taunt 2018. All rights reserved, DACS.

Still life (starfish), Antonia Jameson (2021). Acrylic on canvas board, 10 x 8 inches.

Image courtesy of Antonia Jameson.

Aayushi Gupta: Why Materiality Matters

Introducing the material turn to the study of photography, visual and historical anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards (2004) encourages us to acknowledge the photograph as a three-dimensional object existing materially in the world – that is, spatially and temporally in the social and cultural experience. From Edward’s perspective, photographs are material entities because they are chemically deposited onto paper, mounted on different sized, shaped, and coloured cards, subject to changes on their surfaces, and informed by the way that they are presented.

Attention to these aspects of photographs, Edwards argues, can help us engage with the processes of intention, making, distributing, consuming, using, preserving, displaying, discarding, and recycling that are significant to the way we understand photographs as images. This approach to photography I found, also echoed in the ongoing digitisation projects at The Courtauld.

When on placement at The Courtauld, I was particularly drawn to its approach towards digitisation, and its emphasis on retaining the physicality of visual objects in their digital renditions. From the images that were provided to me and my fellow interns, I was able to engage with the signs of wear and tear on archival boxes, with the multiplicity of intentions decipherable from the text – varied in font, colour, and handwriting – on the cards onto which images in the Conway Library were mounted, and with the variety of size, colour, and type of image, as well as with the materials onto which the image was printed and then mounted onto the card.

This emphasis on digitally translating physicality was especially impressive to me because I was trying to engage with these images from my laptop screen at home in Oxford, instead of interacting with them in a more multi-sensory, embodied manner in one of the rooms at The Courtauld. Indeed, as former intern Peyton Cherry (2019) predicted, I was brought into The Courtauld, without venturing into its halls to peruse and handle prints, and into the lived experience of working within collections. Despite interacting with the collections intangibly, I was still able to engage with the physicality of the image – the image as object – and even in their digital renditions, The Courtauld had managed to make the materiality of these images matter. This was quite significant to me, for The Courtauld had successfully avoided flattening tangible, three-dimensional objects, simply by choosing cameras over flatbed scanners in the digitisation process. Intrigued by this, I spent the duration of my placement reflecting upon why, for The Courtauld, materiality matters, and why indeed it should.

The Courtauld’s emphasis on the materiality of images is based on a succinct and personal manifesto presented by Bilson (2019)

Honour physical form and integrity.
Photograph, don’t scan.
Use lighting to reveal texture, structure, and composition.
Never crop to neaten.
Never retouch.
Describe where your metadata has come from.
If possible, show the source of the transcription.
Photograph backs and blank pages.
Weigh and show scale.
Record folders, boxes, and shelves.
Don’t let basis cataloguing hold back publication.

Although in digitising an archive the size of the Conway Library the project has, for practical reasons of time and the costs of storing data, omitted the manifesto’s requirement to photograph backs and blank pages and also weigh the items, Bilson, like Edwards, encourages us to honour the physical form and integrity of images by using simple photographic techniques to, for instance, reveal “the slight line of shadow” (Bilson, 2020) showing the way in which a print was stuck by human hands onto card or the fingerprints of the library visitors who might have handled the object; or to accentuate the multiplicity of textures, materials, colours, and inscriptions that compose each object.

The importance of doing so, as Bilson writes, is to encourage the global online user to appreciate the fact that “every image presented online has a physical counterpart that still sits in a library box” (2020) within the Institute. In addition, it re-directs the online user’s attention to the “set of visual cues pointing to the personalities and voices enmeshed within [the] collections” (2020) and thus demonstrates that the appearances of these images online are not their “year zero” (2020), but another milestone in their malleable history.

In essence, therefore, for The Courtauld, materiality matters because an emphasis on it indicates to its increasingly global and online audiences, that the images it is making digitally available are entangled with the tangibly embodied histories and socio-cultural experiences of all those who have interacted with them. As my fellow intern Sydney Stewart Rose notes, The Courtauld’s emphasis on materiality presents the ultimate digitised image as an “endurance” (2021) that refers to its own history of interaction with its producers, publishers, collectors, archivists, librarians, volunteers, and interns – each of whom have inscribed their intentions onto the surface of the image.

Recognising this urged me to further explore the implications of taking these intentions – and especially their material evidence on the surface of the image – into consideration when interpreting the image. I did this, specifically in relation to two sets of images of the Crystal Palace, archived in a box containing images of exhibitions in London between 1830 and 1900, in the Conway Library of The Courtauld’s collections.

