Sydney Rose: Building Endurances in the Courtauld Digitisation Project

During the first years of The Courtauld’s Digitisation Volunteer program, Peyton Cherry wrote about how the project aims to capture materiality. Cherry emphasizes how “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5 in Cherry, 2019). In her blog post, she discusses how the digitisation project aims to contain as much of the materiality of the photographs as possible and to preserve context. Cherry outlines how the project seeks to keep texture, marks, or stains visible in order to reproduce “the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections” (2019). When I joined the Courtauld project a few years later, I hoped to extend her ideas further and contribute to the ideas about the project itself, by highlighting that the documentation of materiality also encompasses the evidence of decades of connections between the photograph and its use.

Cherry already outlined in detail the methods that The Courtauld uses for this digitisation project. The policy, with the salient points outlined below (Fig. 1), is a part of a method which ensures that the photographs and prints are not reduced to what our Head of Digital Media Tom Bilson calls “a point zero,” or a photograph contained within a timeless bubble which neglects context; Bilson’s approach to this project directly counteracts this trap in photographic theory. Again, this method is not about scanning the photograph, but photographing the photograph. In this way, the use of this object is also documented through its inclusion of handwritten notes by the photographer, labels written by curators, or numbers indicating categorization. Further, when photographing the collections for digitisation, raking light is often used to reveal a sense of depth through shadows and to illuminate small markers of use such as marks or tears. When the digitisation project includes each of these markers, the materials become signifiers of even more information, and document not just the subjects of the photographs but how everyone who has encountered that photograph has engaged with it.

Fig. 1. Digitisation manifesto from Future of Library Symposium, screenshot by Tom Bilson, November 21, 2019

Popular photographic theory follows Berger (1972) and Barthes (1977) to propose these photographs as moments frozen in time. This aligns with most reception theory, where photographs are a freeze frame fragment of time to be seen in the present. However, the methods and outcomes of this digitisation project emphasize that these are not frozen in time at all; instead these photographs are endurances which reveal our engagement with them through time. These photographs endure across time to show us that the collections refer back to themselves and to every time they have been used.

For example, the boxes containing the work of Tony Kersting boxes are labelled by his own hand, with his accompanying instructions regarding how he wishes his work to be published or cropped. Within these boxes there will also be unique identifying numbers, handwritten by volunteers, that are used to organize the collection. There may even be some small damage from an intern who was just learning how to handle museum artefacts or how to use the high-res camera. In the image below, we see that the digitised collection does not neglect to reflect on its own existence when it includes the record of its own organization and interactions (Fig. 2). Here the image contains the stories of contact between the photograph and the photographer, the individual curators, the museum structures, and the intern.

Fig. 2. Image showing magnified portion of final digitisation product, indicating shadow and depth as well as the inclusion of handwritten notes, from Future of Library Symposium, screenshot by Tom Bilson, November 21, 2019

In another example, the photo below has two different styles of handwriting and a typewritten label (Fig. 3). These were likely all made at different times possibly by different people. This photograph is a part of the collection of images from the Ministry of Works documenting the damage from the bombings of WWII, with this specific photograph showing the damage to the parish church in Lambezellec, Brest. This Catholic parish still holds mass in 2021, though during the 2020 lockdown, there was an incident wherein the building was damaged again as some of the items were upturned and the lamp of the tabernacle was stolen (Ouest France 2020). Father Jean Baptiste Gless says that despite this incident, he will continue to leave the church doors open in the mornings so that people can come pray (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. CON_B05711_F001_042. Image of Église Saint-Laurent de Lambézellec, Brest, damaged by wartime bombing, from the Conway Library

Fig. 4. The open doors of the Church of Saint-Laurent in Lambezellec

Fig. 5. Internal view of the stained glass windows of the Church of Saint-Laurent in Lambézellec

In 2021, I came to the Courtauld project and added another tangible layer to this part of the Conway collection (Fig. 6). The layer I have added is of the undamaged church, before the bombing. Now, the image features both moments in time. This layer is not just the visible layer I superimposed but also the contribution to the knowledge around the histories of the photograph and collection. Each time we write about a photograph or engage with it in any way, we add to the histories and build upon those histories. Here, we play with time but we do not freeze it to what Tom Bilson calls “year zero.” This visual creation is especially interesting as it shows how this additive layering moves beyond the original image, stretching off the screen and reaching off the canvas.

Fig. 6. CON_B05711_F001_042: image of Église Saint-Laurent de Lambézellec, Brest, damaged by wartime bombing, with image of the undamaged church superimposed

On a theoretical level, I am also building on Cherry’s work in the same way that the collection builds on the work of hundreds of volunteers and in the same way that each engagement with the collection builds on earlier engagements. Ultimately, how the collection is digitised is not just about the photographs which end up digitised, but includes the entire history of how we have interacted with the photographs. Each engagement between curator or volunteer, writing labels or making small oily fingerprints, is a critical part of the material world created by the photograph which, through this long process of use, becomes less of an abstract digitised image and more of a museological object containing its own histories.

This project refuses to exclude evidence of its own existence. In digitisation initiatives, it is crucial to step back and look at the full scope of materiality to see how the collection is not simply materials but also the histories of how we interact with these materials. This project does that every time it records not just the numbers of archival boxes but pictures of those boxes. As Cherry (2019) suggests, the Courtauld collections are not simply photographs but cultural artefacts in and of themselves. Every picture which is not cropped, every edge revealing depth, points to the full histories of this collection and how every volunteer has become an integral part of that story.

 


Sydney Stewart Rose

Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Doctoral Researcher, Pitt Rivers Museum
Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford
Linacre College

 

References
Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: London.
Barthes R (1977) The Rhetoric of the Image. In: Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang: New York.
Cherry P (2019) Journey Through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity And Distance. The Courtauld Digital Media Blog, July 1. http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/digitalmedia/2019/07/01/peyton-cherry-journey-through-materiality-communicating-familiarity-and-distance/
“L’église Saint-Laurent dégradée à Lambézellec.” (2020, April 5) Ouest France. https://www.ouest-france.fr/bretagne/brest-29200/brest-l-eglise-saint-laurent-saccagee-lambezellec-6800809

Caterina Domeneghini: Beyond Ruins – New Insights into the War Damage Collection in the Conway Library

Has not that ruin, say he, a good effect?
A Dialogue on Stowe, 1746

The Conway Library

War-time ruins have always exerted an inexplicable fascination on the observer – a puzzling and not infrequently morbid sentiment that has been targeted as a serious object of academic enquiry since at least the aftermath of World War II. Besides provoking an undeniable and undeniably problematic aesthetic pleasure – one should only think of Albert Speer’s theory of Ruin Value (Ruinenwerttheorie), by which he persuaded Hitler that they should only employ materials that would make “good ruins” in the event of collapse during their architectural plans for the Third Reich – ruined monuments and buildings have also been exploited as a political tool. They have been constantly overwritten, either literally or figuratively, by the activities of bulldozers and cranes, bricklayers and architects, as well as journalists and photographers commissioned to record the revival of a city.

The purpose of the following article is, broadly speaking, to explore concepts of ruination and transformation, drawing from the war damage collection in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Known informally as the Ministry of Works bequest, it comprises several hundred photographs taken by soldiers, historians and architects across Europe towards the end of World War II. The collection is part of the Conway Library, which takes its name from writer, traveller and mountaineer Martin Conway. The first Director General of the Imperial Museum of London and Professor of Art at Liverpool and Cambridge, one of Conway’s chief interests was photography as a record of buildings that might suffer war damage. The Ministry of Works images continue precisely that tradition: taken by allied troops chiefly from the US, Britain and Poland, they record in often shocking detail the destruction of cityscapes as collateral or deliberate acts of annihilation.

What these pictures capture, as we shall clearly see, is the pars destruens. They crystallize a single moment, and that moment is desolation, devastation, destruction. But this is not the whole narrative. As much as the images speak for themselves, they also leave much unsaid. There is a hidden story behind these photographs, a story of human efforts and contributions to the process of preservation, rebuilding and revival, which successive generations have perpetrated in written documents and oral narratives. At a time when cultural heritage is still dangerously under threat in many corners of the globe, it is all the more imperative to continue to fill in the gaps. This article encourages us to do just that. We desperately need a pars construens; that part will be equally explored here, by taking advantage of the invaluable potential of ruined infrastructures to present themselves as a challenge to be either replaced or restored – as they were, in fact. The unfinished nature of ruins, by definition, creates a sense of superseding that invites the observer to inscribe them into a narrative of progress. For every part we see in the Ministry of Works photographs, there is a part that we do not see, which acts as a catalyst of imagination, an engine of speculation. A ruin bears the trace of unscripted possibilities. In so doing, it generates questions on the process of reconstruction and its dilemmas: whether to reconstruct or to preserve; how much to reconstruct; whether to construct anew rather than to rebuild.

