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

Samuel Cheney: Meeting the Photographer’s Gaze – Absence and Presence in Anthony Kersting’s Images of Nepal

Anthony Kersting (1916–2008) has primarily been remembered as Britain’s pre-eminent architectural photographer of the twentieth century, having extensively documented buildings across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Yet, by delving into a specific collection held in The Courtauld Institute’s vast Conway Library, we can see that it was not just the aesthetic pleasures of great buildings that caught the photographer’s eye. With many human portraits punctuating his architectural studies, Kersting seemingly had as much of a passion for people as he did for architecture. Human interactions with the built environment that surrounded them repeatedly grabbed the photographer’s attention. A look through his photographs of Nepal can show how Kersting attempted to provide an impression of the country by representing both humanity and architectural landscapes in one continuum.

A short trip to Nepal in February 1971 yielded tens of images which show Kersting’s observations of people within their built environment. This image of Durbar Square in the Nepalese city of Lalitpur exemplifies this, as Kersting adopts a distant vantage point to depict the bustle of urban living among the majestic surrounds of Newar architecture.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. Durbar Square, Patan”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08923. CC BY NC.

A more intimate interaction between person and landscape is portrayed in the study of the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple in Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon), north-east of Kathmandu. While the image is dominated by the imposing structure itself, our attention is drawn toward two separate pairs of figures. An adult man and a young girl stride nonchalantly past each other in the foreground, neglecting to look at this impressive building that may have, to them, become quotidian. And, sitting on the temple’s entrance steps, a second girl and a much younger child scrutinise something in between them, blissfully unaware (or so it seems) of the watchful gaze of the photographer’s lens.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. Bhadgaon, Pashupatinath Temple”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08932. CC BY NC.

Alongside depicting the Nepalese architectural landscape, Kersting was clearly also concerned with documenting the people who ubiquitously appear in interaction with their built surroundings. This was highly significant for Kersting’s photographic craft. Through attempting to depict a rounded picture of Nepalese life, both people and architecture become the objects of his urban scene. This objectification depends on a lack of agency, both humans and buildings exist in the photo exclusively as things to be seen. Kersting does not want to interact with these subjects, he only seeks to observe them from the outside. This sustains the supposed authenticity of his scenes – by consciously trying to absent himself from his photographs, Kersting attempts to show how Nepal would appear even if he were not looking. To perpetuate this illusion of being an absent observer, Kersting doesn’t seem to want the individuals in his photographs to appear in interaction with him in any way. Robbed of their ability to act, people regularly become monumentalised in these pictures, just like the buildings that surround them.

This image of a Kathmandu street scene epitomises the usual arrangement of individuals in Kersting’s Nepal collection. The illusion of Kersting’s absence from this scene is maintained by the most prominent figure resisting the temptation to meet the photographer’s gaze. The people who are seemingly unaware of being observed, alongside the carry-poles and market stalls, imbue this snapshot of the Nepalese capital with a flavour of authenticity.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. A street scene in Kathmandu”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_F051-093A. CC BY NC.

However, occasionally Kersting cannot remain hidden in his photographs. In some images, this phantasmagorical English photographer captures the exact moment when various Nepalese people spot his presence. A few photos in the collection show some of Kersting’s subjects meet his gaze, as they stare directly back at his voyeuristic lens. Rather than remaining the disconnected objects of Kersting’s photographic gaze, this disturbs the illusion of Kersting documenting an undisturbed Nepal, as he becomes implicated in the images which he has attempted to remain absent from.

One such image is Kersting’s photograph of the Golden Gate of Bhaktapur. The Nepalese woman guarding the doorway does not act as if unobserved but, shielding her eyes from the sun’s obscuring rays, visibly strains to examine the photographer.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal. The Golden Gate in Bhadgaon”. The Courtauld Institute of Art. KER_PNT_G08929. CC BY NC.

In the centre of the image, an older girl drags her younger companion (perhaps her sister) through the square. While the taller child rushes across the picture frame, as just another object signifying the bustle of a Nepalese city, the smaller girl noticeably slows, struck with curiosity at the imposing figure of Kersting who is capturing her image for posterity. Along with the closest figure, a man who glances back mid-stride to meet the gaze of the cameraman, this girl causes the illusion of Kersting’s absence to shatter. We are left wondering about Kersting’s positioning within this scene, as the sole European standing alone in this central-Himalayan city square, fuelling the interests of the Nepalese people who encircle him. Kersting is similarly implicated in another photo showing the Golden Gate and the adjacent Palace of Fifty-Five Windows. The foregrounding of his architectural scene is suffused with movement. Like his other photographs of Nepalese squares, Kersting attempts to show the rush of everyday life continuing undisturbed by his photographic intrusion. Yet, Kersting actually captures a moment that makes this photograph the most beautiful of all his images of Nepal.