The Building Itself

Figure 1. The Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London. Image via the Art and Architecture website.

The Crystal Palace was a remarkable cast iron and glass structure, originally built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, it was initially intended as a temporary building. However, a very general desire on the part of the public to preserve the Crystal Palace led Paxton to propose alterations and extensions to the original building, with the intention of converting it into a winter garden and adapting it to other scientific purposes.

The building was then taken down from its original site in Hyde Park and relocated to a site named Penge Place (now known as Crystal Palace) at the top of Sydenham Hill, between 1852 and 1854. The site at Sydenham attracted 2 million visitors a year and successfully hosted exhibitions, festivals, music concerts, football and cricket matches, and over one hundred thousand soldiers during the First World War.

Despite this initial success, however, from around the 1860s, the Palace fell into financial ruin. Due to its sheer size, the Palace was impossible to maintain financially and thus declared bankrupt in 1911. In addition to this, the Palace continuously experienced severe damage shortly after its relocation – first due to strong winds in 1861, then due to a fire that broke out in the North End of the building in 1866, and finally in 1936 when a more severe fire damaged it beyond repair.

Figure 2. The Crystal Palace fire, Sydenham, London. Image courtesy of the Science Museum Group collection.

Conway’s Documentary Intent

Martin Conway, an avid collector of photographs of architecture as a record of buildings that might suffer damage, was quite naturally drawn to the Crystal Palace – both because of its significance in the public imagination and its undeniable architectural magnificence. Conway’s intent to document the Crystal Palace and the trajectory of its life materially manifests in his collection in at least two ways.

First, this is evident from the sheer diversity – in type, size, and source – of the images of both buildings. For example, the image of the Crystal Palace in Figure 3 shows “The Progress of the Building” and is presumably a lithographic print on newsprint sourced from the Illustrated London News. Comparatively, the image of the building in Figure 4 is a watercolour and pencil drawing, signed and dated by the specialist in architectural views, Edmund Walker (1814–1882).

Figure 3. “The Progress of the Building” from Illustrated London News. CON_B04109_F001_008, CC-BY, The Courtauld.
Figure 4. Watercolour and pencil drawing, signed and dated by Edmund Walker. CON_B04109_F001_005, CC-BY, The Courtauld.

Second, Conway’s documentary intent is evident from the “set of visual cues” (Bilson, 2020) that point to his specific process of archiving by gathering diverse visual material on the same subject, from a plethora of sources, and then mounting it onto card. For example, the crease of the paper and its shadow in Figure 5, clearly show that an image cut out from The Weekly Times has been stuck over another image. Similarly, Figure 7 shows that Conway seems to have used a larger version of the print in Figure 6 to provide a detailed perspective on the same event.

Figure 5. The crease of the paper and its shadow showing that the print from The Weekly Times has been stuck over another. CON_B04109_F001_006, CC-BY, The Courtauld.

Figure 6: The Peace Fête at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. CON_B04109_F002_019, CC-BY, the Courtauld.
Figure 7: A detailed view of The Peace Fête at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. CON_B04109_F002_020, CC-BY, the Courtauld.

This material evidence of intent thus signifies the extent to which the Crystal Palace had impressed itself upon Conway’s and the wider public’s imagination. They demonstrate that Conway clearly recognised the Palace’s significance – both to the history of architecture and Britain – and therefore, dexterously included in his archive, images of the conception, construction, utilisation, renovation, relocation, and the destruction of the building. In doing so, and specifically by following his unique processes for archiving, Conway created a “synthetic object” (Edwards and Hart, 2004) – that is, a new intellectual and physical entity resulting from his attempt to impose sense, order, and his intentions upon a set of separate objects from separate sources leading separate lives.

This new “synthetic object” therefore leads its constituent parts into an institutional framework of policies, strategies, and practices different to that from which they have been sourced. For example, a watercolour drawing (Figure 4) that originally would have been handled, framed, preserved, displayed, and interpreted in a manner more typical to art history, in the context of Conway’s archive, is engaged as an important resource contributing to the documentation of a historical moment that in turn was intended to inform art history.

