Having started work on the Kersting Photographic Archive as a Digitisation Volunteer in August this year, I decided to try to find out more about his life. As part of this I used an online genealogy service and amongst various records that I discovered was a passenger list for a ship called “Venus” showing an entry for Anthony F Kersting, Photographer, aged 36, of 37 Frewin Road SW18. This sailed from Southampton to Madeira in March 1953 and when I checked in his ledger there were entries for photographs he had taken there at this time.
Looking through the relevant boxes I was surprised to find in one that there were photographs he had taken of the ship itself and some of its passengers. One particular photograph intrigued me. It was of a young girl who looked to be about ten years old, standing at the ship’s wheel, with an excited expression, pretending to steer. This prompted me to go back to the passenger list to see if I could identify her.
It helped that the passengers were put into age categories, one of which was ‘Children between 1 and 12’, and under the column for females there were two possible candidates, both called Mary. They each appeared to be travelling with their parents:
Mary M Gilmour (Schoolgirl, aged 11) with Walter Gilmour (Produce Merchant, aged 54) and Dorothy M Gilmour (Housewife, aged 49)
Mary F Musgrave (Schoolgirl, aged 10) with James P Musgrave (Carpet Manufacturer, aged 53) and Margaret Musgrave (Housewife, aged 53)
The Gilmour’s address was shown as being in Bridge of Weir, which is in Renfrewshire, Scotland and the Musgrave’s in Halifax, Yorkshire.
Armed with this information I started to search further to try to find which Mary it was in the photograph and whether she might still be alive. If so, my idea was to make contact and arrange to invite her to come and see her photograph at The Courtauld.
Unfortunately, I have so far been unable to follow the trail much further with enough certainty, but am continuing the search…
The mid-1920s in Frankfurt, Germany saw a desperate housing shortage. The First World War had swept through the city a few years prior, leaving the need for much of its housing to be re-built. In 1925, architect and city planner Ernst May was employed to head a new social housing project, known as the New Frankfurt, which would see the construction of 10,000 new homes for the working classes. It would be the largest social housing project of the Weimar years.
A modernist designer with utopian ideals, May saw the New Frankfurt project as an opportunity for increased domestic liberation through design. Inspired by the emerging theories of ‘efficiency engineering’ and household rationalisation – ideas which promoted the time-saving possibilities of ‘better’ object placement and applied them to the home – May believed that a well-designed home could make life easier for its occupants. He enlisted the help of Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky – Austria’s first female architect and fellow efficiency advocate – to design a new and thoroughly modern kitchen, befitting of this vision. The Frankfurt Kitchen, as it has come to be known, is arguably the most important legacy of the New Frankfurt project and is widely recognised as the first example of the modern fitted kitchen, as we know it today.
The 1920s were a time of social change for women in Germany. Declared to be the equals of men, women were granted the vote under the Weimar constitution. Increasingly, women were single, working, and less interested in family life, and the figure of the ‘New Woman’ emerged as a symbol – with her shorter hair and traditionally ‘unfeminine’ attire – depicting this shift.
The New Woman symbolised a lifestyle of work and leisure, following the expansion of employment and education opportunities that became available to women during the War. However, many took an aversion to this new sense of female independence. Conservatives worried about the long-term effect the New Woman might have on traditional values, as more women were in university than men, male joblessness was high, and the birth rate had dropped. Fewer women were working as servants, and so many middle-class homes also found themselves at a loss. A coalition of interest groups began to steadily form, seeking to readdress the woman’s place as being in the home, and the idea of the ‘professional’ housewife emerged, using efficiency engineering – specifically, its scientific language and approach – to intellectualise the idea of housekeeping. Suddenly, the same notion of rationalisation so embraced by modernist architects for its critique of traditional design was being used in socio-political terms to argue that the home would provide a suitable and modern experience for women, and, thanks to its new methodology, would be held in the same regard as a man’s professional work. This campaign to reaffirm the domestic sphere resulted in the introduction of a state policy called ‘Female Redomestication’, and education and employment options for women were largely diminished once again, as they returned to the home.
Back in Frankfurt, Lihotzky was designing her efficient kitchen. She consulted housewives and experts, drew inspiration from the spatial design of factory floors and train dining cars, and studied psychological and material evaluations. She realised that by placing the sink, stove and workspaces in a triangle, less time was spent walking between each. Her final design came pre-equipped – for the first time – with built-in storage, a gas stove, fold-down ironing board, adjustable ceiling light and a swivel stool. It was the first German kitchen with electricity. Efficiency was in every detail: the cupboards were painted blue as it was understood to be fly-repellent; cutting surfaces were made from beech to resist staining and knife marks; aluminium chutes were designed to hold staples such as flour and sugar for easy storage and pouring. The floor space, measuring in at just 1.9 x 3.44 metres, was decreed optimum for carrying out the tasks therein, and the room could be shut away with its sliding door.
It was designed as a gleaming embrace of technology and the future. It waved goodbye to the time-consuming and labour-intensive traditional kitchen: poorly ventilated, dimly lit, disorganised, and badly furnished. Lihotzky had optimised domesticity. She would later say that by doing so, it acted ‘very well as propaganda’ for the ‘bourgeois ideas of the time that a woman essentially worked at home in the kitchen’, and was aware that her gender, as designer, added to this narrative. Nevertheless, she would describe her time spent on the New Frankfurt project as amongst “a group that stood up for certain principles and architectural ideas, and fought for them uncompromisingly”.
How is it possible for such different interpretations of efficiency (conservative ideas of re-domestication, and modernist ideas of liberation through design) to co-exist? The answer lies in a 1923 book by author and housewife Christine Frederick, titled ‘Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home’, which has been referred to as the ‘the bible of progressive architects of the 1920s’.
“Couldn’t we standardise dishwashing by raising the height of the sink? Did we not waste time and needless walking in poorly arranged kitchens? I came to earnestly believe that scientific management could, and must, solve housework problems as it had already solved other work problems”.
The quote above – from the introduction of Household Engineering – begins a rallying cry for improved health, design and efficiency in the home. Frederick coined the concept of scientific home management after she began to apply the same principles used by her husband (who worked as an Efficiency Engineer) to her work as housewife, realising its time-saving potential. Her husband’s profession gave her writing credence and an ideological slant: with better working practices, the housewife would be freer. Architects used the practical advice in Household Engineering and applied it to their floorplans, and May and Lihotzky recognised the evolutionary role that considered design could have for the occupants of their social housing. However, this is perhaps where the cross-over of progressive design and domestication ends. While Household Engineering explores in detail how best to carry out housework, it takes a less radical approach towards who will be doing this work. Frederick frequently refers to the person in the kitchen as ‘the worker’, and it’s clear from Household Engineering’s floorplans of accompanying servant quarters that working-class women were expected to provide labour for middle-class households as servants still, only now with ‘scientific’ guidance on which tasks it would be acceptable for them to sit down during: “This permits the worker to give her entire energy to it, thus resulting in quicker and better work”.
If there was any question as to what the New Woman would do with her newly saved time, Frederick seems to imply the answer is more work. Indeed, Frederick herself admits to pouring her saved time back into improving her workflow, to every minor detail: “Every day I tried to find new ways, new methods and new short cuts in my home problems. If I made out a good schedule of work for one week I tried to improve on it for the week following. No housework detail was too small or too unimportant”.
A question naturally arises from this: how did the architects and designers of the New Frankfurt envision occupants using their newly rationalised space?
Throughout the project, May published a journal of the same name (Das Neue Frankfurt) and a 1927 article titled “The new apartment and the household effects” (Die Neue Wohnung und der Hausrat) written by Franz Schuster (architect and furniture designer) sheds a light on the team’s vision for women and their labour. It suggests intellectual pastimes in place of housework, and views the latter as unimportant and to be done quickly through improved efficiency: “The woman no longer wants to spend the entire day cleaning the house and doing meaningless things; she wants to be able to take part in contemporary intellectual life, and must be able to survive in the economic competition. She can no longer afford to waste her thought and effort on trivial things, whether she is a mother, or wife, or on her own – she wants to be a valuable comrade-in-arms in the building of a new Era. Thus she must demand of her home – as we do from everything else – that it not restrict the development of our best and most vital powers, but rather advance them; no one would claim that dusting, cleaning, and furniture brushing are particularly valuable in themselves. Thus the Era itself demands the new [efficient] household”.
It has been said before that the modernist movement set out to change more than architecture, and the Frankfurt Kitchen is a good example of this. Its design was intended to make life easier for Frankfurt inhabitants, helping women to spend less time on their own chores. The main criticism of its design at the time centred on the small scope for individualisation that the built-in furnishings allowed for, particularly at a time where women were spending more time at home. However, Lihotkzy has maintained that herself and the wider Frankfurt team considered the efficient kitchen an emancipatory space, describing it as “a modern laboratory where work was able to be done as quickly as possible”. She hoped to create a culture of less housework, and her kitchen is a successful piece of design which improved – with lasting effects – convenience, technology, health and safety and workflow within the home. It would go on to influence kitchen design through to current day, and it served as Lihotzky’s contribution to the issue of housework.
The Frankfurt Kitchen provided a means, rather than an end, to a problem.
However, it did so by designing a vision of the future where efficiency equated to greater freedoms (both leisurely and intellectually) – so that when society was ready to move in the same direction, the structures for positive change would be already in place.
Much loved and perused by staff, students, and the general public in the know, the Conway Library is a collection of 9764 red boxes containing brown manila folders. The photographs glued on the brown manila mounts are black and white original prints showing places of architectural notice, often in painstaking detail. The variety, detail and beauty of the photographs, as well as the value of this research resource are well documented in this blog.
Martin Conway, who had started collecting art in 1887, “spent a great many of the pre-war years occupied with his photographs, developing the system of mounting, annotating and arranging which can still be found today” (Higgon, 2006). His glamorous American wife, Katrina Glidden, and their daughter, Agnes, joined him in his passion and continued to further enrich the collection. Towards the end of his life, Martin Conway busied himself with the foundation of the Courtauld Institute, to which he donated his much-beloved collection (“The Conway Library archive contains some photographs taken at the Himalayan base camp, where a member of the team made a bust of Martin out of snow, adding a pipe and an incongruous wreath of local vegetation!”Higgon, 2006).
What is less well known about the collection is who took the photos after it moved to the Courtauld
One of the tasks available to the volunteers, Attributions, seeks to answer that very question. In capturing the names of the photographers, inked, pencilled or stamped predominantly on the back of the mounts, the volunteers compiled, for the first time in the history of the collection, a definitive list of the hundreds of people who contributed photos to the Conway after Conway.
The list of photographers tells a completely new story about the library. No longer simply the story of the initial collectors, this is now also the story of the hundreds of people – students, staff or independent supporters – who donated the images.
The attribution list could tell us the story of the development of these photographers’ interest in specific research fields and the beginning of their careers, or perhaps the story of a small foray into a life they chose not to pursue. It could reveal the arc of development of personal photographic styles and visions, or maybe just the sheer determination of non-photographers to capture and document all sites objectively and in as much detail as possible.
Already, just by looking at the names, we know that it was a truly collective effort and that women were very much represented.
In capturing these names, we set out to research the photographers who made the Conway, and credit their work
The volunteers carrying out the Attributions task came across famous (and infamous!) contributors such as Anthony F. Kersting, Robert Byron, Tim Benton and Anthony Blunt, but they also came across many names that were scribbled illegibly or reported in too little detail to be tracked reliably.
The most difficult names to research are those whose surnames are more common and those for which we either don’t have first names or we only have initials – such as “M. Wall”, “Mrs Booty”, “Nunn”, “P. Clayton”, Kidson or Lindley.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, we assigned our volunteers the task of researching these names and find out as much biographic information as possible, looking in particular for reliable sources to fill in their research forms. Once the forms were filled in and returned, they went out again to other volunteers for cross-checking and the second part of the task began.
We scheduled Wikipedia editing training sessions and asked the volunteers to try their luck creating new pages for our photographers, and adding information about their involvement with the Conway Library to the biography of photographers with existing pages.
The result, we hope, will give the collection even more visibility, and let us share its fascinating genesis.
Do you know anything more about the Conway photographers?
For the full list of names please continue reading.
Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19
Although the coronavirus has put our digitisation activities on hold at Somerset House, the pandemic has unlocked an outpouring of creativity amongst our volunteers. By adapting quickly, we have been able to initiate remote activities to advance the cataloguing, interpretation and care of our photographic collections, logging over 1,200 hours of remote volunteering time to date since 18 March.
Since our first open day in January 2017 over 900 volunteers have engaged with the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, donating over 25,000 hours of time. From the outset we have operated an almost constant programme of outreach, recruitment and training, and maintain an active community of around 230 regular volunteers, some of whom have each contributed nearly 700 hours of time. Activities on offer to volunteers include photography, labelling, copyright research, photographer attributions, transcription, and collection care.
Our volunteer community is diverse, exceeding targets set for us by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), and we cherish partnerships with My Action for Kids, Beyond Autism, and the Terrence Higgins Trust. In 2019 alone we supported 31 students on work placements of periods from a week to three months, and ran corporate volunteering sessions with companies including Willis Towers Watson, Mace, Cirium, LexisNexis, Ashurst, Boden, Sidley Austin, Marsh & McLennan, Tideway, Bank of England, AutoTrader and Facebook.
One belief remains constant: in order to deliver engaging content, without barriers or preconceptions, to the widest possible audience, we include that audience in its creation as fully as possible. Our volunteers’ efforts run through every part of this project, and it is their confidence, creativity and relentless dedication which we celebrate.
Before Covid-19 we were on target to finish the Conway Library by early 2021 before moving to the largely unpublished photographic archives of Anthony Kersting and Paul Laib. We will return to the studio as soon as guidance and practical considerations allow. In the meantime, this blog post describes a few of the ways in which we moved our activities online and strengthened our connection with the volunteer community which sits at the heart of this radical, transformational project.
Task management during Covid-19
To create and manage programmes of remote working, we record every activity on a master spreadsheet which includes a brief description of the task, links to internal and external documentation, and a priority number to measure how closely it maps onto the project’s core objectives. From this we can identify tasks we want to take forward, whilst refining or shelving those with less relevance or benefit. After an informal discussion, favoured tasks are then documented in detail in a pro forma for internal use which breaks them down under the following headings:
Title of task
On which material / collection is this task focussed?
Description of task,
How many volunteers can participate?
What equipment is needed?
Where will the task take place?
Instructions – how will the task be completed?
Who will supervise, and how?
What skills will participants learn and practice?
How will success be measured and judged?
No matter how detailed or trivial the task might seem, we also ensure that every one is matched against the same questions we answered in the Courtauld’s original application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund:
What difference will this task make for heritage? What difference will this task make for people? What difference will this task make for communities?
If a task reaches this stage and we’re still convinced of its value, we create a volunteer-friendly instruction sheet and launch it at one of our regular online meetings. The staff of the Digital Media Department then provide daily support and feedback through a dedicated channel on Slack, our digital hub for collaborations with our volunteers.
Although we continue to use Timecounts as a volunteer management system, managing the remote working activities of our large community within tasks requires a level of scrutiny that exceeds anything we had put in place before: one which enables us to log every activity, name, date and state of progress before checking and sign-off.
The following screenshot shows how we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks:
The following screenshot shows how we monitor progress across two specific tasks: the creation of draft Wikipedia pages for each of the photographers whose work appears in the Conway Library, and the production of audio transcripts of our blog posts in order to improve the accessibility of our storytelling and research.
The numbers are stacking up. From 18 March (the day following the suspension of in person volunteering activities and the start of remote working) to 1 June 2020 we have recorded:
1210.30 Volunteer From Home Hours
260 Kersting Mysteries solved
244 Conway Photographer Wikipedia template pages in progress
149 Conway Photographer Wikipedia pages ready for quality checking and publication
55 Layers of London records created
36 Audio Blog recordings in progress, with 13 ready to upload
28 volunteers have completed 752 subjects on Zooniverse.
Volunteering from home: researching the Conway Library photographers
The physical library is arranged by date period, then country, province, city or town. Notable buildings often occupy anything from a single box up to several shelves and, in certain locations, a division between sacred and secular architecture is present. However, for the first time since the library was created, our volunteers are revealing insights into the 400 named photographers whose work forms part of the collection. They inspect each photograph individually, and note down on a spreadsheet whether the name of its creator is present, usually in the form of a handwritten note or stamp.
Up to now all we knew about many of our photographers was their names. We turned the current situation into an opportunity for volunteers to research each photographer at home, with the objective of creating a biographical page for each on Wikipedia. The first step of the process is to assign to each volunteer a photographer’s name at random. Information they discover, such as her or his academic, bibliographic, and biographical details, references and external links is recorded on a pro forma which closely mirrors the Wikipedia page we will create for them. We communicate remotely with our volunteers every step of the way via a dedicated channel on Slack which now has 261 members, 64 of whom are actively writing photographer biographies. 244 biographies have been drafted so far, with 149 more in progress! The screenshot below shows a typical few days of the discussion currently taking place behind the scenes.
Readers might be surprised to know that, before the project created one, not even Anthony Kersting – described widely as the greatest architectural photographer of his generation – had a page on Wikipedia (we hold his collection of negatives and prints, and now expect to begin their digitisation in Summer 2021 ).
Volunteering from home: Kersting Mysteries
Anthony Kersting left his whole collection of negatives and prints to the Courtauld on his death in 2008.
He also left us his ledger books containing locations, descriptions and dates for almost every single photograph. In February our volunteers finished the massive two-year task of transcribing every one the ledgers, however his handwriting is often difficult to read, and many question marks remain.
To answer these, we created another Slack channel to which we upload high-res images of illegible entries, opening them up to the volunteer community to discuss, argue the case for a solution, and seek agreement. This involves a lot of Googling, and since we started we’ve all learned a lot about religious sites in Cairo, or alternative names of Eastern European towns.
One of the hardest parts of solving the Kersting mysteries is that he would spell things phonetically, or he might use a local spelling or variant spelling that isn’t used today. Volunteers are busy not only transcribing, but also translating. The product of this research will be the facility to geolocate almost all of his images on the new photographic collections website which this project will create.
Volunteering from home: Conservation
The Conway Library contains several thousand 19th century photographic prints. Many are rare, some are unique, and almost all are extremely susceptible to degradation and decay due to their particular chemical, synthetic and material qualities – the results of individual photographers’ experimentations and craftsmanship. We must understand the vulnerability of these objects to enable us to make the correct decisions and preserve them for the future and, in preparation, commissioned and submitted a Collections Conservation Plan to the NHLF. The period of closure has allowed us to plan and create training resources in the form of videos on handling, cleaning, selecting conservation materials, identifying deterioration, and storage, in anticipation of the digitisation of the Courtauld’s rich 19th century collections commencing soon after our return to the studio.
Volunteering from home: broadening access to the collection and teaching digital skills
Layers of London
Layers of London is a huge collaborative effort to map London’s history in a visual and interactive way, developed by the Institute of Historical Research. Anyone can access free historic maps of London and contribute stories and memories to create a social history resource about their local area, or places they have visited or researched.
We held a Layers of London training session attended by 16 volunteers back in February as we wanted to encourage them to use the site in their own time. However since lockdown we have adapted our instructions to provide a refresher for those volunteers we have already introduced to the project, and detailed guidance for newcomers.
Our partnership with Layers of London has allowed volunteers to add videos, text, or images from other places around the web, adding a richness to the story behind our photos. In many cases new information is sent back to us which isn’t recorded on the Conway’s photographic mounts.
So far, 22 volunteers are involved in this task. 55 records have been published, with a further 15 being drafted. Everyone who has taken part has learned new digital skills, research skills, made their own personal discoveries about our collections and shared them with a wide public audience who might have never discovered the rich and diverse coverage of the Conway.
Blog audio recording
Our blog has 57 posts (and counting!) on a range of topics linked to the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections. Almost all have been written by volunteers, interns, or students on work placement. We have long had ambitions to make audio versions of the posts to aid accessibility for people with a visual impairment. Since lockdown 13 recordings have been finished, with 36 more in progress. Clips will also be shared on social media and collected together in podcasts.
Volunteers engaged on this task have learnt new skills, from practical sound recording to speaking with confidence, and editing text for clarity. To support this activity we created a guide and made sample recordings (with photographs of the home-made pillow-fort setups to give professional results), and we give feedback on demos with tips and workshops on how to improve the sound if needed.
We recognise that creativity and self expression, particularly in a social setting, is an important means of boosting mental health – perhaps now more than ever. Our Art Club brings these very human needs and our collection together.
Once a week a member of the team picks an image from the collection to inspire volunteers (or anyone who comes across our prompts on social media). We always leave the prompts open, so people can respond using any media they have: we’ve received paintings, drawings, photographs, found object sculptures, video, and even flash fiction. The Henry Moore Foundation particularly enjoyed everyone’s imaginative responses to Large Square Form With Cut!
We hold an Art Club video chat each week for people to share their techniques, talk about art, and hear from team members on techniques to try with minimal materials. Our discussions about images from the Ministry of Works Collection depicting the siege of Monte Cassino led to moving reflections on photography, war, and memorialisation.
We’d encourage anyone to get involved in Art Club: check out our Twitter and Instagram channels for the prompts: there’s no time limit on trying out any of them.
The aims of every photographic and cataloguing activity we undertake are broadly those of raising awareness of the collections and the Courtauld, connecting with new audiences and providing them with content to foster learning and enjoyment at all levels. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when our audiences stop asking why our collections should be relevant to their interests, but start to ask why these images: whether beautiful, puzzling or shocking, are of interest to art historians – the content alone enticing and opening a door into the field of study.
A cornerstone of this content-centred approach is crowdsourced cataloguing. Whilst we wait for a new collections management and publishing system to be commissioned and built (which will itself have an embedded facility for crowdsourced cataloguing) we created a project called World Architecture Unlocked on Zooniverse, a platform involving hundreds of contributors worldwide, and uploaded the contents of the first 100 boxes from the Conway (over 8000 images), covering architecture from Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil and the beginning of early British. In each case we’re trying to do something which we always felt lay beyond the pragmatic objectives of this project which were to catalogue down to the box and folder level only: that of cataloguing individual images by transcribing everything written on their mounts.
After undergoing a period of internal testing by volunteers we’re now awaiting the go-ahead from Zoonioverse which will take this part of the project live. In the meantime anyone interested in contributing to the Zooniverse transcription is welcome to access World Architecture Unlocked, now in beta release.
We have always used Slack as a private social network for volunteers to use. However Slack has really come into its own since lockdown and, as well as run channels to discuss each volunteering task, we also run a fun_and_banter channel in which recommendations for books, podcasts, films, websites, and more are made. While we keep the recommendations mostly within the volunteer community, we often share some on our Twitter and Instagram channels, so make sure you follow us there. We’ve also been enjoying emoji games and sharing many art-related COVID memes. The London Boroughs emoji game had us occupied for a while!
We’ve run two Zoom chats per week since the first full week of closure, with between 23-46 volunteers joining us to catch up. We like to spend a few minutes going over project updates, but we always keep plenty of time just to check in and see how everyone is doing – and share yet more recommendations. Lorraine always has so many recommendations of all kinds from the seriously cultured to seriously silly, while Muny has shared great resources for teaching at home and keeping up with exercise! Another gripping twist of being online is that we are always learning about hidden talents: one week we found that we have bird watching (David), bird-photography (Christopher), and bird sketching (Anne) skills in our talented team! John has shared his hand-drawn print-out-and-colour in sheets, and Bill shared a gorgeous calligraphy front cover for a future book on Anthony Kersting, Sue went from Zoom skeptic to Zoom convert, and Francesca delighted us with her violin. We also welcomed some new volunteers like Gill, and welcomed back some old friends like Max, who volunteered with us back when the project started in 2017, and is now keeping in touch again with the online community.
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
Being presented with immediate free rein in The Courtauld’s Conway photographic library was delightfully overwhelming, and I spent much of my first day flitting between folders of images of Cumbrian churches, the Callipygian Venus, and Florentine stained glass.
Eventually and unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section of files on the architecture of Iran, and soon came across the two on Isfahan. Having visited the city a few years ago, I was curious to see the photographs of what I remember as one of the most beautiful cities in the country of my family. An ancient Silk Road city, Isfahan flourished in the Safavid period, and its skyline is still marked by the imperial sandstone of Shah Abbas’ golden age.
The domes and minarets of Isfahan’s mosques and palaces colour the city a vibrant blue, evoking memories of invading Mongols and their eastern ceramics. In The Road to Oxiana (1937), travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron (1905 – 1941) saw reflections of this dominating colour in the Zayandehrud river which cuts through the city; he describes it “catching that blue in its muddy silver… and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures”.
Expelled from Merton College, Oxford, Robert Byron was a member of the infamously flamboyant Hypocrites Club, and in the 1920s a “bright young thing” of the London social scene. While the excess of his early years was immortalised in novels by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, much of Byron’s life was spent travelling and soon he became a wildly successful travel writer, ahead of his death in combat in 1941.
Here at the Courtauld can be found Byron’s own photos from his Middle Eastern trip of 1933–34, taken during the writing of his most famous work, The Road to Oxiana.
Central to his view of Isfahan, is the river, “Zayandeh” literally meaning “life-giver”, and its two main bridges, Pol-e-Khaju, Khaju Bridge, and Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of 33 Arches.
Pol-e-khaju and Si-o-se Pol were both built in the seventeenth century, and function as pedestrian bridges as well as weirs. In Byron’s photographs the Zayandehrud tears between their arches, whilst in more recent years the waterbed has been dry.
Robert Byron’s several visits to the city over those two years provide evidence of the instability of the Zayandehrud’s water levels. In one photograph of Pol-e-Khaju the water is low enough to allow locals to wash and bathe on the crumbling Safavid steps.
In one of Byron’s photos of Si-o-se pol, a group of people seem stranded in his symmetrical framing, the water rising, with several of the men staring deep into the camera’s lens, almost imploring the viewer for help. Photographing this middle section of the bridge isolates these pedestrians, eliminating any view of escape from the Zayandehrud, reframing a simple social scene into a near biblical scene of flooding.
The two bridges have served as meeting-places and social spaces for Isfahanis since their inception, particularly in the evenings, when the workday ends and crowds are drawn to the aureate glow of the lit arcades and arches.
Byron describes the foot passages on Si-o-se Pol being as overwhelmed as the river; “it was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory”.
Despite Byron’s poetic synonymity of crowd and water, the drought of recent years have allowed for the continued tradition of singing underneath the arches of Khaju. Groups of men drink tea, smoke shisha pipes, or “hubble-bubbles” as Byron called them, and sing in groups or unison, their voices echoing off the high, curved roof of the cavernous spaces.
The sound is haunting, and one almost feels transported to a bygone era in awe of this storied tradition.
Much of Byron’s journey through Persia in The Road to Oxiana is impeded by bureaucracy and illness. Many of the entries of his many weeks stuck in Tehran start with some defeated variation of “Still here”. By contrast, the verdant splendour of Isfahan is celebrated, in what I find to be the most beautiful passage of the book:
“The bridge encloses the road by arched walls, on the outside of which runs a miniature arcade for foot passengers. This was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory. The lights came out. A little breeze stirred, and for the first time in four months I felt a wind that had no chill in it. I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine. So much it meant to have escaped from Teheran.” Robert Byron on Si-o-se Pol, The Road to Oxiana
For the first summer in ten years, 2019 saw the Khaju and Si-o-se bridges flushed with water once again. Through drought and flood, from their building in the 1600s, to Byron’s 1930s, to the present, the serene beauty of these “cafe-au-lait” bridges endures.
As part of our digitisation pilot, we organised 6 brainstorming sessions to develop new ideas and harness the creativity of unselected members of the public.
In the Collecting Stories session, we brainstormed the idea that putting the Courtauld Libraries’ images online could spark conversations not only to do with the academic appreciation of fine art and architecture, but also with personal history, community engagement, social development, and storytelling. We wanted to come up with ideas for the website’s structure, including options to collect stories and interpretation.
One of the exercises we set up to get the conversation started saw our participants roaming the Conway Library looking for one image that was personally relevant to them and writing a story to go with it. Images and stories were then passed on for someone else to write a reply and present them to the group.
We wanted to discuss what it’s like to approach an image collection with the intent to tell a personal story, whether reading someone else’s story about an image enriches it, and how it feels to have a stranger describe something personal like the photo of one’s hometown or special place.
The exercise really got our group talking and the resulting suggestions and ideas will shape the way our project will be delivered. As for the images selected and the stories generated, they were beautiful and nostalgic so some of our volunteers typed them up and wrote further responses. Here are a few.
“Broadgate – close to Liverpool Street
Swiss bank – public space – Richard Serra
Demolished – redevelopment – bars, cafes etc.
1980s corporate architecture – 20th century society
Memory – affection” Jan Peters
“Hidden behind Liverpool Street station is Broadgate. In amongst the monstrous redevelopment of this area weaves the Broadgate art trail, the most impressive art collection by acclaimed British and international artists. Accessible to all and out in the open-air my memories are of numerous school trips with teenagers interacting with fantastic sculptures, as opposed to the untouchable work in galleries and museums. We never noticed the rather sterile architecture (the students’ opinion) but marveled at the Fulcrum by Richard Serra, laughed at the Leaping Hare on Crescent and Bell by Barry Flanagan and sat drawing the Rush Hour by George Segal. It still holds its fascination today.” Lorraine Stoker
Isfahan (Persia) Shah Sultan Hussain’s Madrassa
“A painting or a ‘colourised’ photograph of the entrance to the Shah Sultan Hassain Madrassa in Isfahan, Iran. The coolness on the small pond, blue of the characteristics turquoise vaulting. Men in various uniforms stood by the doorway. A mix of clothing and styles – a young boy with cumberbund and blue shirt. Men in heavy overcoats.
Love insights into the clothing of people in the picture.” Pragya Dhitel
“As I worked my way through this box it was fascinating to look at a bygone era of a foreign country not known to me. The image to compliment this image, for me, would be CON_B02478_F005_003, a black and white image described as “looking glass niche”, which I presume would be on the vaulting of the roof.” Arun Mahajan
“The Image is the view out of a classroom window in Amsterdam. It is a city where everyone lives, learns or works very close to one another. Everyone can see into everywhere else, seeing people live their lives. It is both comforting & disconcerting.
I imagine being torn by what is happening outside and having to stay focused on what is inside.” Barbara Bouman
“This really helped me think about this image more deeply.
At first look, this seems cold, austere and unstimulating. A place where your mind might wonder. But then the shapes, thrown into contrast by the light, offer another perspective which is anything but dull. The light draws you inward and outward simultaneously. I suppose that’s what classrooms are supposed to do.” Stephen Lines
“I think a picture means a lot more if there are people in it. For this reason, I immediately decided to go straight to the Venice boxes. I found this picture inside the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari box. It depicts a lady in a white casual dress and probably dates back to the seventies. The face of the lady is not visible but her hair reminds me of my grandmother from a photo that I have seen at her home. It means a lot to me, even if it’s not her. Imagination is better sometimes.” Giulia Antonioli
“Interesting. Feeling a connection with people, but not people whose faces or expressions we can see. It’s not a picture that appealed to me, initially, but now I sort of get it. The story brings me more into the picture.” Lucy Sharp
A pair of paper bags with large and small buckets (paper, galvanised steel and vinyl) by Richard Wentworth. 1982.
“Materials – tactile paper, the ephemeral throw away, everyday object. Manufacturing steel, paper “the sound of crushing paper around a steel hard bucket.” “Opposites.” The fact the bucket has no water in it. Water and paper do not mix. Thinking of conservation. Archives – conservation. Situated on concrete near Haywood Gallery – Modernist building. Wentworth went to Hornsey Art College the year I was born.” Veronica Bailey
“I love that you have added sound to the image.” Barbara Bouman
Miss Cranston’s tea rooms Louise Campbell
“Finding this collection of photos brings back lots of good memories and a fuzzy warm nostalgia.
I grew up in Glasgow, I really enjoyed getting to visit the tea rooms if I was good. They were always the first choice of place to lunch; even as a child. I love the Mackintosh decor even though in the 80s and 90s it was dated and not very cool. I even enjoyed lunched there with my mum, and the staff fussing over me and happily making me (something) complicated off the new orders.
Looking back at the photos, they stand up and I now still love the Art Nouveau period and would happily decorate my whole house as Art Nouveau as it brings back such happy memories.”
“Childhood memories triggered by architecture interiors of the Art Nouveau period/Mackintosh. An interest in interior design now. How the past influences future space.” Veronica Bailey
“Looking back at the photographs and reading the others’ description you can imagine the noise and sounds of the Mackintosh tearooms. The hustle and bustle of people’s voices, sounds of children sitting patiently waiting with parents, the smell of cakes and brewed tea.
The architecture is amazing to look at, especially the Art Nouveau period. I particularly like the design of the fireplace and black and white chequered tiled floor.” Saffron Saidi