AF Kersting, 1971. “Nepal, Durbar Square, Bhadgaon. Showing the Golden Gate and the Palace of 55 Windows”. KER_PNT_G08918. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Most of the images we have from Kersting’s 1971 trip to Nepal show one side of the photographic process, only exposing the view of the man wielding the camera. However, we should remember that photography is a symbiotic exchange between photographer and subject. Despite his attempts to inculcate the illusion of absence in his photographs, when Kersting looked at the people of Nepal in order to capture their image, the people of Nepal would have looked back at him. Unfortunately, the thoughts of Kersting’s Nepalese subjects are lost, and we are left with only speculations about how these people felt about having their pictures taken or whether they wanted to be photographed at all.

The compositional style of Kersting’s photographs can seduce us into believing that the photographer was a man who wasn’t there. However, by meeting the gaze of our cameraman, Kersting’s Nepalese subjects highlight the photographer’s eternal presence in the images he created.

 


Samuel Cheney
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

 

Sabrina Gardiner: a love affair with Canada

For almost ten years, I have had an intense love affair with Canada. Why exactly I love Canada has always eluded me; maybe it’s the friendliness of the people, or the vastness and natural beauty of its varied landscapes from sea to shining sea, or the numerous films and TV shows that are reeled out every year.

While the entire country inspires me, no other region of Canada inspires me more than the east coast. My dream of visiting Canada was finally realised a couple of years ago, when I visited Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for a week – in the midst of winter. Although the weather was far less than ideal, it did help me discover what life in Canada was really like, away from how I’d imagined it to be in my mind.

CON_B01160_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

During my time at the Courtauld, browsing the Conway Library I discovered some old photos taken around Canada. Although it is a rather young country by political and geographical standards (it only became an independent dominion in 1867, and finally ratified its own constitution in 1982), Canada nevertheless does have a rich history – both socially and architecturally.

These photographs were taken in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, in possibly the 19th century. PEI is very close to Nova Scotia, the province I went to, so I was naturally very attracted to these photos. The province is well known for being the setting of the classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables, about a redheaded orphan girl with braids, Anne Shirley, adopted by a family on PEI. The family originally wanted a boy, but Anne – originally from Nova Scotia – was sent instead as a mistake. The story has enchanted many generations and has been adapted into TV shows and films countless times, including – most recently – a series release with a major online content provider.

CON_B01160_F003_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

As the former capital of New France (Nouvelle-France) and now the capital of Francophone Canada, Quebec is often called the Europe of North America. Its architecture is greatly inspired by Old France, with the castle-esque Chateau Frontenac – now a hotel – majestically overlooking the historic French fortress and the St. Lawrence River with its verdigris domed roof.

Quebec is one of Canada’s largest inland ports, being an important stop along the St. Lawrence River for cargo and passenger ships heading out to the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a pleasure port, as can be seen in this drawing, where rowers sail their boat along the river waves. Quebec’s history as a French fortress is clearly visible, as the city is raised above the river on a cliff.

CON_B01160_F003_012. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

I often watch a TV show called Murdoch Mysteries. Set in Toronto around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the titular character is often called Canada’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Using methods contemporary to the period, William Murdoch is on the trail of crime in Toronto, even meeting a few icons of the day in his pursuits, like Alexander Graham Bell and even Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock himself.

Upon seeing this photo, I immediately thought of Murdoch Mysteries and the Toronto of the turn of the century. Even the fashions of the people and the horses and carts remind me of the characters and how they get around the city on the journey to a crime scene, so if I didn’t know this was a real photograph, I would’ve thought this was a scene from the show itself.

So far, I’ve only seen two places in Canada – namely Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – but I want to go on a road trip there one day, visiting all the sights and cities that grace the country, and even make it my home.

 


Sabrina Gardiner
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Mark Long: Vignetting in Archive Photographs

CON_B00756_F007_025. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Whilst digitising the Conway Library, I often come across confusing visual anomalies like the one at the bottom left of item CON_B00756_F007_025. Understanding what has caused the image fault requires a bit of a technical explanation. In this case, what we are seeing is an example of vignetting, which happens when using large format cameras capable of perspective adjustments.

CON_B00734_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Anyone interested in mastering these issues should study the fantastic Ansel AdamsThe Camera, in which he states the vignetting “occurs when part of the negative area falls outside the image-circle of the lens and thus receives no exposure” (see chapter 10 “View-Camera Adjustments”).

In this image we can see that the photographer has adjusted the camera movements to control perspective in order to construct an accurate representation of the building that is aesthetically pleasing and free from distortion. However, in making such adjustments, they have inadvertently moved the lens out of the negative area, cutting off part of their image (either by tilting or shifting the front standard too far).