The Pleasure of Ruins, and Beyond

In 1953, English writer Rose Macaulay, a civil servant in the War Office, published a ground-breaking and controversial study on ruination, the first of its kind, entitled Pleasure of Ruins. Her approach, as her introduction and the title of the book itself point out, is that of a pleasurist (some would rather say of a voyeur…). Often criticized for being excessively self-indulgent, Macaulay offers complacent incursions into “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind”. She argues that “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol”. Starting with the ancient world, her account ends with a two-page coda, “On the new ruins”, foregrounding the conjecture that the devastation evident across post-war London and other parts of Britain will one day be looked on with admiration, just like we now admire the ruins of antiquity.
On a very superficial level, Macaulay must be right. There is an undeniable aesthetic component to decaying buildings and crumbling monuments: they provide a treasure trove of encounters with the eerie and the unexpected. As we first approach the Ministry of Works photographs without context, we might gaze in awe, for a moment, at the oddly unique shapes that missing bricks and huge cracks conferred onto the architecture captured in a snapshot (figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. The Conway Library

Fig. 2. The Conway Library

There is an element of honesty to these photographs, which equates them to the apocalyptic stories and dystopian novels that many of us also adore. Even if they represent the worst possible scenario, such narratives still feel real to us as we know too well that human beings are capable of committing the worst crimes. The devastation of WWII, so harshly and honestly depicted in the images, is probably the closest to apocalypse we have ever drawn (figs. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3. The Conway Library

Fig. 4. The Conway Library

In addition to that, stories predicting the future speak to an innate desire to have control over our fate; we seem to appreciate ruins because, in a similar way, they trigger our imagination. They encourage us to think of elsewhere, a phenomenon that works in two directions. One the one hand, to perceive a ruin is to recognize that it has once been otherwise, and thus to travel back in time; on the other hand, the ruins captured in the photographs increase awareness of the present and future condition of our society. As photographer Yves Marchand, co-author of Ruins of Detroit, puts it, “To us, the ruin allows you to see the past, as well as your present condition, and what you’re going to be – you can see all those three at the same time”.

The main limit of Macaulay’s approach is that it is unidirectional. She makes the example of traveller Mr Thomas Coryat, who arrived on the Trojan shore opposite Tenedos in 1612. After seeing extensive ruins, the remains of a goodly fortress, marble pillars and sepulchres, he spent his afternoon guessing: one of the sepulchres must have belonged to King Priam; the fragments of the great buttressed wall on his left were first built by Ilium when he enlarged the city, and then rebuilt by Priam. I suggest we need to go further than that. We cannot simply self-indulge in the pleasure of fantasizing about what was once there, driven by mere antiquarian frenzy; when looking at these photographs, we must think of what is now there, just like the soldiers and civilians in situ must have imagined what was going to be there once restoration was completed. “Exploring abandoned buildings isn’t about revelling in their collapse at all,” argues Dylan Thuras, author of the foreword to Dan Barasch’s Ruin and Redemption in Architecture. Upon recalling an adolescence spent in the thrall of deserted flour mills in Minneapolis, now partially restored structures, he evaluates such imperfect architecture as occupying “a shadowy liminal space between self-destruction and the possibility of rebirth”.

We can infer from the visual examples below how this whole process of imagination, moving in limbo between destruction and rebirth, might have worked for the observers of the time, looking grimly at the ruined buildings around them, and works equally well for us today as we examine such buildings in the photographs. In images 5 and 6, René Levavasseur – the architect charged by the French government with the preservation of historical monuments in the Department of La Manche – is caught scrutinizing the damage of two churches in Normandy.

In fig. 5, he lists damage to the beautifully sculpted bell of the Church of St Jacques of Montebourg, before making plans for repair of the tower – an unfortunate victim of the fighting for the beachheads nearby. Confronted by ruins without being intimidated by them, his serious and attentive gaze makes us think that he was already anticipating in his head the steps and strategies through which the reconstruction of the tower might be carried out, leading us to wonder in turn whether and how this actually took place at all. Here, imagination gives way to historical documentation: archives of Le Monuments Historiques inform us that reconstruction works were undertaken in 1949, after a deeper and more resistant foundation for the church had been secured. The square floor of the bell tower was completed in February 1950, followed by the stone spire in August of the same year. Finally, in October 1952, the building was returned to worship. In fig. 6, similarly, Levavasseur is shown holding a gargoyle “knocked loose from the tower of the cathedral at Carentan before American forces drove the Nazis from the area”. There is both intimacy and remoteness in this picture. The architect holds the gargoyle firmly with both hands, as if a father with his child, but also keeps it at a distance, in order to better scrutinize it. Again, his expression suggests he has full awareness of the exact spot the piece will occupy after reconstruction. This photograph gives out very strong ritual vibes. Levavasseur almost looks like a priest holding a newborn during some religious service, laden with symbolic meanings. A new life is brought into the community and exhibited triumphantly before the eyes of its participants. A new life, by the same metaphorical token, is also given to the cathedral: the gargoyle will be inset back into the tower.

Fig. 5. The Conway Library

Fig. 6. The Conway Library

Ruins and Bodies

I found it a funny coincidence that so many of the buildings hit by the blow of war were cathedrals, churches, places of worship. In these images, the desolation of conflict blends with a vacuous, sinister spirituality, almost verging on mysticism. Ruins shelter the spectres of the past while standing for an uncontrolled present. And such is a present in which very little faith remains. “There is Auschwitz, therefore there can be no God”, Primo Levi famously asserted. Just as God has abandoned men, men seem to have abandoned God. In the images below, the crucifix, the only element left intact among ruins in a deserted land, becomes an almost surreal symbol of such a legacy. In fig. 7, a crucifix still hangs from the rafters of a severely ruined church in Erkelenz, Germany, damaged by artillery fire in February 1945; in fig. 8, a battered cross survives, bending, in a battle-scarred roadside shrine in Dahnen, where no trace of human presence can be found. The Church, no longer the living and breathing body of those assembled in worship, is reduced to a speechless mound of matter. Yet at the same time the very integrity of the cross, a leftover functioning as an ironic symbol of defiance in the midst of so much destruction, must have represented a glimmer of hope for many a passerby. Perhaps it is true, as Professor Charles Lock has written, that one of the secrets of ruins is that “inasmuch as they retain a trace of spirit, of motion, they speak to us of something other than perdition”.

Fig. 7. The Conway Library

Fig. 8. The Conway Library

That must be as true for monuments as it is for bodies. In fact, the architecture and people in the photographs seem to share similar histories. Buildings are as maimed as the invisible corpses of soldiers and civilians who fought around and for them. Indeed, a fallen stone or one still standing might be analogous to the human body, Lock has suggested: “the upright stone reminds us of a person standing, liturgically; that which is cast down was once, like a corpse, a spirit’s dwelling”. The collection offers some glaring testimony of the tense, uneasy co-existence of ruins and civilians, whose complex relationship would only be fully healed with the passage of time, by means of concrete urban intervention and re-planning. Fig. 9 shows a man cycling undisturbed through the streets of Palermo, in spite of the bleak view of crumbing Palazzo Trabucco marked in the background by cracks resembling the bites of giant jaws. Life goes on amidst wreckage: not giving up your daily business was as powerful a form of resistance as concrete military manoeuvres, sometimes. The same sort of disquieting blending is manifest in fig. 10, depicting the interior of the Cathedral in Messina – which underwent a controversial and not fully transparent plan of reconstruction from June 1943 to August 1947. The photograph captures a man standing still, as if striking a pose amidst debris of wood. In so doing, he almost becomes part of the triptych behind him, the Altar of the Pietà.

Fig. 9. The Conway Library

Fig. 10. The Conway Library

On the other hand, several pictures from the collection keep for themselves some crucial hidden truths, and it is down to us to uncover these through historical research. It is not so widely known, for example, that the urgency of starting reconstruction works at Montecassino – where the famous Abbey had been reduced to little more than a sandcastle by the bombing of May 1944 – was dictated by a humanitarian motive other than a merely moral, or for that matter artistic, one (fig. 11). The bodies of dozens of civilian victims who had not been able to leave the monastery before the bombing lay buried under the debris. Their discovery and burial would only have been possible with the removal of the rubble. When people can finally stand up and pull themselves back together, then it is also the right time for monuments to rise again from the ashes. Succisa virescit are the words that can be read on the coat of arms of the Abbey – literally meaning “cut, it grows back”. And indeed for the fifth time in its history, despite the difficulties caused by the post-war period and its widespread destruction, the Abbey of Montecassino was brought back to the light. The restoration aimed to reproduce the original structure and was carried out from 1948 to 1956, under the direction of engineer Giuseppe Breccia Fratadocchi. Two hundred and fifty workers took part in the project, working side by side with the monks embodying the mantra of their master Benedict buried there: ora et labora. The statues of the benefactors – popes, kings and princes – which had originally occupied the Chiostro dei Benefattori (Cloister of the Benefactors) were placed under a canopy. In a rather curious turn of events, the statues now looked at these other humble benefactors working with zeal, having no treasures or privileges to bestow but their hands. All the church coverings, marbles, mosaics and sculptures were also restored.

