Alessandro Torresi: Wanderers / wonderers through the Roman night

At night, when people fall asleep, the city wakes up and starts to live. And this is particularly true for Roma. There is something mystical about this eternal city which seems to transcend the reality we live in. Only at night, when the streets get empty and there are no tourists wandering through the narrow alleys and hidden corners of the city, you can truly feel what it means to say: “I am in Rome”.

Roma is a protective mother who guides us from street to street, ancient palace to ancient palace, in a perpetual quest to understand the essence of our fragmented life. And as we walk, we might notice lonely and adventurous wanderers who are stuck in the same quest. And as we pass each other, we feel our nostalgia growing, even if we don’t know why. It is like we are aware that we are missing something in our lives, or that we can never fully have it: but the melancholy caused by a lack of love, success, or happiness is heartened by the warm arms of Roma.

Roma is a protective mother who cannot be fully understood. You feel loved, you feel protected, but you cannot fully understand why. You just know that you must keep walking and you must keep passing people by. Roma is unreachable, because thousands of years of history are shown off with pride every inch of the city, but you constantly sense a decadent presence that confers to the city a folksy halo.

Roma embodies the ‘Cabiria’ character in Fellini’s “White Sheik”. When the bourgeois character Ivan is sitting at night in an empty square, crying because his wife has snuck off to meet her soap opera idol, he is the lonely vagabond who’s oppressed by social conventions. And when he is lost for words, in despair, the prostitute Cabiria suddenly appears, whose only way to show love and support is by making jokes and by keeping things light. Cabiria and her friend Assunta look at the pictures of Ivan’s wife, making silly but loving comments, raising Ivan’s spirit up. Roma, as Cabiria, will never take you seriously, but it will always make you feel comforted and at home.

A still taken from “The White Sheik” where an open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

A still taken from “The White Sheik”, 1952. An open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

I become that adventurous wonderer every time I have the occasion to visit Roma. Coming from a very small village located in Southern Italy, I have cultivated, since I was a child, a fascination for Roma. The capital was just a four-hour drive from my village, but my family and I were not used to travelling a lot. So, when we visited our cousins in the city it almost felt like we were travelling to the other side of the world. Roma was on the national newscast every day; Roma was the place where my fellow countrymen were going to try their luck to find a job; and Roma was the city where my older cousin was attending University. There is a very special unsaid tradition in my family that tells you that every time you leave the village, you have to wave goodbye to every relatives’ home. And I remember those moments, when my cousin had to return to Roma, as heart-breaking and painful, feeding my view of the capital as “The” destination with no return. Even today, although travelling has become a more common thing for me to do, when I visit Roma, I feel in the same way I used to feel when I was a child.

Last August, for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my family and I decided to take a two-day trip and there couldn’t be any other destination but Roma. We arrived in the late afternoon and we were supposed to leave the following day after lunch, so we had just one night. I was really looking forward to walking through the city centre when I could have spent some time really enjoying the empty city.

It was 3 am. While my parents and my brother embarked on the impossible mission to find an open ice-cream parlour, I ventured to walk around Piazza di Spagna. I climbed the iconic Trinità dei Monti steps and, reaching the top, I was dazzled by the view: the city enlightened by hundreds of tiny yellow lanterns. It reminded me why I love Roma so much. You can get bewildered by the grandeur of the architecture, but you never feel uneasy.

On the way to re-join my family, I suddenly felt observed by two stone hollow eyes. It was like being trapped in one of those oneiric scenes of Fellini’s movies. The city was alive, and it was peering at me. I instantly remembered when I visited the Cinecittà film studios for the first time and I got hypnotized by the majesty of the Casanova’s Venusia. This massive sculpture of a crowned head, which had been made for the opening scene of the movie directed by Fellini in 1976, now stands at the entrance of the historical studios. The hollow eyes that confronted me that night were, in fact, just the entrance of the Hertziana Library of Zuccari Palace, one of the largest History of Art research sites in Europe, but I really had the impression that the huge mouth of the creature was a magical portal to enter a parallel Roma. A photograph by Anthony Kersting held in the Conway Library as G19688 captures this strange doorway.

Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari, in Via Gregoriana, Rome. By Anthony F Kersting.

Two furious eyes reveal the entrance of Zuccari Palace, Rome. Photograph by Anthony Kersting, “Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari Via Gregoriana, Rome. KER_PNT_G19688. The Courtauld.

It is funny how an elusive glimpse can take you to impossible places. But this feeling is quite common when you visit this unique labyrinthine city. It is the atypical and the bizarre that transform Roma into a human, into a mother. The intrinsic contradiction between the sacred and profane, between the solemn and familiar is the blend that continues to attract hundreds of wanderers every year. If you arrive alone, you will have the city to keep you company. The towering fountains, the cramped cloisters, the wide arcades, the charming churches are a multitude of faces that will guide you through the city, that ascends to the eternal because every vagabond will leave a peace of their soul that will live the streets forever. And at night, when it’s just you and the city, strange miracles can happen.

Surya Bowyer: 9,763 Red Boxes

Audio version

Read by Christopher Williams.

Text version

 

Minimalist ink drawing showing the figure of a person sitting at a table in the Conway Library, surrounded by red filing boxes.

Illustration by Simba Baylon @simbalenciaga

It begins with a box. Not a large or particularly remarkable box. Similar in size and shape to a foolscap box file. But different: an ever-so-slightly curved spine, a coarse fabric exterior.

Actually, it begins before the box. Walk down a spiral staircase and then along the aisles. Read the spine labels. Pick a box. Take it off its shelf.

Open the box. What’s next? There are two options. Two types of looking.

Option one: place it on a table under a camera.

**

Look at your phone. The blue-yellow light of its screen. Look at an image on it. Where has this come from? When we look at an image on a screen, on a phone, laptop, tablet, we seldom think of its story.

Inside the box: paper folders, held together without glue, with creases and folds and tabs pushed into slits. A tiny structural wonder. Inside each folder, a pile of papers. On each piece of paper, an image.

Officially: The Conway Library contains over one million images: photographs and cuttings of world architecture, architectural drawings and publications, sculpture, ivories, seals, metalwork, manuscript illumination, stained glass, wall paintings, panel paintings and textiles.

Place each image, in turn, on a table, under a camera.

In Sontag’s words: The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning. [1]

In Barthelme’s opening sentence: The captured woman asks if I will take her picture. [2]

In Blake’s lines:

He caught me in his silken net,

         And shut me in his golden cage.

 He loves to sit and hear me sing,

         Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;

Then stretches out my golden wing,

         And mocks my loss of liberty. [3]

Yet something, invariably, escapes. Slips out through the gaps in the cage. And the thing that remains behind bars is not the same as the thing escaped. The camera might capture something of the image, but when you see the resulting photograph, on a phone, laptop, or tablet, something else is not there. Paper to pixel. Physicality foregone. The object’s matter remains at large.

What does it mean to capture – partially – an object? Each morning, you click off the lights. You click on the camera, the computer. Before you have touched a box, you place a piece of thick plastic on the table under the camera. A grid of squares, each a different colour. Whimsically named a Macbeth chart. You’re not sure why. The click of the shutter; the chart flashes up on the computer’s screen.

This photograph on the screen is used (officially) to adjust the colour, the exposure, the saturation. Yet as you adjust these things, readying the apparatus for the task that will follow, it becomes clear that for everything you do capture, you must miss something else. To catch the detail of a dark area, you must expose a lighter expanse. The camera sketches the object on the table under it. The thing on the table is itself a reproduction. A drawing of a drawing of a drawing.

The camera sketches the object on the table under it, but to sketch is to approximate, to decide what to keep. Something, invariably, escapes. Perhaps this is the nature of drawing.

But not all of the red boxes are ready for this yet.

**

Minimalist ink drawing of two persons sitting at a table sorting and labelling the contents of red filing boxes.

Illustration by Simba Baylon @simbalenciaga

Officially: There are 9,763 boxes in the Conway Library. Inside the boxes the items are divided into folders. A folder can correspond to a town, a building, a section of a building, or smaller features. Folders are sorted alphabetically within each box.

