Rome is a very special place to me and this is a small, perfect jewel in its crown. The Keats-Shelley House on the Spanish Steps in Rome is a museum dedicated to the second-generation English romantic poets who lived in, and were inspired by Italy. The house hosted PB and Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron, but more importantly, it was the final home of John Keats. I am not a lover of poetry, having endured Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at school, but the various Odes by Keats and Paradise Lost by Milton somehow embedded themselves in my artistic imagination. Ode to a Nightingale by Keats is a personal favourite, it even recently prompted the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association’s 2020 Keats-Shelley Writing Prize theme of Songbird.
Anthony Kersting’s black and white photograph of the house, with its half-shuttered windows, patchy exterior paintwork and the overall dilapidated appearance, exudes a post-war feeling of decay – almost a reflection of Keats’ own situation – tired, worn out, dying. The building appears almost tragic – reflecting a tragic life and story. Ode to a Nightingale was written two years before Keats died in this building in 1821 and yet the following stanza captures the ‘beauty’ and essence of this photograph.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. [read more]
Today, the striking, renovated building, has a secure future, thanks to the ongoing programme of maintenance and restorations to the interior and exterior of the House. So, before climbing the 138 Spanish steps, It is worth taking a walk through a series of beautiful rooms, containing many treasures and curiosities associated with the lives and works of the Romantic poets, as well as one of the finest libraries of Romantic literature in the world, now numbering more than 8,000 volumes.
In addition to the museum, library and exhibition rooms, there are two spacious terraces boasting stunning views, a book and gift shop, and a small cinema room. The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (London) purchased the house in 1906 and oversees this house, as well as the Keats House in London, and his grave in Rome.
This sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite of George Zarnecki, former librarian of the Conway and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. In the latter part of the 20th century, he was a leading authority on sculpture of the Norman or Romanesque period.
For his book English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140, he chose it as the image for the front cover. It is a carving on a capital of a pillar in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. It dates from 1070 and shows two animals playing musical instruments. The inspiration for the images came from local illuminated manuscripts.
Zarnecki acknowledged that showing animals playing musical instruments was a popular theme, as they featured in humorous folk tales and fables. However, he had not seen any other work to compare with the sophistication shown here. He was struck by the complex composition, the richness of the imagination and the superior quality of the draughtsmanship and modelling.
The purpose of the sculpture
In medieval thinking, the universe was divinely ordered so therefore everything could be given a theological explanation, and everything on earth reflected different aspects of Heaven.
In the middle ages, most people were illiterate, so sculpture and painting provided the images and pictures to illustrate sermons and stories. People lived in a harsh world full of superstition and fear of the unknown. They had the same IQ as ourselves, and exercised it through powerful imaginations, myth-making and storytelling, as they tried to make sense of the world. Meanwhile, the Church aimed to secure a sense of awe and apprehension, a fear of divine retribution. So, popular images could be used to illustrate a moral message.
Churches were carved all over and painted. It was believed that they were seen not only by people but also by God, so symbolism had to be everywhere.
Animals in the Medieval imagination
Medieval stories have attracted an extensive field of academic research, which tends to analyse stories as:
Fables with a strong moral tone, e.g. Aesop’s fables from the 5th century BC;
Myths: creation stories, focussed on Gods and mortals;
Folk tales, designed both for entertainment and for moral guidance. They were more playful and less structured. Stories were told and retold, continually changing and adapting, to reflect the point to be made, or the circumstances of the time. They were not written down until the 16th.
These categories overlapped of course. Also, stories travelled widely around the world along the trade routes and picked up many influences. Animals featured strongly. They developed specific characteristics, and many fantastical, mythical animals were created. Animals were seen as sources of instruction, as in the Book of Job: ‘’Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee – and the fowls of the air’’ [Job 12:7].
Animal symbolism and musical instruments
Here are just a few examples, to provide some context for the animals in this picture:
A cat – represents laziness and lechery;
Playing a fiddle – suggests a mewing sound;
Dog – faithful, loyal, but also can be stupid and lustful;
Donkey – Christ’s beast of burden, or used derogatorily to represent either stupid or lower class people, but can also be lustful;
Goat – loves the mountains like Jesus, represents fertility but also the horned devil. Can represent intelligence and mischievousness. And lust.
Sheep – can represent Christ/the lamb of God. Indicates purity, gentleness, wisdom, but not as canny as goats. (It’s the only animal I can find who is not associated with lust!)
Playing a lute – suggests a bleating sound.
Sheep and goats were the earliest animals to be domesticated and feature heavily in folk stories. Animals from all over the world were introduced as these stories circulated, so non-indigenous types such as a mountain goat or ibex would feature in English folk tales.
What this carving shows
In order to understand it, I drew it as a simplified picture to clarify the detail that is hard to decipher from the photograph. I have also added in some features that look to have become worn or broken.
What I think I see is a sheep, an ibex, and a fantastical creature.
The sheep is female and playing a violin or maybe a lute with a bow. She has a human torso which is smooth like skin, a human breast and hands, but hooves for feet. The sheep also has wings, is standing upright and appears to be singing.
The sex of the ibex is not visible, but it is playing a cornet or trumpet, so my assumption is that he is male. He has the head and body of a goat. He is playing the horn with his cloven forefeet. His hind feet, however, are human. His right foot appears to be wearing a shoe and is between the sheep’s instrument and her leg, possibly pointing towards her groin.
He is riding a creature which has the head of a dog, front legs with hooves but the tail of a fish. The creature is stretching back to bite the ibex, which may indicate that the ibex is planning mischief, or is making too much noise. (Where medieval animals are seen biting themselves, this means they have made a mistake and are punishing themselves. E.g. a wolf bites his foreleg if he treads on a stick and makes a noise as he creeps up on a chicken shed.)
Conclusion: The ibex is trying to seduce the sheep, who is pure. The instruments may indicate their respective voices or symbolise their sexual parts. One senses the sheep is wise and the ibex will have his work cut out!
What is the story?
There are many story and reference books, but from what I can find online there is no obviously popular story that could feature this scene. The crypt of Canterbury was a pilgrimage destination, so perhaps this and other wonderful carvings there were used to entertain them or to remind them of a clear moral point.
Would anyone like to write the story? Or offer an alternative interpretation of the picture?
Zarnecki G (1951) English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140. London: Tiranti.
Kahn D (1991) Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Sculpture. Austin: University of Texas Press. (Deborah Kahn was a pupil of Zarnecki and her work remains the definitive analysis of Canterbury Cathedral’s sculpture.)
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
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 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.
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.
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.
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. 
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).
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.
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).
 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.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
In 1956, before Brooke House was built, or any part of Basildon for that matter, there was a sign in its place that read: “This is the site of Basildon Town Centre”. Over the next few years, the first buildings of what was already Basildon were put up, fulfilling the sign’s prophetic message. I was particularly intrigued to find a folder in the Conway Library containing 20th Century municipal and residential architecture, not least of all because it is shelved directly opposite several boxes-worth of photographs of the Hagia Sofia, which is about as iconic as European architecture gets. There is something important to be gained, I think, from recognising the aesthetic and historic value of a medium-sized post-war town in Essex, alongside so much other human achievement.
“The New Towns are no longer new” reads a parliamentary select committee’s investigation into the problems now faced by the swathe of purpose-built towns following the end of the Second World War. These towns were, in theory, a continuation of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision to house those displaced by slum-clearance in an overcrowded London. There is certainly a shared utopian ideal between the New Towns and the Garden Cities, and not one mutually exclusive of pragmatism. But there the similarities end, as finally the avant-garde of British architects were given permission, and funding, to build the modern sorts of towns that they had always dreamed about.
Among them was Sir Basil Spence, who, having won the contract to redesign Coventry Cathedral (beating competition from Giles Gilbert Scott), rose to prominence and became Britain’s most prolific modernist architect. He, along with A.B. Davis, designed Brooke House and the vast majority of Basildon’s town centre.
It is tempting, as with so much Brutalist architecture, to make claims of the building’s dominance over the low-rise landscape, and certainly it is possible to indicate this with a Rodchenko-esque photograph (see above). But the general impression given by the pictures in the Conway Archive is not one of overbearing concrete. Both up close and from a distance, we are able to see how the entirely residential building inhabits a humbler space at the centre of town, acting as a sheltered forecourt for the surrounding shops. Even the undoubtedly massive pylons even have a slight slimness to them, to the point of looking vaguely insectoid and flimsy under the immense weight they support.
What this goes to show is the humanist bent of the design of the New Towns. Certainly they are monumental (the problems they were attempting to remedy necessitated their scale) but equally they were a radical approach to the problems of working-class living conditions at the time. The Liberal MP Lord Beveridge, whose work laid the foundations for Britain’s welfare state, described the ideal New Town as one of “beauty and happiness and community spirit”. It is the effort towards these ideals that I think is captured in these photographs, before the subsequent economic downturn and regeneration programs undergone by Basildon.
It is not the case, as the Parliamentary select committee’s report seems to suggest, that New Towns such as Basildon were always devoid of community cultural centres. Instead that these facilities (a cinema, an arts centre, a library etc.) required a consistent investment which the New Towns, unfortunately, did not receive. Equally, accusations of the towns’ lack of heritage in the 2008 report contradict the assertion that they “are no longer new”.
Indeed, in Basildon’s case, just before the release of the 2008 report, National Lottery funding had been used to establish a heritage trail through the town focussing on its post-war architecture. And the aesthetic effect of this architecture has its own heritage in England’s radical humanist tradition, of the likes of Milton’s poetics, or More’s Utopia. So to find photographs of Basildon amongst so much readily-accepted great architecture is a reassurance; its place in an archive of this significance is a foothold for its place in the grand scheme of British architectural history. And, in its own way, it is an investment, of sorts.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer Ben Britton is a writer based in London with an interest in modernist aesthetics and cultural heritage.
Laon, a town in North-East France, has an immense and beautiful cathedral on top of a 200-metre hill, the location of the medieval walled town. It is one of the most important examples of early Gothic architecture.
Sixteen life-size statues of oxen look down from the top of the two western towers. As far as I can ascertain, such a number and size of sculpture is unique.
Medieval scholars mention them as an afterthought in their analysis of the cathedral’s architecture and history of development. Laon tourist web sites start with them, as if to say, hey, come to Laon and see the cows in the sky!
There is no documentation to explain the oxen’s presence. Local custom explains that they recognise the importance of oxen in the building of the cathedral, given it’s on top of a high steep hill. Leading on from this, folklore tells of an ox dying of exhaustion as it climbed the hill. The carter, desperate to get his load to the building site, was amazed when another ox appeared from nowhere, helped pull the load to the top, then disappeared before the carter could decide what to do with it. Another variation believes that the cart contained holy relics, and the appearance of the ox an act of God. The statues, therefore, record the miracle of oxen appearing out of thin air.
Putting aside the miracle option, the basic folklore is not immediately convincing:
People used oxen throughout the medieval world as their standard beast of burden, and continued to rely on them until the advent of 19th-century industrialisation, yet they appear only rarely in medieval sculpture.
As Laon’s location is high up on a steep hill, teams of oxen must have been a continuous daily feature as they must have been used to deliver supplies. However, many other towns and cities were located strategically on hilltops, but there is no evidence that inhabitants felt the need to record their reliance on the ox.
The oxen did not need to transport stone, as this came from the limestone covering the plateau of the hilltop.
If, however, the scale of the Laon climb was unusually severe, it does not explain why it was necessary to have as many as sixteen sculptures.
As there is no firm evidence for their placement, medieval scholars simply acknowledge their existence, record the folklore and may make brief reference to the miracle story. My understanding is that it is not considered proper scholarship to speculate on secular sculpture and carving. This is understandable, so I have attempted to consider what circumstantial evidence may be available to indicate why the oxen are there:
They may be the medieval equivalent of a vanity project. Cathedral construction was funded only in part by the church and the crown. Most funding was raised from the local townspeople, creating tensions with the clergy, and delays in building when funds were exhausted. Laon was built in 5 protracted phases, completing in 1230. Laon is surrounded by a huge flat plain, which in the Middle Ages was given to arable farming and vineyards. The farms would have used oxen extensively for ploughing and haulage. There may have been such a deep affection for the animal, that a wealthy landowner decided to provide funding to immortalise them in stone.