By creating such “synthetic objects” therefore, Conway reinforced the view that the Crystal Palace was indeed an important moment in the history of architecture and Britain, and actively constructed this building as a canon worthy of preservation for posterity. When considered accordingly, the images of the Palace in Conway’s archive thus emerge as more than simply what they depict. Rather than visual representations of the building and the events that occurred therein, these images emerge as constituents of a larger photographic object and project inscribed with the intentions of its maker.

Concluding Remarks

In my reflection on the implications of considering the materiality of images for their interpretation, it emerged that the material aspects of an image – its physicality and presentation for instance – are of great importance as they provide clues to how the value of particular images changes over time due to interactions with them.

In the example I considered, we noted that images from newspapers and artists were recontextualised as archival resources under the documentary intentions of the archivist who interacted with them. These insights could not have been as easily drawn, if indeed attention to the very material and physical evidence of the archivist’s intentions had not been paid.

Further research could examine how each layer of textual inscription (for e.g., stamps and handwriting) on more generally the cards in Conway’s archive, inform the meaning of that which the images on the cards depict. To whom do these inscriptions belong? What were their intentions when marking the “synthetic objects” that Conway initially produced? How do these material traces of their intentions inform the meaning of the images constituting those objects, and the objects themselves? Further studies could also examine how the physicality of the cards onto which Conway mounted images (for example, colour and material) interacts with the meanings of said images. Knowledge of each of these aspects can significantly contribute to our understanding of images and more importantly of how they function as visual and material objects, deeply embedded in the social and cultural experience.

 


Aayushi Gupta
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
MPhil Candidate in Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology, University of Oxford

 

References

Bilson T (2019) The Future of the Library – Architectural Information in a Post-Digital Era. Presentation at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, November 21, 2019.

Bilson T (2020) The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway Photographic Libraries: Two approaches to digitisation. Art Libraries Journal, 45 (1): 35–42. Available at: 10.1017/alj.2019.38 (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Edwards E and Hart J (2004) (Eds) Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Taylor & Francis Group. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/oxford/detail.action?docID=182226# (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Edwards E and Hart J (2004) Mixed Box. In: Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Routledge. Available at: http://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3167/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=f6ef041e-2d21-47cf-8dda-eb492bed21f4%40pdc-v-sessmgr02&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=110339&db=nlebk (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Holland G (2008) Crystal Palace: A History. BBC London. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2004/07/27/history_feature.shtml (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Peyton C (2019) Journey through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity and Distance – Digital Media. Digital Media: The Courtauld Connects’ Digitisation Project Blog. Available at: http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/digitalmedia/2019/07/01/peyton-cherry-journey-through-materiality-communicating-familiarity-and-distance/ (accessed: 13 July 2021).

Sydney Rose: Building Endurances in the Courtauld Digitisation Project

During the first years of The Courtauld’s Digitisation Volunteer program, Peyton Cherry wrote about how the project aims to capture materiality. Cherry emphasizes how “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5 in Cherry, 2019). In her blog post, she discusses how the digitisation project aims to contain as much of the materiality of the photographs as possible and to preserve context. Cherry outlines how the project seeks to keep texture, marks, or stains visible in order to reproduce “the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections” (2019). When I joined the Courtauld project a few years later, I hoped to extend her ideas further and contribute to the ideas about the project itself, by highlighting that the documentation of materiality also encompasses the evidence of decades of connections between the photograph and its use.

Cherry already outlined in detail the methods that The Courtauld uses for this digitisation project. The policy, with the salient points outlined below (Fig. 1), is a part of a method which ensures that the photographs and prints are not reduced to what our Head of Digital Media Tom Bilson calls “a point zero,” or a photograph contained within a timeless bubble which neglects context; Bilson’s approach to this project directly counteracts this trap in photographic theory. Again, this method is not about scanning the photograph, but photographing the photograph. In this way, the use of this object is also documented through its inclusion of handwritten notes by the photographer, labels written by curators, or numbers indicating categorization. Further, when photographing the collections for digitisation, raking light is often used to reveal a sense of depth through shadows and to illuminate small markers of use such as marks or tears. When the digitisation project includes each of these markers, the materials become signifiers of even more information, and document not just the subjects of the photographs but how everyone who has encountered that photograph has engaged with it.

Fig. 1. Digitisation manifesto from Future of Library Symposium, screenshot by Tom Bilson, November 21, 2019

Popular photographic theory follows Berger (1972) and Barthes (1977) to propose these photographs as moments frozen in time. This aligns with most reception theory, where photographs are a freeze frame fragment of time to be seen in the present. However, the methods and outcomes of this digitisation project emphasize that these are not frozen in time at all; instead these photographs are endurances which reveal our engagement with them through time. These photographs endure across time to show us that the collections refer back to themselves and to every time they have been used.

For example, the boxes containing the work of Tony Kersting boxes are labelled by his own hand, with his accompanying instructions regarding how he wishes his work to be published or cropped. Within these boxes there will also be unique identifying numbers, handwritten by volunteers, that are used to organize the collection. There may even be some small damage from an intern who was just learning how to handle museum artefacts or how to use the high-res camera. In the image below, we see that the digitised collection does not neglect to reflect on its own existence when it includes the record of its own organization and interactions (Fig. 2). Here the image contains the stories of contact between the photograph and the photographer, the individual curators, the museum structures, and the intern.

Fig. 2. Image showing magnified portion of final digitisation product, indicating shadow and depth as well as the inclusion of handwritten notes, from Future of Library Symposium, screenshot by Tom Bilson, November 21, 2019

In another example, the photo below has two different styles of handwriting and a typewritten label (Fig. 3). These were likely all made at different times possibly by different people. This photograph is a part of the collection of images from the Ministry of Works documenting the damage from the bombings of WWII, with this specific photograph showing the damage to the parish church in Lambezellec, Brest. This Catholic parish still holds mass in 2021, though during the 2020 lockdown, there was an incident wherein the building was damaged again as some of the items were upturned and the lamp of the tabernacle was stolen (Ouest France 2020). Father Jean Baptiste Gless says that despite this incident, he will continue to leave the church doors open in the mornings so that people can come pray (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. CON_B05711_F001_042. Image of Église Saint-Laurent de Lambézellec, Brest, damaged by wartime bombing, from the Conway Library

Fig. 4. The open doors of the Church of Saint-Laurent in Lambezellec

Fig. 5. Internal view of the stained glass windows of the Church of Saint-Laurent in Lambézellec

In 2021, I came to the Courtauld project and added another tangible layer to this part of the Conway collection (Fig. 6). The layer I have added is of the undamaged church, before the bombing. Now, the image features both moments in time. This layer is not just the visible layer I superimposed but also the contribution to the knowledge around the histories of the photograph and collection. Each time we write about a photograph or engage with it in any way, we add to the histories and build upon those histories. Here, we play with time but we do not freeze it to what Tom Bilson calls “year zero.” This visual creation is especially interesting as it shows how this additive layering moves beyond the original image, stretching off the screen and reaching off the canvas.

Fig. 6. CON_B05711_F001_042: image of Église Saint-Laurent de Lambézellec, Brest, damaged by wartime bombing, with image of the undamaged church superimposed

On a theoretical level, I am also building on Cherry’s work in the same way that the collection builds on the work of hundreds of volunteers and in the same way that each engagement with the collection builds on earlier engagements. Ultimately, how the collection is digitised is not just about the photographs which end up digitised, but includes the entire history of how we have interacted with the photographs. Each engagement between curator or volunteer, writing labels or making small oily fingerprints, is a critical part of the material world created by the photograph which, through this long process of use, becomes less of an abstract digitised image and more of a museological object containing its own histories.

This project refuses to exclude evidence of its own existence. In digitisation initiatives, it is crucial to step back and look at the full scope of materiality to see how the collection is not simply materials but also the histories of how we interact with these materials. This project does that every time it records not just the numbers of archival boxes but pictures of those boxes. As Cherry (2019) suggests, the Courtauld collections are not simply photographs but cultural artefacts in and of themselves. Every picture which is not cropped, every edge revealing depth, points to the full histories of this collection and how every volunteer has become an integral part of that story.

 


Sydney Stewart Rose

Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Doctoral Researcher, Pitt Rivers Museum
Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford
Linacre College

 

References
Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: London.
Barthes R (1977) The Rhetoric of the Image. In: Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang: New York.
Cherry P (2019) Journey Through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity And Distance. The Courtauld Digital Media Blog, July 1. http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/digitalmedia/2019/07/01/peyton-cherry-journey-through-materiality-communicating-familiarity-and-distance/
“L’église Saint-Laurent dégradée à Lambézellec.” (2020, April 5) Ouest France. https://www.ouest-france.fr/bretagne/brest-29200/brest-l-eglise-saint-laurent-saccagee-lambezellec-6800809