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

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

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

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

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

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

Bust of Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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

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

Studies for Saint Mary Magdalene, Leonardo Da Vinci

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

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

Satyr pouring wine, Jean-Antoine Watteau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Evie Mc.

Volunteer voices: Lorraine Stoker on visiting the Tate Archives

I have been volunteering at the Courtauld Institute since March 2017. Throughout my thirty-eight years of teaching Art, Design and Art History in inner-London schools I have visited the Courtauld Gallery many times and have also participated in the Institute’s more recent schools outreach and broadening participation activities. However, it was the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, involving the creation of an online archive of 1.1 million images from their own image collection, with the 20th century housing projects and the Anthony Kersting Middle Eastern photographic collection, which attracted my attention. As Sir Nicolas Serota commented, the project ‘is an exciting contemporary expression of Samuel Courtauld’s belief that ‘art is for the people’, and I was eager to play a small part in the transformation of the Courtauld archives into a national and international public resource.

As a volunteer, I have access to the Courtauld, its community, exhibitions, events and collections. I can even view and sit in awe of the Gauguins every day now! In addition, working as part of a great team, the practical training and experience in cataloguing, handling, transcribing and digitising historical material and in creating a digital archive has certainly been educational and highly rewarding.

Visiting the Tate Archives as part of our training and development was a fantastic experience. After walking through the bowels of the art gallery, with its air conditioning and heating ducts – even an old delivery bicycle – past the spectacular spiral staircase inspired by the original floor tiles, we entered the ‘Site Timeline’ – a drum-shaped room at the heart of the building. This room, a small part of the highly successful £45m revamp, is dedicated to the History of the site and is set within the foundation of the oldest part of the building’s structure, Millbank Prison.  I was well-aware of the history of The Tate as a prison, but it was quite remarkable to hear that in the 1960s there was a serious proposal to add a brutalist, modern extension to the building!

The new staircase, Tate Britain. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Stoker.

One interesting part of the renovation I have since identified is that when designing the rotunda mirrored bar in the Members Room, the architects Caruso St John were inspired by the Courtauld’s own A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Manet.

Though a regular visitor, I had never got further than the Djanogly Cafè, so The Digital Archive corridor – with its gallery of touchscreens – certainly surprised and impressed me. You can reference a work of art in the Tate collection, access the image of the painting or sculpture and compare it next to the digitised image of the archival item. It was amazing to digitally turn the pages of a Donald Rodney sketchbook, and I have just discovered I can do this on my laptop.

The Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms were next. There, we heard about the 1928 flood and the new flood doors which are, of course, still untested!

At the start of the digitisation of its collection, the Tate’s mission statement was ‘to fulfil our responsibility to promote public enjoyment, knowledge, and understanding of British and international art, we decided that our selection of archive material should follow these principles and reflect that this collection belonged to the nation’. The sheer scale of the Tate’s Archive digitisation, now in its third year, is overwhelming, with over 52,000 pieces already captured, all of which are available to view on the website. This stands in addition to the 65,000 paintings, sculpture and works on paper, also available to browse online. The aim is to take the largest archive of British art in the world and make it accessible to national and international online audiences, so with new collections coming in each year, this is an ongoing task.

The Courtauld’s Photographic Library digitisation project is in its first six-month developmental phase and this Tate Britain visit certainly put into context the extensive possibilities within an innovative digitisation programme and public online interaction, such as crowdsourcing, transcription algorithms, and the development of new routes into the collection in addition to the traditional paths of art or title based retrieval.  Without doubt, this insight into the successful digitisation project at the Tate Britain has galvanised the Courtauld Connects volunteers, as we look forward to the completion of the developmental phase and the exciting possibilities over the next four years.

Tate Britain and Vickers Tower, 12th September 1964, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_G4137)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W1000)

Tate Britain Sculpture Gallery, 24th January 1958, Anthony Kersting. (KER_NEG_W0999)

Volunteer voices: Carol Budd on visiting the British Library’s imaging studios

My name is Carol Budd, I am one of 60 volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since I joined the project I have enjoyed learning about the whole process of archiving, particularly as I was somewhat of an ingénue to this field. I was interested in photography, knew something about IT and cameras and was keen to develop skills with photographic software. Having recently retired from a career in IT, technology was nothing new, but the idea that the fusty, dusty world of archiving might engage me and make me think of a second career never occurred to me when I decided to apply.

To provide more context to what we do, the team organise some visits to other institutions’ digitisation studios, so when we were offered a visit to the British Library, I jumped at the chance.

We were given a tour of the imaging studios, and were shown the different cameras, scanners, stands and technology available to meet any number of different requirements. Alongside in-house digitisations, the BL have a commercial arm to accommodate people and companies’ needs to digitise on demand parts of the collection.

Fiona Clancy, Studio Manager, giving a tour of the Qatar Imaging Studio.

The scale of the British Library collections is huge, if you stop and think about the size of it even a goal of 1-2% requires massive digital resources. Every item ordered needs to be registered and its whereabouts must be known at any time. The value and age of some of the books in the British Library mean that before they can be sent for digitisation, the conservation team need to ensure that the item is fit to be handled. Some items are just too fragile for the rigours of digitisation.

Following the tour, we were given presentations by members of the Digital Research team on what to do with all the digital images and metadata once they are created, and how to let the public know that they are available. The most engaging story was that following an aborted commercial project the Library was able to release over a million pictures into the public domain. The response to this has been varied and imaginative. Artists have used the images to create new art works, designers have used them to create a backdrop for the London Fashion Week, and an enterprising individual used them in jewellery, available to buy at Badgical Kingdom. Other exciting ideas to do with images are Poetic Places, an app for encountering culture in London, and Off the Map, a project challenging students to use images from the British Library to create new animation works and games. This has now become an annual competition and the winning teams include Pudding Lane Productions from De Montfort University, Leicester, who created an interpretation of 17th Century London and Gothulus Rift, University of South Wales, who created a Fonthill Abbey inspired game. Images from Shakespeare Folios were used to create Team Quattro’s The Tempest, and Tom Battey’s Shakespearience. The British Library is keen to see more ideas to do with data take shape, so it’s making copies of some of its datasets available for research and creative purposes.

Stella Wisdom and Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curators, explaining the benefits of digitisation.

But digitisation can also mean preserving images for posterity – after the official Canadian Archive suffered a fire, the digitised Canadian photographic collection is now even more precious and unique. The list of different digitised material goes on, the British Library is digitising its vast Sound Archive with funding from the HLF, and even the whole UK web is being archived. Why, I wondered, would you want to archive old web pages? A few days later I read of a court case where archived web pages were used to gain a successful prosecution.

I left the visit excited to be inspired to take new ideas out into my own world, and with a fuller understanding of the aims and importance of digitisation, and of our contribution to this project as volunteers. If only there were more hours in the day!

Volunteers exploring the British Library.