The Conway Library Archive

Megan Stevenson: Reflections on ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’

Audio Version

Text Version

 

The photograph of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ is black and white. The artwork consists of 8 small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. The wall surrounding the mirrors is completely blank. We can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There is no reflection of the camera or photographer. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them.

‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, David Ward, Whitechapel Gallery (exhibited), London, England, 1991. Negative number: A92/657. The Courtauld Institute of Art. http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/conway/25ceb873.html

In the Conway library’s photographic collection there is a photograph of an artwork titled ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, taken in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991. The artwork is by David Ward, a contemporary artist (born 1951) whose works include installation, photography, light, and sound pieces.

The piece consists of eight small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. In the black and white photograph we can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them. It must have taken a lot of thought and positioning for the photographer to capture an image of the mirrors without also photographing their own reflection.

The title is unusual: Imagination Dead Imagine. This is also the title of a short prose text by Samuel Beckett published in 1965. In this, Beckett uses imagination to explore imagination itself. He questions what the limits of an artist’s imagination are, and how these limits could be accessed.

By attaching a series of mirrors to a wall, Ward also seems to be questioning the viewer: what are the limits of an artist’s imagination?

In an art gallery it is expected that the viewer will examine pieces that interest them and look closely at work created by artists. Ward subverts this expectation, instead presenting the audience with themselves and their surroundings. They are the art. As the room constantly changes, with people moving in and out, so do the images that the mirrors reveal.

By ensuring the art reflects its surroundings, Ward cannot fully imagine what this artwork will look like before it is in situ. It exists outside of his control.

However, within a photograph the viewer’s experience of the artwork changes dramatically from that experienced in the gallery.

Because of the fixed nature of a photo, we are unable to interact with the piece, to see ourselves jumping from mirror to mirror as we walk across the room, or to see our changing surroundings reflected opposite us. Therefore, we are unable to see the artwork as it would have existed.

For all its attempts to preserve the artwork, the photograph is, in many ways, doomed to fail. As soon as the mirrors become frozen on film, they become unable to fulfil their purpose. They cannot reflect the viewer of the photograph. Through this image, we see the mirrors in a way we were never meant to, we see them without seeing ourselves.

Although our experience of the artwork shifts when it is viewed through a photograph rather than in person, there is some continuity between the formats.

The artwork remains a product of its surroundings, the surroundings just happen to have been selectively chosen by the photographer. The photographer is a collaborator in the creation of the artwork. It is not our own position, perspective and surroundings that create the art we see reflected. Instead, we see through the eyes of a photographer, stood still for a moment in 1991.

To see the artwork without seeing any people reflected defies the nature of the mirrors. This ultimately pushes Imagination Dead Imagine even further in challenging the limits of the artist’s and viewers’ imagination. Although much of the experience of the artwork is lost when photographed, the questioning of imagination’s limits remains.


Megan Stevenson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: Castle Howard

Audio Version

Text Version

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited two friends, Charles and Sebastian, lounge in the colonnade of Brideshead Castle, the stately home of Sebastian’s family. They have just come down from their first year at Oxford. It is a peerless summer’s day. Charles is sketching an ornamental fountain.

Referring to the main house, Charles says, “Is the dome by Inigo Jones, too? It looks later”.

Sebastian replies, “Oh Charles, don’t be such a tourist”.

It is believed that Waugh based Brideshead on Castle Howard, the only stately home of England to have a dome. It also has its own box in the Conway Library, with many photographs taken by Anthony Kersting. One image, showing the south front from the fountain, looked wrong somehow. Why? The dome had disappeared.

Image of Castle Howard from afar, no dome visible.

The south front of the house with the dome missing. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. CON_B00944_F002_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Inspired by the photographs in the Conway, I visited Castle Howard on another peerless summers day, two years ago, and discovered the story.

During the Second World War, stately homes were either requisitioned by the army or by private schools needing to move away from towns and cities. The owners preferred the schools, as the army would damage the structure and ruin the landscaped gardens. Castle Howard became a girls’ school. Tragically, this apparent good fortune did not prevent damage to the structure. In November 1940, a fire broke out in the South-East wing and swept through the house into the Great Hall, destroying the dome. The Howard family were determined to rebuild the house and to live in it again. The dome was finally completed in 1962.

 

Image of Castle Howard taken from afar, in it we can see the dome clearly.

The south front with the dome restored. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. CON_B00944_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Work still continues, as time, money and opportunities permit. In conjunction with the filming of the TV serial, Brideshead Revisited, in 1981, the Garden Hall was rebuilt. Apparently, many tourists believe that the novel was based on historical events, and the characters on real people.

The reference to Inigo Jones is also a fiction. The architect was John Vanburgh, best known at the time as a Restoration playwright. He was a member of the elite Kit Kat Club, along with the then owner of Castle Howard, Lord Carlisle, who was looking for an architect to rebuild his medieval castle. Vanburgh had trained as an architect but had never built anything. However, Carlisle believed Vanburgh could design a structure of appropriate grandeur and dignity, that reflected the spirit of the age. Vanburgh had toured Europe extensively and the result is a sumptuous blend of the Baroque and the Palladian: ornate sculpture and decoration, with symmetry, arched windows, and temple-like features. He was supported by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral and was the architect of several City churches rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.

I am not sure why being a tourist was such an insult. Presumably, the aristocracy at the time could afford to despise the idea of visitors paying to see their estates. It crops up later in the novel when Charles and Sebastian visit Venice, and “become tourists” themselves.

Please do be a tourist and visit Castle Howard. It is a completely wonderful experience, and they still need the money.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

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…

Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19

Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19

Although the coronavirus has put our digitisation activities on hold at Somerset House, the pandemic has unlocked an outpouring of creativity amongst our volunteers. By adapting quickly, we have been able to initiate remote activities to advance the cataloguing, interpretation and care of our photographic collections, logging over 1,200 hours of remote volunteering time to date since 18 March.


Background

Since our first open day in January 2017 over 900 volunteers have engaged with the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, donating over 25,000 hours of time. From the outset we have operated an almost constant programme of outreach, recruitment and training, and maintain an active community of around 230 regular volunteers, some of whom have each contributed nearly 700 hours of time. Activities on offer to volunteers include photography, labelling, copyright research, photographer attributions, transcription, and collection care.

Our volunteer community is diverse, exceeding targets set for us by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), and we cherish partnerships with My Action for Kids, Beyond Autism, and the Terrence Higgins Trust. In 2019 alone we supported 31 students on work placements of periods from a week to three months, and ran corporate volunteering sessions with companies including Willis Towers Watson, Mace, Cirium, LexisNexis, Ashurst, Boden, Sidley Austin, Marsh & McLennan, Tideway, Bank of England, AutoTrader and Facebook.

Volunteer group photo taken at Somerset House, Summer 2019

Volunteer group photo taken at Somerset House, Summer 2019

One belief remains constant: in order to deliver engaging content, without barriers or preconceptions, to the widest possible audience, we include that audience in its creation as fully as possible. Our volunteers’ efforts run through every part of this project, and it is their confidence, creativity and relentless dedication which we celebrate.

Before Covid-19 we were on target to finish the Conway Library by early 2021 before moving to the largely unpublished photographic archives of Anthony Kersting and Paul Laib. We will return to the studio as soon as guidance and practical considerations allow. In the meantime, this blog post describes a few of the ways in which we moved our activities online and strengthened our connection with the volunteer community which sits at the heart of this radical, transformational project.


Task management during Covid-19

To create and manage programmes of remote working, we record every activity on a master spreadsheet which includes a brief description of the task, links to internal and external documentation, and a priority number to measure how closely it maps onto the project’s core objectives. From this we can identify tasks we want to take forward, whilst refining or shelving those with less relevance or benefit. After an informal discussion, favoured tasks are then documented in detail in a pro forma for internal use which breaks them down under the following headings:

Title of task
On which material / collection is this task focussed?
Description of task,
How many volunteers can participate?
What equipment is needed?
Where will the task take place?
Instructions – how will the task be completed?
Who will supervise, and how?
What skills will participants learn and practice?
How will success be measured and judged?

No matter how detailed or trivial the task might seem, we also ensure that every one is matched against the same questions we answered in the Courtauld’s original application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund:

What difference will this task make for heritage?
What difference will this task make for people?
What difference will this task make for communities?

If a task reaches this stage and we’re still convinced of its value, we create a volunteer-friendly instruction sheet and launch it at one of our regular online meetings. The staff of the Digital Media Department then provide daily support and feedback through a dedicated channel on Slack, our digital hub for collaborations with our volunteers.

Although we continue to use Timecounts as a volunteer management system, managing the remote working activities of our large community within tasks requires a level of scrutiny that exceeds anything we had put in place before: one which enables us to log every activity, name, date and state of progress before checking and sign-off.

The following screenshot shows how we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks:

How we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks

The following screenshot shows how we monitor progress across two specific tasks: the creation of draft Wikipedia pages for each of the photographers whose work appears in the Conway Library, and the production of audio transcripts of our blog posts in order to improve the accessibility of our storytelling and research.

The numbers are stacking up. From 18 March (the day following the suspension of in person volunteering activities and the start of remote working) to 1 June 2020 we have recorded:

1210.30 Volunteer From Home Hours
260 Kersting Mysteries solved
244 Conway Photographer Wikipedia template pages in progress
149 Conway Photographer Wikipedia pages ready for quality checking and publication
55 Layers of London records created
36 Audio Blog recordings in progress, with 13 ready to upload
28 volunteers have completed 752 subjects on Zooniverse.


Volunteering from home: researching the Conway Library photographers

The physical library is arranged by date period, then country, province, city or town. Notable buildings often occupy anything from a single box up to several shelves and, in certain locations, a division between sacred and secular architecture is present. However, for the first time since the library was created, our volunteers are revealing insights into the 400 named photographers whose work forms part of the collection. They inspect each photograph individually, and note down on a spreadsheet whether the name of its creator is present, usually in the form of a handwritten note or stamp.

Up to now all we knew about many of our photographers was their names. We turned the current situation into an opportunity for volunteers to research each photographer at home, with the objective of creating a biographical page for each on Wikipedia. The first step of the process is to assign to each volunteer a photographer’s name at random. Information they discover, such as her or his academic, bibliographic, and biographical details, references and external links is recorded on a pro forma which closely mirrors the Wikipedia page we will create for them. We communicate remotely with our volunteers every step of the way via a dedicated channel on Slack which now has 261 members, 64 of whom are actively writing photographer biographies. 244 biographies have been drafted so far, with 149 more in progress! The screenshot below shows a typical few days of the discussion currently taking place behind the scenes.

Readers might be surprised to know that, before the project created one, not even Anthony Kersting – described widely as the greatest architectural photographer of his generation – had a page on Wikipedia (we hold his collection of negatives and prints, and now expect to begin their digitisation in Summer 2021 ).


Volunteering from home: Kersting Mysteries

Anthony Kersting left his whole collection of negatives and prints to the Courtauld on his death in 2008.

He also left us his ledger books containing locations, descriptions and dates for almost every single photograph. In February our volunteers finished the massive two-year task of transcribing every one the ledgers, however his handwriting is often difficult to read, and many question marks remain.

To answer these, we created another Slack channel to which we upload high-res images of illegible entries, opening them up to the volunteer community to discuss, argue the case for a solution, and seek agreement. This involves a lot of Googling, and since we started we’ve all learned a lot about religious sites in Cairo, or alternative names of Eastern European towns.

 

One of the hardest parts of solving the Kersting mysteries is that he would spell things phonetically, or he might use a local spelling or variant spelling that isn’t used today. Volunteers are busy not only transcribing, but also translating. The product of this research will be the facility to geolocate almost all of his images on the new photographic collections website which this project will create.


Volunteering from home: Conservation

The Conway Library contains several thousand 19th century photographic prints. Many are rare, some are unique, and almost all are extremely susceptible to degradation and decay due to their particular chemical, synthetic and material qualities – the results of individual photographers’ experimentations and craftsmanship. We must understand the vulnerability of these objects to enable us to make the correct decisions and preserve them for the future and, in preparation, commissioned and submitted a Collections Conservation Plan to the NHLF. The period of closure has allowed us to plan and create training resources in the form of videos on handling, cleaning, selecting conservation materials, identifying deterioration, and storage, in anticipation of the digitisation of the Courtauld’s rich 19th century collections commencing soon after our return to the studio.

 

Volunteering from home: broadening access to the collection and teaching digital skills


Layers of London

Layers of London is a huge collaborative effort to map London’s history in a visual and interactive way, developed by the Institute of Historical Research. Anyone can access free historic maps of London and contribute stories and memories to create a social history resource about their local area, or places they have visited or researched.

We held a Layers of London training session attended by 16 volunteers back in February as we wanted to encourage them to use the site in their own time. However since lockdown we have adapted our instructions to provide a refresher for those volunteers we have already introduced to the project, and detailed guidance for newcomers.

By uploading a selection of Courtauld images to Layers of London, we are making the collection more accessible to a wider audience. Photographs that have been uploaded so far may be seen here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446

Our partnership with Layers of London has allowed volunteers to add videos, text, or images from other places around the web, adding a richness to the story behind our photos. In many cases new information is sent back to us which isn’t recorded on the Conway’s photographic mounts.

So far, 22 volunteers are involved in this task. 55 records have been published, with a further 15 being drafted. Everyone who has taken part has learned new digital skills, research skills, made their own personal discoveries about our collections and shared them with a wide public audience who might have never discovered the rich and diverse coverage of the Conway.


Blog audio recording

Our blog has 57 posts (and counting!) on a range of topics linked to the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections. Almost all have been written by volunteers, interns, or students on work placement. We have long had ambitions to make audio versions of the posts to aid accessibility for people with a visual impairment. Since lockdown 13 recordings have been finished, with 36 more in progress. Clips will also be shared on social media and collected together in podcasts.

Volunteers engaged on this task have learnt new skills, from practical sound recording to speaking with confidence, and editing text for clarity. To support this activity we created a guide and made sample recordings (with photographs of the home-made pillow-fort setups to give professional results), and we give feedback on demos with tips and workshops on how to improve the sound if needed.


Art Club

We recognise that creativity and self expression, particularly in a social setting, is an important means of boosting mental health – perhaps now more than ever. Our Art Club brings these very human needs and our collection together.

Once a week a member of the team picks an image from the collection to inspire volunteers (or anyone who comes across our prompts on social media). We always leave the prompts open, so people can respond using any media they have: we’ve received paintings, drawings, photographs, found object sculptures, video, and even flash fiction. The Henry Moore Foundation particularly enjoyed everyone’s imaginative responses to Large Square Form With Cut!

We hold an Art Club video chat each week for people to share their techniques, talk about art, and hear from team members on techniques to try with minimal materials. Our discussions about images from the Ministry of Works Collection depicting the siege of Monte Cassino led to moving reflections on photography, war, and memorialisation.

We’d encourage anyone to get involved in Art Club: check out our Twitter and Instagram channels for the prompts: there’s no time limit on trying out any of them.


Zooniverse

The aims of every photographic and cataloguing activity we undertake are broadly those of raising awareness of the collections and the Courtauld, connecting with new audiences and providing them with content to foster learning and enjoyment at all levels. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when our audiences stop asking why our collections should be relevant to their interests, but start to ask why these images: whether beautiful, puzzling or shocking, are of interest to art historians – the content alone enticing and opening a door into the field of study.

A cornerstone of this content-centred approach is crowdsourced cataloguing. Whilst we wait for a new collections management and publishing system to be commissioned and built (which will itself have an embedded facility for crowdsourced cataloguing) we created a project called World Architecture Unlocked on Zooniverse, a platform involving hundreds of contributors worldwide, and uploaded the contents of the first 100 boxes from the Conway (over 8000 images), covering architecture from Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil and the beginning of early British. In each case we’re trying to do something which we always felt lay beyond the pragmatic objectives of this project which were to catalogue down to the box and folder level only: that of cataloguing individual images by transcribing everything written on their mounts.

After undergoing a period of internal testing by volunteers we’re now awaiting the go-ahead from Zoonioverse which will take this part of the project live. In the meantime anyone interested in contributing to the Zooniverse transcription is welcome to access World Architecture Unlocked, now in beta release.


Community!

We have always used Slack as a private social network for volunteers to use. However Slack has really come into its own since lockdown and, as well as run channels to discuss each volunteering task, we also run a fun_and_banter channel in which recommendations for books, podcasts, films, websites, and more are made. While we keep the recommendations mostly within the volunteer community, we often share some on our Twitter and Instagram channels, so make sure you follow us there. We’ve also been enjoying emoji games and sharing many art-related COVID memes. The London Boroughs emoji game had us occupied for a while!

We’ve run two Zoom chats per week since the first full week of closure, with between 23-46 volunteers joining us to catch up. We like to spend a few minutes going over project updates, but we always keep plenty of time just to check in and see how everyone is doing – and share yet more recommendations. Lorraine always has so many recommendations of all kinds from the seriously cultured to seriously silly, while Muny has shared great resources for teaching at home and keeping up with exercise! Another gripping twist of being online is that we are always learning about hidden talents: one week we found that we have bird watching (David), bird-photography (Christopher), and bird sketching (Anne) skills in our talented team! John has shared his hand-drawn print-out-and-colour in sheets, and Bill shared a gorgeous calligraphy front cover for a future book on Anthony Kersting, Sue went from Zoom skeptic to Zoom convert, and Francesca delighted us with her violin. We also welcomed some new volunteers like Gill, and welcomed back some old friends like Max, who volunteered with us back when the project started in 2017, and is now keeping in touch again with the online community.

John Ramsey: A Sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral

Audio Version

Text Version

This sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite of George Zarnecki, former librarian of the Conway and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. In the latter part of the 20th century, he was a leading authority on sculpture of the Norman or Romanesque period.

Detail of capital 9 in St Gabriel's Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral depicting two partying goats.

St. Gabriel’s Chapel, Capital N.9. Canterbury Cathedral. Attribution: G. Zarnecki. CON_B00089_F002_026.

For his book English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140, he chose it as the image for the front cover. It is a carving on a capital of a pillar in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. It dates from 1070 and shows two animals playing musical instruments. The inspiration for the images came from local illuminated manuscripts.

Zarnecki acknowledged that showing animals playing musical instruments was a popular theme, as they featured in humorous folk tales and fables. However, he had not seen any other work to compare with the sophistication shown here. He was struck by the complex composition, the richness of the imagination and the superior quality of the draughtsmanship and modelling.

The purpose of the sculpture

 

In medieval thinking, the universe was divinely ordered so therefore everything could be given a theological explanation, and everything on earth reflected different aspects of Heaven.

In the middle ages, most people were illiterate, so sculpture and painting provided the images and pictures to illustrate sermons and stories. People lived in a harsh world full of superstition and fear of the unknown. They had the same IQ as ourselves, and exercised it through powerful imaginations, myth-making and storytelling, as they tried to make sense of the world.  Meanwhile, the Church aimed to secure a sense of awe and apprehension, a fear of divine retribution. So, popular images could be used to illustrate a moral message.

Churches were carved all over and painted. It was believed that they were seen not only by people but also by God, so symbolism had to be everywhere. 

Animals in the Medieval imagination

 

Medieval stories have attracted an extensive field of academic research, which tends to analyse stories as:

  • Fables with a strong moral tone, e.g. Aesop’s fables from the 5th century BC;
  • Myths: creation stories, focussed on Gods and mortals;
  • Folk tales, designed both for entertainment and for moral guidance. They were more playful and less structured. Stories were told and retold, continually changing and adapting, to reflect the point to be made, or the circumstances of the time. They were not written down until the 16th.

These categories overlapped of course. Also, stories travelled widely around the world along the trade routes and picked up many influences. Animals featured strongly. They developed specific characteristics, and many fantastical, mythical animals were created. Animals were seen as sources of instruction, as in the Book of Job: ‘’Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee – and the fowls of the air’’ [Job 12:7]. 

Animal symbolism and musical instruments

 

Here are just a few examples, to provide some context for the animals in this picture:

  • A cat – represents laziness and lechery;
  • Playing a fiddle – suggests a mewing sound;
  • Dog – faithful, loyal, but also can be stupid and lustful;
  • Donkey – Christ’s beast of burden, or used derogatorily to represent either stupid or lower class people, but can also be lustful;
  • Goat – loves the mountains like Jesus, represents fertility but also the horned devil. Can represent intelligence and mischievousness. And lust.
  • Sheep – can represent Christ/the lamb of God. Indicates purity, gentleness, wisdom, but not as canny as goats. (It’s the only animal I can find who is not associated with lust!)
  • Playing a lute – suggests a bleating sound.

Sheep and goats were the earliest animals to be domesticated and feature heavily in folk stories. Animals from all over the world were introduced as these stories circulated, so non-indigenous types such as a mountain goat or ibex would feature in English folk tales.

What this carving shows

 

In order to understand it, I drew it as a simplified picture to clarify the detail that is hard to decipher from the photograph. I have also added in some features that look to have become worn or broken.

What I think I see is a sheep, an ibex, and a fantastical creature.

A sketch by John Ramsey.

The sheep is female and playing a violin or maybe a lute with a bow. She has a human torso which is smooth like skin, a human breast and hands, but hooves for feet. The sheep also has wings, is standing upright and appears to be singing.

The sex of the ibex is not visible, but it is playing a cornet or trumpet, so my assumption is that he is male. He has the head and body of a goat. He is playing the horn with his cloven forefeet. His hind feet, however, are human. His right foot appears to be wearing a shoe and is between the sheep’s instrument and her leg, possibly pointing towards her groin.

He is riding a creature which has the head of a dog, front legs with hooves but the tail of a fish. The creature is stretching back to bite the ibex, which may indicate that the ibex is planning mischief, or is making too much noise. (Where medieval animals are seen biting themselves, this means they have made a mistake and are punishing themselves. E.g. a wolf bites his foreleg if he treads on a stick and makes a noise as he creeps up on a chicken shed.)

Conclusion: The ibex is trying to seduce the sheep, who is pure. The instruments may indicate their respective voices or symbolise their sexual parts. One senses the sheep is wise and the ibex will have his work cut out!

What is the story?

 

There are many story and reference books, but from what I can find online there is no obviously popular story that could feature this scene. The crypt of Canterbury was a pilgrimage destination, so perhaps this and other wonderful carvings there were used to entertain them or to remind them of a clear moral point.

Would anyone like to write the story? Or offer an alternative interpretation of the picture?

References:

 

Zarnecki G (1951) English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140. London: Tiranti.

Kahn D (1991) Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Sculpture. Austin: University of Texas Press. (Deborah Kahn was a pupil of Zarnecki and her work remains the definitive analysis of Canterbury Cathedral’s sculpture.)


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Alexander Bird: on the Shelley Memorial by Edward Onslow Ford

In 1893, the Shelley Memorial dedicated to the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was formally inaugurated in University College, Oxford. 83 years before, the then student was expelled for “contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to [him], and for also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication entitled The Necessity of Atheism”. At the time, this particular work had caused much contention at the university, and although Shelley’s religious and spiritual views are often reduced to simply aesthetic, they in fact fluxated and changed, as did his thinking throughout the course of his life.

This ever-changing nature of Shelley’s beliefs and ideas is greatly reflected in the memorial itself.  Although Shelley was an atheist, the memorial in his honour is very spiritual, elegiac and even religious, both in its imagery and in the ideas of life after death it evokes.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Sculpted by the artist Edward Onslow Ford, a foremost figure of the New Sculpture movement, the sculpture is situated in a domed tempietto in the college designed by Basil Champneys. The memorial was originally intended to be erected in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where Shelley was actually buried. But the statue was thought to be too large and eventually was donated to the college by Shelley’s daughter in law, Jane, Lady Shelley, who had also been the one who had commissioned it originally.

The sculpture itself depicts the lifeless Shelley washed ashore, caught in a sudden storm on the Gulf of La Spezia he drowned and was cremated near Viareggio.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

In the sculpture, he is shown nude and as a somewhat androgynous figure, reclining and life-size. Shelley himself is sculpted from white marble whereas the surrounding plinth and other sculpted elements are either in bronze or coloured marble.

The memorial features classical and symbolic imagery throughout, in the tree branches, heavy with fruit, as well as in the two mythological creatures that hold up the plinth. The second figure is a female study, looking mournful and solemn she holds a stringed instrument, a lyre or harp. It is possible that she represents a mourner or even Shelley’s wife Mary. But most likely she is the visual and physical embodiment of “poetry” itself.

Ford often included allegorical figures such as these within his work, especially in commissions and memorials. Often an excuse to show a male or female study, they could represent certain subjects or classical pursuits such as science, art, poetry or even more universal themes such as motherhood, death, grace, hope and prosperity.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_013. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Some of these allegorical figures can be seen in works such as the Victoria or Gladstone memorials.

The piece itself is very similar to others of the movement such as Teucer by Hamo Thornycroft, Icarus by Alfred Gilbert and The Sluggard by Frederic Leighton, all of which represent classical Greek heroes or athletes, studies of male nudes and all in the highly stylised, idealised and polished style of the movement. It has been argued that the memorial itself has been responsible for shaping Shelley’s image in modern times, the work itself was described as being able to present an “atmosphere of thought and feeling”.

Ford’s approach to the human figure is highly stylised, much like that of his contemporaries such as Thornycroft and Brock. The new sculpture movement was known for these types of works, ones which moved away from neoclassicism yet still referenced it, and for their use of symbolism, which was more dynamic, energetic and physical but still refined, and often featured elements of the mythological and exotic. Another piece by Ford is Linos, which was heralded at the time, very early in his career as a sculptor. Linos resembled in many ways Rodin’s Age of Bronze; the two were displayed together at the Royal Academy in 1884.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Although similar in that they are both studies of the male nude as well as extremely physical and expressive, they are also very contrasting in their styles. Rodin’s work was seen as very rough and experimental at the time, physical and taught, restricted and real. The critic Spielmann described Ford’s work as “always restrained, refined, dainty, elegant, aiming at grace and decorativeness rather than passion and force”. But for the subject matter of the Shelley memorial, this style is very well suited. When we think of the Romantic poet tragically drowned and laying on the shore, surely no style is better suited to visually represent it than that of an extremely physical and emotional piece of symbolic sculpture which harks back to the style of ancient Greece, the style used to depict great and tragic mythological heroes.

I believe this is the purpose of the visual and thematic decisions that went into creating the piece. My personal reaction to it was shock and a desire to find out more about it, it is extremely beautiful and delicate and it is possible to view it simply as a sculpture depicting a myth or allegory as opposed to the unfortunate truth of someone’s life, but this mixed with the rather intimate viewing of it makes apparent why it has changed the way we perceive both Shelley and his ideas. The sculpture helped the popularity of Shelley’s work and also changed the way it was perceived, adding to Shelley’s image of Romantic poet and simply showing him as a beautiful and tragic classical and allegorical figure.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_011. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.


Alexander Bird
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Lara Drew: Winning and Losing – Photographs of Works of Art

Audio Version

Read by Francesca Nardone

Text Version

The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway libraries hold almost one million mounted photographs and over 60,000 negatives. They act as a comprehensive record of western art and global architecture, including cuttings, reproductions, publications and photographs of works of art and landmarks. One entire room is filled with over 20,000 negatives by a single fine art photographer, Paul Laib, who captured works of art by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their studios. Elsewhere stacks are filled with photographs of sculpture spanning more than two millennia.

Red filing boxes in the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art

Conway Library Shelves

Performing the slightly meta process of taking perfectly lit, high-resolution photographs of photographs of works of art and sculpture as part of the digitisation project gets you thinking about the value of taking photographs of works of art. It is an inescapable fact that as jaw-dropping as the sheer number of stacks, shelves, boxes, folders and individual photographs is in its physical manifestation, it is minuscule compared to the billions of images on the internet (over 95 million are shared on Instagram alone daily).

My iPhone’s algorithm identifies over 650 photos in my camera roll which contain “art”. I have definitely been guilty of marching around museums and art exhibitions “camera-first”, viewing the art mainly through my phone screen and capturing images which disappear into the black hole of my camera roll and are rarely viewed again.

Museums buy into our need to capture visually our experience of art with selfie points and hashtags. However, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam made headlines in 2016 when it banned photography, writing “in today’s world of mobile phones and media a visit to a museum is often a passive and superficial experience. Visitors are easily distracted and do not truly experience beauty, magic and wonder”. They encourage the more old-fashioned image-making technique of sketching, arguing that it forces you to look more closely and appreciate a work’s finer details.

As well as having an impact on the museum experience, photography also changes the basic significance of the artwork photographed. John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing “when a camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of the image”. The image of an artwork becomes ubiquitous, released from a single location. The significance of the image then lies in it being the original of all its reproductions, rather in what it uniquely represents. The “release”, multiplication, and dissemination of the artwork’s image escape the authority of the museum or location in which it is housed and their curatorial efforts to create meaning through labels and dialogue with the works situated around it.

Even before a photograph makes it online, the photographer decides exactly what to include or exclude from her shot and can crop and edit at will once the image is taken. I was struck by what was lost in the images of Picasso’s sculptures I found in the Conway library: the three-dimensional objects are confined in 6×4 inch, 2D, black and white rectangles. The images of the sculptures give no sense of scale, colour, texture or physical space, and, without being able to walk around them, the viewer can only experience the angles chosen by the photographer. The images below highlight how different a work can appear in different photographs. The translation of an artwork into another art form shifts the meaning between artist, curator, and photographer just like the translation of literature into different languages.

Detail of three items from the Conway library showing Picasso's Head of a Woman sculpture from three different angles.

Picasso, Head of a Woman, 1932, 128 x 81 x 61cm. Details from CON_B07487_F001_003, CON_B07487_F001_004 and CON_B07487_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Although the losses inherent in the photography of works of art are real, the reproducibility and editing power enabled by the process can have real advantages too. John Berger is not all doom and gloom: he writes, immediately after the quotation above, “the painting enters each viewer’s house… it lends its meaning to their meaning. At the same time it enters a million other houses and, in each of them, is seen in a different context”.

An artwork’s meaning is not destroyed when it is photographed, but rather multiplied, and our preference to taking photographs works of art ourselves rather than buying postcards in gift shops suggests we prefer the personal significance. The phenomena of “museum selfies” highlights this: what we see, appear with, and post on social media constructs our identity. Art brings a certain cache that reaches beyond personal Instagram feeds and into culture as we know it, as The Carters’ 2018 music video for APES**T filmed in the Louvre reflects.

A still from the music video of The Carters' Apes**t showing Beyonce and Jay-Z posing in front of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre

Beyonce and Jay-Z in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in their music video, APES**T.

Photographing artworks is an important aspect in the democratisation and accessibility of museums and collections too. The Courtauld Digitisation project’s aim is to make the libraries accessible anywhere to anyone who might have access to the internet. It enables a greater number of people to appreciate works of art globally, especially those who can’t access the original artworks, for geographical, financial or disability reasons. Museums concerned that allowing digital reproduction of their physical objects might decrease their value and make their physical space irrelevant needn’t worry: capitalising upon the photography of artworks provides free advertising and actually encourages people to visit the physical space and experience it for themselves.

Another advantage of photographing art is that it enables us to capture the artwork from a single perspective in a single location at a single moment in time. While an artwork can survive largely unchanged for hundreds of years, photographs can chart its journey through space and time and can serve an important historical purpose. For example, I could visit the work of art that is Rodin’s tomb, in Paris, but I would never see it as it looked on the day of his funeral, dwarfing the thousands of people who flocked around it, emphasising the legendary reputation of the sculptor. The photograph which captures this moment has value separate from the work of art it represents.

Black and white image drom the Conway Library depicting Rodin's funeral.

Rodin’s funeral, 24th November 1917, photograph by Choumoff. CON_B06898_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Photography’s ability to document is invaluable to the preservation of works of art. In the Conway library, I recognised one photograph of the Assyrian Lamassu, or human-headed winged bull, carved in the 7th century BC. It was taken in Iraq in 1950. The same statue can be found on Youtube, in a video in which members of Isis deface it, together with other works of art in Mosul museum. This work of art no longer physically exists, what survives are the photographs taken by hundreds of people, from architectural photographers such as Anthony Kersting, who took this image, to the most casual tourists.

Image of the now lost statue of the winged bull of Niveh.

“Iraq: Winged bulls at Ninveh, outside Mosul”, AF Kersting. KER_PNT_N0026.

An organisation called Rekrei (from the Esperanto for “recreate”) has crowd-sourced images of the works of art destroyed by Isis from which digital models can be produced by a process called “photogrammetry”. The viewer can zoom in and rotate the models to recreate the experience of moving around a sculpture and viewing it from different perspectives. 40,000 people have visited the website and uploaded images since its launch.

Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari has gone one step further, creating 3D-printed resin sculptures from the digital models produced using photogrammetry. These replicas cannot replace the originals but act as a stand-in, just as photographs did before them. Allahyari‘s 3D-prints physically represent the lost artwork but also act as time capsules, as they contain flash drives with images and documents relative to the original art object, creating an alternative, democratic way of preserving heritage.

Image of translucent 3D printed sculpture by artist Morehshin Allahyari

Morehshin Allahyari – Material Speculation – Lamassu

In truth, the photography of art will always be a debated issue. As we come to the end of the decade in which Instagram was invented, we acknowledge that the ways in which we experience art and culture have shifted and sped up dramatically and irreversibly. However, after a week with the Courtauld Digitisation Project spent realising the vital importance of preserving images of works now lost or in danger, I conclude that there is a lot more winning than losing in the photography of art.


Lara Drew

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: Agnes Conway 1885–1950

Audio Version

Read by Amanda Roberts

Text Version

At 2pm on an April day in 1914, and after an eight-hour climb, Agnes Conway reached the remote village of Lada at the top of Greece’s Langada Pass, 2000 ft above sea level. She and her companion Evelyn Radford had started at 6am and had not stopped to eat. As they entered the village they saw a man throwing a discus. He was a Greek athlete who had represented Greece at the Olympics and had won the fencing championship. He spoke fluent English, offered them food, fenced and boxed with Evelyn and found he had friends in common with Agnes.

This is one of the more surreal anecdotes recorded in A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera, published in 1917. In the same year, Agnes became Curator of the Women’s Work section at the newly established Museum of War, and Honorary Secretary of its Women’s Work Sub Committee.

This blog explores these two events in the context of her remarkable life.

The daughter of Martin Conway, who bequeathed his photographic collection to the Courtauld, Agnes was an archaeologist and historian. At the end of this blog, there is a short summary of the key dates in her life; this does not do justice to the energy and commitment she gave to her work, and the love and support she gave her family and friends.

The Women’s Work Sub Committee (WWSC)

 

The Museum of War (later the Imperial War Museum) was founded in 1917. Agnes became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Work Sub Committee (WWSC).

Working for Lady Nelson as Chair, Agnes ran the WWSC from 1917, through its most active period in the years immediately following the war, and remained involved until the Museum moved to its current site in the old Bethlem Hospital in 1929.

The WWSC’s objective was to preserve the contribution of women to the war effort. The Committee wrote to every female organisation they could find, seeking information about their work. The list was extensive. It included Government, Army and Air Force departments, as well as civilian locations where women worked, such as factories, relief centres and canteens.

Hundreds of letters were written. The committee asked for descriptions of women’s activities and statistics on their employment. It also requested objects and artefacts that could be displayed, in particular uniforms and photographs of people wearing them. It also commissioned works of art and photographs to cover particular aspects of the war. Over 3,400 illustrations were collected. These resources remain an important source of information for historians. The Imperial War Museum today holds extensive content on the WWSC and its legacy.

Agnes was central to the continuous struggle to find artefacts, funding, resources and space for the growing collection. In 1918, she organised exhibitions of the artefacts at Burlington House and Whitechapel Art Gallery, the latter attracting Royalty and 82,000 visitors. The following year she visited France to photograph the many women still working after the war.

The WWSC also recorded the names of all 700 women who died during the war. It supported the creation of a National Memorial at York Minster which includes a screen listing these names.

A full length drawing of a woman bus conductor. She wears a blue uniform and hat, and carries the distinctive bus conductor's bags with leather straps crossing her chest.

Victoria Monkhouse. A Bus Conductress, 1919 (Art.IWM ART 2316) Copyright: © IWM. Original

A Ride Through the Balkans

 

In early 1914, Agnes and Evelyn travelled to Greece, where they had been accepted to study at the British School in Athens. Almost immediately they started on a tour of the Balkans. Their purpose was to document classical ruins in the landscape, but the book is a breezy travelogue full of incident and adventure. Agnes and Evelyn Radford travelled from Athens to Constantinople, and back through Turkey, Albania, Corfu, then to Montenegro, ending in a war zone.

The narrative is full of colour as they encounter friendly locals, stubborn officials, incompetent guides, monks, soldiers, refugees and displaced peoples. They travel by foot, car, cart, mule, steamer, sailboat and trains, always 3rd class. They climb mountains and gorges, cross fertile plains and barren moorland, and marvel at the colours of the sea off Corinth.

Agnes was a close observer of the condition of women. In Greece, she was shocked by the marriage dowry system, how it impoverished families and prevented so many women from marrying. In Turkey, she travelled in train compartments reserved for women, and was surprised they smoked in public.

She commented on local dress. In Albania, rich catholic women wore trousers made from 16 to 40 yards of material for each leg, with two pairs more inside. Wearing high heeled kid boots, they did not so much walk as waddle.

Hardships are mentioned but briefly. After getting lost in an arid landscape of prickly shrub, where “tortoises were the only living creatures”, they eventually found a road where they could get a lift. Relieved and exhausted, “We sank upon the ground and ate the one remaining orange… in an ecstasy of delight”.

After having her pocket picked on the Acropolis they climbed Mt Hymettus in “four hours only”, and looked down on dozens of soaring eagles, delighted to see the gold of their feathers shining in the sun.

They did not trust the water, so made tea with a spirit lamp, much to the fascination of fellow lady travellers in the 3rd class section of a Greek train.

Sleeping conditions were often basic and not always clean. At a monastery, they were reassured the room had no bugs. But it did have “60,000 fleas”, and nowhere to wash. A monk solemnly gave Agnes a towel, leaving her to wonder what she was expected to do with it.

Towards the end of the journey, in May 1914 they came across refugee camps around the Turkey Albania border. In Scutari, they encountered Red Cross teams and an international peace force of English, French, German, Italian and Austrian soldiers.

The tone of the writing becomes a little more serious, although the contextual political events are barely mentioned. They were witnessing the fallout of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling and had given independence to Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. However, large numbers of ethnic populations remained under Ottoman rule, so these countries formed the Balkan League and declared war on the Ottoman empire. The League suffered internal disputes, borders were shifting, and many nationalities were trying to get back to their homelands. Serbian nationalism was particularly strong and triggered the First World War only a few weeks later in June.

Agnes was interested in the relationships between the military and the refugees. The Peace Force was led by an English officer, Colonel Phillips. Agnes admired his ability to use persuasion and humour to maintain stability, and in particular to calm the Albanians and their blood feuds.

It is curious that they must have known about the wars before they started planning the journey, and that they could find themselves in danger in border areas. Clearly, they had the confidence and determination to go ahead, knowing they were in the midst of a period of volatile international politics. Dr Amara Thornton (see note below) has pointed out that the British School in Athens would have provided a network of contacts, and that the sense of danger may well have appealed to Agnes.

She started writing the book immediately on her return but did not succeed in finding a publisher until 1916. Then there was a rush to publish, as the Allied Gallipoli Campaign was developing in areas where she had travelled, which made the book topical and marketable.

In her opening to the chapter on Scutari, Agnes wrote, “The outbreak of European War put an end to the international occupation of Scutari early in August 1914. The state of things I am describing is, therefore, a chapter in the past”. She might have added “already”, but she offers a fascinating glimpse of the repercussions of events whose consequences are still being played out today.

Refugees at Antivari, photographed by Agnes Conway Horsfield on her 1914 Balkan’s journey. From “A Ride Through the Balkans” by Agnes Conway Horsfield.
Image © www.trowelblazers.com/

A note on Evelyn Radford:

Referred to solely as E throughout the book, never named specifically. She was a classical scholar and lecturer after leaving Newnham until 1915. Thereafter, she wrote about music.

A note on Dr Amara Thornton:

In researching this blog, I came across several articles about Agnes’ life and work by Dr Thornton, who cites Agnes as the inspiration behind her interest in the history of archaeology. Dr Thornton has generously responded to my enquiries, for which I thank her enormously.

Agnes Conway – Key dates:

 

1885 ~ Born 2nd May, Daughter of Katrina and Martin Conway.

1899 ~ On her 14th birthday, fell through a skylight and fractured the base of her skull, leaving the right side of her face paralysed. Despite several operations, immediately after the fall and in later years, she remained disfigured throughout her life.

Teenage Agnes sitting on her grandma's lap.

Image taken from Joan Evans, The Conways: A History of Three Generations. 1966.

1903 ~ Read History at Newnham College Cambridge. Also studied Greek and acquired her life long passion for Archaeology.

1907 ~ Left Cambridge after passing her History Tripos.

1907 ~ Awarded a degree from University College Dublin. Oxford and Cambridge did not award degrees to women at this time, but University College was willing to do so. Oxbridge women who took this up were known as “Steamboat Ladies’’.

1908 ~ Agnes starts helping Martin to catalogue his collection of photographs.

1909 ~ Co-published The Children’s Book of Art with her father, offering accessible descriptions of famous paintings from 13th to the 19th century. Her father only wrote the preface. Agnes selected the pictures and wrote the descriptions.

1912 ~ Studied at the British School in Rome, where she added to and catalogued her father’s collection of photographs.

1914 ~ Admitted to the British School in Athens and travelled through the Balkans in the spring of 1914 with Evelyn Radford, a friend she met at Newnham.

1917 ~ Published her travelogue, A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera.

1917–1929 ~ Helped found and became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s’ Work Sub Committee (WWSC) which aimed to preserve women’s’ contribution to the First World War.

HONORARY SECRETARY AGNES ETHEL CONWAY (WWC Z-30) Honorary Secretary Agnes Ethel Conway MBE, Imperial War Museum. Copyright: © IWM.

1918 ~ Awarded MBE.

1920s ~ Continued to catalogue Martin’s photographs.

1927 ~ First visit to Petra.

1929 ~ Member of the team led by George Horsfield which undertook the first scientific excavation of Petra. [1]

1930 ~ Published the results, Historical and Topographical Notes on Edom, with an Account of the First Excavations at Petra.

1931 ~ Martin Conway donated his collection to the Courtauld. He gave Agnes the public recognition that her help was central to its preparation.

1932 ~ Married Horsfield in Jerusalem. They lived in Jerash in what was then Transjordan (Horsfield was Chief Inspector of Antiquities for the Transjordan government).

George andAgnes Horsfield at Jerash, 1935. Agnes is wearing a keffiyeh.

Image taken from Joan Evans, The Conways: A History of Three Generations. 1966.

1932 ~ Excavated in Kilwa (a medieval trading settlement in modern-day Tanzania).

1936 ~ Left Transjordan and travelled the Mediterranean before settling in England during Second World War.

1950 ~ Died in England.

References:

 

Conway A (1917) A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera. London: R. Scott. Available at: https://archive.org/details/ridethroughbalka00conwrich/page/n8/mode/2up (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Evans J (1966) The Conways: A History of Three Generations. London: Museum Press.

Imperial War Museum, The Women’s Work Collection. Available at: www.IWM.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Thornton A (2018) Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People. London: UCL Press. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv3hvc9k (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Thornton A, Research Blog. Available at: www.readingroomnotes.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Trowel Blazers, Women in Archaeology, Geology, and Paleontology. Available at: www.Trowelblazers.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Notes:

 

[1] Fascinating research and analysis of the excavation’s diary by Dr Amara Thornton at www.petra1929.co.uk. UCL Institute of Archaeology keeps an archive of personal photographs, letters, postcards, and excavation notes.

Agnes Conway wearing a keffiyeh.

Agnes Conway Horsfield at Damieh, Transjordan. Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology. Image taken from Trowel Blazers.

Martin’s inscription recognising Agnes as the true author of The Historical Paintings in the Houses of Parliament.

 


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Sophie Buckman: the serene beauty of Robert Byron’s Isfahan

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

Being presented with immediate free rein in The Courtauld’s Conway photographic library was delightfully overwhelming, and I spent much of my first day flitting between folders of images of Cumbrian churches, the Callipygian Venus, and Florentine stained glass.

Eventually and unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section of files on the architecture of Iran, and soon came across the two on Isfahan. Having visited the city a few years ago, I was curious to see the photographs of what I remember as one of the most beautiful cities in the country of my family. An ancient Silk Road city, Isfahan flourished in the Safavid period, and its skyline is still marked by the imperial sandstone of Shah Abbas’ golden age.

The domes and minarets of Isfahan’s mosques and palaces colour the city a vibrant blue, evoking memories of invading Mongols and their eastern ceramics. In The Road to Oxiana (1937), travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron (1905 – 1941) saw reflections of this dominating colour in the Zayandehrud river which cuts through the city; he describes it “catching that blue in its muddy silver… and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures”.

Expelled from Merton College, Oxford, Robert Byron was a member of the infamously flamboyant Hypocrites Club, and in the 1920s a “bright young thing” of the London social scene. While the excess of his early years was immortalised in novels by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, much of Byron’s life was spent travelling and soon he became a wildly successful travel writer, ahead of his death in combat in 1941.

Here at the Courtauld can be found Byron’s own photos from his Middle Eastern trip of 1933–34, taken during the writing of his most famous work, The Road to Oxiana.

Item from the Conway Library. Two images of Isfahan, Persia, showing the bridge.

CON_B02478_F001_002 Robert Byron, a view along Khaju Bridge from the imperial box in its centre. The throne from where Shah Abbas II would have enjoyed summer evenings is long gone.

Central to his view of Isfahan, is the river, “Zayandeh” literally meaning “life-giver”, and its two main bridges, Pol-e-Khaju, Khaju Bridge, and Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of 33 Arches.

Pol-e-khaju and Si-o-se Pol were both built in the seventeenth century, and function as pedestrian bridges as well as weirs. In Byron’s photographs the Zayandehrud tears between their arches, whilst in more recent years the waterbed has been dry.

The river’s pilgrimage from the Zagros Mountains has fallen short every summer for 10 years now. Some blame bureaucratic mismanagement and the over-allocation of water to steelworks and farms upstream, whilst officials have been quoted as instead blaming the immorality of Isfahanis for the drying of the river.[1]

Item from the Conway Library, two black and white images of the bridge from different angles.

Robert Byron, Khaju Bridge, low water. CON_B02478_F001_001.

Robert Byron’s several visits to the city over those two years provide evidence of the instability of the Zayandehrud’s water levels. In one photograph of Pol-e-Khaju the water is low enough to allow locals to wash and bathe on the crumbling Safavid steps.

In one of Byron’s photos of Si-o-se pol, a group of people seem stranded in his symmetrical framing, the water rising, with several of the men staring deep into the camera’s lens, almost imploring the viewer for help. Photographing this middle section of the bridge isolates these pedestrians, eliminating any view of escape from the Zayandehrud, reframing a simple social scene into a near biblical scene of flooding.

Item from the Conway Library, two black and white images of people standing on the bridge, under the arches.

Robert Byron, high water. CON_B02478_F007_002.

The two bridges have served as meeting-places and social spaces for Isfahanis since their inception, particularly in the evenings, when the workday ends and crowds are drawn to the aureate glow of the lit arcades and arches.

Byron describes the foot passages on Si-o-se Pol being as overwhelmed as the river; “it was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory”.

Despite Byron’s poetic synonymity of crowd and water, the drought of recent years have allowed for the continued tradition of singing underneath the arches of Khaju. Groups of men drink tea, smoke shisha pipes, or “hubble-bubbles” as Byron called them, and sing in groups or unison, their voices echoing off the high, curved roof of the cavernous spaces.

The sound is haunting, and one almost feels transported to a bygone era in awe of this storied tradition.

Robert Byron, daytime under Khaju Bridge, 1933. CON_B02478_F001_005.

A photograph from my visit to Isfahan in 2017, nighttime under Khaju Bridge, with singers.

Much of Byron’s journey through Persia in The Road to Oxiana is impeded by bureaucracy and illness. Many of the entries of his many weeks stuck in Tehran start with some defeated variation of “Still here”. By contrast, the verdant splendour of Isfahan is celebrated, in what I find to be the most beautiful passage of the book:

“The bridge encloses the road by arched walls, on the outside of which runs a miniature arcade for foot passengers. This was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory. The lights came out. A little breeze stirred, and for the first time in four months I felt a wind that had no chill in it. I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine. So much it meant to have escaped from Teheran.”     Robert Byron on Si-o-se Pol, The Road to Oxiana 

For the first summer in ten years, 2019 saw the Khaju and Si-o-se bridges flushed with water once again. Through drought and flood, from their building in the 1600s, to Byron’s 1930s, to the present, the serene beauty of these “cafe-au-lait” bridges endures.

[1] The Independent, June 2016, “Iranian women’s clothing “causing rivers to run dry”, says senior cleric” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iranian-womens-clothing-is-causing-a-river-to-run-dry-cleric-says-a7077021.html


Sophie Buckman

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

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/