These kind of errors are fascinating as they exhibit the high levels of control required to practice the medium of photography successfully. This type of image control is still carried out by architectural photographers today when they choose to utilise tilt/shift lenses on modern digital cameras. Here, minimising lens distortion and configuring perspective to meet highly rigorous visual requirements.

Reference:

Adams, A (2003) The Ansel Adams Photography Series 1 The Camera. Little, Brown and Company.

 


Mark Long
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

John Ramsey: Church of St James the Great, South Leigh

While digitising a box of photographs of Oxfordshire churches with Muni, we found a wonderful wall painting in a Kersting print; a welcome surprise after the usual mix of white-walled naves and pillars.

CON_B00607_F007_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B00607_F007_006. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

In the middle ages, it was common practice to paint the walls of churches. Few people could read, so it was necessary to teach by using pictures. During the Reformation, these images were covered over as they were considered symbols of Popish idolatry.

The painting is on the wall which separates the nave from the chancel, and is an example of how certain images became assigned to specific positions in the church. One of the most common is Doom, or the Last Judgement. The symbolism explains the positioning of the Nave as representing the ‘Church militant’ and the chancel as the ‘Church Triumphant’, separated by the judgment before which all souls must pass.

The Last Judgment in South Leigh follows a traditional pattern. Two angels with trumpets are waking up the dead. On the left, an angel in white is calling to the saved, with a scroll above announcing ’Venite Benedicte Patris Mei’ (Come you blessed to my Father). They then move towards the north wall where (not visible in the photograph) St Peter awaits them at the gates of Heaven. On the right, the angel wears dark clothing and summons the damned, the scroll above saying ‘Discedite Maledicti’ (Depart you cursed). They are bound together with what looks like barbed wire and are being pushed towards the jaws of hell, which are just visible on the south wall.

The image is clearly designed to scare the wits out of the congregation:

“The damned are dragged into the mouth of hell propped open by a devil.”
Image courtesy of www.wasleys.org.uk

The original paintings were discovered in 1870, when the old layers of whitewash were removed after the new vicar, Gerard Moultie, decided the church needed restoration. The work was carried out for £85 by Messrs Burlison and Gryllis, a firm heavily influenced by William Morris. This is particularly evident where the originals were too faint to copy and were effectively replaced by 19th-century design, for example in the painting of flowers and birds beneath the Last Judgment.

The original artists were probably trained in monasteries. They were not necessarily monks, but young men who showed artistic ability and were trained in monastic scriptoria. There is also evidence of a growing number of itinerant painters who were associated with the Guilds of Painter-Stainers in London and other cities.

For a small village church, South Leigh has several associations with the famous. The ancestors of William Morris owned land there, and it is only 10 miles or so from Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s country house.

In 1725, John Wesley preached his first sermon from the pulpit (he returned in 1771 and was refused entry).

Between 1947 and 1949, the poet Dylan Thomas and his wife lived in the village and maintained an eccentric lifestyle. This was many years after he wrote ’It is the sinner’s dust tongued bell claps me to churches’, though it would be wonderful to imagine him seeing the Last Judgment through an alcoholic haze and wondering which way he would go.

 


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

John Ramsey: On the Wellington Arch

When I catalogued a box of London photos from the Conway Library I came across this image of the Wellington Arch.

CON_B01022_F006_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The view today looks very different.

The Arch was originally commissioned by George IV to celebrate the victories of the Napoleonic wars and was positioned at the entrance to Green Park, opposite the screen wall on the south side of Hyde Park. In that position, it was straight in front of Apsley House, the Duke Of Wellington’s London residence. The Duke was, of course, a national institution, Napoleonic war hero of Waterloo, statesman, Prime Minister, and pin-up (look at the statue of Achilles behind Apsley House, it was funded by a charitable body known as ‘The Ladies of England’, and originally it did not have a fig leaf.)

CON_B01022_F006_001_detail. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

In 1836, a decision was taken to erect a statue of the Duke on horseback on top of the Arch. It was huge, the biggest equestrian statue of its time, 28 feet tall. As a result, it was widely ridiculed and the arch became known as the Wellington Arch. Despite the derision, and it being considered an eyesore visible from Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria refused to allow it to be moved as she did not want to offend the Duke in his lifetime.

And so it stayed until 1882, when, in order to improve the traffic flows in that part of London, the Arch was moved 60 feet to its present position at the top of Constitution Hill.

The statue being moved to storage in 1883. Illustrated London News. Public Domain.

The statue was replaced, however, and the current ‘Quadriga’ (Nike goddess of Victory riding a chariot pulled by four horses) took its place.

View of the Arch today. John Ramsey.

The Wellington statue was sent to the Army Barracks in Aldershot, where it remains, for those who may wish to see it!

Wellington Statue, Aldershot. Lewis Hulbert. CC BY 3.0

 


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer