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

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

Jessie Palmer: AF Kersting, Canary Wharf, and the removal of the fat cat

My key interest for the past year has been in the figure of the “Fat Cat”[1], to which none of the images I was looking at in the Conway Library could give a literal face. Yet, the collection of AF Kersting seemed to offer some light on my desire to continue looking at this select group of people through his record of the Canary Wharf commercial estate in the early 1990s.

“LONDON, CANARY WHARF, The Tower.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_003. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Leafing through the collection of Kersting’s work held by the Conway Library, one begins to form an image of a photographer who scrutinised his subject matter until no question was left for the imagination. There are only four images he took of Canary Wharf and they stand in stark contrast to the rest of the collection, which features a multitude of similar images taken from minutely different angles, recording as much as possible of an object, building or landscape.

Kersting’s photographs show us Canary Wharf in the early 1990s standing at the opposing side of the river, and take us all the way through to the marble halls of the West Ferry Circus property at the most western side of the site. Thirty years old today, these images are outstanding documents of the architecture of Canary Wharf in the early days of its redevelopment. The images place 1 Canada Square high up in the London skyline and relay a reality far from the built-up area we know today. The relationship between Kersting’s habit of not including people in his images of buildings and landscapes, and the current intensive and pedantic control of the site’s media coverage, lends itself to a new conversation about the presentation of the financial industry.

“LONDON, CANARY WHARF, From the River.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Arguably, there is much to glean from an image that documents something that only wants us to see its surface. For example, the empty and flawless nuances of each image reiterate the appearance the financial world wishes to portray to its global audience. The single interior photograph shows a vestibule leading into something of an endless tunnel of infinite reflections, the shuttering of the repetitive architecture rejects our attempt to try and identify ourselves with this alien space of wealth. Similarly the exterior of the Westferry Circus and “The Tower”, (which is referring to 1 Canada Square, the second tallest building at the time of its completion in 1991), suggests, through its scale and uniform appearance, that there are no cracks in its literal physical structure in which to insert ourselves psychologically.

“LONDON, WESTFERRY CIRCUS, CANARY WHARF, The Vestibule.”
AF Kersting
CON_B04268_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In Henrich Wöfflin’s doctoral dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture, 1886)[2], he focuses on the concept of the psychology of aesthetics and suggests that there is an empathy that we have with objects which influences their design. His particular focus is on architecture and its proportions which, he argues, are understood by viewers in relation to their own: humans actively create buildings that correspond to their own physiques. An example he gives is that facades of buildings are the same as human faces.

Kersting’s documentation of these buildings within Canary Wharf rings true to such a proposal. The design exhibits the nature of the clientele who rent these office floors, actively displaying their wealth and desire for privacy. The structures themselves behave not only in alignment with their inhabitants – the city skyline mirroring the companies’ power and international reach – but also with the inaccessible and largely unknown movements of the financial market, which prefers to be left alone to do its job as the largest grossing industry in the UK.

The tone set by these structures is one of distance and exclusivity. Furthermore, the symbolism of these buildings, in particular the success and association that they have with their “starchitects”, has become something of a novel and “must-have” aspect to new developments cropping up across global capitals. 1 Canada Square’s architects, César Pelli & Associates, who also designed the World Financial Centre in New York, only reiterate how these buildings have been made to accommodate and act as a representation of those inhabiting it.

“LONDON, WESTFERRY CIRCUS, CANARY WHARF.” AF Kersting CON_B04268_F003_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

My curiosity wishes to revisit how these images might have been created, particularly when restrictions placed by the owners of Canary Wharf, Canary Wharf Group Plc, are so tightly regulated today. Though we are being given access privileges that might not exist again, the images are largely dictated by Kersting’s style. From behind the lens, he has the ability to crop out the rest of the landscape. Perhaps the photograph from the other side of the river suggests that Canary Wharf has become an island, a disconnected metropolis from the rest of the city? Kersting’s reiteration to his audience of this distance between these developments and the rest of the city becomes an increasingly alarming parallel when one inserts the companies into the offices that tower 50 floors into the sky. I feel a far clearer message relayed, however, is the immense power and money these structures represent. And the way they stand as early symbols of the city against the largely unpopulated docklands of the time.

The faceless nature of the fat cat lets us forget the individuals of the financial machine. It is not necessarily the individuals who see the need to remove themselves but, for example, Canary Wharf Group Plc who is the umbrella voice surrounding the property and enforces film and photography permits. With Kersting’s choice to not include people in the images these photographs only flatten the facade we are presented and, arguably, the face of this industry even more. The flatness compacts and constricts itself even tighter, so that it gives as little information as it possibly can. The flatness of our knowledge is emanated by these buildings’ faces. Its desire to create privacy reflects our image back to ourselves, looking at the light catching on the windows. What else Kersting saw, we will never know. The fat cat wins again.

[1] Fat Cat: If you refer to a businessman or politician as a fat cat, you are indicating that you disapprove of the way they use their wealth and power. www.collinsdictionary.com

[2] Wölfflin, H., 1886. Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, München.

 


Jessie Palmer
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

Aya Bolt: Finbsury, Lubetkin’s Socialist Utopia

The Courtauld Institute of Art’s Conway Library houses an impressive photographic collection of architecture from a vast array of periods and locations. Some of the collection’s earliest photos are dated from the 1850s and these are a mere couple of decades older than the oldest surviving photograph of an image formed in camera. Given the seemingly endless opportunities to do some armchair, or rather office chair, travelling and discover some of the world’s most significant structures (many now destroyed to both war and time), it may perhaps seem strange that one would choose to focus on photographs of twentieth-century British architecture. However, these often under-loved and over-looked buildings have a story of their own to tell. Through this blog post, I hope to offer an exposé of the collaborative work between Finsbury Council and architect Berthold Lubetkin from the inter and post-war period.

Lubetkin’s success in Britain started with the establishment of the architecture firm Tecton. Formed in the 1930s, the firm was an instrumental pioneer in bringing continental modernism to Britain. Whilst some of Tecton’s most iconic builds are London Zoo’s penguin pool and gorilla enclosure, founding architect Lubetkin is, in fact, responsible for some of London’s more recognisable and perhaps infamous landmark social housing. His personal maxim was “nothing is too good for ordinary people!” and he strove to improve the living conditions of the working class. Spa Green Estate was the first of many projects designed to offer luxury features to working class families, including lifts, central heating, electrical and gas appliances, running water, a waste-disposal system, balconies and a laundry-drying roof terrace. The amenities offered far exceeded those enjoyed by the majority of the population at the time.   

Spa Green Estate in Finsbury, EC1, opened in 1949. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Born in what is now Georgia, Lubetkin emigrated to the UK in the early 1930s. His formal training was completed in the USSR at VKhUTEMAS, a state funded art and technical school in Moscow where Lubetkin witnessed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, allegedly from his bedroom window. It was undoubtedly this formation, both creative and political, which led to his neo-constructivist style. Particularly taken with the idea of the “artist engineer” who uses industrial techniques to produce socially useful objects, Lubetkin was committed to socially driven architecture. Arguably, no structure embodies his ideals more than the Finsbury Health Centre. Commissioned by Finsbury council, led by devout socialist Alderman Harold Riley, and backed by the chairman of the public health committee, Dr Chuni Lal Katial, the Finsbury Health Centre marked the dawning of a new era of Public Health Service. Planning and construction began in 1935 and the centre was ready for opening in 1938, a full decade before the advent of Britain’s National Healthcare System.

The Finsbury Health Centre Façade, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

However, the opening of the centre was unfortunate timing as World War Two broke out soon after and the building needed to be protected rather than up and running – although it was used as a bandaging centre for civilian causalities throughout the war. In order to limit damage from bombing, the centre was covered in sandbags, cracking many of the glass bricks in the façade and wings which then needed to be repaired. This cost of this repair work combined with post-war austerity meant that the building’s finishes, such as the plumbing, could not be completed according to Lubetkin’s plans and standards.

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

Plans of the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, featuring a welcoming open-plan layout and a design to let in as much natural light as possible, 1938, Riba Architecture, (DR50/1(1)) and (DR50/1(7))

As the fighting escalated, society was increasingly committed to providing more equality and fairness come peacetime. The ever-growing labour party promised a utopian fantasy of what the future could be, and this was reflected in the modernist architecture of new municipal buildings that councils were erecting. Modernism represented hope and potential, as the poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre by Abram Games highlights. The contrast between the shiny new centre and the derelict slums behind it underline the sub-par living conditions of the working class prior to and during the war. The 1943 poster was purportedly banned by Churchill as he believed that it exaggerated the state the poor in slums were living in (many of whom had fought in the war) and shed a negative light on the conservative party who had been in power for the majority of the twentieth century.

Poster featuring the Finsbury Health Centre, 1943 by Abram Games, Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM PST 2911)

A better quality of life which included good health was being promised to those for whom lack of information, neglect and inaccessibility to health care had been cutting life short.

The mural in the health centre with slogans such as “chest diseases are preventable and curable” create a sense of hope but also illustrate how illnesses that now seem easily treatable were once fatal to many. Come 1948, the NHS looked to the Finsbury Health centre to found many of its ideals as it was upheld as a model structure for the provision of public healthcare. The centre’s aims were to unite the borough’s divided health care services, create a standardised system and provide free health care for all of the borough’s residents. A true testament to the daring vision of early British socialism and Lubetkin’s constructivist design, the Finsbury Health Centre has been awarded Grade 1 listing and thanks to the efforts of the FHC Preservation Trust and NHS Property Services, is still serving patients to this day.

The Finsbury Health Centre Mural by Gordon Cullen, EC1, opened in 1938. The Conway Library. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

 


Aya Bolt
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bust of Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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

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

Studies for Saint Mary Magdalene, Leonardo Da Vinci

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

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

Satyr pouring wine, Jean-Antoine Watteau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Evie Mc.