To ready the papers, continue inward. Within each folder, the task (officially): to recreate the experience of moving closer to the building. Option two.

**

A front projection of a building. Below the drawing, a date, 1729, in a scratchy serif, words around it, some capitalised, seemingly at random. The pillars catch my eyes, returning them to the drawing above. I blink.

I am on a path I have not yet walked. It winds forward, manicured grass on either side, trees with undressed boughs. A regal edifice up ahead, the path snakes around it. I blink.

The side of the building, closer. White framed windows, curved at the top, darkness beyond them. Blink.

A doorway, cherubs carved into its lunette. Blink. A geometric marble floor, a carved wood ceiling, space (lots of it) in between. Blink. Another room, smaller, softer, a chaise longue, a fireplace, objet d’arts on the mantel above it. Blink. Two children playing, long strands of ivy encompassing them, carved in dark metal, covering an abyss; on either side, oak leaves, carved in stone; above, the same mantel. Blink.

**

I drag a pencil across a page, charting a path I have not walked. These images – photographs, cuttings – these drawings, with them I create the experience of moving closer to the building.

A caged building. Alike but not one with the other: bricks and mortar and stone and metal that I have not touched. The other which remains at large, and unvisited. With this pile of papers (now ordered) on the table in front of me, I have created a building.

I put the papers back in the folder, the folder back in the box. Close the box. Return the box to its shelf. Pause. Then: It begins, again, with a box.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Anchor Books, 1977), p. 55.

[2] Donald Barthelme, “The Captured Woman”, in Sixty Stories (Penguin, 2003), p. 280.

[3] William Blake, “Song: How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field”.

 


Surya Bowyer
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
https://twitter.com/suryabowyer

Illustrations by Simba Baylon
https://www.instagram.com/simbalenciaga/ 

 

Brittany Ellis: “North Iraq A Yezidi Girl” – Memory and Forgetting in the Kersting Photographic Archive

Audio Version

Text Version

AF Kersting black and white print.

“North Iraq, A Yezidi Girl,” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

I don’t know her name. I don’t know the name of the young woman who stares out at me from the photograph I hold by its slightly curved edges. I’ve stared at this photograph for days, coming back to it and to her. She is elaborately dressed, wearing beaded necklaces with big metal pendants piled in great layers around her neck.

Her hair is mostly wound up in a headscarf but pieces have come loose and fall around her face. It’s her face that lingers in my memory. Large dark eyes, serious expression, black lines and dots punctuating her skin. With one hand she holds a woman partially cut off by the framing of the photograph. Her mother? A friend?

I flip the glossy photograph over, hoping for more insight. “NORTH IRAQ A YEZIDI GIRL” in pencil at the top of the page. A set of numbers that has been crossed out, another set written below. F48-51. F11-57. And then an address, A.F. Kersting, 37 Frewin Road, London. S.W.18. But no name, no clue to who she was or how she came to be photographed – her image now kept in a bulging stack of similar glossy black and white images in a pale blue box on a shelf of similar pale blue boxes in a chilly London basement library.

The pale blue boxes containing thousands of photographs, together with boxes of negatives and tattered hand-written ledger books, form the archive of the English photographer Anthony Kersting (1916–2008), which now resides in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute.

Since its entrance into the library’s collection, Kersting’s work has fascinated many, as evidenced by the blog posts from other digitisation interns who have been caught up in the ongoing endeavor of trying to make sense of these enigmatic images and their enigmatic creator. The majority of Kersting’s images reflect his career as a photographer of architectural sites in Britain and abroad, but there is a smaller set of pale blue boxes that contain piles of pictures of people.

These unexpected images come largely from Kersting’s trips to Transjordan, Iraq, and Iran in the 1940s. Tom Bilson, the Head of Digital Media at the Courtauld and Kersting’s biographer, emphasized how surprising these images of people, festivals, and daily life are in relation to Kersting’s broader corpus, where people are usually entirely eliminated from his shots.

