Keelin Willis: The Creative City

    “The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and is the theatre.” (Mumford, 1937: 185)

 

Devoid of the familiar bright bursts of graffiti and reliable clunks of skateboards hitting the floor, the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall pictured in the 1960s is almost unrecognisable. Standing on the site of a shot tower built as part of a lead works in 1826, this brutalist piece of architecture was retained for the Festival of Britain and was worked on by architects such as Bennett, Whittle, West and Horsefall before being opened by the Queen in 1967. As with other brutalist works of the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth Hall reflects the efforts of young designers looking for new ways to express their belief in the future. For example, this is demonstrated in their use of concrete, a traditional material, in original and experimental ways. Love it or hate it, the creativity enmeshed in the brutalist genre is incontrovertible.

Black and white image of Queen Elizabeth Hall mounted on card.

CON_B04286_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Black and white image of Queen Elizabeth Hall mounted on card.

CON_B04286_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In light of this, a building as expressive as Queen Elizabeth Hall should surely stand as the pinnacle of creativity and innovation in the city. Yet, this is not necessarily the case. In the midst of exchanges between large organisations, authoritative bodies, renowned architects and other key public and private players, the individual city dweller can become disconnected from the city that rises around them. Rather, the dictation of how the city is structured from above works to pacify citizens. In this way, people are shaped by the city, or more accurately, the power relations that shape the city in the first place. While Mumford’s (1937) metaphorical description of the city as “theatre” suggests its inhabitants are granted endless freedom in their performance, in reality, this performance must comply with a particular set of restrictions imposed from above. Perhaps the city as “container”, or even “prison”, would be more appropriate.

However, the skate park found in the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall today suggests otherwise. Despite being intended as a pedestrian walk-way, the Undercroft’s interesting features drew skaters to adopt it as an undesignated skate park – “Southbank” – in 1973. In appropriating public space for their own use, Southbank’s skaters are performers in their own theatre, regardless of restrictions imposed from above. They are active agents shaping the city, just as the city shapes them. In a broader sense, subversive actions, such as skateboarding in undesignated areas or making graffiti art, speaks to the re-politicisation of public space through the agency of the everyday citizen. As contended by Hall (1998: 7), the city is “a unique crucible of creativity” and this creativity hands every person the potential to destabilise the supposed natural order orchestrated by those above.

That said, the potential for small-scale subversive activities to make a profound difference in the contemporary urban landscape may seem limited. Indeed, a skateboarder with a can of spray-paint in hand seems unlikely to win a hypothetical battle against the Greater London Council. Collectively, however, the power of communities must not be underestimated. In 2004, the Southbank Centre temporarily closed large sections of the Undercroft for exhibitions, but closures continued until plans for a commercial redevelopment of the Undercroft as a “Festival Wing” were uncovered in 2013. In response, the Long Live Southbank campaign was set up by the Undercroft Community to resist the proposal. Following an incredibly successful campaign which saw immense public support for the Undercroft community, Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre signed an agreement guaranteeing the long-term future of the skate spot. Moreover, the Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre have been in a partnership and joint project team to restore and renovate the Undercroft as a skate area since 2016. As demonstrated by the Long Live Southbank campaign, the collective action of everyday citizens has the potential to make huge institutional changes at all levels of authority and power.

To reflect the changes made to the Undercroft by the skate community, I have graphically imposed a representation of their graffiti artwork and skateboarding onto one of the photographs taken in the 1960s. Indeed, the very action of creating artwork on top of an original photograph seemed subversive in itself. Just as artists spray-paint city walls, I felt as though I was altering property that was not mine to alter. Surely photographs stored in archives were for “proper” research with books and essays to show for it? Yet these are exactly the kind of unspoken expectations creative art forms can challenge. In using the archive in such a manner, I was performing in a theatre of endless possibility myself.

This is a derivative work by the blog's author, Keelin Willis, superimposing a colour image of the skatepark on the original southbank structure.

An adaptation of CON_B04286_F001_006 – the skate park (that can be found today) has been graphically imposed onto the original photograph of the Undercroft using GIMP. Image by Keelin Willis.


Keelin Willis
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References:

  • Hall P (1998) Cities in civilization: culture, innovation and the urban order. Weidenfield and Nicholson: London.
  • Mumford L (1937)What is a City? Architectural Record, LXXXII.

Corrina Summers – Contested Spaces: Capturing Modernist Architecture in Postcolonial India

A sense of “doubleness” pervades the photographs contained within the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute, the bulk of the collection comprising of photographs of other works of art. While the majority of its million photographs feature architecture as their central focus, some of the most striking images in the collection feature human subjects, thrusting ideas about the relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and its social function into the foreground. This hybridity is especially evident in the photographs of Chandigarh in northern India, taken by both members of the architectural design team and professional photographers in its construction and early existence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Black and white photo of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_010

With construction beginning in 1952, Chandigarh is a city born out of independence and partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, ordered the creation of the city as a new capital for the new Haryana and East Punjab states of India that had been formed in the aftermath of independence; the former capital of the old state of Punjab, Lahore, had been lost to the new nation of Pakistan after partition. On a visit to the site of the new city in 1952, Nehru proclaimed “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. [1] Early postcolonial India also faced the issue of finding housing for the hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing the newly formed state of Pakistan; 80% of the original Chandigarh housing was considered “low-cost”. Thus, aesthetics and social issues in Chandigarh were inextricably linked from its inception.

Colour images of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_019

Colour image of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_014

Interestingly, the architect enlisted appointed to construct Nehru’s architectural symbol of an independent India was a westerner; prolific French modernist, Le Corbusier. With his own plan to reconstruct the central business district of Paris as a landscape of cruciform towers, octagonal street grids, and green spaces having been rejected in the 1920s, he saw the Chandigarh project as a means through which to realise his vision of the modern city. Prior to his death, Le Corbusier was the principal city planner and the architect behind the three main government buildings that occupied the city centre; the Palace of the National Assembly, the High Court of Justice, and the Palace of the Secretariat of Ministers. Indeed, these structures host many of the features outlined in his 1927 publication, Les cinq points de l’archictecture. These include the idea of the “pilotis”, the reinforced concrete pylons that act as the main components of the government buildings and are beautifully captured in Lennart Olson, Pierre Joly and Vera Cardot’s photographs, taken just after their completion.

Black and white interior shot of the Chandigarh's Royal Assembly, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04392_F002_021

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_010

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_005

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_004

Another Corbusierian motif that forms a central feature of Chandigarh is La Main Ouverte, “the open hand“, which Corbusier considered a symbol of “peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive”. [2] The sculpture in Chandigarh is one of many built by Corbusier, and arguably encompasses the unification of socio-political ideals with architecture, symbolising an India open to new opportunities. In terms of this adoption of a relatively revolutionary style of architecture and urban planning, the construction of Chandigarh can certainly be seen as a symbol of a dehistoricised, decontextualized space through which society could be transformed.

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building and Open Hand monument, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_015


Corrina Summers
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References

  1. Malhotra, A., Chandigarh Exhibited in New York (2013) <https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/08/17/chandigarh-exhibited-in-new-york/> [accessed 11 December 2019].
  2. Shipman, Gertrude (5 October 2014). Ultimate Handbook Guide to Chandigarh : (India) Travel Guide. MicJames. pp. 7–. GGKEY:32JTRTZ290J.

Ruby Gaffney: Pictures of London in the Age of Social Media

The Courtauld’s digitisation project acknowledges that the online world has radically changed who can consume culture, and how they can do so. The collection will no longer be confined to a basement library. By putting the collection online for the public to access for free, its potential reach will span to anyone anywhere, so long as they have internet access. The photographs can be put to more diverse academic purposes, but they can also be browsed recreationally or looked at through a personal viewpoint.

During the time I’ve spent interning at the Courtauld and getting involved in the digitisation process, I’ve been thinking about the digital age and how it has changed the way we both consume and create photographs. Social media means that anyone with access to a smartphone has the ability to take unlimited high-quality photos, a platform to share them, and an audience. I can scroll on Instagram and find endless pictures – it feels like another photographic library, condensed into tiny digital form.

I find a parallel between the Courtauld’s aim of converting older mounted physical photographs into new digital files, and my own aim in compiling this post: to consider the personal photography which now saturates our newsfeeds from family and friends as an accessible new form of artistic expression.

After browsing the Conway library’s many images of London, I went on social media to see how ordinary people today choose to capture the same locations from the collection. As would be expected, the comparisons show how much London has changed. For example, I barely recognised a photo dated 1963-8 of a few gloomy pillars overlooking the Thames, as Instagram is now full of colourful videos and pictures of this space – now the iconic Southbank skate park. In other comparisons, we can also see increased crowds in the background, more modern vehicles, and advanced lighting and technology (particularly prevalent in images of theatres or galleries, or of Oxford Street.)

The comparisons also show changes in what we prioritise in this new medium of photography. Our profiles are intrinsically linked with our identities, so the pictures from social media focus on people to a much greater extent than those from the library. Even if a person isn’t the focal subject of the photo, the image always contains an implicit awareness of the person behind the camera. Unless we post anonymously, no photo is impersonal. What emerges from the pictures in the Conway collection is a series of images of London at a particular time. What emerges in the photos on Instagram is someone experiencing a particular place at the time of posting.

At the same time, however, the impulse to capture and share these London landmarks is felt by both professional and recreational photographers throughout the decades. I spoke to a few Instagram users about their experiences with sharing photography on social media. Responses were varied, but most people shared a feeling that social media has increased, or created, their interest in photography, and inspired them to take pictures of their surroundings. Digitised collections like the Conway library have a similar potential to inspire online viewers.

Charing Cross:

CON_B04110_F002_003

CON_B04110_F002_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset on Charing Cross, taken from Instagram

Image @jaxcov on Instagram.

“There’s so much amazing photography on social media which easily grabs your attention. This definitely made me want to take better photos of my own!”

Thames Barrier: 

View of the Thames Barrier through pillars, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_013. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset on Thames Barrier taken from Instagram

Image @bradleywaller on Instagram.

Sunset view of the Thames Barrier from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_013B. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of sunny thames barrier

Image @sassykirkham on Instagram.

“I take pictures of the street, the sky… basically I take pictures of all around me. I don’t take many pictures of myself.”

Courts of Law:

View of the Law Courts from above, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04089_F003_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Red bus in front of royal courts of justice, taken from instagram.

Image @ambhout on Instagram.

proposed plans of the Courts of Law, dated 1871.

CON_B04089_F003_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

“Social media has made me more interested in photography – it’s hard not to get roped into the constant stream of inspiration. I always wanna try out the things I see online.”

“I have over 4000 pictures on my phone’s camera roll, and probably about 5 times that amount on my computer. I only have physical copies of a tiny fraction of these! I think that’s an exciting thing about my generation: that we have so many images of our lives.”

Kings Cross Station:

View from 2nd floor of the old St Pancras Station. From the Conway Library.

CON_B04089_F001_011. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Sunset over King's Cross station

Image @stefaniegreen0 on Instagram.

Sunset over london's King's cross railway station

Image @stefaniegreen0 on Instagram.

“When I was younger I was highly influenced by likes, but since 3 years ago I don’t really care. I just post photos that I think are cool and interesting.”

“Taking pictures of myself forces me to look into a mirror and find the qualities that I can love.”

National Gallery:

A profile view of the National Gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04092_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of London's National Gallery

Image @kikustralala on Instagram.

“I post what I want, and pay little attention to the likes, follows and comments. When I do look, I find it interesting rather than introverting. In the past I have deleted a photo due to it not getting many likes. But recently I haven’t done that.”

Barbican estate:

Image of the Barbican estate from the Conway Library.

CON_B04266_F005_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Barbican Estate

Image @captainmcnamara on Instagram.

“I love photography in general. But social media has made me love being in front of the camera and behind the camera. I love being part of movements especially for black women like myself. I want to show their beauty through my own photography and myself.”

Image @hhhelss on Instagram.

Trellick Tower:

Image of the Trellick Tower from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of trellick tower from instagram

Image @craig85smith on Instagram.

Full image of the Trellick tower, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F002_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of Trellick Tower from Instagram

Image @ill.diary on Instagram

“I post pictures of my family and friends and things I love.”

Image @valentina___vi on Instagram.

Oxford Street:

London, Oxford Street, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04283_F001_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in Oxford Street

Image @aissis_thatsme on Instagram.

“I both like and dislike that social media has made me take more pictures. I dislike it because when I see something beautiful my first instinct is to take a picture rather than just enjoy it.”

“It has totally changed the way we view photos – the art of capture has become diluted with “clout” chasing.”

Royal Albert Hall: 

Drawing of the Royal Albert Hall, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04096_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of the Royal Albert Hall taken from Instagram

Image @loucatrin106 on Instagram.

Image of the Royal Albert Hall's staircase, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04096_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of instagram user posing in front of the Royal Albert Hall

Image @littleredridingmarika on Instagram.

“I like social media because it feels like I can create my own personal catalogue of things I’ve seen and done. Even without sharing it with other people, I like that I can scroll through and see a highlights reel of memories from my life.”

“I like the idea of capturing my point of view wherever I go and sharing it with the people that I know.”

Southbank:

Image of South Bank Skate Park from Instagram

Image @oriolbech on Instagram.

Contrast view of the part of the Southbank which is now the skatepark, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04286_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image of South Bank Skate Park from Instagram

Image @bernardoberbari on Instagram.

“I like London’s diversity and how it feels like a busy yet congenial place full of all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. I like how despite its size you can still feel like part of a community.”

Tate Modern:

Tate Gallery, Clore Gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @ssphinnx on Instagram.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @ssphinnx on Instagram.

Inside view of the Tate gallery, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04287_F001_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Image taken at the Tate Modern in London, from Instagram

Image @hideaway_vibes on Instagram.

“I like London because it feels like anything could happen at any time.”

Whitehall Cenotaph:

SUnshine view of the Whitehall Cenotaph, from the Conway Library.

CON_B04289_F001_033. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Protest sign reading "Will swap 1 Trump for 100000 refugees" in front of the Cenotaph, White Hall, from Instagram.

Image @dinoboy_89 on Instagram.

“You could take interesting photos anywhere in London.”

“It’s a character. I don’t think there is a part of London that isn’t photogenic.”

 


Ruby Gaffney
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Leonora Monson: The Strand Statues

The life and legacy of British-American sculptor and artist Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) remains a source of divisive and heated debate. Hailed by some as a central yet unappreciated pioneer in 20th-century British sculpture, whilst for others, the invigoratingly “modern” dynamic to his works are the markers of an iconoclast who wreaked havoc on traditional art. He is, therefore, an individual whose work demands sensitive analysis both for its significance in the historical context in which it was born and for its importance in the present day.

In the depths of the Conway Library, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, exist a series of photographs that encapsulate these divided opinions which shaped Epstein’s life as well as his artistic legacy. The photographs are of Epstein’s eighteen nude statues installed on the facade of the British Medical Association (BMA) headquarters on the Strand in London in 1908. These were depictions of archetypal subjects including, among others, primal energy, academic research, maternity, infancy and Hygieia. The statues provoked considerable controversy for their supposed indecency, they were condemned by several religious figures as overtly sexualised and morally obscene, and their appearance labelled by others as ugly and deformed, leading to campaigns for the BMA to have them removed.

After a sustained public defamation campaign led by The Evening Standard and St James Gazette, despite the BMA’s support for maintaining the statues, in 1937 the mutilation of the figures went ahead after an incident led to their designation as a danger to pedestrians. All protruding sections of the figures – including faces, shoulders, genitalia, legs, arms, and feet – were chiselled away and the statues left in the largely mutilated form that we see them today at Zimbabwe House, formerly the BMA building.

Side by side images of the statues before and after dilapidation.

Left: The statues in situ on the Strand before 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_009). Right: The same statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_020). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It is hard to comprehend that a collection of sculptures that faced such intense public scrutiny and uproar at its conception, now quietly exists, often unnoticed by pedestrians on one of the busiest streets in London. I am one such guilty Londoner, having walked down the Strand on a regular basis yet ignorant of these statues and their significance, until my time on the Digitisation Programme at the Courtauld.

Side by side images of the building before and after dilapidation.

Left: View of the BMA building on the corner of the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_005). Right: The statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_006). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The Courtauld’s collection of photographs provide a unique insight into the lifespan of the statues. The collection includes black and white photographs of casts of the statues rejected in Epstein’s initial proposal to the BMA along with those that were accepted, the statues in situ before and after their mutilation in 1937 and surviving individual fragments. Particularly thought-provoking are the Courtauld’s photographs of the nudes of a young woman posing as Maternity; an old woman cradling a baby, depicting Infancy; and Matter, represented by a man grasping a rock marked with the outline of a foetus. To me, Epstein was remarkably sensitive in his depiction of the tenderness of human relationships across the boundaries of age and gender, whilst impressive in his candid approach to the changing physical form of the human body. Indeed, his sculptural depiction of the physically changing form of the female body across different stages in life, be it age or after pregnancy, is a breath of fresh air on a street now filled with billboards boasting a narrow ideal of what “femininity” should look like.

Whilst all such statues remain physically in situ, the depictions of children, be it the foetus in “Matter” or the new-born in “Infancy”, were physically removed from their original and complete sculptural form. The authorities were making it clear: Epstein in his candid depiction of the naked human body was threatening Edwardian sensibilities regarding the sanctity of motherhood and purity of childhood. The old woman’s sagging breasts and withered flesh, and the man’s full-frontal nakedness, were central in the early-20th-century campaign against the figures, whilst they equally informed public perception of Epstein’s subsequent projects. The rest of his career was tainted with the persistent criticism that his sculptures dangerously challenged contemporary ideals surrounding beauty and sexual propriety.

The Conway Library also contains photographs of alternative casts in Epstein’s workshop that were later destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1908, including a nude of a woman holding a leaf, posing as Nature. Her open stance and unashamed nakedness were evidently seen as too shocking in the initial choice of statues to be erected on the Strand. Through the images in the Library we gain an insight into the logic behind the initial choice of figures chosen, supposedly more appropriate than several of their workshop contemporaries, and crucial photographic evidence of physical casts that no longer exist.

Side by side images of two of the statues before dilapidation.

Left: “Maternity” in situ on the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_044). Right: Cast for “Nature” destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1907 (CON_B07186_F003_054). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We can, however, see the vandalism of the “Strand Statues” as a somewhat pyrrhic victory for Epstein’s critics. Epstein’s now mutilated figures remain in situ in the heart of Central London, a powerful visual manifestation of the historic constraints placed on artistic freedom whilst also a reminder that a work of art should be understood beyond the aesthetic value attached to it in its initial finished form. The photographs in the Courtauld archives also reveal the subsequent story of the fragments removed in 1937 and the efforts of individuals to ensure that they remained an important part of the narrative surrounding the impact of contemporary sensibilities on artistic practice. Several of the photographs are of fragments following their removal from the Strand site and after an extensive cleaning programme at the National Gallery of Canada in 1961. These fragments now exist in an international museum in which their stories can be told to a global audience.

Side by side images of a statue before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: “Infancy” in situ, prior to 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_060). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Infancy” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_064). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Side by side images of a Epstein next to one of the statues before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: A model for “Matter” in Epstein’s workshop (CON_B07186_F003_050). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Matter” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_067). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The diversifying platforms and subsequently expanding audience to which photographic illustration to the story of the “Strand Statues” can be accessed has been enhanced immeasurably by the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme. The programme aims to provide an expansive online archive through which a variety of audiences will be able to access and study the Courtauld photographic libraries for themselves, including the images of the “Strand Statues”. It is indeed timely that one of the main criticisms of Epstein’s figures was that they were not confined to a museum or art gallery where those with suitable artistic and moral sensibilities could engage with these works of art appropriately. Their location on a main street for anyone and everyone to see was viewed as a dangerous threat to established Edwardian perceptions regarding who could truly comprehend art. On Friday 26th June 1908, The South London Press reported the complaints levelled against the statues by Fr. Bernard Vaughan to a gathering of Catholics in South London. His outrage was based upon fury at the laxity of the authorities in their initial decision to “thrust these statues upon their public highways” rather than dictating an exclusive location and subsequent audience to which such statues were accessible. Such an audience was defined as those with the suitable “artistic temperament” to be trusted to recognise the dangerous dynamic inherent in these sculptures and respond accordingly. Such statuary, he argued should be confined to “art galleries and museums, or where people had to go out of their way to find it.” In light of the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme, I wonder what Fr. Bernard Vaughan would be thinking now?


Leonora Monson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Mia Gainsford: Utopia or Incubator? Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation as Photographed by Lucien Hervé

La maison du fada, or rather “the madman’s house”, is the colloquial name given to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles. The name arouses intrigue and renders the project a diversion. It has a childish appeal, like the building itself, which jumps out of its surroundings and sings colour from its windows.

Image in colour of housing project

CON_B04326_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

L’Unité d’Habitation was Le Corbusier’s attempt at a utopia. Completed in 1952, it was an architectural project which sought to heal the wounds of post-war Marseilles and incubate the next generation. In photographing Le Corbusier’s housing project, Lucien Hervé made children his focus. However, it is important to stress just how rare human subjects are, of any age, in architectural photography; if people are photographed, they are photographed with a purpose. Thus, in Hervé’s photography it is important to ask whether the focus of children intends to enhance the optimism of Le Corbusier’s architectural utopia, employing them as a symbol of hope, or if instead, they are chosen as subjects susceptible to the “madman’s” diverting.

Young girl pushing on the door

CON_B04326_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In discovering Hervé’s photographs amongst the Courtauld’s Conway archive and participating in the broader volunteering scheme, I could not help but reflect upon the act of labelling and giving something a name. Each image has its own code which refers to its box, folder and then place in a sequence. This act of labelling creates its own narrative; the code tells the wider story of the Courtauld’s efforts to organise and digitise the Conway photographs with the help of hundreds of volunteers, and in this, humanise the archive too.

Although this narrative is of a second order to the narrative of the photographs themselves, the Courtauld’s emphasis on retaining the physicality of the photographs, from the fibre of the brown paper they are mounted upon to the spidery annotations around an image, means that no narrative is prioritised over another. The Courtauld is striving to aggrandise the photograph’s status as object, rather than objectifying an image completely on the institute’s own terms and erasing its history. The Conway digitisation project honours how an image has been objectified in the past, and with this, creates a layering of meaning and proffers a plethora of stories which frustrates the idea that labelling is an industrial process and therefore a reductive or homogenising way to treat the photos.

In the Marseillaises’s nicknaming of Le Corbusier’s work “the madman’s house”, we see a similar supplementing and creation of narrative to that of the Courtauld. However, here the name personifies the housing project, rather than objectifying it by commenting on its physical form, like its other name “the Radiant City” does. This character of the “madman” disrupts Le Corbusier’s naïve, attempted narrative of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia. The invocation of madness becomes confusingly human. We can imagine this mythologised figure in the same vein as Carroll’s Mad Hatter, dancing with joy and performing his hospitality, but if “madman” is to be taken more literally, he becomes a victim of the trauma of war too, a man haunted by the contemporaneous austerity, as well as the past, and still suffering below his colourful pretence. Le Corbusier saw L’Unité d’Habitation as a remedy to «les maladies de villes» but for the Marseillaises, the project, as a person, was still ill.

Black and white image mounted on card of the building's profile.

CON_B04326_F001_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The two narratives of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia, as well as a place of great instability and pretence, are in opposition. The full extent of the connotations which derive from naming a housing development “the madman’s house” unsettles Le Corbusier’s idealistic vision. The colloquial label is more understanding of the history before L’Unité d’Habitation; it is an interaction with the past, which acknowledges the preceding trauma rather than reacting to it like Le Corbusier’s project does. It is this idea of interacting over reacting, and subsequently overwriting a narrative, which founds the Courtauld’s sensitive approach to handling the Conway archive too.

Old Man staring out of window

CON_B04326_F001_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Moreover, as subjects in Hervé’s photography, the children probe at the dual nature of L’Unité d’Habitation. The child’s indiscriminate and unassuming qualities mean that their interactions with the housing project are not marred by history like the adult’s. In Hervé’s work, adults are clearly preoccupied, turning away from the camera and staring listlessly at that which lies outside of the development. However, the children do not remember that which Le Corbusier is trying to forget with L’Unité d’Habitation. By consequence, they simultaneously complement the utopian idea of starting again, but also offer a vulnerability to the photographs, akin to believing that this so-called “unity of living” is the norm.

Children playing in light

CON_B04326_F001_026. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Hervé’s photographs which comprise children chasing each other between shafts of light and shadow come to represent the housing project’s competing aspects of the hopeful and the haunted. To the children, contradiction becomes a game, the light and shade facilitate play, they are suspended in L’Unité d’Habitation’s utopian narrative, creating imagined stories of their own, only related to Le Corbusier’s project through location. Through play, the radiance of the housing project with its floor to ceiling windows is equated to shadows created by the sun overhead. Here, the implications of the two names are not in opposition for the children; the children’s presence in the photographs becomes rehabilitative of competition and divisions in all their forms and thus inform the most pertinent of all the post-war reflections to come from the housing project, that unity can be found anywhere.

In July 2016, Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation project in Marseilles and its other iterations in major cities such as Berlin and Nantes were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. This accolade adds yet another label to Le Corbusier’s work and develops the narrative further. It is Le Corbusier’s utopia which meets the criterion of “providing an outstanding response to certain fundamental architectural and social challenges of the 20th century”, rather than the public’s “madman”. However, again, through Hervé’s photography of children and L’Unité d’Habitation, we see a visual recalibration and simplification of this criterion, as for a child, the project has succeeded if it makes him or her feel safe and content.

Children playing on roof terrace

CON_B04326_F001_050. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I was very moved by the happiness captured in this photograph by Hervé. The mother, who stares directly at the camera playing with her child, bypasses the adults’ preoccupation seen elsewhere in Hervé’s work; she is present in the moment, laughing and diverting the children herself. The skyline in the background creates a heavenly quality to the scene, the community of mothers and children are propelled above their surroundings, no longer contained by their apartments. Whilst the climbing frames themselves, with their abstract shapes and sloping angles, suggest another world entirely. The euphoria of this image becomes unearthly. The children and mothers are in a place together which supersedes the tangibility of Le Corbusier’s utopia and the “madman’s house”. They are genuinely happy and bolstered by a new-found sense of safety and longevity in this contentment. In this image, Hervé recognises that happiness alone is unchartered territory in the wake of the war, before we begin to consider the new spatial sensation of housing projects like Le Corbusier’s.

Ultimately then, Hervé’s work is no more about the children propagating an ideology of hope as it is about them being distracted from the outside world by an eccentric figure who himself, is somewhat afraid of the outside. Rather, I want to say that the photographs centre on a notion of individual transportation, a building of a habitat within above slotting oneself into a pre-packaged utopia. Whilst Le Corbusier’s architecture is certainly instrumental, and credited so in Hervé’s photography, to facilitating the contentment of the children, it only does so on a superficial basis. The children care for the light and shadows created by the huge windows and the paddling pool on the roof terrace, they do not care for, nor have need for the ideology behind their way of life. Children can make themselves happy through the living out of their own narratives, in both times of adversity and security. Furthermore, as with the Conway archive, narratives surpass labels in their power to evoke real emotion, and it is Hervé’s subversion of his own label, “architectural photographer”, which gave way to such touching and thought-provoking responses to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation.

Black and white image of children heading to the roof swimming pool.

CON_B04326_F001_042. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Mia Gainsford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: The Oxen of Laon Cathedral

Laon, a town in North-East France, has an immense and beautiful cathedral on top of a 200-metre hill, the location of the medieval walled town. It is one of the most important examples of early Gothic architecture.

Sixteen life-size statues of oxen look down from the top of the two western towers. As far as I can ascertain, such a number and size of sculpture is unique.

An image of the front facade of the Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral taken in July 2009 on a sunny day. The Cathedral is a pale yellow stone colour on a bright sky blue background.

Notre-Dame de Laon Cathedral in July 2009. Image by Martoss8 [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons.

Medieval scholars mention them as an afterthought in their analysis of the cathedral’s architecture and history of development. Laon tourist web sites start with them, as if to say, hey, come to Laon and see the cows in the sky!

There is no documentation to explain the oxen’s presence. Local custom explains that they recognise the importance of oxen in the building of the cathedral, given it’s on top of a high steep hill. Leading on from this, folklore tells of an ox dying of exhaustion as it climbed the hill. The carter, desperate to get his load to the building site, was amazed when another ox appeared from nowhere, helped pull the load to the top, then disappeared before the carter could decide what to do with it. Another variation believes that the cart contained holy relics, and the appearance of the ox an act of God. The statues, therefore, record the miracle of oxen appearing out of thin air.

Putting aside the miracle option, the basic folklore is not immediately convincing:

  • People used oxen throughout the medieval world as their standard beast of burden, and continued to rely on them until the advent of 19th-century industrialisation, yet they appear only rarely in medieval sculpture.
  • As Laon’s location is high up on a steep hill, teams of oxen must have been a continuous daily feature as they must have been used to deliver supplies. However, many other towns and cities were located strategically on hilltops, but there is no evidence that inhabitants felt the need to record their reliance on the ox.
  • The oxen did not need to transport stone, as this came from the limestone covering the plateau of the hilltop.
  • If, however, the scale of the Laon climb was unusually severe, it does not explain why it was necessary to have as many as sixteen sculptures.
A second image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_027. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

As there is no firm evidence for their placement, medieval scholars simply acknowledge their existence, record the folklore and may make brief reference to the miracle story. My understanding is that it is not considered proper scholarship to speculate on secular sculpture and carving. This is understandable, so I have attempted to consider what circumstantial evidence may be available to indicate why the oxen are there:

  • They may be the medieval equivalent of a vanity project. Cathedral construction was funded only in part by the church and the crown. Most funding was raised from the local townspeople, creating tensions with the clergy, and delays in building when funds were exhausted. Laon was built in 5 protracted phases, completing in 1230. Laon is surrounded by a huge flat plain, which in the Middle Ages was given to arable farming and vineyards. The farms would have used oxen extensively for ploughing and haulage. There may have been such a deep affection for the animal, that a wealthy landowner decided to provide funding to immortalise them in stone.
  • Certainly, paintings of livestock became popular in subsequent centuries. It is known that the 17th-century Dutch painter, Aelbert Cuyp, was successful in selling his paintings of cows to a European market and to British landowners in particular.
  • Medieval Laon was a major regional centre and popular with the French monarchy. The Carolingian and Capetian kings used it as their base in North East France. They may have also provided funding for the cathedral, although this is unlikely. Nevertheless, I wondered if oxen or bulls (the terms were interchangeable in the Middle Ages) were symbols in their heraldry, but can find nothing.
  • The numbers of animals may be significant, in that medieval ox teams consisted of multiples of two up to a maximum of eight. So, each tower could represent one full team, potentially the size required to make the climb to Laon.
  • One commentary suggests that they are not all oxen, but a mix of animals real and imagined. The photographs show they all seem to be wearing a harness, and although many have lost their horns and ears, they all look broadly the same.

All of the above is, of course, more speculation than circumstantial evidence, so I am not going to make it as a medievalist with this essay. I have considered the influences of the local economy, the town’s geography, the cathedral’s funding, the presence of the monarchy, and would be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on other angles to consider, or if they are aware of similar sculpture elsewhere.

Perhaps the final word should come from WW Clark, author of Laon Cathedral Architecture (1983), who argued that the use of sculpture reached an unprecedented richness in Laon:

Their precise meaning remains elusive… they can be understood compositionally as the final accents in a design that integrates sculpture, both formally and iconographically, as inseparable constituent elements, beginning with the detail of the three portals.

Meanwhile, I may well feel the need to go and see them for myself.

Image of a black and white photograph mounted on cardboard. The photograph shows a detail of the oxen coming through the arches.

CON_B01651_F002_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

 

References:

  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 1 by WW Clark and R King
  • Laon Cathedral Architecture 2: The aesthetics of Space, Plan and Structure
    by WW Clark
  • The Ox in the Middle Ages by John H Moore Article in Agricultural History journal No 35 1961

Muny Morgan: Photographic Memories of Ravello, Italy

Having volunteered on the digitisation project at the Courtauld for two years in April (can’t believe it!) I always had my eye on the Italian section of the Conway collection. We process the boxes the order they appear on the shelf, which is alphabetical, so I knew it would take us a while to get to Italy.

I was so delighted on a recent shift when I had been asked to brief a new fellow volunteer on the accessioning task. We walked down to the Italian section of the library and, much to my delight, the next folder to sort was Ravello! I felt like I had won the lottery – though I’m not familiar with that feeling!

This stunning, magical, charming, quiet little town, for those of you who don’t know, sits 365m above the Tyrrhenian sea on the magnificent Amalfi coast, away from the bustling tourist havens of Sorrento and Positano, and has a very special place in my heart. I went there on my first holiday with my now husband and we loved it so much we initially planned to have our wedding in Villa Cimbrone, known as the terrace of infinity, though it didn’t happen in the end, as it was too complicated logistically.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I have to say that at first, apart from the odd Kersting image, I didn’t think that the box had captured the beauty and magnificence of this place.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

When I got home after my shift that morning I had a look at my photos to compare them to some of the places I recognised in the archive collection. I thought we had stacks (as we do now when we go on holiday with our children and with the less selective use of our digital cameras) but we didn’t. At the time we visited, digital cameras were not so affordably available and I also much preferred my SLR.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F006_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It made me wonder: had all my visual memories of this town been imprinted in my mind? Is the mind the best place to record our most enjoyable and visually memorable experiences, rather than on photographic paper or as a digital file stored on our computer? When I explored this idea and thought about all my travels abroad, I realized that the most memorable places and times in my experience do not have an extensive photographic record.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F001_008. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Perhaps I am romanticising my memories of this special place. But I can vividly recall the quiet glamour of the Villa Cimbrone, and the Ravello Festival concert in the grounds of Villa Rufolo that we happened upon as we made our way along the small winding streets with dramatic views of hilltop houses and the beautiful coastline to the Hotel Parsifal, the converted convent where we were to stay. And I can’t help but imagine that my experiences were similar to those of Escher, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Woolf, Robert Wagner and Jacqueline Kennedy and other famous visitors who have come here seeking inspiration.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_023. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We always said we would return to this charming, magical place, but it would have to be for a very special occasion indeed to experience it all over again and alter the memories we have.

Ravello. CON_B03049_F005_018. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Muny Morgan
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Sarah Way: Interpreting the Conway with BeyondAutism

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

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

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

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

BeyondAutism students and teachers creating the artwork

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

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

Courtauld Digitisation staff and interns getting involved in the creative process

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

A tactile approach to our image collection

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

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

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

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

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

The finished works at the close of day

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

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

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 1

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

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 2

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

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 3

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

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 4

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

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 5


Sarah Way
Courtauld Connects Volunteer Manager

Ruixian Zhang: 18th Century China Under the Pen of William Alexander – an Amazing Journey Following the British Embassy

In 1792, William Alexander, a British artist born in Maidstone, Kent, was chosen to accompany Lord Macartney’s embassy to China as a junior draughtsman at the age of 25. Very few of his works dating from before this journey are known, so it is likely that this was Alexander’s first proper commission and it is known as the first ever British diplomatic mission to China.

The goal was to meet Qianlong Emperor to relax the restriction on British merchants’ trade port in China due to the growing demand for tea and other Chinese products like porcelain and silk and introduce new British products to Chinese market, further to get new ports and a small island. They also tried to promote a direct line of communication between the two governments by establishing a permanent embassy in Beijing. It can be seen that the embassy did an elaborate preparation by providing gifts with superior quality including clocks, telescopes, weapons, textiles, and other products of technology, intending to reflect Britain’s national character of ingenuity, exploration, and curiosity about the natural world.

 

May – June 1793, Vietnam

According to the Witt Library’s collection and online records, there are a couple of Alexander’s drawings of people he met at today’s Turon Bay in Vietnam, where the embassy resided during May – June 1793 before the landing in China.

“Mandarin with Pipe Bearer” in Tourane Bay.

“Natives of Cochinchina Playing a Shuttlecock”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19 – 23 June 1793, Macau

After a total of nearly 10-month voyage starting from Portsmouth, England, the full squadron finally arrived at Macau, China on 19 June 1793. There, the embassy disembarked to meet with officials of the East India Company. As they carried many large, precious items that might be damaged if taken overland, they got permission from the emperor to change route to the closest port of Tianjin instead of the official port of Guangdong. On June 23rd, the embassy got to continue by sea to the northeast to meet Emperor Qianlong – the goal of this journey.

“Portrait of the Purveyor to Lord Macartney’s Embassy”, Macau.

Map: Macau to Beijing to Chengde

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21 August 1793, Beijing

Through one of the western gates, the Ping-tze Gate, they entered Beijing on August 21st. “Our arrival was announced by the firing of guns and refreshments were made ready for all the gentlemen, at a resting place within the gate…” (Authentic Account, vol.2, p.116, Staunton).

Pingze Men

 

August 1793, Beijing

On August 25th, four days after their arrival in Beijing, Alexander seemed to be attracted by a building in front of him – the Audience Hall, main hall of the Old Summer Palace (Yuan-ming Yuan) – as his journal says: “Before this magnificent building is a platform of granite on which are four large urns of brass. They are handsomely ornamented and used for burning perfumes when the Emperor is present. The Cornice of the Hall on the outside is very rich being gilt and coloured red and green in a very splendid manner. The front and sides have narrow folding doors from bottom to the top any of which can be opened for the admission of air…”

“A Front View of the Audience Hall at Yuan-ming Yuan”

“A View in the Gardens of the Imperial Palace at Pekin”

 

It was there that the gifts brought by the embassy were stored amongst other tribute items. Two members of the embassy were responsible for assembling and arranging the gifts. The most important item, the planetarium, was so complex that it took 18 days to assemble.

The Old Summer Palace (Yuan-ming Yuan), widely perceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design, was devastated by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860 – it was so large that it took 4000 men three days of burning to destroy it. The reason for this destruction remains highly controversial today. What is known is that it consisted of extensive collection of gardens, numerous art and historical treasures of China, Europe, Tibet and Mongolia and its former splendour can be seen from the stolen sculptures, porcelain, jade, silk robes, elaborate textiles, gold objects now in 47 museums around the world and the ruins in Beijing.

 

2 September 1793, Departure from Beijing

Since it was autumn, Qianlong was leading a ritual hunting expedition north of the Great Wall at Jehol (today’s Chengde), an inherited tradition from his grandfather.

Great Wall of China

Having left behind the planetarium and other gifts at the Old Summer Palace, about seventy members of the mission, among them forty soldiers, departed Beijing on September 2nd, heading north towards Jehol. The group crossed the Great Wall of China, where they were greeted by ceremonial gunfire and several companies of troops of the Qing military. They made a survey of the Great Wall’s fortifications, thereby contributing to the intelligence-gathering aspect of the mission, though at the expense of arousing suspicion among their Chinese hosts. Some of the men, meanwhile, took bricks from the Wall as souvenirs.

 

14 September 1793, Chengde

The Emperor of China “Approaching His Tent in Tartary to Receive the British Ambassador, Lord Macartney”

This drawing above shows the meeting taking place on 14 September 1793, in the imperial park at Jehol. The ceremony was to be held in the imperial tent, a large yellow yurt which contained the emperor’s throne at the centre of a raised platform. Several thousand attendees were present, including other foreign visitors, the viceroy and the emperor’s son, the future Jiaqing Emperor. “The Emperor soon appeared from behind a high and perpendicular mountain, skirted with trees as if from a sacred grove, preceded by a number of persons busied in proclaiming aloud his virtues and his power…” (Authentic Account, vol. 2, p. 229, Staunton)  Macartney entered the tent along with George and Thomas Staunton, and their Chinese interpreter. The others waited outside.

“Ch’ien Lung Presenting a Purse to George Thomas Staunton Inside the Imperial Tent at Jehol”

Macartney stepped up to the platform first, kneeling once, exchanging gifts with Qianlong and presenting King George III’s letter. He was followed by George Staunton, and finally Thomas Staunton. As Thomas had studied the Chinese language, the Qianlong Emperor beckoned him to speak a few words. The British were followed by other envoys, about whom little is written. A banquet was then held to conclude the day’s events. The British were seated on the emperor’s left, in the most prestigious position.

However, it made one wonder why it depicted the figure of Thomas Staunton so small. In my opinion, the emperor, who appeared imposing and arrogant, was in fact fearful and worried and wanted to disguise this in the embassy. In his early years, Qianlong was known for his attractive and affable personality, his long reign (he was one of the longest-reigning rulers in the history of the world) reached the most splendid and prosperous era in the Qing Empire, boasting an extremely large population and economy and having completed military campaigns which had expanded the dynastic territory to the largest extent. However, by 1793 he was spoiled with power and glory, disillusioned and complacent in his reign, the court was full of corruption and the civil society was stagnating. The outcome was that in the letter he gave Macartney for the British king he said “This also is a flagrant infringement of the usage of my Empire and cannot possibly be entertained.” And even used the word “barbarian” to foreign merchants. His old and crazy belief that China was still the “central kingdom” informed his refusal to take on the British advancements in science and technology, impeding China’s journey to modernization. However, under this arrogant appearance is his concern for the safety of his country, for the internal unrest and the transformations of Chinese society that might result from unrestricted foreign access. The huge ship of China was too large to change her heading.

The letter was an excuse and Qianlong had sensed an unavoidable conflict between the two nations. Even though later Qianlong placated the British with unspecified promises in order to avoid military conflicts, the big unbalanced trade difference then led to British traders’ smuggling large quantities of opium to southern China, causing a national addiction crisis and resulting in the Opium War, which compromised China’s sovereignty and economic power for almost a century. The huge but fragile ship dashed to pieces 50 years later.

It is surprising to me that there is a large number of people in Alexander’s drawing who are smoking tobacco with a long pipe which forms a clue for the popularity of the product of opium in China years later, thus the wars. The people depicted are of smoking regardless of their gender, class or even age. “I imagine smoking to be more practiced in China than any other part of the world…” Alexander said.

 

 

September 1793, The Journey Forward                

Though some contemporaries of Alexander were able to visit China, none could venture far inland due to the restriction to certain trading ports. After his return and the publishing of his work in the early 19th century, China became an extremely strong inspiration in British art and design, one particularly noteworthy example being the interior design of the Royal Pavilion. This fascination owes much to the new, reliable and exciting glimpses into Chinese landscape, architecture, people and art that Alexander provided like no artist before. Alexander shaped the West’s image of this far away country.

 

13 October 1793, Tianjin

“The Temporary Pavilion Erected for the Landing of the Embassador”

Map: Chengde to Tianjin

The building was constructed by order of the chief Mandarin of the city for the purpose of complimenting the ambassador and entertaining him and his suite with refreshments. “…The entertainment consisted of a profusion of poultry, confectionary, fresh fruits, preserves and jars of wine…”

 

4 November 1793, the Golden Island in the Yangtze River

“In crossing the river our attention was directed to an island situated in the middle of the river, called Chin-shan, or the Golden Mountain, which rose almost perpendicularly out of the river and is interspersed with gardens and pleasure houses. Art and nature seemed to have combined to give this spot the appearance of enchantment…” There was a beautiful legend which was transformed into a very popular Chinese opera “Legend of the White Snake”.

“The Golden Island in the Yang-tse-kiang”

Map: Tianjin to the GoldenIsland

 

7 November 1793,  Suzhou

On November 7th, the embassy reached Suzhou where the combination of boats and bustling figures stuck an immediate chord on Alexander’s mind: “At 2 pm arrived at the famous and flourishing city of Suzhou… many houses project over the canal reminding me of Canaletto’s views in Venice.” It was so crowded here that it took them 3 hours to pass before reaching the city, which perhaps left enough time for Alexander to depict everything in such detail. He had even included himself sketching (circled in blue). If you compare the small figure of himself to the whole picture you can better understand the vastness of the scene.

“On the River at Suchow”

Map: Suzhou

 

16 November 1793, Hangzhou

“Economy of Time and Labour Exemplified in a Chinese Waterman at Han-Choo-Foo”

Map: Hangzhou and departure

 

This drawing is particularly delightful to me. Alexander seems interested in how this waterman is sailing his boat: “The waterman was uncommonly expert, and it was not unusual to see a large boat entirely managed by one man, who rowed, sailed, steered and smoked his pipe at the same time.”

 

References:

《中国近代史》蒋廷黻

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macartney_Embassy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qianlong_Emperor#Macartney_Embassy

http://www.china.org.cn/china/2015-01/30/content_34686142.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_Wars

https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2016/09/01/shaping-an-image-of-china-in-the-west-william-alexander-1767-1816/

 


Ruixian Zhang
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Placement