Certainly, paintings of livestock became popular in subsequent centuries. It is known that the 17th-century Dutch painter, Aelbert Cuyp, was successful in selling his paintings of cows to a European market and to British landowners in particular.
Medieval Laon was a major regional centre and popular with the French monarchy. The Carolingian and Capetian kings used it as their base in North East France. They may have also provided funding for the cathedral, although this is unlikely. Nevertheless, I wondered if oxen or bulls (the terms were interchangeable in the Middle Ages) were symbols in their heraldry, but can find nothing.
The numbers of animals may be significant, in that medieval ox teams consisted of multiples of two up to a maximum of eight. So, each tower could represent one full team, potentially the size required to make the climb to Laon.
One commentary suggests that they are not all oxen, but a mix of animals real and imagined. The photographs show they all seem to be wearing a harness, and although many have lost their horns and ears, they all look broadly the same.
All of the above is, of course, more speculation than circumstantial evidence, so I am not going to make it as a medievalist with this essay. I have considered the influences of the local economy, the town’s geography, the cathedral’s funding, the presence of the monarchy, and would be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on other angles to consider, or if they are aware of similar sculpture elsewhere.
Perhaps the final word should come from WW Clark, author of Laon Cathedral Architecture (1983), who argued that the use of sculpture reached an unprecedented richness in Laon:
Their precise meaning remains elusive… they can be understood compositionally as the final accents in a design that integrates sculpture, both formally and iconographically, as inseparable constituent elements, beginning with the detail of the three portals.
Meanwhile, I may well feel the need to go and see them for myself.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Laon Cathedral Architecture 1 by WW Clark and R King
Laon Cathedral Architecture 2: The aesthetics of Space, Plan and Structure by WW Clark
The Ox in the Middle Ages by John H Moore Article in Agricultural History journal No 35 1961
Having volunteered on the digitisation project at the Courtauld for two years in April (can’t believe it!) I always had my eye on the Italian section of the Conway collection. We process the boxes the order they appear on the shelf, which is alphabetical, so I knew it would take us a while to get to Italy.
I was so delighted on a recent shift when I had been asked to brief a new fellow volunteer on the accessioning task. We walked down to the Italian section of the library and, much to my delight, the next folder to sort was Ravello! I felt like I had won the lottery – though I’m not familiar with that feeling!
This stunning, magical, charming, quiet little town, for those of you who don’t know, sits 365m above the Tyrrhenian sea on the magnificent Amalfi coast, away from the bustling tourist havens of Sorrento and Positano, and has a very special place in my heart. I went there on my first holiday with my now husband and we loved it so much we initially planned to have our wedding in Villa Cimbrone, known as the terrace of infinity, though it didn’t happen in the end, as it was too complicated logistically.
I have to say that at first, apart from the odd Kersting image, I didn’t think that the box had captured the beauty and magnificence of this place.
When I got home after my shift that morning I had a look at my photos to compare them to some of the places I recognised in the archive collection. I thought we had stacks (as we do now when we go on holiday with our children and with the less selective use of our digital cameras) but we didn’t. At the time we visited, digital cameras were not so affordably available and I also much preferred my SLR.
It made me wonder: had all my visual memories of this town been imprinted in my mind? Is the mind the best place to record our most enjoyable and visually memorable experiences, rather than on photographic paper or as a digital file stored on our computer? When I explored this idea and thought about all my travels abroad, I realized that the most memorable places and times in my experience do not have an extensive photographic record.
