Prints Archive

Prints and Paper: Evie Mc on visiting the Courtauld Prints Room and Conservation Studio

Digitising the Conway photographs has been really interesting and enjoyable, but lately, we volunteers have been let loose (figuratively, not at all literally) on the Courtauld Gallery’s collection of prints, which has opened up a whole new and exciting side of things. Viewing and handling these object is fascinating, especially as they vary so much in terms of dates, artists, styles and subject matters. Working on these prints while on the digitising software is proving to be a wonderful way to engage with and explore them- it allows one to, in the interest of checking the focus of course, zoom right in to otherwise easily overlooked details, and even to the individually incised lines of an engraving!

In order to help the volunteers understand more about the objects we are now dealing with, the gallery team is kindly hosting events to introduce us to the collection and explain some of the issues we might encounter; I attended one of these days and I have to say it was all incredibly interesting and informative.

After meeting up in the staff room and acquainting ourselves with each other and with the biscuit tin, we head up many flights of the gorgeous salmon-coloured stairwell to the Courtauld’s Prints and Drawings Study Room.

Here a wonderful selection of works had been laid out awaiting us, and we were free to have a thorough browse.

Using the displayed works as examples, Dr. Rachel Sloan (Assistant Curator of Works on Paper) explained some of the different techniques used in printmaking and showed us some of the tools and printing plates used. First, we saw an engraving where fine straight lines are cut by hand into a metal plate using a tool called a burin, in what sounds like a slow, labour-intensive, quite precise and controlled technique. Apparently, in order to get a curved line, the plate, not the burin, is turned. Then there was an etching — where the metal plate is coated with a wax ground first and it is this that is drawn upon. Then acid, rather than brute force is used to bite into the metal to form the lines that hold the ink. This enables the artist/craftsman to exercise more freedom in drawing and mark-making. Next up was an aquatint — which is somewhat similar to etching in that acid is used, but the use of a powdered ground allows for the creation of areas of tones, rather than lines. This means that effects similar to those of a watercolour painting can be achieved. These differences were beautifully demonstrated and evidenced by the prints on show, but are proving very difficult to explain!

Bust of Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The last print technique explained to us was the lithograph, and the print used to demonstrate this was Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1895 print ‘Bust of Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender’. A lithograph is produced differently than the other images, in that the image is not cut in to a printing surface, but is instead drawn on to it. The method is based on the principle that that oil and water repulse each other. The artist, in this case Toulouse-Lautrec himself, draws directly onto a stone using a greasy ink or crayon. This allows for a much looser expressive printmaking technique and this is brilliantly obvious in this print: you can see the different marks made – some light and scratchy, some bolder and more substantial, all full of energy and dynamism; it looks as though the performer was caught on stage, perhaps even mid-song, clothes rustling and swirling as she leans forward, giving it her all.

After the prints, Ketty Gottardo (Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings), talked us through three other works, the first of which was an actual Leonardo da Vinci drawing! It was hard not to momentarily consider employing a ‘look, there’s a kestrel’ distraction technique and scurry off with this wonderful little drawing, which is a pen and ink sketch study of Mary Magdalene, thought to be late 15th C or early 16th C.

Studies for Saint Mary Magdalene, Leonardo Da Vinci

It was fabulous that instead of being asked to keep our distance or being eyed suspiciously (possibly warranted, see above), we were allowed, even encouraged, to get up close and really examine these works. There were even magnifying glasses supplied for this purpose. I loved the way that it was obvious in this very free and rapid little drawing that Leonardo was exploring different poses and head positions, presumably for a larger work; much though one might try to not get caught up in the whole cult of the artist notion, it did seem quite amazing to almost see Leonardo da Vinci’s thought process in action.

The next drawing we were shown was a 1717 sketch, I think in chalk, by Jean-Antoine Watteau: Satyr Pouring Wine. Again this would have been a preparatory sketch for a larger work, one no longer extant. The different colours and rapid sketchy lines are used beautifully to give some life and depth into the body; I love the darkly delineated slanted eyebrows and cheekbones that mark him out as a fawn and the heavily shaded muscular pouring arm and clenched fist that are done with the fantastic confidence of a prolific sketcher.

Satyr pouring wine, Jean-Antoine Watteau

The last work we were shown was On Lake Lucerne, looking towards Fluelen (1841), one of many watercolour studies done of the Swiss Lake by J.M.W. Turner. Up close, it was possible to see a variety of highly diluted subtle blue, grey, green and russet coloured washes that Turner so cleverly used to produce this eerily atmospheric scene, where, lit by a full moon struggling to break through, a looming cliff makes a ghostly appearance from the depth of the mists.  Astonishing is about all I can say!

On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen, J.M.W. Turner

I feel we were incredibly privileged to see and spend time with these works, especially as by their very nature, many of them are too unstable or delicate to be on general display.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we were then taken up even higher through the building, through a warren of narrow corridors where I seriously wondered if I should be leaving a breadcrumb trail, and on up to the attic rooms of the Paper Conservation Studio.

 Here, Kate Edmondson (Conservator of Works on Paper) gave us a very comprehensive talk about the types of damage we might encounter, about handling the prints, and about how works on paper are cleaned and conserved. This was all tremendously interesting.  I never knew, for example, that foxing, the little reddish-brown age dots on old paper can sometimes be caused by metal impurities present in the paper oxidising — Kate thought we might be able to zoom in and identify these metallic flecks while we were digitising! Also curious was the fact that many of the difficulties encountered by conservationists were not necessarily due to the prints themselves but to later additions and interference, such as owner’s stamps and identification numbers etc. These have to be checked for and dealt with before a print can be washed, as some inks in them can flood out and rather scarily seep into the print.  We handled furry samples of something called Japanese paper, a fibrous looking tissue used for delicate repairs and were shown a water bath, in which Gore-Tex is used as part of a process of dampening the prints in order to soften them. We were also shown a lovely old leather-bound George Romney sketchbook (late 18th C portrait painter) so we could see the tiny careful repairs the conservation people had been working on – and it was explained how all repairs have to be reversible and removable.

The level of knowledge needed, as well as patience and care, was impressive; conservation doesn’t look like a job for the impatient among us.

Impossible though it may be to believe, I could easily ramble on more; we saw and learnt so much. I will finish up by saying how nicely we were treated; people were so helpful and so generous with their time and knowledge. I for one came away far more interested in and curious about prints and paper than I would have imagined was possible. Actually, it has just occurred to me — printmaking must have greatly enabled the wider distribution and dissemination of images, but now old prints cannot always be accessible. It is therefore rather pleasing that we have somehow come full circle, and our digitisation work will send them off out into the world again to be shared, seen, enjoyed and studied by many again.

By Evie Mc.

Volunteer voices: Mary Caple on digitising at the Courtauld

Mary Caple: Digitisation Volunteer

Mary Caple: Digitisation Volunteer

My name is Mary Caple. I’m one of the volunteers on the HLF Digitisation Project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since we started digitising images in March, I’ve spent nearly thirty hours working on the project with Faye, Tom, Sarah, and and other community members donating their time.

I jumped at the chance to get on board with this initiative. During my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada, I took museum studies courses, designed exhibitions, and questioned various approaches to digitisation with my peers. What kinds of possibilities arise when exponentially more data is freely available online? Can digitisation make archives more accessible to a broad array of people within and outside academia? Since university I’ve researched in archives and worked on curatorial projects, but this role brings two firsts. Collections photography and the digitisation process are new to me.

One of the many reasons this project at the Courtauld is special is its approach to volunteer participation. While we are welcome to request a particular task on any given day, by default we rotate through jobs from cataloguing to photography. This way, each person involved digitising the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections can try something new as well as play to their strengths. Switching around has another benefit. By spending time with distinct parts of the collections and approaching them on Tuesdays as a photographer, Thursdays as an archivist, and Fridays as a geographical sleuth/transcriber, a potentially overwhelming behemoth undertaking instead feels like a treasure trove. The ability to approach our material from these different angles keeps perspective fresh and gives a sense of what lies ahead in the months and years to come as the project progresses.

Here, I’ll take you through each of the three types of tasks each volunteer performs when they come in to the Institute. By starting with the small parts – the daily tasks of the 50+ volunteers involved –  I hope you’ll gain an understanding of what goes into getting a large-scale digitisation initiative like this one off the ground.

Labeling/Sorting

Boxes waiting to be labeled

Boxes waiting to be labeled

The first task on the roster for most volunteers involves sorting and labeling the collections. Over the last month and change we started labeling the Conway collection. Most of these items are printed photographs mounted on card stock, sorted in files, which are housed in boxes found on shelves of the library. As such, they’re also a bit sturdier (less easy to break, tear or maim) than the film and glass negatives of the Kersting and Laib images and a good point of departure for learning how to handle archival objects.

Everything gets a number in our very own Library of Babel. Lots of time is dedicated to going through and numbering each box with sticky labels, and numbering the files and cardstock pages (as well as the occasional news clipping) in each file in pencil by hand. These numbers come in handy later on when we’re taking photos – a number becomes the unique identifier for each image, and what you’ll see eventually when you navigate to the image’s page on the online site. We’re creating a new archival framework that will organize the way the images live in their online home.

While labeling is a great way to get to know the geographical and temporal depth of the Conway images, there are also small surprises. I learned one of my favourite archival lessons from Faye while sorting images. Every file containing architectural images is sorted from distance views to interior details, outside to inside. Keep an eye out if you find yourself flipping through them. 

Transcribing the Kersting Logs

Another task dealing with the words and numbers of images involves “digitising” Anthony Kersting’s photograph ledgers by data entry. Kersting meticulously wrote down the date, place, and distinguishing information about thousands of photos he took all around the world throughout the 20th century. Transcription volunteers go through his logbooks and enter this information into a Google Form Faye has set up. This simplifies the data input procedure, hiding the entire spreadsheet of information each time we sit down to work.

Kersting may have been a globetrotter, but he was also a passionate explorer of his own backyard. A recent newcomer to the UK, I’ve found tracing his travels from Cumbria to Herefordshire and beyond a terrific learning experience. Often some Googling is in order to clear up undecipherable spelling or to clearly pinpoint where his travels had taken him for a given photo.

Tracing his photographic path through 1960s Middle East has been a particularly moving experience. I trawl through Wikipedia sites and old travel guides to find location information for castles and towns Kersting rolled through. Borders have changed. Many of the sites Kersting thought interesting enough to photograph have now been destroyed or badly damaged by the conflict in Syria. 

Taking the Photos

Taking the photos

While boxes are labeled and data is inputted, we’re moving along with photographing the collection. This is a chance for the social volunteers among us to get collaborative – the photo team always consists of two volunteers. One person positions the images under the camera. The other uses the studio computer to edit each for uniformity and add some simple metadata to the files. While we’re welcome to have a look at the images whenever we’re in, this job provides a great chance to have a look at each and every image going up.

You might be wondering why we’re using a camera instead of a scanner to digitise. While a scanner might complete the job more quickly, and many digitisation projects do use scanners to capture images, the use of a camera here serves a particular purpose. As many of the images we’re working with are mounted, an image taken with a camera can capture that extra layer of depth – the sliver of space between board and photograph is given life. We hope to give the computer user a taste of the experience of getting to see these collections in person – the entire boards are treated as archival objects rather than just the photographs mounted to them. Tom Bilson, the Courtauld’s Head of Digital Media, describes this beautifully – ask him if you ever see him in person. 

Spending time on each of these tasks gives volunteers a sense of the larger momentum of the project while they work on smaller tasks. Returning to the same task you worked on a few days, weeks or a month or two previous comes with the surprise of seeing how much the other volunteers and staff have completed in the interim. Something as small as a giant leap in the number of boxes labeled, having moved on to a geographical locale further down the alphabet or thematically different, or seeing a new subject arise (architecture has taken awhile!) is exciting.

Now that the overview is out of the way, I’m looking forward to diving into some specific stories about the collection to share with you in months to come.