Layers of London Highlights: Records by Michael Mayes

Audio version

Read by Claudia Neagu

Text version

Introduction by Fran Allfrey, volunteer officer

 

You can now find over 80 photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. Layers of London is a fantastic resource and website run by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. In brief, Layers of London allows you to pin photographs into a digital map of London, and add a short description.

Anyone is able to log on and add photographs that they have taken themselves, and many museums, archives, and libraries have been adding their collection items too. Most importantly, anyone is able to just explore the map!

Since lockdown in March 2020, over 28 Courtauld volunteers have been extremely busy sharing photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. In a series of blog posts, we’ll be sharing just a few of the records they have made to try and encourage our blog readers to go explore the map and photographs!

In this post, we have reproduced four of seventeen records (and counting) made by our volunteer Michael. Thank you, Michael, for creating so many evocative records, which really show the variety of photographs in the Conway Library.

Michael says: “My favourite photograph is one of Anthony Kersting’s – The Horniman Museum. It’s a place I know well from visits and he captures it in that unique way he has, making a building, no matter how familiar, appear to you as if for the first time.
My favourite entry, however, is of The Crown Tavern. I hope I’ve captured the nostalgia of the period and the central role pubs played in social life particularly as we have lost so many already and no doubt more to come.”

Records created by Michael Mayes

 

The Crown Tavern, Aberdeen Place, London. Architect CH Worley, built 1898. CON_B04084_F002_034. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

The Crown Tavern, 23 Aberdeen Place, London NW8

This pub is sadly no longer with us, having sold its last drink in March 2004. Its new incarnation is a striking residential property restored to show off its late Victorian origins. This image is intriguing. The wonderfully decorated windows invite the sunlight to steal in, throwing panes of light across the floor and wall, and highlighting a coat on its peg. A restless dog lingers near its master. A half-finished beer stands on the table, where on the opposite side a man sits, rolling his smoke, with a pint of Dublin’s finest waiting to be enjoyed. Cheers!

Lenin Memorial, Holford Square, London. Designed by Berthold Lubetkin, erected in 1942. CON_B04266_F001_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Lenin Memorial, Holford Square, London WC1 

Badly damaged by bombing in World War Two, the then-named Holford Square was condemned in 1948 and rebuilt to plans drawn up by the architect Berthold Lubetkin. It was renamed Bevin Court and located in Holford Gardens. Lubetkin had previously, in 1942, designed and installed the memorial you see in the photograph. In an uncanny parallel with events in June 2020 when protesters targeted statues of figures involved in the slave trade, Lenin’s memorial was regularly damaged and defaced, and eventually it was buried by Lubetkin beneath a staircase when Bevin Court was being built. The photograph featured in an exhibition, British Art and Design Before the War, at the Hayward Gallery in 1979-80. The photographer has captured an image of what could be considered an understated design: the arch above Lenin’s head, the inset inscription, the housing set at a downward angle. Note, however, the security chain around the base, a sign, perhaps, of the protests to come.

Ludgate Circus Railway Bridge, London. Opened 1865. CON_B04108_F003_024. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

Ludgate Circus Railway Bridge

This image featuring the railway bridge is undated though there are some clues as to the period in which it was taken. The clothes worn by a small group of young people in front of the King Lud pub on the left suggest the 1950s or earlier 1960s; note also the bus and the traffic light design. Scrutinise the cyclists hurtling down the hill, drop-handle racers having a great time in the light traffic – it is probably not rush hour. The City is either at rest, suggesting a weekend, or in an urgency of homeward bound city workers still toiling at their desks.

The Horniman Museum, London. Photographed by Anthony Kersting, 1990. CON_B04088_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

The Horniman Museum

The Museum opened on its present site in 1901. It is well known and frequently attended and plenty of information can be derived from its website. This image, taken by Anthony Kersting, exemplifies his approach to photography. Judging by the leafless trees, it appears to have been taken in the late afternoon of a winter’s day. The long shadow raking from the left anchors the building, which is highlighted and framed. Sky detail is minimal but the wisp of cloud is such a delight. The vehicle passing in front of the building suggests a longish exposure. Time, care and attention to detail whisper quietly from this image.

See all the records created by Michael here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/users/2090

And all the Conway Library photographs on Layers of London here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446 

Meet our volunteers… Gill, Lorraine and Bill

Audio version

Read by Gill Stoker, Celia Cockburn, and Bill Bryant. Edited by Christopher Bean.

Text version

It’s Volunteers’ Week in the UK this week and we wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate our fantastic Digitisation Volunteers. Every day last week we have shared their stories and thoughts in our Meet our volunteers series – we hope you enjoyed meeting them! 

Why I volunteer…

Gill: I’ve only recently joined the Courtauld volunteers, in mid-May – just by chance I came across details of the Open Courtauld Hour webinars on Zoom, and enjoyed watching them. In the one on 14 May I heard about the digitisation project, saw a photo of a big group of happy volunteers, and realised that it was exactly what I’ve been looking for! 

Lorraine: It’s so nice to be retired and to have time to do what I want. Learning is what drives me to volunteer – nothing altruistic I’m afraid (except the Year 13 student support in a local school).

Bill: It’s always good to be part of a worthwhile project involving teamwork. During Covid the weekly Zoom meetings are the only way I have of keeping within touching distance of the outside world – the Art Club has given me an outlet for whatever creative talent I may have by allowing me to submit some of my photographs.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Gill: Courtauld volunteers are really well looked after by the wonderful members of staff, who make sure we’re well supplied with interesting work to suit our skills and knowledge. It was a bit of a learning curve for me at first, as it involved getting set up with various bits of new (to me) technology, such as Zooniverse and Slack. Fortunately, I’ve already been using Zoom quite a lot since late March, and it’s been fun to take part in a number of video conferencing sessions, meeting the staff and other volunteers to discuss aspects of the digitisation work, or just for a social chat to share recommended books, TV programmes, etc. I’m finding the remote working very flexible – there are different aspects to choose from, so it’s possible to dot around from one task to another for the sake of variety, or focus on one longer task, depending on how you’re feeling.

Bill: I have no background in the Arts but the Art Market and how it works has always fascinated me. Volunteering at the Courtauld has enabled me to meet talented ‘arty’ people!

Lorraine: It’s the whole package really… the journey to and from the Aldwych, the various options available when in the Courtauld, the surprises when cataloguing or digitising, etc. The opportunity to research your own interests within the collection. I particularly enjoyed transcribing Anthony Kersting’s ledgers and his terrible handwriting!

 

A favourite photo or moment?

Gill: I’ve been captioning a lot of Canterbury Cathedral images via Zooniverse – lots of different styles of column/capital. There was a lovely funny capital of a man with what looked like two donkeys on either side of him. Obviously that particular stone carver had a good sense of humour! 

A capital in the Conway crowdsourced metadata entry project on Zooniverse: World Architecture Unlocked.

Lorraine: The London boxes are fascinating – so much has been lost! I always enjoy photographs of modernist architecture (read Lorraine’s blog post here!): for instance, this image of the staircase in Bevin Court, Finsbury.

Bevin Court Stairs. CON_B04266_F001_022. The Conway Library.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Gill: I teach from home (mostly English as a Foreign Language), and I also work part-time for a picture library, where I do a lot of work with pictures from different periods in history and from different countries all around the world. My work involves researching the images, then captioning and keywording them. I’ve been on furlough from the picture library since 1 April, and when I discovered that the Courtauld has a team of volunteers doing similar work, I got in touch straight away! 

The Conway items as they appear on Zooniverse’s World Architecture Unlocked. Gill and other volunteers who joined during the lockdown have only accessed the items in digital form.

Lorraine: After 38 years of teaching, volunteering at the Courtauld reignited my interest in the History of Art and as a result, I recently completed an MA in History of Art and Photography. I’m now seriously considering a PhD but… who knows… do I have the time!? I also volunteer at the Tate archives and support year 13 students in a local school. When I am not researching or reading, I am a life-long football supporter and an avid Star Trek/Picard fan. I’m also an animal rescue fanatic – bears especially but all animals. I live South of the river with a long-suffering partner/husband and a cat.