Fig. 11. The Conway Library

We can contrast this extraordinary story of successful cooperation and resilience with a less fortunate one, again from Italy, which can nevertheless function as a memento to the importance of implementing strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage in times of conflict. The Church of Santa Maria in Passione on the hill of Castello, Genova, was severely damaged by two aerial bombardments; the first, on 22 October 1942, caused the roof to catch fire, but the most destructive was a second attack on 4 September 1944, which almost razed the top of the hill of Castello to the ground. The bombardments almost completely destroyed the frescoes and caused serious damage to the outer walls, some of which had to be demolished (fig. 12). The monastic complex remained in ruins for decades. Then, in the 1970s, a project devised by the Municipality of Genoa and supervised by architect Ignazio Gardella gave the go-ahead for the restoration of the area with the construction of the new headquarters of the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Genoa on the site of the former convent of San Silvestro, the Niccolò Paganini Foundation and the headquarters of the Permanent Urban Observatory, created to promote initiatives for the rehabilitation and enhancement of the historic centre. Starting in the 1990s, another project (“Progetto Civis Sistema”) envisaged more conservation and restoration work. However, this was interrupted in 1997 and the site was completely abandoned. Everything was enclosed with barbed wire. It was only in 2012 that a group of students decided to break the fences and clean up the area. Since then, Santa Maria in Passione lives almost exclusively thanks to the support of citizens through donations and voluntary work.

Fig. 12. The Conway Library

Concluding Remarks

So, to reprise the question from which this article started: do ruins have a good effect after all? The answer is yes, I would say. But it should be remembered that for every good effect there is always a price to pay. In tracing a history of destruction and reconstruction through painstaking human efforts, I have tried to raise awareness of how essential the preservation of cultural heritage is for the wealth of communities. Several collaborative strategies have been implemented for this purpose both before and during World War II, as we have seen.  Examples feature the Service des Monuments Historiques in France, of which the abovementioned Levavasseur was a member, founded in 1830 and charged with several “passive defense” and reconstruction measures as early as 1935; or the Roberts Commission in the US, leading to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the allied armies (the “Monuments Men”) with the aim of both protecting works of art and buildings from deliberate destruction and of returning them, so far as possible, to their owners or the appropriate local authorities. Similarly, after the conflict, international organizations acknowledged the urgency to create conventions to protect sites and artifacts in conflict zones. UNESCO, among others, was established in 1945. However, as several speakers at the Courtauld talk Post-conflict: Art History and Cultural Heritage in Dialogue on 15 June 2021 illustrated, UNESCO and world heritage have been criticized for many failures in recent years, including that of deterring the destruction of heritage during times of war. There is need for greater cooperation between different groups – professionals in the field and governmental authorities in primis, but also scholars, local organizations, and no less the general public. As the example of Santa Maria in Passione demonstrates, ordinary citizens are often in a unique position to help when the threat of destruction, deterioration or looting looms over them. The very significance of the Ministry of Works collection, which has never before seen in its entirety as a consequence of being spread across hundreds of boxes, is now being understood thanks to a major digitisation project at the Courtauld, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported entirely by volunteers. If ruins, as it has often been suggested, are essentially “democratic” – their appeal is for everyone, from children visiting a site for the first time to experienced archaeologists – then their protection and revival becomes, by the same token, a universal responsibility.

 


Caterina Domeneghini
Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Humanities, Oxford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

John Ramsey: Castle Howard

Audio Version

Text Version

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited two friends, Charles and Sebastian, lounge in the colonnade of Brideshead Castle, the stately home of Sebastian’s family. They have just come down from their first year at Oxford. It is a peerless summer’s day. Charles is sketching an ornamental fountain.

Referring to the main house, Charles says, “Is the dome by Inigo Jones, too? It looks later”.

Sebastian replies, “Oh Charles, don’t be such a tourist”.

It is believed that Waugh based Brideshead on Castle Howard, the only stately home of England to have a dome. It also has its own box in the Conway Library, with many photographs taken by Anthony Kersting. One image, showing the south front from the fountain, looked wrong somehow. Why? The dome had disappeared.

Image of Castle Howard from afar, no dome visible.

The south front of the house with the dome missing. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. CON_B00944_F002_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Inspired by the photographs in the Conway, I visited Castle Howard on another peerless summers day, two years ago, and discovered the story.

During the Second World War, stately homes were either requisitioned by the army or by private schools needing to move away from towns and cities. The owners preferred the schools, as the army would damage the structure and ruin the landscaped gardens. Castle Howard became a girls’ school. Tragically, this apparent good fortune did not prevent damage to the structure. In November 1940, a fire broke out in the South-East wing and swept through the house into the Great Hall, destroying the dome. The Howard family were determined to rebuild the house and to live in it again. The dome was finally completed in 1962.

 

Image of Castle Howard taken from afar, in it we can see the dome clearly.

The south front with the dome restored. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. CON_B00944_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Work still continues, as time, money and opportunities permit. In conjunction with the filming of the TV serial, Brideshead Revisited, in 1981, the Garden Hall was rebuilt. Apparently, many tourists believe that the novel was based on historical events, and the characters on real people.

The reference to Inigo Jones is also a fiction. The architect was John Vanburgh, best known at the time as a Restoration playwright. He was a member of the elite Kit Kat Club, along with the then owner of Castle Howard, Lord Carlisle, who was looking for an architect to rebuild his medieval castle. Vanburgh had trained as an architect but had never built anything. However, Carlisle believed Vanburgh could design a structure of appropriate grandeur and dignity, that reflected the spirit of the age. Vanburgh had toured Europe extensively and the result is a sumptuous blend of the Baroque and the Palladian: ornate sculpture and decoration, with symmetry, arched windows, and temple-like features. He was supported by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral and was the architect of several City churches rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.

I am not sure why being a tourist was such an insult. Presumably, the aristocracy at the time could afford to despise the idea of visitors paying to see their estates. It crops up later in the novel when Charles and Sebastian visit Venice, and “become tourists” themselves.

Please do be a tourist and visit Castle Howard. It is a completely wonderful experience, and they still need the money.


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

John Ramsey: Agnes Conway 1885–1950

Audio Version

Read by Amanda Roberts

Text Version

At 2pm on an April day in 1914, and after an eight-hour climb, Agnes Conway reached the remote village of Lada at the top of Greece’s Langada Pass, 2000 ft above sea level. She and her companion Evelyn Radford had started at 6am and had not stopped to eat. As they entered the village they saw a man throwing a discus. He was a Greek athlete who had represented Greece at the Olympics and had won the fencing championship. He spoke fluent English, offered them food, fenced and boxed with Evelyn and found he had friends in common with Agnes.

This is one of the more surreal anecdotes recorded in A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera, published in 1917. In the same year, Agnes became Curator of the Women’s Work section at the newly established Museum of War, and Honorary Secretary of its Women’s Work Sub Committee.

This blog explores these two events in the context of her remarkable life.

The daughter of Martin Conway, who bequeathed his photographic collection to the Courtauld, Agnes was an archaeologist and historian. At the end of this blog, there is a short summary of the key dates in her life; this does not do justice to the energy and commitment she gave to her work, and the love and support she gave her family and friends.

The Women’s Work Sub Committee (WWSC)

 

The Museum of War (later the Imperial War Museum) was founded in 1917. Agnes became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Work Sub Committee (WWSC).

Working for Lady Nelson as Chair, Agnes ran the WWSC from 1917, through its most active period in the years immediately following the war, and remained involved until the Museum moved to its current site in the old Bethlem Hospital in 1929.

The WWSC’s objective was to preserve the contribution of women to the war effort. The Committee wrote to every female organisation they could find, seeking information about their work. The list was extensive. It included Government, Army and Air Force departments, as well as civilian locations where women worked, such as factories, relief centres and canteens.

Hundreds of letters were written. The committee asked for descriptions of women’s activities and statistics on their employment. It also requested objects and artefacts that could be displayed, in particular uniforms and photographs of people wearing them. It also commissioned works of art and photographs to cover particular aspects of the war. Over 3,400 illustrations were collected. These resources remain an important source of information for historians. The Imperial War Museum today holds extensive content on the WWSC and its legacy.

Agnes was central to the continuous struggle to find artefacts, funding, resources and space for the growing collection. In 1918, she organised exhibitions of the artefacts at Burlington House and Whitechapel Art Gallery, the latter attracting Royalty and 82,000 visitors. The following year she visited France to photograph the many women still working after the war.

The WWSC also recorded the names of all 700 women who died during the war. It supported the creation of a National Memorial at York Minster which includes a screen listing these names.

A full length drawing of a woman bus conductor. She wears a blue uniform and hat, and carries the distinctive bus conductor's bags with leather straps crossing her chest.

Victoria Monkhouse. A Bus Conductress, 1919 (Art.IWM ART 2316) Copyright: © IWM. Original

A Ride Through the Balkans

 

In early 1914, Agnes and Evelyn travelled to Greece, where they had been accepted to study at the British School in Athens. Almost immediately they started on a tour of the Balkans. Their purpose was to document classical ruins in the landscape, but the book is a breezy travelogue full of incident and adventure. Agnes and Evelyn Radford travelled from Athens to Constantinople, and back through Turkey, Albania, Corfu, then to Montenegro, ending in a war zone.

The narrative is full of colour as they encounter friendly locals, stubborn officials, incompetent guides, monks, soldiers, refugees and displaced peoples. They travel by foot, car, cart, mule, steamer, sailboat and trains, always 3rd class. They climb mountains and gorges, cross fertile plains and barren moorland, and marvel at the colours of the sea off Corinth.

Agnes was a close observer of the condition of women. In Greece, she was shocked by the marriage dowry system, how it impoverished families and prevented so many women from marrying. In Turkey, she travelled in train compartments reserved for women, and was surprised they smoked in public.

She commented on local dress. In Albania, rich catholic women wore trousers made from 16 to 40 yards of material for each leg, with two pairs more inside. Wearing high heeled kid boots, they did not so much walk as waddle.

Hardships are mentioned but briefly. After getting lost in an arid landscape of prickly shrub, where “tortoises were the only living creatures”, they eventually found a road where they could get a lift. Relieved and exhausted, “We sank upon the ground and ate the one remaining orange… in an ecstasy of delight”.

After having her pocket picked on the Acropolis they climbed Mt Hymettus in “four hours only”, and looked down on dozens of soaring eagles, delighted to see the gold of their feathers shining in the sun.

They did not trust the water, so made tea with a spirit lamp, much to the fascination of fellow lady travellers in the 3rd class section of a Greek train.

Sleeping conditions were often basic and not always clean. At a monastery, they were reassured the room had no bugs. But it did have “60,000 fleas”, and nowhere to wash. A monk solemnly gave Agnes a towel, leaving her to wonder what she was expected to do with it.

Towards the end of the journey, in May 1914 they came across refugee camps around the Turkey Albania border. In Scutari, they encountered Red Cross teams and an international peace force of English, French, German, Italian and Austrian soldiers.

The tone of the writing becomes a little more serious, although the contextual political events are barely mentioned. They were witnessing the fallout of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling and had given independence to Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. However, large numbers of ethnic populations remained under Ottoman rule, so these countries formed the Balkan League and declared war on the Ottoman empire. The League suffered internal disputes, borders were shifting, and many nationalities were trying to get back to their homelands. Serbian nationalism was particularly strong and triggered the First World War only a few weeks later in June.

Agnes was interested in the relationships between the military and the refugees. The Peace Force was led by an English officer, Colonel Phillips. Agnes admired his ability to use persuasion and humour to maintain stability, and in particular to calm the Albanians and their blood feuds.

It is curious that they must have known about the wars before they started planning the journey, and that they could find themselves in danger in border areas. Clearly, they had the confidence and determination to go ahead, knowing they were in the midst of a period of volatile international politics. Dr Amara Thornton (see note below) has pointed out that the British School in Athens would have provided a network of contacts, and that the sense of danger may well have appealed to Agnes.

She started writing the book immediately on her return but did not succeed in finding a publisher until 1916. Then there was a rush to publish, as the Allied Gallipoli Campaign was developing in areas where she had travelled, which made the book topical and marketable.

In her opening to the chapter on Scutari, Agnes wrote, “The outbreak of European War put an end to the international occupation of Scutari early in August 1914. The state of things I am describing is, therefore, a chapter in the past”. She might have added “already”, but she offers a fascinating glimpse of the repercussions of events whose consequences are still being played out today.

Refugees at Antivari, photographed by Agnes Conway Horsfield on her 1914 Balkan’s journey. From “A Ride Through the Balkans” by Agnes Conway Horsfield.
Image © www.trowelblazers.com/

A note on Evelyn Radford:

Referred to solely as E throughout the book, never named specifically. She was a classical scholar and lecturer after leaving Newnham until 1915. Thereafter, she wrote about music.

A note on Dr Amara Thornton:

In researching this blog, I came across several articles about Agnes’ life and work by Dr Thornton, who cites Agnes as the inspiration behind her interest in the history of archaeology. Dr Thornton has generously responded to my enquiries, for which I thank her enormously.

Agnes Conway – Key dates:

 

1885 ~ Born 2nd May, Daughter of Katrina and Martin Conway.

1899 ~ On her 14th birthday, fell through a skylight and fractured the base of her skull, leaving the right side of her face paralysed. Despite several operations, immediately after the fall and in later years, she remained disfigured throughout her life.

Teenage Agnes sitting on her grandma's lap.

Image taken from Joan Evans, The Conways: A History of Three Generations. 1966.

1903 ~ Read History at Newnham College Cambridge. Also studied Greek and acquired her life long passion for Archaeology.

1907 ~ Left Cambridge after passing her History Tripos.

1907 ~ Awarded a degree from University College Dublin. Oxford and Cambridge did not award degrees to women at this time, but University College was willing to do so. Oxbridge women who took this up were known as “Steamboat Ladies’’.

1908 ~ Agnes starts helping Martin to catalogue his collection of photographs.

1909 ~ Co-published The Children’s Book of Art with her father, offering accessible descriptions of famous paintings from 13th to the 19th century. Her father only wrote the preface. Agnes selected the pictures and wrote the descriptions.

1912 ~ Studied at the British School in Rome, where she added to and catalogued her father’s collection of photographs.

1914 ~ Admitted to the British School in Athens and travelled through the Balkans in the spring of 1914 with Evelyn Radford, a friend she met at Newnham.

1917 ~ Published her travelogue, A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera.

1917–1929 ~ Helped found and became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s’ Work Sub Committee (WWSC) which aimed to preserve women’s’ contribution to the First World War.

HONORARY SECRETARY AGNES ETHEL CONWAY (WWC Z-30) Honorary Secretary Agnes Ethel Conway MBE, Imperial War Museum. Copyright: © IWM.

1918 ~ Awarded MBE.

1920s ~ Continued to catalogue Martin’s photographs.

1927 ~ First visit to Petra.

1929 ~ Member of the team led by George Horsfield which undertook the first scientific excavation of Petra. [1]

1930 ~ Published the results, Historical and Topographical Notes on Edom, with an Account of the First Excavations at Petra.

1931 ~ Martin Conway donated his collection to the Courtauld. He gave Agnes the public recognition that her help was central to its preparation.

1932 ~ Married Horsfield in Jerusalem. They lived in Jerash in what was then Transjordan (Horsfield was Chief Inspector of Antiquities for the Transjordan government).

George andAgnes Horsfield at Jerash, 1935. Agnes is wearing a keffiyeh.

Image taken from Joan Evans, The Conways: A History of Three Generations. 1966.

1932 ~ Excavated in Kilwa (a medieval trading settlement in modern-day Tanzania).

1936 ~ Left Transjordan and travelled the Mediterranean before settling in England during Second World War.

1950 ~ Died in England.

References:

 

Conway A (1917) A Ride Through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera. London: R. Scott. Available at: https://archive.org/details/ridethroughbalka00conwrich/page/n8/mode/2up (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Evans J (1966) The Conways: A History of Three Generations. London: Museum Press.

Imperial War Museum, The Women’s Work Collection. Available at: www.IWM.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Thornton A (2018) Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People. London: UCL Press. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv3hvc9k (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Thornton A, Research Blog. Available at: www.readingroomnotes.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Trowel Blazers, Women in Archaeology, Geology, and Paleontology. Available at: www.Trowelblazers.com (accessed: 20 Mar 2020).

Notes:

 

[1] Fascinating research and analysis of the excavation’s diary by Dr Amara Thornton at www.petra1929.co.uk. UCL Institute of Archaeology keeps an archive of personal photographs, letters, postcards, and excavation notes.

Agnes Conway wearing a keffiyeh.

Agnes Conway Horsfield at Damieh, Transjordan. Copyright UCL Institute of Archaeology. Image taken from Trowel Blazers.

Martin’s inscription recognising Agnes as the true author of The Historical Paintings in the Houses of Parliament.

 


John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer