Volunteers Archive

Wings and Wheels by Evie Mc

You never know quite what to expect when a box of old engravings is brought down from the prints department for digitisation – that’s what makes it so interesting. The prints can depict anything from bland pastoral scenes to salacious classical carry-ons or gory biblical fire-and-brimstoning; all in a day’s work.

This print above turned up at the last session I volunteered at – the wheels with eyes, disembodied hand and hovering winged multi-headed creatures seemed odd, to say the least, so I thought I’d try and find out a bit more about it all.

The type below the print is a biblical quote from Isiah 6, a chapter which has “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (all quotes will be from the King James Bible) and describes “seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.”
Isaiah 6:6 then has one of the sepaphims flying and having a live coal in his hand, which “he laid it upon my mouth”. The picture seems to have a scroll rather than a coal being put near a mouth, but the description of the seraphims seemed to possibly identify what the creatures were. But there was no mention of wheels bedecked with eyes.

The top of the frame also has a biblical quote, but this one is Ezekiel 1, so off I went there and it was much more promising.

Ezekiel has four living creatures with “the likeness of a man. 1:5 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. 1:6 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. 1:10”

This seemed more like it, especially as these creatures have wheels complete with eyes beside them:

“behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures. 1:15 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. 1:18 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. 1:19″

Ezekiel 10 appears to have the same creatures, with four faces, wings, wheels within wheels, and an even more generous allocation of eyes:

“And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel. 10:10 And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had. 10:12″

Ezekiel then says “and I knew that they were the cherubims. 10:20″

So these seem to me more likely to be Cherubim rather than Isiah’s Seraphim. Cherubim is the plural of Cherub, which are not at all the chubby babies wafting about on mini clouds (these are putti) but are instead some sort of heavenly creatures which occupy the second highest sphere in the Christian angelic hierarchy (Seraphim are in the first). Cherub means ‘to be near’ or ‘near ones’ so they are close to God and seem to have a sort of servant/ bodyguard function.

Incidentally, it was from Ezekiel’s description of the four faces, the ox, the man, the lion and the eagle, that the symbols for the four evangelists were later adopted.

That seemed to solve some of the mystery of the fantastical subject matter, so I figured it was worth finding out a bit more about the print and the artist. Below the frame, in small writing are two names, one on the left one on the right. Usually, the name on the left is the original artist’s and that on the right is the engraver or craftsman who printed the image and that seems to be the case here.

On the left, it says ‘B. Picart. del’. The ‘del.’ means ‘drawn by’, so Bernard Picart is the artist who did the original drawing.

On the right, it says ‘Phil. Andr. Kilian, Sc. A.V.’ The Sc. denotes ‘engraved by’, so Philipp Andrew Kilian is the engraver. A. V. stands for Augusta Vindelicorum, which means it was published in Augsburg Germany. (Isn’t the internet only marvelous!)

Picart (b.1673) was an engraver and artist who worked on a lot of book and biblical illustrations. He is known chiefly for his 1723 tome The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the known world. This was a widely distributed, early enlightenment encyclopaedia of religious life which aimed to describe the origins beliefs and rites of the religions of the then known world. It has been described as “a milestone in information gathering”, and even as “the book that changed Europe”. Here are some examples of his work.

Picart, Bernard. The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Several Known Nations of the World, London: Charles du Bosc, 1731-1739

Picart, Bernard. ‘Puzza, or the “the Chinese Cybele,” sitting on a lotus flower’; from The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World; Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. 

Kilian, b. 1714 was one of a famous family of Augsburg engravers, and he did, amongst other things, 130 engravings for some monumental collection of illustrated Bible stories. So my assumption is that Picard did an engraving or drawing of this Cherubim scene, and then later, Kilian copied it or did his version of it for another publication. I haven’t however been able to find our image in online collections of Kilian’s biblical illustrations.

Doing a bit of research on this has been interesting – typing such word combinations as ‘eyes, wheels and winged creatures’ into Google leads you down some very weird and wonderful paths indeed; I have to admit to spending far more time than I should have with shimmering auras, vibrating orbs and whispering angels. I also found a somewhat less than convincing explanation of Ezekiel 10 in a book that billed itself as ‘possibly the most extensive literary work scrutinizing extra-terrestrial intervention and biblical scripture ever compiled’, which went into astonishing detail regarding the interior furnishing of the Cherubim spacecraft. Belief can be an odd thing.

Mind you, we came across the print on the day of hurricane Ophelia, when the sky above the Courtauld was an unearthly yellow and people were standing in the strangely still courtyard, quietly staring up as if waiting for something to appear – spaceships, disembodied hands, even churning ‘dreadful’ wheels with staring eyes perhaps.

Evie Mc.

Stewart Cliff on Soutine’s Portraits exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery

An urgent, restless group of portraits by Chaïm Soutine comprises the show entitled Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys. Painted in what seems like a flurry of activity, the paint still feels fresh: Soutine paints quickly wet into wet. Against the grain of conventional portraits, Soutine’s sitters were largely unknown, the make-shift titles were added by academics or dealers for practicality. Soutine doesn’t look to preserve a collective impression of a sitter, suggesting they are a vehicle for something more intangible. It is easy to set the scene, models in their uniform would sit for Soutine after their day’s work, brooding with a sense of resignation that is echoed in the way they are melded to the surface by the furious brushwork. Often their shoulders are bowed as the background encroaches, blurring where the paint meets the figure, and giving an overall sense of flatness. With the space collapsing, the weight of brushwork on the drapery and uniforms lends a further sense of claustrophobia, it is hard to imagine the sitters being able to breathe under the weight of their clothing.

Yet, despite the foreboding, the colours and nervous energy of the brushwork give a real sense of life to the portraits. Flesh tones feel tenderly observed and there is a sense of fidelity to the colours Soutine picks out of the surroundings: the yellows and turquoises coming from the whites of the chefs’ uniforms add a uniqueness to the vision. For something painted in such a blurry hurry these paintings are incredibly seductive to look at, we are constantly shifting our gaze from one passage to another; a splash of thinned paint forms some fidgety hands before moving up the furrows of a well-worn smock, and then a jab of the brush forms three opalescent teeth in a mouth, until eventually we are able to take in the painting in as a whole again.

Soutine, Chaim (1894-1943). The Little Pastry Cook; Le petit patissier. c.1927. Christie’s Images.

Surveying the exhibition, I think less about the painters who were Soutine’s contemporaries and instead more of the photographers of his time, especially August Sander, the German documentary photographer who would have worked at around the same time as Soutine. In his series, People of the 20th Century, Sander photographed the working population of the country, from bricklayers to musicians and estate agents all with great faithfulness. Sander often photographed his subjects with the accouterments of their trade, much the same way as Soutine depicts his subjects in their uniform. It is also striking how Soutine uses quite conventional poses such as the full-length portrait in The Little Pastry Cook: with his hands planted firmly on his hips, the subject feels peculiarly photographic. But there is also something more psychologically puncturing about Soutine’s paintings that directs me to think of August Sanders photography, Roland Barthes wrote in his book camera lucida “What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” With his subjects posing resolutely with the tools of their trade, Sander seems to take such a specific slice of time it is almost as if he is pointing out that this might be how things are now but they will change. With a different medium and means, Soutine achieves a feeling very similar. Perhaps when we look at a painting, especially a portrait, we should get an impression of studious monumentality, it was traditionally the way monarchs would publicise their image to a nation. Yet, in Soutine’s portraits, faces often feel crestfallen and expressions are indistinct at best, the very antithesis of monumental. It is as if they are sliding off the canvas or slipping back to the anonymity of the city. All we are left with is the knowledge that the sitter sat for the artist at some point, but is now long lost to the past.

Soutine, Chaim (1894-1943). The Little Pastry Cook from Cagnes; Le patissier de Cagnes. c.1922-1923. Christie’s Images.

Pertinently, many of the surrounding paintings in the Courtauld are made by Soutine’s peers and contemporaries who were active in Europe at that time. They envisaged a world emboldened by clean graphic sensibilities, synthesised colour, and sometimes wild abandon. The modernity Soutine presents is one of squalid torment and rather than Europe it would be America that would hail Soutine. Alfred J. Barnes, an American collector, would purchase 60 paintings in one go liberating Soutine from the grinding poverty he had been captured in for much of his life.

In his seminal book, Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas writes of the grand European modernist Le Corbusier’s disgust at visiting New York, where the skyscrapers are too small, there is not enough light streaming into the buildings, and the roads aren’t wide enough. But Koolhaas’ proposition of modernism doesn’t have to be the rational utopian dream Le Corbusier desired, it could be the perverse, decadent vision of Salvador Dalí as well. Perhaps there is something Dali-esque in Soutine’s paintings; a wilful vision in which we are submitted to the artist’s innermost visions and feelings. America would be the heralding of Soutine, and you can largely see his legacy through American art from De Kooning and the abstract expressionists to Philip Guston and later painters such as Alice Neel and Cy Twombly.

– Stewart Cliff

Soutine, Chaim(1894-1943). Head Waiter. c.1927. Private Collection, Berlin.

Maximilian Herbert goes looking for a slashed Sargent

A portrait of Her Grace, Winifred Ana Cavendish-Bentinck, DBE JP Duchess of Portland (née Dallas-Yorke) by John Singer Sargent hangs at the end of a long hallway at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire.

Winifred, Duchess of Portland – John Singer Sargent

As a small child, I visited the abbey and was enchanted by the painting. In my GCSE year at school, I attempted to copy it into a new composition, producing a preliminary painted sketch for a less successful finished painting.

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Maximilian Herbert

My love of the original painting by Sargent was such that it inspired me to move to Florence in 2011 to undergo classical training in naturalistic portraiture at The Charles H. Cecil Studios on Borgo San Frediano, just south of the River Arno in a building owned by the renowned Romanelli sculpture family. The Cecil studios claim a lineage that connects directly to J. S. Sargent through R. H. Ives Gammel of Boston, who was Charles Cecil’s teacher and ostensibly knew Sargent through American social connections. Sargent is often hailed as the last great society portrait painter, having been born as an American in Florence before studying under Carlos Duran with extensive training at both the Florentine and Parisian Academies in the late 19th Century. During his illustrious career he was sought after by the great and the good of England and the United States, producing alla prima paintings with a method still emulated by many aspiring artists today; painting directly onto the canvas without making an underlying drawing, making observations from life and attempting to achieve a likeness in the first pass.

Having embarked on a voluntary digitisation project at The Courtauld, when I heard that there were glass plate negatives of Sargent’s work in The de Laszlo section of the archives I had a recollection of a tale that had been passed down to me via word of mouth from the current residents of Welbeck Abbey who include my Godfather. The story goes that in 1902 Sargent painted Winifred in the Abbey for a week with Her Grace returning each day to stand as his portrait model. He was famed for his vigorous approach to painting, with broad brushstrokes executed with swordsman-like virtuosity. Puffing away at a cigar he would briskly approach the canvas before making broad and energetic strokes with his long brushes before standing back to view the painted image at a distance. As a result, the paint would appear abstract up close, but when viewed from afar the visual focus would create the illusion of depth and space, generating a convincingly corporeal appearance of life to the painting. Apparently frustrated with the outcome of his week’s work, Sargent purportedly slashed the canvas diagonally, so that the Duchess, upon returning for her next session, was met to her shock, distress and dismay, with her likeness in a slashed and crumpled heap on the floor. After some reassurance Sargent then dashed off the subsequent portrait in a matter of a few days, producing what is still held to be a very successful representation, with a dazzling bravura illusion of light on the silken sheen of Her Grace’s wonderfully extravagant dress. Philip Alexius de László himself also painted Winifred twice in 1912. She was by all accounts a highly paintable woman and a great beauty.

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Philip Alexius de László

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – Philip Alexius de László

The painting of the Duchess has a partner piece depicting the Duke of Portland with his dogs, painted in 1901.

Duke of Portland – John Singer Sargent

Contemporary friends and fellow painters Tom Richards and Isabella Watling, whom I met in Florence while studying the sight-size technique, used this portrait of the Duke as inspiration for their own paintings of Italian model Cristiano and his dog Gina.

Gina and Cristiano – Isabella Watling

Bella’s painting featured in the BP Portrait Award at the National Gallery in 2016.

Tom Richards in his studio

I wondered if I might find an image of the original, slashed Sargent painting in the De Laszlo archive. Although the archival process for the collection was much further from being completed than the Conway or Witt libraries, when I set out to look for the Sargent, hand written notes in a ledger took only minutes to decipher. Although some numbered images were missing, all those concerned with the Duchess of Portland had been re-attributed the same number. The boxes of negatives were also numbered so I selected the one that corresponded to entries for The Duchess in the ledger and within a wax-paper sleeve there were a number of glass plate negatives. After holding a particular negative up against a lightbox, it was clear that it was the familiar face of Winifred. And here she is:

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland – John Singer Sargent (LAI_BU0001-0-0006-168)

Sadly, it is not an image of the original, slashed portrait which has most likely been destroyed, but it is the preliminary charcoal sketch drawn by Sargent which I have since learnt remains in private ownership by the present day occupants of the abbey, who have recently opened a second public gallery on the Welbeck Estate. The Harley Galleries exhibit The Portland Collection – Paintings and artworks amassed by the various Dukes of Portland over the centuries, including a Michelangelo sanguine sketch, paintings by Stubbs and a wealth of other superb paintings and artifacts. I strongly encourage a visit. While we may never know what Sargent’s first attempt looked like, it has been enriching to become further immersed in the story of the painting’s production and I am very pleased to have found another link in the chain that connects me to the portrait that made me want to become a painter.

Maximilian Herbert

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib

 

The Tate Archive holds some of the only remaining correspondence between photographer Paul Laib (1869-1958) and the artists who hired him: a misaddressed cream card dated July 1935 listing his telephone number, address in London’s South Kensington borough, and services offered. All in vibrant red ink: “Carbon Platinotype, ENLARGEMENTS, &c … Pictures carefully Photographed by Panchromatic Process. PHOTOGRAVURE.” (TGA 977/1/1/222)

E.Q. Nicholson, the eventual recipient of the note, was one of many clients Laib worked with over his five-decade career as a Fine Art Photographer in London. The title listed on Paul Laib’s stationery implied a role somewhat different than the common understanding of the term today. Whereas the contemporary use most often refers to an artist whose chosen medium is photography, fine art and people who made it comprise the subject matter of nearly all 22,000 images in the De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld.

3 Thistle Grove in 2017

I remember the initial thrill of coming across Laib’s photographs of studios, particularly Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s at No. 7 The Mall in Hampstead. There is something tantalisingly subversive about seeing well-known and well-loved works of art loved and known somewhere other than a gallery, somewhere where the rules of engagement with art might be relaxed. Hepworth and Nicholson hired Laib at various points in the 1930s to photograph their work. These weren’t snapshots, though – the depiction of possibility in these photographs, of the possibility of different kinds of interactions with art, was intended. Lee Beard, Sophie Bowness, and Chris Stephens all note in the exhibition catalogue for 2015’s Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World that photographs like this were a concerted effort to convey a more holistic aesthetic view – if anything, one that the artists had more control over than in a gallery. Textiles, sculptures, and paintings live alongside a spiky selection of cacti, works in progress, tools, and the ephemera of a filled, well-considered space.

With some more reading, trips to archives at Tate and the National Art Library, and discussion with colleagues here, I decided to expand on the idea that placing artworks in different contexts change how we feel about perceive them. Showing how Laib’s photographs depict a range of art-in-context, and how his unique occupation brought together photography, art, and the archival in an unexpected way – became the theme of the show, now up in the Book Library Foyer until September 27.

I had never previously considered the legions of photographers capturing the artwork we see in books, exhibition catalogues, lecture halls, and postcards. This is more than a little ironic considering that I and sixty other volunteers are taking on a similar role in our time at The Courtauld.

Artists in their studios: Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib.

The title of the exhibition – Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib – is a reference to the different relationships at play between artworks and photography in his archive. As I write in the introductory text for the piece, sometimes an image itself reminds us that we’re looking at a staged photograph, something that took scheduling, supply sourcing, and time to plan. Paintings were secured on easels and sculptures on pedestals to ready them for a photo. Further reminders of the presence of the photographer include graphic white strokes across many of the images – Laib placed tape directly on the negatives to mark where the images would be cropped.

In other photographs from the archive, the physical presence of the camera is less obvious. This is particularly the case for photographic reproductions intended for publication – a copy of Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (1933), generously lent by the Courtauld Institute’s Book Library, is open to a photograph of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture “Reclining Figure” – while staged in a very thought-out way, the presence of a photographer is less obvious, thus “Camera, Obscured”.

To give visitors even more of a sense of how these photographs live as physical objects before being digitised in our studio in the Witt Library and printed, some of the glass plate negatives and the boxes they have been stored in since the 1970s are included in the exhibition.

A view of the exhibition.

Many thanks to everyone who has helped source negatives in the archives, point me towards references, set up the show, and supported in ways large and small – hopefully this will be the first of many exhibitions to come out of the rich photo archives we are digitising.

— Mary Caple

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib is on show until 27 September in the Book Library Foyer at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Lorraine Stoker on visiting the Tate Archives

I have been volunteering at the Courtauld Institute since March 2017. Throughout my thirty-eight years of teaching Art, Design and Art History in inner-London schools I have visited the Courtauld Gallery many times and have also participated in the Institute’s more recent schools outreach and broadening participation activities. However, it was the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, involving the creation of an online archive of 1.1 million images from their own image collection, with the 20th century housing projects and the Anthony Kersting Middle Eastern photographic collection, which attracted my attention. As Sir Nicolas Serota commented, the project ‘is an exciting contemporary expression of Samuel Courtauld’s belief that ‘art is for the people’, and I was eager to play a small part in the transformation of the Courtauld archives into a national and international public resource.

As a volunteer, I have access to the Courtauld, its community, exhibitions, events and collections. I can even view and sit in awe of the Gauguins every day now! In addition, working as part of a great team, the practical training and experience in cataloguing, handling, transcribing and digitising historical material and in creating a digital archive has certainly been educational and highly rewarding.

Visiting the Tate Archives as part of our training and development was a fantastic experience. After walking through the bowels of the art gallery, with its air conditioning and heating ducts – even an old delivery bicycle – past the spectacular spiral staircase inspired by the original floor tiles, we entered the ‘Site Timeline’ – a drum-shaped room at the heart of the building. This room, a small part of the highly successful £45m revamp, is dedicated to the History of the site and is set within the foundation of the oldest part of the building’s structure, Millbank Prison.  I was well-aware of the history of The Tate as a prison, but it was quite remarkable to hear that in the 1960s there was a serious proposal to add a brutalist, modern extension to the building!

The new staircase, Tate Britain. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Stoker.

One interesting part of the renovation I have since identified is that when designing the rotunda mirrored bar in the Members Room, the architects Caruso St John were inspired by the Courtauld’s own A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Manet.

Though a regular visitor, I had never got further than the Djanogly Cafè, so The Digital Archive corridor – with its gallery of touchscreens – certainly surprised and impressed me. You can reference a work of art in the Tate collection, access the image of the painting or sculpture and compare it next to the digitised image of the archival item. It was amazing to digitally turn the pages of a Donald Rodney sketchbook, and I have just discovered I can do this on my laptop.

The Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms were next. There, we heard about the 1928 flood and the new flood doors which are, of course, still untested!

At the start of the digitisation of its collection, the Tate’s mission statement was ‘to fulfil our responsibility to promote public enjoyment, knowledge, and understanding of British and international art, we decided that our selection of archive material should follow these principles and reflect that this collection belonged to the nation’. The sheer scale of the Tate’s Archive digitisation, now in its third year, is overwhelming, with over 52,000 pieces already captured, all of which are available to view on the website. This stands in addition to the 65,000 paintings, sculpture and works on paper, also available to browse online. The aim is to take the largest archive of British art in the world and make it accessible to national and international online audiences, so with new collections coming in each year, this is an ongoing task.

The Courtauld’s Photographic Library digitisation project is in its first six-month developmental phase and this Tate Britain visit certainly put into context the extensive possibilities within an innovative digitisation programme and public online interaction, such as crowdsourcing, transcription algorithms, and the development of new routes into the collection in addition to the traditional paths of art or title based retrieval.  Without doubt, this insight into the successful digitisation project at the Tate Britain has galvanised the Courtauld Connects volunteers, as we look forward to the completion of the developmental phase and the exciting possibilities over the next four years.

Tate Britain and Vickers Tower, 12th September 1964, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_G4137)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W1000)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W0999)

Jane Macintyre on meeting HRH The Princess Royal

My name is Jane Macintyre. I am one of the volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

On the afternoon of 12th June, HRH The Princess Royal visited both The Courtauld Gallery and the Institute in her role as Chancellor of the University of London. Prior to the event, she had expressed an interest in meeting the digitisation team – Tom, Matthew, Faye and Sarah – plus one of the volunteers. About five weeks before the visit a ballot determined, as luck would have it, that the volunteer would be me. I was bursting to tell everyone but had been sworn to secrecy.

It turned out that HRH wouldn’t be able to visit the basement studio or library space, but the prints and drawings room on the first floor of the building substituted as a suitable venue where we could present images. Tom and Matthew had selected a small spread of Conway mounts, Laib photos and Anthony Kersting’s images and ledger books. They took care to choose some particularly relevant images such as the only photograph in the collection of the Princess’s home, Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire, and some Olympics venues such as the Athens Arena from 1896, the first Olympics of modern times. Faye set up the camera and connected it to her laptop to mimic the studio facility.

HRH The Princess Royal meeting the Digital Media Team. Photo courtesy of Jim Winslet.

Security on the day was tight. At 2.15pm everyone was summoned to the foyer to receive our credentials and a final briefing, then we took our places in the prints room where we awaited a last security sweep before HRH arrived. It seemed like a long time: excitement mounted.

Finally, the Princess came into the prints room accompanied by the Director of The Courtauld, Professor Deborah Swallow. The Princess, clearly well-informed and interested, was first introduced to the prints and drawings team, and after perusing some of the drawings, came over to talk to the digital team. Tom summarised what the project was about, and presented Matt, Faye, Sarah and myself (in strict sequence). The Princess asked me to explain the role of the volunteers and then Tom showed her the selected array of photographs, which led to a discussion on Gatcombe Park and the changes that had been made to it since the photograph was taken in 1945. She also picked up on the photograph of the Athens Olympics, before moving on to the next part of her visit, the launch the Founders’ Circle, a new society to recognise major benefactors to The Courtauld.

So five weeks of anticipation was over in a few minutes. We definitely rose to the occasion and did a good job of explaining the project. Never having met royalty before, I was struck by the level of organisation, coordination and sheer choreography required to achieve a smooth and effective visit.

Carol Budd on visiting the British Library’s imaging studios

My name is Carol Budd, I am one of 60 volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since I joined the project I have enjoyed learning about the whole process of archiving, particularly as I was somewhat of an ingénue to this field. I was interested in photography, knew something about IT and cameras and was keen to develop skills with photographic software. Having recently retired from a career in IT, technology was nothing new, but the idea that the fusty, dusty world of archiving might engage me and make me think of a second career never occurred to me when I decided to apply.

To provide more context to what we do, the team organise some visits to other institutions’ digitisation studios, so when we were offered a visit to the British Library, I jumped at the chance.

We were given a tour of the imaging studios, and were shown the different cameras, scanners, stands and technology available to meet any number of different requirements. Alongside in-house digitisations, the BL have a commercial arm to accommodate people and companies’ needs to digitise on demand parts of the collection.

Fiona Clancy, Studio Manager, giving a tour of the Qatar Imaging Studio.

The scale of the British Library collections is huge, if you stop and think about the size of it even a goal of 1-2% requires massive digital resources. Every item ordered needs to be registered and its whereabouts must be known at any time. The value and age of some of the books in the British Library mean that before they can be sent for digitisation, the conservation team need to ensure that the item is fit to be handled. Some items are just too fragile for the rigours of digitisation.

Following the tour, we were given presentations by members of the Digital Research team on what to do with all the digital images and metadata once they are created, and how to let the public know that they are available. The most engaging story was that following an aborted commercial project the Library was able to release over a million pictures into the public domain. The response to this has been varied and imaginative. Artists have used the images to create new art works, designers have used them to create a backdrop for the London Fashion Week, and an enterprising individual used them in jewellery, available to buy at Badgical Kingdom. Other exciting ideas to do with images are Poetic Places, an app for encountering culture in London, and Off the Map, a project challenging students to use images from the British Library to create new animation works and games. This has now become an annual competition and the winning teams include Pudding Lane Productions from De Montfort University, Leicester, who created an interpretation of 17th Century London and Gothulus Rift, University of South Wales, who created a Fonthill Abbey inspired game. Images from Shakespeare Folios were used to create Team Quattro’s The Tempest, and Tom Battey’s Shakespearience. The British Library is keen to see more ideas to do with data take shape, so it’s making copies of some of its datasets available for research and creative purposes.

Stella Wisdom and Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curators, explaining the benefits of digitisation.

But digitisation can also mean preserving images for posterity – after the official Canadian Archive suffered a fire, the digitised Canadian photographic collection is now even more precious and unique. The list of different digitised material goes on, the British Library is digitising its vast Sound Archive with funding from the HLF, and even the whole UK web is being archived. Why, I wondered, would you want to archive old web pages? A few days later I read of a court case where archived web pages were used to gain a successful prosecution.

I left the visit excited to be inspired to take new ideas out into my own world, and with a fuller understanding of the aims and importance of digitisation, and of our contribution to this project as volunteers. If only there were more hours in the day!

Volunteers exploring the British Library.

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.

Getting to know our volunteers

Interviewing volunteers is one of my favourite parts of being a Volunteer Coordinator, I never get bored of hearing people’s stories and what led them to become a volunteer. This past month and a half I have interviewed over 40 new volunteers for our digitisation project so it’s been a brilliant 6 weeks for me.  Now that I’ve listened to everyone’s motivations, goals and stories I thought I would blog about what I’ve learnt in a Q&A style…

After interviewing over 40 people, would you say there is a typical digitisation volunteer?
In short, no. We are really, very lucky to have attracted such a diversity of experience, skills, knowledge-bases and strengths in such a short space of time. We have a very multicultural volunteer team so far, which I think is a great strength as we are digitising photographs from all over the world. We also have a wide age range amongst our volunteers, spanning from 18 to 70+. We have people with professional and unpaid experience from a wide variety of sectors like finance, education and architecture, as well as many who have formerly trained in art history, conservation and archiving, and also many enthusiasts – so this is a chance not only for volunteers to learn from us, but for us to learn from them and for there to be lots of shared learning from each other. A real network is already emerging!

Getting to know the Conway Library © The Courtauld Institute of Art

Is there a main motivation for getting involved in the Digitisation project so far?
As you would expect, everyone has a slightly different take on why they want to volunteer, but in general there are four main motivations for becoming a digitisation volunteer that crop up in most of the interviews so far, with many people mentioning at least two at some point in their interview:

  1. A passion for creating an open data platform as a way of opening up stories, diversifying audiences, breaking down barriers and improving access to art for communities who might not be able to access the originals.
  2. The pull of being involved with the Courtauld Institute of Art, as a world-class cultural institution.
  3. The chance to gain hands-on experience on a digitisation process, with a view to move into employment or further training in this field.
  4. The desire to spend free time discovering images that are interesting, beautiful and have not been made public before.


Has anything about the interviews so far surprised you?
After managing volunteers for quite a few years, I have learnt not to make assumptions; but I am always very moved by people’s passion, drive and commitment to use their free time to help organisations further their cause, and I am overwhelmed by the variety of skills and perspectives they bring with them. It’s very motivating to be around them!
Sarah Way

Volunteer Coordinator
Courtauld Connects