Author’s photograph of a box of Anthony Kersting’s prints in the Conway Library

I have spent my brief stint at the Courtauld immersed in these images of people, partly because of my own research interests in visual culture and the Middle East but also because these images unsettle me with their unknowns. I have spent the week asking questions of them. I’ve received only fragmented whispers.

Approaching the Archive

I am an anthropologist and an archaeologist with a particular interest in museums and material objects – the artifacts of the everyday. But I am also captivated by the lines of connection and meaning that extend from objects, connecting, overlapping, and severing as things and people move through space and time.

Unsurprisingly, photographs and archives are like catnip to me. They’re physical things that have been made and shaped by people and institutions over time while also being visual records of places, events, and people. The photographs in the Kersting collection preserve both Kersting and his subjects, albeit only ever in a partial way.

My background leads me to approach these photographs in particular ways, focusing in turn on their histories and contexts, their material properties, and their silences. These multiple approaches complement and complicate each other but cannot ever offer a complete explanation of these images.

The Iran and Iraq Images

I am going to focus specifically on Kersting’s photographs from Iraq and Iran during 1944. From a historical perspective, we know that Kersting visited Iraq in August 1944. A logbook, in which he recorded what and where he photographed, shows that he was in Iraq for at least 11 days beginning in Amadya and Mosul and ending in Baghdad. During this time he photographed people and places in Dohuk, Kirkuk, Hatra, Al Kosh, and Lalish.

The photograph of the Yezidi girl comes from his time in Lalish, when he photographed a Yezidi religious festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi. His photographs show scenes of baptism, dancing and music, and feasting together during the festival. According to the same ledger, Kersting visited Iran for at least 9 days in November and December of the same year. He travelled less widely according to captions on the images and the ledger, spending most of his time in Tehran, Isfahan, Ray, and Delijan.

R.A.F. Nairn Bus, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

There are several copies of a photograph of a large R.A.F. bus against the desert landscape which gives some insight into Kersting’s method of travel. On the back of one of the copies, Kersting has written “Trip to Iran,” while on another, “Modern desert travel. The Nairn bus running between Baghdad and Damascus. When this photograph was taken, the bus was being used by the R.A.F.” As an addendum and in different ink, “The R.A.F. Nairn Bus: Habbanniya to Damascus.”

The different captions are confusing. Was this taken on the route between the R.A.F. base in Habbanniya, Iraq, to Damascus, Syria? Or near Baghdad? Or in Iran? Why was he on a military bus in the first place? Who are the other people – some in uniforms but one in the foreground clearly not – in the image?

Tom Bilson informed me that Kersting was part of the R.A.F. for a period of time, but it is unclear whether he was on military business during these trips to Iraq and Iran. It certainly would not be unusual for an intelligence personnel to use photography as a cover for espionage, particularly in 1944 during WWII in this region, which had experienced the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran and the Anglo-Iraqi War just three years earlier.

This political history is largely absent from Kersting’s images themselves, save for two intriguing photographs taken in Duhok, Iraq. The first is a group of men, some in traditional Iraqi dress and others in suits and even shorts, outside of an unmarked building. On the back Kersting has written:

“Iraq, A group round the M.O.I. reading room in Dahook [sic], a Kurdish town between Amadia and Mosul. Allen, M.O.I. public relations officer in Mosul, who arranged my transport for me, is in the centre of the group. A. F. Kersting. Aug 1944”

Group of men outside of M.O.I. reading room in Duhok, Iraq, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Reverse of the image showing Kersting’s handwritten annotations.

M.O.I. is often used as an acronym for both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Information, though Ministry of Information might be more appropriate here in the context of a reading room. “Allen” is not mentioned in any other images or in Kersting’s ledger.

In a second image, a group of men read magazines and books together, possibly in the mentioned reading room. Arabic and English maps on the rear wall show theaters of war. “War Map of the USA and Japan” reads one.

These photographs obliquely show Kersting’s historical setting and his network of contacts, military and governmental, that made his journeys possible, but they also raise questions about the purpose of Kersting’s trips in the region, which was still an active site of British military negotiation and surveillance.

Viewed today, these photographs are still politically relevant, especially considering the persecution and violence faced by both Kurdish and Yezidi people. Kersting’s photographs highlight visibility and cultural vibrancy, providing a record of these communities’ traditions, longevity, and physical presence.

Unannotated photography of men reading with war maps in the background, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Besides trying to situate these photographs and Kersting himself in a particular historical and political moment, I’ve also tried to approach these images as cultural records. They simultaneously portray different ethnic and national communities and also record Kersting’s own understanding and classifications of these groups.

The images from Iraq, in particular, I think, reflect Kersting’s interest in the communities he met. On the back of a photograph (Image 9) of a Kurdish man, Kersting has written, “Iraq, A typical Kurd, inhabitant of Kurdistan in North Iraq. He wears the typical colored trousers, and carries a rifle, with a band of ammunition round his waist.” He gives some context to the man’s clothing as well as Kurdish people’s geographic presence in Iraq.

The photographs of the Yezidi festival at Sheikh Adi, in particular, are somewhat ethnographic, that is, trying to portray the experiences of people engaged in a specific activity or way of life. They show the smoke from pipes and incense, musicians mid-song, dancers moving together, children running around, mothers carrying children to baptisms. Kersting isn’t just capturing an event but an atmosphere.

“North Iraq, Musicians playing for the Yezidi dance known as the Debka atet eh annual festival at Sheikh Adi. A row of dancers can be seen immediately behind.” Photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Unannotated photograph of Yezidi men at the festival at Sheikh Adi, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

However, like photographs taken and used by anthropologists in the early and mid-twentieth century, Kersting’s photographs and captions are reductive. “A typical Kurd,” “A Yezidi girl,” “Yezidi man,” “A typical Assyrian.” By these captions and categories, Kersting appears more interested in (stereo)types of people rather than specific individuals. Hence the lack of names.

I wonder about Kersting’s interactions with the people he met and photographed. Did Kersting ask to take people’s photographs? Were they excited or made anxious about this? Did they ever see the photographs of themselves? How would they or living relatives feel about these anonymized images sitting in a box in London?

“Iraq, A Typical Kurd…” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

Materiality in the Archive

In addition to being visual images, these photographs are physical objects. They take up space in boxes and shelves. Their curved edges and stains show age and wear and damage over time. They contain the physical marks of Kersting’s pen and pencil, recording the movements of his hands. Some theorists in anthropology have suggested thinking about the biographies of objects – their moments of coming into being, moving through the world, and their eventual “deaths.”

“North Iraq, A Typical Yezidi”, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

A biography of these images provides yet another way of looking at them. We could think about the technologies, materials, and skills required to produce them. Kersting worked with multiple cameras, which would have taken up space and required particular environments to prepare properly. The images would have been rendered on glass plates treated with special chemical solutions. They would have had to be printed onto specific kinds of paper using yet more chemicals to render the image and fix it in place.

After printing, Kersting inscribed them with dates, log numbers, descriptions, copyright stamps, his name and address. And while there are copies of certain images, no two are exactly the same because his descriptions vary. Some copies have additional, intriguing marks from R.A.F. censors or printed marks indicating that the paper is government-issued. What kinds of review processes did these images go through? And why do only some of them show signs of being reviewed or processed by the military?

“Iraq, A Typical Iraqi girl, from the country north of Mosul,” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

It’s intriguing to think about the lifespan of these images. Did Kersting keep them in an album or display them in his home? Were these travel photographs shown off to friends? Were they commissioned by a particular organization? Did he consider them to be documentation of “exotic” people (a term now considered highly problematic but which circulated in popular discourse in his time), personal mementoes, or fine artworks? Why were some printed on glossy paper and others on flat matte paper? These are questions for which we don’t know the answers. But we do know more about these images’ futures.

These images, like the rest of the Conway Library’s photographic and print collections, are in the process of being digitized so that they can be stored and accessed online. The digitization process is an immense one, requiring hundreds of volunteers to help sort, label, photograph, and categorize all the images in the library.