Bill: I’m an old chap – that is pre-war vintage. I was born and bred in London, and save for time in Cheltenham have lived here all my life.  I was a Civil Servant – first at GCHQ (having learned Russian during my National Service in the RAF) and then at the Home Office where I worked in the Royal Prerogative Section (dealing with criminal cases which had been through all the legal processes up to and including Appeal but where the Appellant was able to produce relevant and compelling new evidence which had not been before the Courts). After retirement I worked as a  volunteer at The Cardinal Hume Centre – teaching English mainly to refugees; then as a volunteer at St Mary’s Hospital and after a few years taking over the role of Voluntary Services Manager there. I follow Chelsea Football Club and like using my camera. 

“Westfield Coffee”, photograph taken by Bill.

What would you say to someone who wasn’t sure whether volunteering is for them?

Gill: Just give it a try – there’s nothing to lose, lots of support is available, and everyone is really friendly. 

Lorraine: You have nothing to lose and everything to gain… new skills, historical and photographic knowledge, and in many respects a greater understanding of what has been before. Become immersed in the vast range of images, from London in the 1950s and the lost English Country Houses to European cathedrals and the Middle East Mosques and Coptic Churches.

Bill: Meeting new people is normally great fun. Give it a try! What have you got to lose?

Volunteering during lockdown

Gill: Once my furlough period comes to an end and I can hopefully go back to work, I’d still like to continue as a Courtauld volunteer – I’m looking forward to visiting the Courtauld building and meeting people face-to-face when the time is right!

Bill: I live on my own and the interaction with others on the project during this stressful time has proved important to me in keeping a sense of perspective.

One of Lorraine’s contributions to Art Club.

 

Artwork by Lorraine Stoker.

Meet our volunteers… Francesca and Anne

Audio version

Read by Claudia and Celia

Text version

It’s Volunteers’ Week in the UK this week and we wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate our fantastic Digitisation Volunteers. Every day this week we will be sharing their stories and thoughts in our Meet our volunteers series – we hope you enjoy meeting them!

Francesca and Anne

Why I volunteer…

Francesca: I am pursuing a career in the museum sector and wanted to gain some skills to help me. I also enjoy meeting new people and sharing stories and think that engaging with people over art is a fantastic starting point. Often personal stories are birthed from looking at an old photograph and relating to it, alongside conversations about its historical context which is always interesting. I am currently unemployed so need to fill my time wisely and find that the Courtauld provides me with many inspiring tasks to get on with. I would say I see my volunteering as 60% for career progression and learning skills and 40% as a hobby.

Anne: Having taken early retirement a few years ago I was on the lookout for a volunteering opportunity; I heard about the Courtauld Digitisation Project from a friend who volunteers and it sounded really interesting so I joined up to give it a go!

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Francesca: I enjoy learning about diverse and precious content in the Conway Library. The Courtauld has the best sense of community that I’ve ever experienced in a volunteer museum setting and I love making new friends who have something in common with myself (love of art). Many of the volunteers are from the older generation and I find it fascinating to spend time with them and hear about their experience and ideas.

Anne: I really enjoy trying my hand at different parts of the process of digitisation, and seeing how it all fits together. I love the randomness of what you come across in the collection – one week it is Le Corbusier architectural drawings, the next Celtic crosses in Cornwall. And it is always exciting to come across photographs of places you know – in my first session we were digitising photos of a church tower in Croatia I had visited on holiday a few years ago.

Celtic crosses in the Conway Library.

Do you have a favourite photo or part of the collection?

Anne: KER_NEG_G03999 – a photo of young people gathered around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain (“Eros”) in Piccadilly Circus.

AF Kersting, Eros.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Francesca: The skills I learn while volunteering can be transferred to jobs that I will potentially have in the future in the museum sector (currently I am unemployed).  Working in the museum sector can be challenging at times because of the need to be up to date with the art world, so learning more about architecture and photography is always useful. When I’m not volunteering at the Courtauld I am applying for jobs, doing online learning, and volunteering elsewhere.

Anne: I have really got into birdwatching in the last couple of years, so I often go for day trips to local(ish) nature reserves armed with my binoculars and trusty little camera – I particularly like to visit the Thames estuary which has amazing water birds. I dabble in drawing a little, and enjoy making the most of London’s wonderful art galleries, and browsing the regular amazing exhibitions at London’s auction houses.

What would you say to someone who wasn’t sure whether volunteering is for them?

Francesca: I love volunteering here and even if there are things you’re not sure about there is bound to be something that will draw you in because there are a lot of diverse aspects of it that you can enjoy, whether that’s being sociable and making friends, engaging in the interesting art, learning new skills, or going on group museum trips. Another thing I would add is that the staff are very experienced and enjoy sharing and the collections, they are one of a kind, so the experience is very inspiring.

Anne: Give it a go! There are several different parts of the process you can try out which each require different types of skill, so you can find something which suits you or do a bit of everything. You’ll meet a very varied group of people, and be really well looked after by the lovely staff!

Volunteering during lockdown

Francesca: I think it’s important to keep an open mind during this time. The Art Club and general tasks to get on with have been useful for being creative and just filling up my time with something to work towards.  Staying at home all the time can often be demotivating because you lack a schedule, but the tasks from the Courtauld have positively rectified that.

Frncesca’s contribution to Art Club

Art Club prompt, week 4.

Anne: Volunteering at home during COVID19 has been a real surprise – there is a whole new set of tasks we can work on, and I’m really enjoying delving deep into (again) random bits of research in my own time. I worked in IT in my former life, so I am able to make good use of – and update! – my computer skills. The twice-weekly Zoom team calls have really helped give some structure to my weeks, and it has been lovely to gradually get to know other volunteers and the staff over the weeks. I’m also loving the Art Club, where we are given a weekly challenge and encouraged ever so gently to have a go at creating something to share with the group.

Alexander Bird: on the Shelley Memorial by Edward Onslow Ford

Audio version

Read by Christopher Williams

 

Text version

In 1893, the Shelley Memorial dedicated to the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was formally inaugurated in University College, Oxford. 83 years before, the then student was expelled for “contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to [him], and for also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication entitled The Necessity of Atheism”. At the time, this particular work had caused much contention at the university, and although Shelley’s religious and spiritual views are often reduced to simply aesthetic, they in fact fluxated and changed, as did his thinking throughout the course of his life.

This ever-changing nature of Shelley’s beliefs and ideas is greatly reflected in the memorial itself.  Although Shelley was an atheist, the memorial in his honour is very spiritual, elegiac and even religious, both in its imagery and in the ideas of life after death it evokes.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Sculpted by the artist Edward Onslow Ford, a foremost figure of the New Sculpture movement, the sculpture is situated in a domed tempietto in the college designed by Basil Champneys. The memorial was originally intended to be erected in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where Shelley was actually buried. But the statue was thought to be too large and eventually was donated to the college by Shelley’s daughter in law, Jane, Lady Shelley, who had also been the one who had commissioned it originally.

The sculpture itself depicts the lifeless Shelley washed ashore, caught in a sudden storm on the Gulf of La Spezia he drowned and was cremated near Viareggio.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

In the sculpture, he is shown nude and as a somewhat androgynous figure, reclining and life-size. Shelley himself is sculpted from white marble whereas the surrounding plinth and other sculpted elements are either in bronze or coloured marble.

The memorial features classical and symbolic imagery throughout, in the tree branches, heavy with fruit, as well as in the two mythological creatures that hold up the plinth. The second figure is a female study, looking mournful and solemn she holds a stringed instrument, a lyre or harp. It is possible that she represents a mourner or even Shelley’s wife Mary. But most likely she is the visual and physical embodiment of “poetry” itself.

Ford often included allegorical figures such as these within his work, especially in commissions and memorials. Often an excuse to show a male or female study, they could represent certain subjects or classical pursuits such as science, art, poetry or even more universal themes such as motherhood, death, grace, hope and prosperity.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_013. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Some of these allegorical figures can be seen in works such as the Victoria or Gladstone memorials.

The piece itself is very similar to others of the movement such as Teucer by Hamo Thornycroft, Icarus by Alfred Gilbert and The Sluggard by Frederic Leighton, all of which represent classical Greek heroes or athletes, studies of male nudes and all in the highly stylised, idealised and polished style of the movement. It has been argued that the memorial itself has been responsible for shaping Shelley’s image in modern times, the work itself was described as being able to present an “atmosphere of thought and feeling”.

Ford’s approach to the human figure is highly stylised, much like that of his contemporaries such as Thornycroft and Brock. The new sculpture movement was known for these types of works, ones which moved away from neoclassicism yet still referenced it, and for their use of symbolism, which was more dynamic, energetic and physical but still refined, and often featured elements of the mythological and exotic. Another piece by Ford is Linos, which was heralded at the time, very early in his career as a sculptor. Linos resembled in many ways Rodin’s Age of Bronze; the two were displayed together at the Royal Academy in 1884.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Although similar in that they are both studies of the male nude as well as extremely physical and expressive, they are also very contrasting in their styles. Rodin’s work was seen as very rough and experimental at the time, physical and taught, restricted and real. The critic Spielmann described Ford’s work as “always restrained, refined, dainty, elegant, aiming at grace and decorativeness rather than passion and force”. But for the subject matter of the Shelley memorial, this style is very well suited. When we think of the Romantic poet tragically drowned and laying on the shore, surely no style is better suited to visually represent it than that of an extremely physical and emotional piece of symbolic sculpture which harks back to the style of ancient Greece, the style used to depict great and tragic mythological heroes.

I believe this is the purpose of the visual and thematic decisions that went into creating the piece. My personal reaction to it was shock and a desire to find out more about it, it is extremely beautiful and delicate and it is possible to view it simply as a sculpture depicting a myth or allegory as opposed to the unfortunate truth of someone’s life, but this mixed with the rather intimate viewing of it makes apparent why it has changed the way we perceive both Shelley and his ideas. The sculpture helped the popularity of Shelley’s work and also changed the way it was perceived, adding to Shelley’s image of Romantic poet and simply showing him as a beautiful and tragic classical and allegorical figure.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_011. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.


Alexander Bird
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

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

Audio Version

Text Version

While digitising a box of photographs of Oxfordshire churches with fellow volunteer Muny, 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

Audio Version

Text Version

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

Jane Macintyre on meeting HRH The Princess Royal

Audio Version

Text Version

My name is Jane Macintyre. I am one of the volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

On the afternoon of 12th June, HRH The Princess Royal visited both The Courtauld Gallery and the Institute in her role as Chancellor of the University of London. Prior to the event, she had expressed an interest in meeting the digitisation team – Tom, Matthew, Faye and Sarah – plus one of the volunteers. About five weeks before the visit a ballot determined, as luck would have it, that the volunteer would be me. I was bursting to tell everyone but had been sworn to secrecy.

It turned out that HRH wouldn’t be able to visit the basement studio or library space, but the prints and drawings room on the first floor of the building substituted as a suitable venue where we could present images. Tom and Matthew had selected a small spread of Conway mounts, Laib photos and Anthony Kersting’s images and ledger books. They took care to choose some particularly relevant images such as the only photograph in the collection of the Princess’s home, Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire, and some Olympics venues such as the Athens Arena from 1896, the first Olympics of modern times. Faye set up the camera and connected it to her laptop to mimic the studio facility.

HRH The Princess Royal meeting the Digital Media Team. Photo courtesy of Jim Winslet.

Security on the day was tight. At 2.15pm everyone was summoned to the foyer to receive our credentials and a final briefing, then we took our places in the prints room where we awaited a last security sweep before HRH arrived. It seemed like a long time: excitement mounted.

Finally, the Princess came into the prints room accompanied by the Director of The Courtauld, Professor Deborah Swallow. The Princess, clearly well-informed and interested, was first introduced to the prints and drawings team, and after perusing some of the drawings, came over to talk to the digital team. Tom summarised what the project was about, and presented Matt, Faye, Sarah and myself (in strict sequence). The Princess asked me to explain the role of the volunteers and then Tom showed her the selected array of photographs, which led to a discussion on Gatcombe Park and the changes that had been made to it since the photograph was taken in 1945. She also picked up on the photograph of the Athens Olympics, before moving on to the next part of her visit, the launch the Founders’ Circle, a new society to recognise major benefactors to The Courtauld.

So five weeks of anticipation was over in a few minutes. We definitely rose to the occasion and did a good job of explaining the project. Never having met royalty before, I was struck by the level of organisation, coordination and sheer choreography required to achieve a smooth and effective visit.

Mary Caple: digitising at the Courtauld

Audio Version

Read by Tanya Goodman-Bailey

Text Version

Mary Caple: Digitisation Volunteer

Mary Caple: Digitisation Volunteer

My name is Mary Caple. I’m one of the volunteers on the HLF Digitisation Project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since we started digitising images in March, I’ve spent nearly thirty hours working on the project with Faye, Tom, Sarah, and and other community members donating their time.

I jumped at the chance to get on board with this initiative. During my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada, I took museum studies courses, designed exhibitions, and questioned various approaches to digitisation with my peers. What kinds of possibilities arise when exponentially more data is freely available online? Can digitisation make archives more accessible to a broad array of people within and outside academia? Since university I’ve researched in archives and worked on curatorial projects, but this role brings two firsts. Collections photography and the digitisation process are new to me.

One of the many reasons this project at the Courtauld is special is its approach to volunteer participation. While we are welcome to request a particular task on any given day, by default we rotate through jobs from cataloguing to photography. This way, each person involved digitising the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections can try something new as well as play to their strengths. Switching around has another benefit. By spending time with distinct parts of the collections and approaching them on Tuesdays as a photographer, Thursdays as an archivist, and Fridays as a geographical sleuth/transcriber, a potentially overwhelming behemoth undertaking instead feels like a treasure trove. The ability to approach our material from these different angles keeps perspective fresh and gives a sense of what lies ahead in the months and years to come as the project progresses.

Here, I’ll take you through each of the three types of tasks each volunteer performs when they come in to the Institute. By starting with the small parts – the daily tasks of the 50+ volunteers involved –  I hope you’ll gain an understanding of what goes into getting a large-scale digitisation initiative like this one off the ground.

Labeling/Sorting

Boxes waiting to be labeled

Boxes waiting to be labeled

The first task on the roster for most volunteers involves sorting and labeling the collections. Over the last month and change we started labeling the Conway collection. Most of these items are printed photographs mounted on card stock, sorted in files, which are housed in boxes found on shelves of the library. As such, they’re also a bit sturdier (less easy to break, tear or maim) than the film and glass negatives of the Kersting and Laib images and a good point of departure for learning how to handle archival objects.

Everything gets a number in our very own Library of Babel. Lots of time is dedicated to going through and numbering each box with sticky labels, and numbering the files and cardstock pages (as well as the occasional news clipping) in each file in pencil by hand. These numbers come in handy later on when we’re taking photos – a number becomes the unique identifier for each image, and what you’ll see eventually when you navigate to the image’s page on the online site. We’re creating a new archival framework that will organize the way the images live in their online home.

While labeling is a great way to get to know the geographical and temporal depth of the Conway images, there are also small surprises. I learned one of my favourite archival lessons from Faye while sorting images. Every file containing architectural images is sorted from distance views to interior details, outside to inside. Keep an eye out if you find yourself flipping through them. 

Transcribing the Kersting Logs

Another task dealing with the words and numbers of images involves “digitising” Anthony Kersting’s photograph ledgers by data entry. Kersting meticulously wrote down the date, place, and distinguishing information about thousands of photos he took all around the world throughout the 20th century. Transcription volunteers go through his logbooks and enter this information into a Google Form Faye has set up. This simplifies the data input procedure, hiding the entire spreadsheet of information each time we sit down to work.

Kersting may have been a globetrotter, but he was also a passionate explorer of his own backyard. A recent newcomer to the UK, I’ve found tracing his travels from Cumbria to Herefordshire and beyond a terrific learning experience. Often some Googling is in order to clear up undecipherable spelling or to clearly pinpoint where his travels had taken him for a given photo.

Tracing his photographic path through 1960s Middle East has been a particularly moving experience. I trawl through Wikipedia sites and old travel guides to find location information for castles and towns Kersting rolled through. Borders have changed. Many of the sites Kersting thought interesting enough to photograph have now been destroyed or badly damaged by the conflict in Syria. 

Taking the Photos

Taking the photos

While boxes are labeled and data is inputted, we’re moving along with photographing the collection. This is a chance for the social volunteers among us to get collaborative – the photo team always consists of two volunteers. One person positions the images under the camera. The other uses the studio computer to edit each for uniformity and add some simple metadata to the files. While we’re welcome to have a look at the images whenever we’re in, this job provides a great chance to have a look at each and every image going up.

You might be wondering why we’re using a camera instead of a scanner to digitise. While a scanner might complete the job more quickly, and many digitisation projects do use scanners to capture images, the use of a camera here serves a particular purpose. As many of the images we’re working with are mounted, an image taken with a camera can capture that extra layer of depth – the sliver of space between board and photograph is given life. We hope to give the computer user a taste of the experience of getting to see these collections in person – the entire boards are treated as archival objects rather than just the photographs mounted to them. Tom Bilson, the Courtauld’s Head of Digital Media, describes this beautifully – ask him if you ever see him in person. 

Spending time on each of these tasks gives volunteers a sense of the larger momentum of the project while they work on smaller tasks. Returning to the same task you worked on a few days, weeks or a month or two previous comes with the surprise of seeing how much the other volunteers and staff have completed in the interim. Something as small as a giant leap in the number of boxes labeled, having moved on to a geographical locale further down the alphabet or thematically different, or seeing a new subject arise (architecture has taken awhile!) is exciting.

Now that the overview is out of the way, I’m looking forward to diving into some specific stories about the collection to share with you in months to come.

Getting to know our volunteers

Audio version

Read by Celia Cockburn

Text version

Written by Sarah Way

Interviewing volunteers is one of my favourite parts of being a Volunteer Coordinator, I never get bored of hearing people’s stories and what led them to become a volunteer. This past month and a half I have interviewed over 40 new volunteers for our digitisation project so it’s been a brilliant 6 weeks for me.  Now that I’ve listened to everyone’s motivations, goals and stories I thought I would blog about what I’ve learnt in a Q&A style…

After interviewing over 40 people, would you say there is a typical digitisation volunteer?
In short, no. We are really, very lucky to have attracted such a diversity of experience, skills, knowledge-bases and strengths in such a short space of time. We have a very multicultural volunteer team so far, which I think is a great strength as we are digitising photographs from all over the world. We also have a wide age range amongst our volunteers, spanning from 18 to 70+. We have people with professional and unpaid experience from a wide variety of sectors like finance, education and architecture, as well as many who have formerly trained in art history, conservation and archiving, and also many enthusiasts – so this is a chance not only for volunteers to learn from us, but for us to learn from them and for there to be lots of shared learning from each other. A real network is already emerging!

Getting to know the Conway Library © The Courtauld Institute of Art

Is there a main motivation for getting involved in the Digitisation project so far?
As you would expect, everyone has a slightly different take on why they want to volunteer, but in general there are four main motivations for becoming a digitisation volunteer that crop up in most of the interviews so far, with many people mentioning at least two at some point in their interview:

  1. A passion for creating an open data platform as a way of opening up stories, diversifying audiences, breaking down barriers and improving access to art for communities who might not be able to access the originals.
  2. The pull of being involved with the Courtauld Institute of Art, as a world-class cultural institution.
  3. The chance to gain hands-on experience on a digitisation process, with a view to move into employment or further training in this field.
  4. The desire to spend free time discovering images that are interesting, beautiful and have not been made public before.


Has anything about the interviews so far surprised you?
After managing volunteers for quite a few years, I have learnt not to make assumptions; but I am always very moved by people’s passion, drive and commitment to use their free time to help organisations further their cause, and I am overwhelmed by the variety of skills and perspectives they bring with them. It’s very motivating to be around them!

 


Sarah Way

Courtauld Connects Volunteer Coordinator