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

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