So these photographs will live on in a digital form even after their physical forms degrade. But does our experience of an image change when it becomes pixels and code instead of photographic solution and paper? I can’t have the same experience of handling a photograph and flipping it over in eager anticipation of more information. But rendering high-quality images for a digital collection does make these images more accessible, potentially even allowing their circulation within the communities in Iraq and Iran that they portray.

“Quieter than Silence”

The anthropologist David Zeitlyn describes archives as spaces between memory and forgetting. They’re repositories of information, stories, and moments, but they also can outlive their subjects and makers, becoming ghosts of bygone people and places. Working in archives is extremely gratifying because it provides opportunities for rediscovery but it can also be frustrating as more and more question marks develop. 

The more I look at these photographs through different analytical lenses the more I realize just how much I don’t know and will probably never know about them. Through digitization, crowdsourcing, and circulating the photographs back within their communities of origin certain individuals could potentially be identified, but Kersting’s motivations remain unknown.

Unannotated photograph of Yezidi musicians and attendants of the annual festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944. I am particularly struck by the young men in the bottom left corner who stare curiously into the lens of Kersting’s camera.

The photographs are even more ghostlike and frustrating to me, too, because they emphasize just how much is missing in appreciating the moment or person that is captured. It reminds me of the musical performance Quieter than Silence by Mehdi Aminian and Mohamad Zatari. In their fusion of Syrian and Iranian traditional music and poetry, the two men reflect on friendship, loss, and conflict. They emphasize the pain that comes with knowing that there should be sound or life in a moment but not being able to find it – experiences that seem quieter than silence.

These images seem quieter than silence to me in some ways because these places and people were not still and silent but teeming with movement, noise, color, and life. In the photographs, though, they have been frozen, silenced, detached. I long to reinvest these images with sound, smell, taste, and touch. So as I hold the photograph of the Yezidi girl, I think of her necklaces clinking together. I imagine the textures that surround her, the noise of a celebration, the click of a camera’s shutter closing.


Brittany Ellis

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

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

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Byron, Khaju Bridge, low water. CON_B02478_F001_001.

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

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

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

Robert Byron, high water. CON_B02478_F007_002.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sophie Buckman

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Tallulah Griffith: The Steiner Guide to Steiner – A Mini Waldorf Textbook for the Courtauld

Audio Version

Read by Gill Stoker

Text Version

 

Instructions for use:

If you are accessing this guide online, please note that it is intended to be printed, as Steiner education encourages first-hand engagement. Users of the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art can also find the printed guide in box CON_B04414; the corners have been rounded, in line with Steiner school practice, so that the student can approach from any angle.

THE GUIDE

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian architect, clairvoyant, esotericist and social reformer. Among his projects, he set up the first Waldorf school in 1919, to teach his principles of anthroposophy, a spiritual movement founded on the belief in an observable spiritual realm which interpenetrates the material world. Waldorf schools use a kinaesthetic, action-loaded approach to intellectual subjects, focusing on art, music, and rhythm. No textbooks are used in Steiner’s philosophy; instead, students make their own educational materials, as I have endeavoured to do here.

Extrapolating from Steiner’s elementary school reforms, anthroposophy, and the initiatives of London’s Rudolf Steiner House, I have created a guide for studying the Steiner archive using his own pedagogy. The library box, ref: CON_B04414_F005 & F006, holds early photographs of both Goetheanum buildings, which cannot be understood without Steiner’s spiritual science.

This textbook is intended for students of the Institute, those involved in Courtauld outreach and public engagement programmes, and any prospective students of Steiner.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 001.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 002.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 003.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 004.

Steiner Textbook by Tallulah Griffith, p. 005.


Tallulah Griffith
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: The Oxen of Laon Cathedral

Audio Version

Text Version

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

Jessie Palmer: Anthony Kersting, Canary Wharf, and the Removal of the Fat Cat

Audio Version

Read by David Brown.

Text Version

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 Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Aya Bolt: Finbsury, Lubetkin’s Socialist Utopia

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

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 Oxford Micro-Internship Participant