Perhaps I am romanticising my memories of this special place. But I can vividly recall the quiet glamour of the Villa Cimbrone, and the Ravello Festival concert in the grounds of Villa Rufolo that we happened upon as we made our way along the small winding streets with dramatic views of hilltop houses and the beautiful coastline to the Hotel Parsifal, the converted convent where we were to stay. And I can’t help but imagine that my experiences were similar to those of Escher, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Virginia Woolf, Robert Wagner and Jacqueline Kennedy and other famous visitors who have come here seeking inspiration.
We always said we would return to this charming, magical place, but it would have to be for a very special occasion indeed to experience it all over again and alter the memories we have.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Looking at the world as if it were a picture is a relatively recent phenomenon, yet nowadays, with the advent of smartphones and social media, the practice of producing pictures is embedded in our daily routine, and the term “picturesque” is more relevant than ever.
The Rievaulx Terrace at Duncombe Park in Yorkshire triggered my interest as it makes such a picturesque use of the exquisitely ruined Cistercian abbey nearby. Both sites are well recorded in a photo reportage I found in the Conway Library while digitising the box. The focus of the photo series, partly conducted for Country Life, are the temples, especially the rotunda, which gives us a trustworthy example of how the Rotunda in Stowe, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, should have looked like before Borra remodelled it. Of all 113 pictures, two are clearly outstanding; they were taken by Anthony Kersting.
Despite being described forty years ago as the foremost photographer of his generation, there are no publications dedicated to Anthony Kersting’s work. Although evaluating Kersting as the best photographer of his generation is a matter of personal judgement and every scholar or critic has his favourites, what is undeniable is the value of his contribution to the British photographic scene and his place alongside photographers like Yersbury, De Mare and especially Edwin Smith. Carefully selected and framed, their pictures poignantly explored another Britain, prizing evolution rather than revolution, variety, rootedness, and respect for landscape and vernacular architecture.
If we analyse Kersting’s pictures in detail, we can trace his painstaking and meticulous approach to framing architecture. Looking at the negatives, the brightly centre-lit abbey stands out immediately as the protagonist of the composition. The horizon is high in the picture – above the centre line – which places emphasis on the nature of the landscape. Indeed, the vantage point chosen by the photographer perfectly positions the viewer to enjoy the content of each plane of the image. Our sight of the distant hills might have been blocked by the foliage that dominates both sides of the photographs but, as it is, this position gives us an all-encompassing view, as in Claude Lorrain’s paintings. The abbey, like the two temples, stands perfectly vertical, framed between the wavy grass lawn and a dramatic cloudy sky – Kersting’s signature. In the image of the Ionic Temple the vantage point chosen is especially significant: to obtain his chosen angle, Kersting would have had to walk down the slope to position his tripod and wait until all the columns were fully lit.
To conclude, Rievaulx Terrace constitutes a unique example of landscape moulded on a picture’s composition before photography came along. Even if the visitor – an 18th-century guest of Duncombe or 21th-century influencer – perceives the Rievaulx landscape as natural and spontaneous, it is in fact totally constructed on a vantage point to recreate the effect of picturesque paintings. Likewise, looking at Kersting’s photographs through his framing device – a half plate camera – we can see that he didn’t just construct a picture, he also altered the vertical lines, as though he were a painter.
This is what I asked myself as soon as I walked into the building.
A pretty lady, nicely presented with a red lipstick smiled at me and swiftly asked for my name.
As a volunteer, I was preparing myself to either welcome guests or help with the drinks…
The email said: confirmation – you have been approved for Gallery Music: new compositions from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama between 15.00-16.00 on Sunday 19th of May.
For the last three years, students have been inspired to use the Courtauld’s collections, history and location as a starting point for their pieces. On this occasion, the pieces would be performed in the library, and I was in the audience.
Operatic singers, musicians, partitions, a clarinet, a cello, a viola, and a blue helium balloon took over the Conway Library amongst the iconic scarlet boxes.
What a contemporary concert: magical, unique and breathtaking… and YES I am glad I signed up for it.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Curated by Dr Charlotte de Mille with Dr Bretton Brown and Dr Cassandra Miller, the pieces performed were:
Ben Jonson Settings – Harry Harrison
The text in this piece is taken from three Jacobean “entertainments” by Ben Jonson. They were presented to Queen Anne of Denmark, who moved into Somerset House upon her arrival into London in 1603. Queen Anne patronised and supported many artists and composers during her lifetime, and her extravagant and daring masques were a crucial development in women’s performance. Rosemarie Morgan, soprano; Thomas Pickering, recorder
Tractatus – Efe Yuksel
…one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be… Tom Mole, baritone; Henrietta Hill, viola
Upon the Battlements – Ben Pease Barton
A dramatic musical exploration of identity, self-acceptance, loneliness and despair, setting text from four alternative translations of Kafka’s novel The Castle. On browsing the Conway Library, I came across a wonderful historic photograph of Karlstejn Castle in the Czech Republic, perched upon a mountain and soaring high above a sunken village in the forested valley below. I was reminded of the Czech scenery in which Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle, is set. Faryl Smith, soprano; Aline Christ, cello
To a Mouse – Mara Pruna
The piece follows the narrative of the famous poem with the same name, by Robert Burns. The flowing character and the subtly onomatopoeic texture reminds the listener of the fragile communion between humans and nature. The numerous musical surprises outline the idea that things don’t go to plan, even when one tries their hardest. Mary Walker, soprano; Michael Stowe, cor anglais
Get Well Soon – Mathis Saunier
This is a homage to David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive. Trapped between dream and reality, Bettie, a young star of Hollywood, suddenly realises that her entire life is not a lie but a dream, and that what she has just committed is indelible. Manon Gleizes, soprano; Rachael Hannigan, bass clarinet
Wilderness – Cloe Hotham Wilderness is the title of a collection of lost poetry written by Jim Morrison, the lead singer of 60s psychedelic rock band The Doors. I am hugely inspired by the artistic links Morrison made between the work of Aldous Huxley, William Blake, and other great writers in his own work, and sought to do something similar with my piece by blending Beat-like poetry written by a rock musician, with my own “classical” music, and find music and art from the time of the beat generation to be wonderfully raw and powerful in trying to express the human condition, which was something that was important to explore to both me and my singer, Emily Peace, in this collaboration. I have a strong interest in writing vocal and operatic music, drawing inspiration from literature spanning from the medieval period up to working with living writers to create new works. The setting of the Courtauld, and especially the Conway Library, has been a wonderful reminder to think of my work as not existing in a contemporary music vacuum, and to continue to be inspired by older works of art, literature, and music as well as the contemporary arts scene. Emily Peace, soprano; Charlotte Walker, cello
This is the second of two posts about Northampton architecture featured in the Conway library that I came across during a visit to the town, you can read the first post here.
Energetic local businessman W.J. Bassett-Lowke (1877–1953), or “WJ”, was the man behind the development of the UK’s model railway industry. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of modernism and this led him to engage two leading architects of the early 20th century to design his homes: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Peter Behrens.
In 1916, WJ’s father purchased a modest Georgian terrace house as his son’s wedding present. But ahead of the marriage WJ decided to remodel the house and asked Mackintosh to provide the redesign. The work was carried out during the difficult circumstances of WW1.
The new interior was striking, especially the decoration of the hall lounge with black walls and a golden frieze. It has been suggested that the couple found the scheme somewhat overpowering because soon WJ asked Mackintosh to lighten it. This second version is depicted in the photograph in the Conway library.
You can still see the original design because it has been reinstated at 78 Derngate which is now a museum.
The Bassett-Lowkes had not been at 78 Derngate long before they decided to move. They wanted a brand new home further away from the River Nene, hoping that this would be more comfortable for Mrs Bassett-Lowke who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Mackintosh was in poor health by the time WJ was ready to commission the work. Unable to find a British architect with modern ideas that matched his taste, WJ turned to the pioneering German architect and designer, Peter Behrens. The result was New Ways, probably the first modernist house in the UK and the only one in this country designed by Behrens. It perfectly suited the Bassett-Lowkes whose home it remained for many years.
Modest from the outside, but decidedly modern throughout, this Grade II* listed house was recently on the market and, at the time of writing, could be yours for £875,000.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer