“There are three that give witness”. These are the words inscribed on the entrance of Rushton Triangular Lodge. They are a quotation from the first epistle of John 5:7 and refer to the Holy Trinity. As a Roman Catholic in Protestant England, the Trinity was a deeply personal and symbolic icon for the building’s designer, Thomas Tresham (1543–1605). Tresham was part of the Catholic elite of his time: he was brought up and married into the Throckmorton household (a wealthy Catholic family), had connections to the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and argued that the state should not have jurisdiction over conscience. His eldest son, Francis Tresham, was even involved in the Essex Rebellion, and in 1605, the Gunpowder Plot. All in all, Tresham was a prominent Catholic “recusant” – he refused to conform to the Elizabethan Protestant Church. As a result of this, Tresham was subject to the increasing number of penal laws being passed against Catholics. He was heavily fined and imprisoned on several occasions. It was upon his release from prison in 1593 that Tresham is said to have designed the Triangular Lodge, completed in 1597.
The number three runs through every vein of this folly-like building. As well as its striking triangularity, the building exhibits three triangular gables on each façade, a triangular chimney and windows, and trefoil shaped windows (the emblem of the Tresham family). Each of the three walls is 33.33 feet high. The Lodge has three floors – the main room of each one being hexagonal, thus leaving three corner spaces triangular (see image of the ground plan). On the exterior of the building, there are three biblical texts in Latin, each 33 letters in length. One wall is inscribed “15” (3 x 5) another “93” (3 x 31) and the last “TT” (presumably Tresham’s initials). The text of 1 John 5:7 is written in Latin, Tres testimonium dant, which might be a pun on his family name: his wife Merial Throckmorton is known to have referred to Thomas as “Good Tres” in her letters. Above the Latin are the numbers “3333”. Evidently, Tresham liked the triadic holy number.
But Tresham’s building of Rushton Lodge was subversive as well as spiritual. The dissidence of such a novel building should not be downplayed. The peculiarity and obsessivity of this project invites the imagination to run wild. One wonders whether the space ever housed contraband catholic images, candlelit discussions with Jesuit missionaries, or perhaps even a clandestine meeting between Francis Tresham and his fellow plotters. Despite its intriguing design, the Triangular Lodge is thought to have fulfilled a rather more practical purpose – the accommodation of Tresham’s head warrener. A warrener was someone in charge of breeding and managing rabbits for the constant supply of food and skins. The earthwork and buried remains of a rabbit warren can be found adjacent to the Lodge. Indeed, the building is often referred to as “The Warryner’s Lodge” in documents from the Rushton estate. For such a rebellious and ornate building, the Lodge appears to have had a rather quotidian function.
Considering this, the Lodge’s existence seems somewhat contradictory – a highly decorative and puzzling façade which housed plain whitewashed walls and simple accommodation. Further, the secrecy that surrounded Catholic worship at this time appears completely at odds with this small building. For many Catholics, Elizabethan England was a place of illicit masses, of “Nicodemite papists” who secretly refused to internalise Protestant doctrine, of priest holes and the hiding of underground missionary networks. The era was thus characterised by outward secrecy and inward defiance. But the Triangular Lodge flies in the face of this trend: it conceals nothing, its design is testimonial and bold, yet, peculiarly, there is nothing religiously rebellious in its mundane function. Perhaps, therefore, the Lodge is most subversive in its decorative non-necessity – the performative nature of the Lodge’s nonconformity stands out. Its rebelliousness is explicit and unapologetic – a statement of Tresham’s Catholic faith.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
 Britain’s Premier Independent Heritage Website, “Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire”. Available at:
https://web.archive.org/web/20110904021016/http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/misc/rushton_lodge.htm (last access: 16 September 2021).
 Historic England, “The Triangular Lodge (1052038)”, National Heritage List for England. Available at:
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1052038 (last access: 16 September 2021).
 English Heritage, “Rushton Triangular Lodge”. Available at:
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rushton-triangular-lodge/ (last access: 16 September 2021).
 Britain Express, “Rushton Triangular Lodge”. Available at: https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=3532 (last access: 16 September 2021).
 Historic England, “Rushton Triangular Lodge: an Elizabethan warrener’s lodge and rabbit warren (1013826)”, National Heritage List for England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1013826 (last access: 16 September 2021).
 Britain’s Premier Independent Heritage Website, op cit.
Read by Celia Cockburn
Join me on a walking tour of the Festival of Britain.
In the Summer of 1951, the wedge of land between Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge was populated by a series of temporary architectural structures built to house exhibitions that showcased innovation in British science, industry, and design. Notable amongst these were the Royal Festival Hall (still standing), the Dome of Discovery (which, at the time, was the largest dome in the world with a diameter of 365 feet), and the Skylon, a cigar-shaped steel sculpture that reached vertically into the air, visible for miles around.
A new aesthetic known as the “Festival Style” emerged from the innovative architecture, furniture, textile, and graphic design featured in the construction of the site. Inspired by International Modernism, the Festival of Britain was perceived by many to be a successful modelling of new principles of urban planning that introduced cutting-edge design to the lived environment. The festival was a success with many architects, designers, and the public alike, with around 8.5 million visitors between May and September 1951.
However, the striking development of the South Bank was not popular with everybody. The following year, a new Conservative government came to power. Headed by Churchill, the site (and the Skylon in particular) was understood to be a symbol of Labour’s successful project to lift the spirits of the post-War British public still enduring austerity and rationing. Famously, Churchill ordered that the Skylon be destroyed. Popular imagination has it that the sculpture’s cables were cut so that the structure toppled into the Thames where it still rests. The reality, of course, is far less romantic. The Skylon and the steel roof of the Dome of Discovery were melted down by a London scrap metal company and repurposed into letter knives and other commemorative souvenirs; the utopic symbol of Labour’s reform fittingly transformed by the new government into capitalist commodities.
Aside from the Royal Festival Hall, there are no physical remains of the Festival of Britain. I can’t help but wonder; what ghosts were left behind as these iconic structures were torn down? Might they have been disturbed when the London Eye was winched into place twenty years ago?
Inspired by the Conway Library’s collection of photographs of the Festival of Britain held by The Courtauld, I retrace the steps of visitors to the Festival of Great Britain to find out. You’re welcome to come with me. Armed with my medium format camera and a few rolls of black and white film (Ilford HP5, if you’re interested), I walk the length of the South Bank in search of the ghosts of festivals past.
From the Embankment, we look across the Thames at the site occupied by the Festival of Britain in 1951. We are met with the familiar sight of the London Eye. Towering above County Hall and neighbouring high-rise office blocks, it is near-impossible to imagine what the South Bank looked like before the wheel was installed at the cusp of the last millennium.
Boats chug up and down the river and passers-by admire the view from the many bridges crisscrossing the Thames as the London Eye slowly creeps through its rotation.
The Skylon tower has reappeared next to the London Eye. The cigar-shaped body propped up on spindly legs recalls Louise Bourgeois’s colossal spider sculpture that stood downstream, outside the Tate Modern many years after the 1951 festival. The Dome of Discovery stretches out in front of the London Eye, the boxy Sea and Ships pavilion visible in front. Look to the left of the Dome. Here, we have the swooping crescent of The People of Britain exhibition (today we might ask, which people? whose Britain?). To the left of the Skylon, the Regatta Restaurant has been replaced with the glass structure of the Power and Production exhibition. For, while the Skylon and Dome are in situ, the other exhibitions jostle for space on the South Bank. They have rearranged themselves, desperate to be seen by us again. After all, if the London Eye can coexist with the Dome of Discovery, why wouldn’t the other Festival structures shuffle around through the flattening and regeneration of the South Bank?
Now, let’s cross the river on Westminster Bridge to investigate the site more closely. Descending down the steps on our left, we head towards the London Eye. Set behind the giant wheel is the highly manicured Jubilee Gardens. It is here that the Dome of Discovery once sat. Amidst the dreary office buildings and clinically sculpted paths that curve through the green lawn and bare trees, it is near-impossible to imagine how the vast domed structure might have fitted into such a space.
If we listen carefully we can hear a babble of excited voices. Skirts swish around the legs of two young women striding across the grass. A child plays by the side of the path.
All of a sudden, the Festival unfolds before us.
The famous abacus screen designed by Edward Miller cuts diagonally across the bottom of the path, setting out the boundaries of the festival site while the Skylon towers in the background to the left of County Hall.
Let’s take a closer look at the Dome of Discovery.
Legs stretch down from the domed roof to support the UFO-shaped building, designed by architect Ralph Tubbs. Inside are exhibits on the theme of British exploration. The visitors descending the staircase on the left are returning to the South Bank from the polar regions, the depths of the sea, and outer space.
We, too, must return to the edge of Jubilee Gardens as we know it. Blink, and the Dome of Discovery has returned to its rightful place in the photograph held within the Conway Library.
Let’s walk under the bridge in the middle of the photograph to the back of the Royal Festival Hall, its domed roof visible towards the left of the image. From here, we’ll clamber up the stairs that lead onto the terrace overlooking the Thames.
In the early afternoon of a dreary Tuesday in December, the South Bank is all but empty. It’s hard to imagine the hustle and bustle of visitors weaving their way through the crowds to visit the different exhibitions or clustering around the glass display cases that lined the bank of the river. Yet, gazing out across the river at the rectangular buildings neatly dotted with pinpricked windows, our view is the same. So much so, in fact, that it is possible to overlay the 1951 photograph of festival-goers over the image I am currently taking.
When I return home to my little London flat this evening, I’ll develop the negatives over my bathtub. Hung to dry overnight, these will be scanned into my computer to be laid underneath the 1951 image from the Conway Library. It is only as I crouch over my laptop in the corner of my kitchen and carefully remove the background of the original image (and my photo begins to show through) that will become quite so apparent how little the vista has changed.
Crossing to the other side of the Royal Festival Hall we walk up onto the highest level of the Hayward Gallery. Although a new addition (built in 1968), from here we can take one last look at the Festival of Britain. Laid out in front of us, the Dome of Discovery cuts across the façade of Westminster Palace silhouetted in the distance. The London Eye, as always, oversees proceedings. Old and new London are united in a single vista.
Blink, and the exhibition spaces dissolve.
The Dome and Skylon have been dismantled for scrap. The Royal Festival Hall remains, but has now been incorporated into the later development, the Southbank Centre. Westminster Palace is still silhouetted in the background (although now it is Big Ben that is in scaffolding rather than the tower of the palace).
While nearly all traces of the Festival of Britain may be gone, its legacy continues to capture popular imagination. It endures in the living memory of many who visited the pavilions as children and stared up in awe at the Skylon towering above them while marvelling at the new technologies on display.
Like the Great Exhibition that came a century before, the Festival of Britain continues to capture popular imagination. A forward-looking statement of modernity in its time, it has since become a symbol of the past. Little remains of the site. Just as Crystal Palace was razed by a devastating fire in 1936, the empty spaces on the South Bank evoke the ghosts of what stood here before. Yet, its influence lives on. The International Modernist style of architecture that inspired the Festival’s architects mutated into the Brutalist design of the National Theatre, Hayward Gallery, and British Film Institute built in the 1960s and 1970s. Its spirit lives on. As this walking tour has shown, if you look hard enough, you too may encounter the ghosts of the South Bank.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Paul Laib (1869–1958) specialised in fine art photography working between 1898 and the 1950s. He was commissioned by many prominent British artists of his time including Oswald Birley, Philip de László, Ben Nicholson, John Piper, and John Singer Sargent. Among these, Laib’s photography of Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) and her work stand out from his collection. One of the founders of Modernist sculpture in Britain, Hepworth was a major international figure exhibiting around the globe.
In the video accompanying this blog post, I have created a vinyasa yoga practice inspired by Laib’s photography of Hepworth’s sculptures. A vinyasa is a sequence of positions, one flowing after the other, guided by the breath. This type of yoga invites exploration of Hepworth’s work particularly well – attention is brought to both the poise of the figure and the fluidity of form. Indeed, attempting to express the experience of human embodiment in her work, Hepworth stated “I rarely draw what I see. I draw what I feel in my body”. In this world of social distancing and self-isolation, I encourage you to experience the tactility and physicality of Hepworth’s work through your relationship with the body.
The sight but also sensation of natural form inspired Hepworth throughout her life; she maintained that “body experience… is the centre of creation”. Hepworth was inspired by the enclosure and embrace of the shapes in the landscape around her – be that watching a mother hold her child, the undulating terrain of the Yorkshire hills, or the hollows of rocks on the Cornish coast. Likewise, in your vinyasa practice, you may also wish to connect to the environment around you, cultivating spaciousness and balance through appreciation of Hepworth’s sculptures.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
When Swiss architect Le Corbusier responded to popular agitation against his design of Chandigarh city, India, with the wry anecdote “I am like a lightning conductor… I attract storms”, it was clear that he had created two cities, but heeded one.
The project of Chandigarh was commissioned by Jawarharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, in 1950. Nehru imagined a city that would serve as a clear symbol of India’s break with the past, in the aftermath of its independence. It was born of a deeply paternalistic vision that, providing its architects could innovate the right formula, the shapes of its urban space would exert a transformative and “civilising” influence on its inhabitants. This remarkable confidence in spatial determinism might, in one sense, make Chandigarh the closest we come to observing a postcolonial vision. Throughout the city, Le Corbusier distils Nehru’s vision of India’s modernity into a “city of rectangles and pure volumes”; the “symbols of perfection”, as he described them. This modernist construction was one arm of a wider comprehensive plan for India, through which Nehru envisioned an enlightened state which would propel its citizens into modernity through a programme of rapid industrialisation and economic planning – all guided by the principles of rationalism, secularism and social justice.
Photography is a forgiving medium through which to record a claim to human mastery. A photograph is necessarily reductive in some sense, and it is in this way – as a series of reductions – that we are most able to envisage Chandigarh as Le Corbusier intended; as the product of a victorious “battle of space, fought within the mind”.
The photos in the Conway Library, taken principally during the construction of the Capitol and the city’s early years, capture the instant when Nehru’s ideal loomed most plausible in the eyes of those who encountered it. Pausing at each photograph in the digitised archive some seventy years later, it is almost possible to be persuaded by them: the clean elegance of the Secretariat building, poised dramatically against an empty landscape. Le Corbusier sat soberly in front of an anthropomorphic map, on which the Capitol government complex sits elevated like the head on a human body. The “rippling, beautiful rhythm” of the Assembly Chamber, designed to give space for the circulation of high ideas – strikingly different from the classical vocabulary of the British Raj. These photos of Chandigarh at its most persuasive have gained a complex novelty, as their optimism is increasingly set apart from a growing body of works documenting their natural decay in the passage of time. Against the plethora of anxieties about the future that attend life in the twenty-first century, there is an undeniable charm to the vision of confidence offered by the photos.
Yet this evocation of rupture from the past does not bear scrutiny.
In taking a closer look at the ideas that undergird Chandigarh as a symbol of modernity, it becomes clear why the city falls so easily into dialogue with the architecture of the British Raj. Whilst Nehru opposed the British imperialist claim that India required western tutelage, he embraced the basic framework of human “development” upon which this was premised. This development, a historicist discourse in which human societies around the globe could be placed on a temporal scale from barbarity to civilisation, was a principal means through which Britain legitimised its imperial venture across the world from the eighteenth century. In The Discovery of India, Nehru sought to rework this framework, by drawing instead on the historic achievements of India’s Indus Valley Civilisation to posit a theory of modernity as cycles of development and decay. In this way, Nehru’s thought stops short of a complete reconstitution of imperial modes of thought, and it can be difficult to tease apart Orientalist tropes of India’s decline from his own invocations for modernisation.
The spirituality of India was one of the key targets of Nehru’s conception of backwardness. He dismissed the religiosity of people in India as “absurd”, and attributed it not to their own world experiences, but to the “exploitation of the[ir] emotions” by elites. The imperial resonances in Nehru’s vision for India can be usefully set against Gandhi’s alternative projection of Indianness, and its embracing of Orientalist depictions of village India. Taken together, they provide a powerful insight into the postcolonial dilemma; the apparent impossibility of asserting an identity that is oppositional to, but not restricted by, the terms set out by the imperial power.
If Le Corbusier understood his role as architect as commensurate with puppet-master then he, like Nehru, underestimated the agency of the city’s people in staking the terms of their lives. Even the photos in The Courtauld’s collection, taken in the city’s early years, hint at numerous sites of contestation and the quiet persistence of traditional Indian mores with Le Corbusier’s metropolis. Le Corbusier designed the city around a series of single purpose zones, neatly separating the residential, industrial, leisure and government elements of city life. He appears to have operated under the assumption that, if placed in the spatial context of a middle-class commuter lifestyle, incoming peasant masses would be transformed into a socio-economic position to fill that role.
The photos in the Conway Library hint at the way the city’s people defied Le Corbusier’s rigid prescriptions; buffalo and goats are crammed into tiny spaces outside the geometrical houses, shacks are set up next to the highway. In the residential area, dubbed the “container of family life” by the architect, residents opened small shops in the ground floor of their houses, and maintained the local principles of caste, kinship and religion in areas purportedly organised by administrative rank. We might think of Le Corbusier’s design as laying the groundwork for two cities; the perfect geometry of the Capitol, set against the rhythmic irregularities of its inhabitants’ lives.
In this light, Le Corbusier’s response to popular agitation to his stringent demands is telling. His aggrandised sense of his own monumentality as a catalyst for modernity precluded him from heeding the unshakeable influence of the city’s people in determining the quality of their own lives.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Introducing the material turn to the study of photography, visual and historical anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards (2004) encourages us to acknowledge the photograph as a three-dimensional object existing materially in the world – that is, spatially and temporally in the social and cultural experience. From Edward’s perspective, photographs are material entities because they are chemically deposited onto paper, mounted on different sized, shaped, and coloured cards, subject to changes on their surfaces, and informed by the way that they are presented.
Attention to these aspects of photographs, Edwards argues, can help us engage with the processes of intention, making, distributing, consuming, using, preserving, displaying, discarding, and recycling that are significant to the way we understand photographs as images. This approach to photography I found, also echoed in the ongoing digitisation projects at The Courtauld.
When on placement at The Courtauld, I was particularly drawn to its approach towards digitisation, and its emphasis on retaining the physicality of visual objects in their digital renditions. From the images that were provided to me and my fellow interns, I was able to engage with the signs of wear and tear on archival boxes, with the multiplicity of intentions decipherable from the text – varied in font, colour, and handwriting – on the cards onto which images in the Conway Library were mounted, and with the variety of size, colour, and type of image, as well as with the materials onto which the image was printed and then mounted onto the card.
This emphasis on digitally translating physicality was especially impressive to me because I was trying to engage with these images from my laptop screen at home in Oxford, instead of interacting with them in a more multi-sensory, embodied manner in one of the rooms at The Courtauld. Indeed, as former intern Peyton Cherry (2019) predicted, I was brought into The Courtauld, without venturing into its halls to peruse and handle prints, and into the lived experience of working within collections. Despite interacting with the collections intangibly, I was still able to engage with the physicality of the image – the image as object – and even in their digital renditions, The Courtauld had managed to make the materiality of these images matter. This was quite significant to me, for The Courtauld had successfully avoided flattening tangible, three-dimensional objects, simply by choosing cameras over flatbed scanners in the digitisation process. Intrigued by this, I spent the duration of my placement reflecting upon why, for The Courtauld, materiality matters, and why indeed it should.
The Courtauld’s emphasis on the materiality of images is based on a succinct and personal manifesto presented by Bilson (2019)
Honour physical form and integrity.
Photograph, don’t scan.
Use lighting to reveal texture, structure, and composition.
Never crop to neaten.
Describe where your metadata has come from.
If possible, show the source of the transcription.
Photograph backs and blank pages.
Weigh and show scale.
Record folders, boxes, and shelves.
Don’t let basis cataloguing hold back publication.
Although in digitising an archive the size of the Conway Library the project has, for practical reasons of time and the costs of storing data, omitted the manifesto’s requirement to photograph backs and blank pages and also weigh the items, Bilson, like Edwards, encourages us to honour the physical form and integrity of images by using simple photographic techniques to, for instance, reveal “the slight line of shadow” (Bilson, 2020) showing the way in which a print was stuck by human hands onto card or the fingerprints of the library visitors who might have handled the object; or to accentuate the multiplicity of textures, materials, colours, and inscriptions that compose each object.
The importance of doing so, as Bilson writes, is to encourage the global online user to appreciate the fact that “every image presented online has a physical counterpart that still sits in a library box” (2020) within the Institute. In addition, it re-directs the online user’s attention to the “set of visual cues pointing to the personalities and voices enmeshed within [the] collections” (2020) and thus demonstrates that the appearances of these images online are not their “year zero” (2020), but another milestone in their malleable history.
In essence, therefore, for The Courtauld, materiality matters because an emphasis on it indicates to its increasingly global and online audiences, that the images it is making digitally available are entangled with the tangibly embodied histories and socio-cultural experiences of all those who have interacted with them. As my fellow intern Sydney Stewart Rose notes, The Courtauld’s emphasis on materiality presents the ultimate digitised image as an “endurance” (2021) that refers to its own history of interaction with its producers, publishers, collectors, archivists, librarians, volunteers, and interns – each of whom have inscribed their intentions onto the surface of the image.
Recognising this urged me to further explore the implications of taking these intentions – and especially their material evidence on the surface of the image – into consideration when interpreting the image. I did this, specifically in relation to two sets of images of the Crystal Palace, archived in a box containing images of exhibitions in London between 1830 and 1900, in the Conway Library of The Courtauld’s collections.
The Building Itself
The Crystal Palace was a remarkable cast iron and glass structure, originally built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, it was initially intended as a temporary building. However, a very general desire on the part of the public to preserve the Crystal Palace led Paxton to propose alterations and extensions to the original building, with the intention of converting it into a winter garden and adapting it to other scientific purposes.
The building was then taken down from its original site in Hyde Park and relocated to a site named Penge Place (now known as Crystal Palace) at the top of Sydenham Hill, between 1852 and 1854. The site at Sydenham attracted 2 million visitors a year and successfully hosted exhibitions, festivals, music concerts, football and cricket matches, and over one hundred thousand soldiers during the First World War.
Despite this initial success, however, from around the 1860s, the Palace fell into financial ruin. Due to its sheer size, the Palace was impossible to maintain financially and thus declared bankrupt in 1911. In addition to this, the Palace continuously experienced severe damage shortly after its relocation – first due to strong winds in 1861, then due to a fire that broke out in the North End of the building in 1866, and finally in 1936 when a more severe fire damaged it beyond repair.
Conway’s Documentary Intent
Martin Conway, an avid collector of photographs of architecture as a record of buildings that might suffer damage, was quite naturally drawn to the Crystal Palace – both because of its significance in the public imagination and its undeniable architectural magnificence. Conway’s intent to document the Crystal Palace and the trajectory of its life materially manifests in his collection in at least two ways.
First, this is evident from the sheer diversity – in type, size, and source – of the images of both buildings. For example, the image of the Crystal Palace in Figure 3 shows “The Progress of the Building” and is presumably a lithographic print on newsprint sourced from the Illustrated London News. Comparatively, the image of the building in Figure 4 is a watercolour and pencil drawing, signed and dated by the specialist in architectural views, Edmund Walker (1814–1882).
Second, Conway’s documentary intent is evident from the “set of visual cues” (Bilson, 2020) that point to his specific process of archiving by gathering diverse visual material on the same subject, from a plethora of sources, and then mounting it onto card. For example, the crease of the paper and its shadow in Figure 5, clearly show that an image cut out from The Weekly Times has been stuck over another image. Similarly, Figure 7 shows that Conway seems to have used a larger version of the print in Figure 6 to provide a detailed perspective on the same event.
This material evidence of intent thus signifies the extent to which the Crystal Palace had impressed itself upon Conway’s and the wider public’s imagination. They demonstrate that Conway clearly recognised the Palace’s significance – both to the history of architecture and Britain – and therefore, dexterously included in his archive, images of the conception, construction, utilisation, renovation, relocation, and the destruction of the building. In doing so, and specifically by following his unique processes for archiving, Conway created a “synthetic object” (Edwards and Hart, 2004) – that is, a new intellectual and physical entity resulting from his attempt to impose sense, order, and his intentions upon a set of separate objects from separate sources leading separate lives.
This new “synthetic object” therefore leads its constituent parts into an institutional framework of policies, strategies, and practices different to that from which they have been sourced. For example, a watercolour drawing (Figure 4) that originally would have been handled, framed, preserved, displayed, and interpreted in a manner more typical to art history, in the context of Conway’s archive, is engaged as an important resource contributing to the documentation of a historical moment that in turn was intended to inform art history.
By creating such “synthetic objects” therefore, Conway reinforced the view that the Crystal Palace was indeed an important moment in the history of architecture and Britain, and actively constructed this building as a canon worthy of preservation for posterity. When considered accordingly, the images of the Palace in Conway’s archive thus emerge as more than simply what they depict. Rather than visual representations of the building and the events that occurred therein, these images emerge as constituents of a larger photographic object and project inscribed with the intentions of its maker.
In my reflection on the implications of considering the materiality of images for their interpretation, it emerged that the material aspects of an image – its physicality and presentation for instance – are of great importance as they provide clues to how the value of particular images changes over time due to interactions with them.
In the example I considered, we noted that images from newspapers and artists were recontextualised as archival resources under the documentary intentions of the archivist who interacted with them. These insights could not have been as easily drawn, if indeed attention to the very material and physical evidence of the archivist’s intentions had not been paid.
Further research could examine how each layer of textual inscription (for e.g., stamps and handwriting) on more generally the cards in Conway’s archive, inform the meaning of that which the images on the cards depict. To whom do these inscriptions belong? What were their intentions when marking the “synthetic objects” that Conway initially produced? How do these material traces of their intentions inform the meaning of the images constituting those objects, and the objects themselves? Further studies could also examine how the physicality of the cards onto which Conway mounted images (for example, colour and material) interacts with the meanings of said images. Knowledge of each of these aspects can significantly contribute to our understanding of images and more importantly of how they function as visual and material objects, deeply embedded in the social and cultural experience.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
MPhil Candidate in Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology, University of Oxford
Bilson T (2019) The Future of the Library – Architectural Information in a Post-Digital Era. Presentation at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, November 21, 2019.
Bilson T (2020) The Courtauld’s Witt and Conway Photographic Libraries: Two approaches to digitisation. Art Libraries Journal, 45 (1): 35–42. Available at: 10.1017/alj.2019.38 (accessed: 13 July 2021).
Edwards E and Hart J (2004) (Eds) Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Taylor & Francis Group. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/oxford/detail.action?docID=182226# (accessed: 13 July 2021).
Edwards E and Hart J (2004) Mixed Box. In: Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Routledge. Available at: http://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3167/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=f6ef041e-2d21-47cf-8dda-eb492bed21f4%40pdc-v-sessmgr02&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=110339&db=nlebk (accessed: 13 July 2021).
Holland G (2008) Crystal Palace: A History. BBC London. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2004/07/27/history_feature.shtml (accessed: 13 July 2021).
Peyton C (2019) Journey through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity and Distance – Digital Media. Digital Media: The Courtauld Connects’ Digitisation Project Blog. Available at: http://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/digitalmedia/2019/07/01/peyton-cherry-journey-through-materiality-communicating-familiarity-and-distance/ (accessed: 13 July 2021).
During the first years of The Courtauld’s Digitisation Volunteer program, Peyton Cherry wrote about how the project aims to capture materiality. Cherry emphasizes how “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5 in Cherry, 2019). In her blog post, she discusses how the digitisation project aims to contain as much of the materiality of the photographs as possible and to preserve context. Cherry outlines how the project seeks to keep texture, marks, or stains visible in order to reproduce “the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections” (2019). When I joined the Courtauld project a few years later, I hoped to extend her ideas further and contribute to the ideas about the project itself, by highlighting that the documentation of materiality also encompasses the evidence of decades of connections between the photograph and its use.
Cherry already outlined in detail the methods that The Courtauld uses for this digitisation project. The policy, with the salient points outlined below (Fig. 1), is a part of a method which ensures that the photographs and prints are not reduced to what our Head of Digital Media Tom Bilson calls “a point zero,” or a photograph contained within a timeless bubble which neglects context; Bilson’s approach to this project directly counteracts this trap in photographic theory. Again, this method is not about scanning the photograph, but photographing the photograph. In this way, the use of this object is also documented through its inclusion of handwritten notes by the photographer, labels written by curators, or numbers indicating categorization. Further, when photographing the collections for digitisation, raking light is often used to reveal a sense of depth through shadows and to illuminate small markers of use such as marks or tears. When the digitisation project includes each of these markers, the materials become signifiers of even more information, and document not just the subjects of the photographs but how everyone who has encountered that photograph has engaged with it.
Popular photographic theory follows Berger (1972) and Barthes (1977) to propose these photographs as moments frozen in time. This aligns with most reception theory, where photographs are a freeze frame fragment of time to be seen in the present. However, the methods and outcomes of this digitisation project emphasize that these are not frozen in time at all; instead these photographs are endurances which reveal our engagement with them through time. These photographs endure across time to show us that the collections refer back to themselves and to every time they have been used.
For example, the boxes containing the work of Tony Kersting boxes are labelled by his own hand, with his accompanying instructions regarding how he wishes his work to be published or cropped. Within these boxes there will also be unique identifying numbers, handwritten by volunteers, that are used to organize the collection. There may even be some small damage from an intern who was just learning how to handle museum artefacts or how to use the high-res camera. In the image below, we see that the digitised collection does not neglect to reflect on its own existence when it includes the record of its own organization and interactions (Fig. 2). Here the image contains the stories of contact between the photograph and the photographer, the individual curators, the museum structures, and the intern.
In another example, the photo below has two different styles of handwriting and a typewritten label (Fig. 3). These were likely all made at different times possibly by different people. This photograph is a part of the collection of images from the Ministry of Works documenting the damage from the bombings of WWII, with this specific photograph showing the damage to the parish church in Lambezellec, Brest. This Catholic parish still holds mass in 2021, though during the 2020 lockdown, there was an incident wherein the building was damaged again as some of the items were upturned and the lamp of the tabernacle was stolen (Ouest France 2020). Father Jean Baptiste Gless says that despite this incident, he will continue to leave the church doors open in the mornings so that people can come pray (Fig. 4).
In 2021, I came to the Courtauld project and added another tangible layer to this part of the Conway collection (Fig. 6). The layer I have added is of the undamaged church, before the bombing. Now, the image features both moments in time. This layer is not just the visible layer I superimposed but also the contribution to the knowledge around the histories of the photograph and collection. Each time we write about a photograph or engage with it in any way, we add to the histories and build upon those histories. Here, we play with time but we do not freeze it to what Tom Bilson calls “year zero.” This visual creation is especially interesting as it shows how this additive layering moves beyond the original image, stretching off the screen and reaching off the canvas.
On a theoretical level, I am also building on Cherry’s work in the same way that the collection builds on the work of hundreds of volunteers and in the same way that each engagement with the collection builds on earlier engagements. Ultimately, how the collection is digitised is not just about the photographs which end up digitised, but includes the entire history of how we have interacted with the photographs. Each engagement between curator or volunteer, writing labels or making small oily fingerprints, is a critical part of the material world created by the photograph which, through this long process of use, becomes less of an abstract digitised image and more of a museological object containing its own histories.
This project refuses to exclude evidence of its own existence. In digitisation initiatives, it is crucial to step back and look at the full scope of materiality to see how the collection is not simply materials but also the histories of how we interact with these materials. This project does that every time it records not just the numbers of archival boxes but pictures of those boxes. As Cherry (2019) suggests, the Courtauld collections are not simply photographs but cultural artefacts in and of themselves. Every picture which is not cropped, every edge revealing depth, points to the full histories of this collection and how every volunteer has become an integral part of that story.
Sydney Stewart Rose
Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: London.
Barthes R (1977) The Rhetoric of the Image. In: Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Hill and Wang: New York.
Cherry P (2019) Journey Through Materiality – Communicating Familiarity And Distance. The Courtauld Digital Media Blog, July 1. http://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/digitalmedia/2019/07/01/peyton-cherry-journey-through-materiality-communicating-familiarity-and-distance/
“L’église Saint-Laurent dégradée à Lambézellec.” (2020, April 5) Ouest France. https://www.ouest-france.fr/bretagne/brest-29200/brest-l-eglise-saint-laurent-saccagee-lambezellec-6800809
Has not that ruin, say he, a good effect?
A Dialogue on Stowe, 1746
War-time ruins have always exerted an inexplicable fascination on the observer – a puzzling and not infrequently morbid sentiment that has been targeted as a serious object of academic enquiry since at least the aftermath of World War II. Besides provoking an undeniable and undeniably problematic aesthetic pleasure – one should only think of Albert Speer’s theory of Ruin Value (Ruinenwerttheorie), by which he persuaded Hitler that they should only employ materials that would make “good ruins” in the event of collapse during their architectural plans for the Third Reich – ruined monuments and buildings have also been exploited as a political tool. They have been constantly overwritten, either literally or figuratively, by the activities of bulldozers and cranes, bricklayers and architects, as well as journalists and photographers commissioned to record the revival of a city.
The purpose of the following article is, broadly speaking, to explore concepts of ruination and transformation, drawing from the war damage collection in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Known informally as the Ministry of Works bequest, it comprises several hundred photographs taken by soldiers, historians and architects across Europe towards the end of World War II. The collection is part of the Conway Library, which takes its name from writer, traveller and mountaineer Martin Conway. The first Director General of the Imperial Museum of London and Professor of Art at Liverpool and Cambridge, one of Conway’s chief interests was photography as a record of buildings that might suffer war damage. The Ministry of Works images continue precisely that tradition: taken by allied troops chiefly from the US, Britain and Poland, they record in often shocking detail the destruction of cityscapes as collateral or deliberate acts of annihilation.
What these pictures capture, as we shall clearly see, is the pars destruens. They crystallize a single moment, and that moment is desolation, devastation, destruction. But this is not the whole narrative. As much as the images speak for themselves, they also leave much unsaid. There is a hidden story behind these photographs, a story of human efforts and contributions to the process of preservation, rebuilding and revival, which successive generations have perpetrated in written documents and oral narratives. At a time when cultural heritage is still dangerously under threat in many corners of the globe, it is all the more imperative to continue to fill in the gaps. This article encourages us to do just that. We desperately need a pars construens; that part will be equally explored here, by taking advantage of the invaluable potential of ruined infrastructures to present themselves as a challenge to be either replaced or restored – as they were, in fact. The unfinished nature of ruins, by definition, creates a sense of superseding that invites the observer to inscribe them into a narrative of progress. For every part we see in the Ministry of Works photographs, there is a part that we do not see, which acts as a catalyst of imagination, an engine of speculation. A ruin bears the trace of unscripted possibilities. In so doing, it generates questions on the process of reconstruction and its dilemmas: whether to reconstruct or to preserve; how much to reconstruct; whether to construct anew rather than to rebuild.
The Pleasure of Ruins, and Beyond
In 1953, English writer Rose Macaulay, a civil servant in the War Office, published a ground-breaking and controversial study on ruination, the first of its kind, entitled Pleasure of Ruins. Her approach, as her introduction and the title of the book itself point out, is that of a pleasurist (some would rather say of a voyeur…). Often criticized for being excessively self-indulgent, Macaulay offers complacent incursions into “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind”. She argues that “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol”. Starting with the ancient world, her account ends with a two-page coda, “On the new ruins”, foregrounding the conjecture that the devastation evident across post-war London and other parts of Britain will one day be looked on with admiration, just like we now admire the ruins of antiquity.
On a very superficial level, Macaulay must be right. There is an undeniable aesthetic component to decaying buildings and crumbling monuments: they provide a treasure trove of encounters with the eerie and the unexpected. As we first approach the Ministry of Works photographs without context, we might gaze in awe, for a moment, at the oddly unique shapes that missing bricks and huge cracks conferred onto the architecture captured in a snapshot (figs. 1 and 2).
There is an element of honesty to these photographs, which equates them to the apocalyptic stories and dystopian novels that many of us also adore. Even if they represent the worst possible scenario, such narratives still feel real to us as we know too well that human beings are capable of committing the worst crimes. The devastation of WWII, so harshly and honestly depicted in the images, is probably the closest to apocalypse we have ever drawn (figs. 3 and 4).
In addition to that, stories predicting the future speak to an innate desire to have control over our fate; we seem to appreciate ruins because, in a similar way, they trigger our imagination. They encourage us to think of elsewhere, a phenomenon that works in two directions. One the one hand, to perceive a ruin is to recognize that it has once been otherwise, and thus to travel back in time; on the other hand, the ruins captured in the photographs increase awareness of the present and future condition of our society. As photographer Yves Marchand, co-author of Ruins of Detroit, puts it, “To us, the ruin allows you to see the past, as well as your present condition, and what you’re going to be – you can see all those three at the same time”.
The main limit of Macaulay’s approach is that it is unidirectional. She makes the example of traveller Mr Thomas Coryat, who arrived on the Trojan shore opposite Tenedos in 1612. After seeing extensive ruins, the remains of a goodly fortress, marble pillars and sepulchres, he spent his afternoon guessing: one of the sepulchres must have belonged to King Priam; the fragments of the great buttressed wall on his left were first built by Ilium when he enlarged the city, and then rebuilt by Priam. I suggest we need to go further than that. We cannot simply self-indulge in the pleasure of fantasizing about what was once there, driven by mere antiquarian frenzy; when looking at these photographs, we must think of what is now there, just like the soldiers and civilians in situ must have imagined what was going to be there once restoration was completed. “Exploring abandoned buildings isn’t about revelling in their collapse at all,” argues Dylan Thuras, author of the foreword to Dan Barasch’s Ruin and Redemption in Architecture. Upon recalling an adolescence spent in the thrall of deserted flour mills in Minneapolis, now partially restored structures, he evaluates such imperfect architecture as occupying “a shadowy liminal space between self-destruction and the possibility of rebirth”.
We can infer from the visual examples below how this whole process of imagination, moving in limbo between destruction and rebirth, might have worked for the observers of the time, looking grimly at the ruined buildings around them, and works equally well for us today as we examine such buildings in the photographs. In images 5 and 6, René Levavasseur – the architect charged by the French government with the preservation of historical monuments in the Department of La Manche – is caught scrutinizing the damage of two churches in Normandy.
In fig. 5, he lists damage to the beautifully sculpted bell of the Church of St Jacques of Montebourg, before making plans for repair of the tower – an unfortunate victim of the fighting for the beachheads nearby. Confronted by ruins without being intimidated by them, his serious and attentive gaze makes us think that he was already anticipating in his head the steps and strategies through which the reconstruction of the tower might be carried out, leading us to wonder in turn whether and how this actually took place at all. Here, imagination gives way to historical documentation: archives of Le Monuments Historiques inform us that reconstruction works were undertaken in 1949, after a deeper and more resistant foundation for the church had been secured. The square floor of the bell tower was completed in February 1950, followed by the stone spire in August of the same year. Finally, in October 1952, the building was returned to worship. In fig. 6, similarly, Levavasseur is shown holding a gargoyle “knocked loose from the tower of the cathedral at Carentan before American forces drove the Nazis from the area”. There is both intimacy and remoteness in this picture. The architect holds the gargoyle firmly with both hands, as if a father with his child, but also keeps it at a distance, in order to better scrutinize it. Again, his expression suggests he has full awareness of the exact spot the piece will occupy after reconstruction. This photograph gives out very strong ritual vibes. Levavasseur almost looks like a priest holding a newborn during some religious service, laden with symbolic meanings. A new life is brought into the community and exhibited triumphantly before the eyes of its participants. A new life, by the same metaphorical token, is also given to the cathedral: the gargoyle will be inset back into the tower.
Ruins and Bodies
I found it a funny coincidence that so many of the buildings hit by the blow of war were cathedrals, churches, places of worship. In these images, the desolation of conflict blends with a vacuous, sinister spirituality, almost verging on mysticism. Ruins shelter the spectres of the past while standing for an uncontrolled present. And such is a present in which very little faith remains. “There is Auschwitz, therefore there can be no God”, Primo Levi famously asserted. Just as God has abandoned men, men seem to have abandoned God. In the images below, the crucifix, the only element left intact among ruins in a deserted land, becomes an almost surreal symbol of such a legacy. In fig. 7, a crucifix still hangs from the rafters of a severely ruined church in Erkelenz, Germany, damaged by artillery fire in February 1945; in fig. 8, a battered cross survives, bending, in a battle-scarred roadside shrine in Dahnen, where no trace of human presence can be found. The Church, no longer the living and breathing body of those assembled in worship, is reduced to a speechless mound of matter. Yet at the same time the very integrity of the cross, a leftover functioning as an ironic symbol of defiance in the midst of so much destruction, must have represented a glimmer of hope for many a passerby. Perhaps it is true, as Professor Charles Lock has written, that one of the secrets of ruins is that “inasmuch as they retain a trace of spirit, of motion, they speak to us of something other than perdition”.
That must be as true for monuments as it is for bodies. In fact, the architecture and people in the photographs seem to share similar histories. Buildings are as maimed as the invisible corpses of soldiers and civilians who fought around and for them. Indeed, a fallen stone or one still standing might be analogous to the human body, Lock has suggested: “the upright stone reminds us of a person standing, liturgically; that which is cast down was once, like a corpse, a spirit’s dwelling”. The collection offers some glaring testimony of the tense, uneasy co-existence of ruins and civilians, whose complex relationship would only be fully healed with the passage of time, by means of concrete urban intervention and re-planning. Fig. 9 shows a man cycling undisturbed through the streets of Palermo, in spite of the bleak view of crumbing Palazzo Trabucco marked in the background by cracks resembling the bites of giant jaws. Life goes on amidst wreckage: not giving up your daily business was as powerful a form of resistance as concrete military manoeuvres, sometimes. The same sort of disquieting blending is manifest in fig. 10, depicting the interior of the Cathedral in Messina – which underwent a controversial and not fully transparent plan of reconstruction from June 1943 to August 1947. The photograph captures a man standing still, as if striking a pose amidst debris of wood. In so doing, he almost becomes part of the triptych behind him, the Altar of the Pietà.
On the other hand, several pictures from the collection keep for themselves some crucial hidden truths, and it is down to us to uncover these through historical research. It is not so widely known, for example, that the urgency of starting reconstruction works at Montecassino – where the famous Abbey had been reduced to little more than a sandcastle by the bombing of May 1944 – was dictated by a humanitarian motive other than a merely moral, or for that matter artistic, one (fig. 11). The bodies of dozens of civilian victims who had not been able to leave the monastery before the bombing lay buried under the debris. Their discovery and burial would only have been possible with the removal of the rubble. When people can finally stand up and pull themselves back together, then it is also the right time for monuments to rise again from the ashes. Succisa virescit are the words that can be read on the coat of arms of the Abbey – literally meaning “cut, it grows back”. And indeed for the fifth time in its history, despite the difficulties caused by the post-war period and its widespread destruction, the Abbey of Montecassino was brought back to the light. The restoration aimed to reproduce the original structure and was carried out from 1948 to 1956, under the direction of engineer Giuseppe Breccia Fratadocchi. Two hundred and fifty workers took part in the project, working side by side with the monks embodying the mantra of their master Benedict buried there: ora et labora. The statues of the benefactors – popes, kings and princes – which had originally occupied the Chiostro dei Benefattori (Cloister of the Benefactors) were placed under a canopy. In a rather curious turn of events, the statues now looked at these other humble benefactors working with zeal, having no treasures or privileges to bestow but their hands. All the church coverings, marbles, mosaics and sculptures were also restored.
We can contrast this extraordinary story of successful cooperation and resilience with a less fortunate one, again from Italy, which can nevertheless function as a memento to the importance of implementing strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage in times of conflict. The Church of Santa Maria in Passione on the hill of Castello, Genova, was severely damaged by two aerial bombardments; the first, on 22 October 1942, caused the roof to catch fire, but the most destructive was a second attack on 4 September 1944, which almost razed the top of the hill of Castello to the ground. The bombardments almost completely destroyed the frescoes and caused serious damage to the outer walls, some of which had to be demolished (fig. 12). The monastic complex remained in ruins for decades. Then, in the 1970s, a project devised by the Municipality of Genoa and supervised by architect Ignazio Gardella gave the go-ahead for the restoration of the area with the construction of the new headquarters of the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Genoa on the site of the former convent of San Silvestro, the Niccolò Paganini Foundation and the headquarters of the Permanent Urban Observatory, created to promote initiatives for the rehabilitation and enhancement of the historic centre. Starting in the 1990s, another project (“Progetto Civis Sistema”) envisaged more conservation and restoration work. However, this was interrupted in 1997 and the site was completely abandoned. Everything was enclosed with barbed wire. It was only in 2012 that a group of students decided to break the fences and clean up the area. Since then, Santa Maria in Passione lives almost exclusively thanks to the support of citizens through donations and voluntary work.
So, to reprise the question from which this article started: do ruins have a good effect after all? The answer is yes, I would say. But it should be remembered that for every good effect there is always a price to pay. In tracing a history of destruction and reconstruction through painstaking human efforts, I have tried to raise awareness of how essential the preservation of cultural heritage is for the wealth of communities. Several collaborative strategies have been implemented for this purpose both before and during World War II, as we have seen. Examples feature the Service des Monuments Historiques in France, of which the abovementioned Levavasseur was a member, founded in 1830 and charged with several “passive defense” and reconstruction measures as early as 1935; or the Roberts Commission in the US, leading to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the allied armies (the “Monuments Men”) with the aim of both protecting works of art and buildings from deliberate destruction and of returning them, so far as possible, to their owners or the appropriate local authorities. Similarly, after the conflict, international organizations acknowledged the urgency to create conventions to protect sites and artifacts in conflict zones. UNESCO, among others, was established in 1945. However, as several speakers at the Courtauld talk Post-conflict: Art History and Cultural Heritage in Dialogue on 15 June 2021 illustrated, UNESCO and world heritage have been criticized for many failures in recent years, including that of deterring the destruction of heritage during times of war. There is need for greater cooperation between different groups – professionals in the field and governmental authorities in primis, but also scholars, local organizations, and no less the general public. As the example of Santa Maria in Passione demonstrates, ordinary citizens are often in a unique position to help when the threat of destruction, deterioration or looting looms over them. The very significance of the Ministry of Works collection, which has never before seen in its entirety as a consequence of being spread across hundreds of boxes, is now being understood thanks to a major digitisation project at the Courtauld, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported entirely by volunteers. If ruins, as it has often been suggested, are essentially “democratic” – their appeal is for everyone, from children visiting a site for the first time to experienced archaeologists – then their protection and revival becomes, by the same token, a universal responsibility.
Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Humanities, Oxford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Many artworks are only preserved in photographs. When the originals are lost, for instance in the turmoil of war, photographic reproductions often remain as the only way to access them. But the importance of photography exceeds mere preservation: without reproductions, the original would be an isolated object in a museum or an archive with only an expert group of people knowing about it. It is only through the copying and reproduction of photographs that a work of art can be experienced worldwide and become part of general knowledge.
I would go as far as to say: there is no original without reproduction. Over the course of time, reproductions can become originals themselves – at the latest when they are archived as objects of independent value in an art institute, digitised (i.e. reproduced) and appreciated in a public space like this weblog.
This could (should) be the case with Paul Laib’s photographs of artworks taken in the first half of the 20th century. Not much is known about his life and work, but it is evident that his photos have served mere illustrative purposes – they were perceived as media granting access to the artworks and they have not been credited for their aesthetic and technical quality.
Laib was working with some of the most accomplished visual artists of the time, among them Barbara Hepworth. She was one of the British avant-garde sculptors who, inspired by continental European artists, shaped abstract art for most of the 20th century. The photos Laib took of her sculptures are particularly insightful with regards to the difference creative photography can make to how we see a work of art. And they are also fascinating examples of Laib’s skilfully executed photographs, which, I hope, will no longer be seen as transparent windows to other artworks, but rather as artworks in their own right. I will focus on four of his photographs, all of which depict Hepworth’s 1933 sculpture Reclining Figure in very different ways.
On Reclining Figure
Searching for Reclining Figure today, one will find mostly sculptures by Henry Moore. Beginning in the 1930s and especially after the Second World War, Moore and Hepworth were in a friendly rivalry and competed for attention in the international art world. Moore undoubtedly won. He was more successful in seizing funding, he found support in the British Council and he enjoyed more popularity worldwide. Early texts on abstract sculpture in England pin Hepworth’s objects on their femininity, attributing to them passivity and mere beauty that could not match the qualities of thought and reflection found in Moore’s works (Buckberrough, 1998: 48). This biased view held in the early history of abstract sculpture theory marginalised Hepworth’s own achievements. In this respect, her entry into Moore’s specialty, the Reclining Figures, can be rediscovered today as her resistance to many years of neglect.
However, that was probably not the sculpture’s original meaning. The alabaster object, only about 30cm long, was created in 1933, the same year that Hepworth took a trip to France with her new partner Ben Nicholson. In France, Hepworth met, among others, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and, in particular, Hans Arp, who might have had a significant influence on Hepworth’s sculpture. Also in 1933, Arp presented Human Concretion, a sculpture not unlike Hepworth’s Reclining Figure.
Hepworth’s main achievement was thus the transmission of Dadaist and Surrealist art from France to Great Britain. In this sense, she prolonged the life of the historical avant-garde movement, which ended years prior to the beginning of the Second World War.
The Human Dimension
Let’s take a closer look at the sculpture. At its highest point, we can discover the carving of a circle and wavy lines. Is it the sun with clouds above it? Or is it upside down and the sun is above a sea of waves? Is it perhaps the abstract version of an artist’s signature? What is the arrangement supposed to represent – or is it supposed to represent nothing at all? A popular claim, after all, is that abstract art shows form as such, without wanting to represent anything real.
At least in this case, the situation turns out to be more complex. A recent photo of the same sculpture (fig. 2), taken by Cathy Carver for the Hirshhorn Museum, helps: taken from above, a face in profile view becomes clearly visible; the wavy line forms a large nose and overemphasizes the lips; the circle represents the eye. The angle of this photo immediately draws attention to the face. And if one recognizes the face, it is easy to define the whole figure as a torso: to the left and right of the head with the facial features are the shoulders, and the two curves at the other end indicate the legs. Perhaps one could even say that the figure is reclining on its right arm, stretching its feet towards the sky, counting the clouds.
Paul Laib’s photo, on the other hand, ungraciously cuts off the nose line. Thus, at first glance, it is not at all clear what the circle and the implied lines are supposed to represent. Laib was apparently not concerned with highlighting the human shape of the sculpture. But now that we have seen the other photo and know – or think we know – that it is indeed an anthropomorphic figure, can we get rid of that knowledge? Can we unsee the human shape again? Can we again perceive it as a purely abstract form without committing it to human body parts?
Let’s have a look at the rear view in Laib’s second photo (fig. 3). What is recognizable as a leaning arm in the Hirshhorn photo makes a surprisingly unstable impression from behind – a single spike holds the right half of the figure above the ground and the supposed arm melts into the back beyond recognition. What was distinguishable from the front and especially from above as an oval head shape suddenly appears as a slightly overhanging plateau. The overexposed centre of the figure suddenly looks like a sharp angle, no longer a gentle sweep. And something else is remarkable: in the rear view, the shadow play of the photographer spills over onto the wall in the background.
In the Shadows
Laib’s photographs work with pronounced lighting and shadows. In the front view, the shadow swallows the figure’s supporting points, so that its contact with the surface underneath cannot be pinpointed – it almost floats. In Laib’s photo, the deep shadow lines in the figure’s curves add depth and plasticity, whereas in Hirshhorn’s photograph, where shadows are used much more sparingly, the figure looks almost flat in comparison. Note especially how the “shoulders” appear like flat surfaces, while Laib makes them resemble humps, and how the curve in the front centre appears much deeper in Laib’s photo. The sharp contrast of overexposed surfaces merging into glistening white on the one hand and shadows swallowing up into the black background on the other could be reminiscent of the era of expressionist film, which was just coming to an end in Germany.
In the rear view, the use of shadows goes beyond accentuating the figurative features and adds its own artwork to the back wall. Different layers of shadows overlap, creating a multifaceted play that cannot simply be made to coincide with the shapes of the figure. We have seen that the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human being as long as the focus is not on the face or if it is viewed from behind, from where it is not so easy to infer human forms.
Just as the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human, the shadow play does not necessarily represent the sculpture. This does not mean that they have an autonomous life of their own. Rather, they embrace the ambivalence of interdependence and free expression. The sculpture represents a human being and at the same time not, just as the shadow simultaneously does and does not represent the sculpture. Or, in Hepworth’s own words: “The best carvings are necessarily both abstract and representational” (Hepworth, 1932: 17). And we could add: the same goes for photographs.
Going a step further, I would argue that it is not only a game of (non-)representation. The emphasis on the curve and the smooth rounded edges in Laib’s photo make invite the viewer to grasp the subject. In its floating state, it loses the appearance of a massive and heavy block of marble, becoming seemingly light and easy to handle. The rear view shot makes the centre of the sculpture appear particularly narrow, as if it could be encircled by a single hand. If we imagine it as larger, we might even interpret it as an armchair or a child’s seat. The depth and dynamism of the object, amplified by the shadows, do not imply that it should look like a human, but that it might have been shaped for humans. It evokes an aesthetics of ergonomics by pointing to the object’s potential haptic qualities (Lewinson, 2015: 783). The human quality of the sculpture, then, is not only representational: it can be an invitation to future human use, as well as the document and product of a past human interaction, namely that with the sculptor.
On the Workbench
Laib took photos of Hepworth’s studio (fig. 4). Scattered around the workbenches are tools, raw materials, but also a coffee cup and finished sculptures. In the first photo, what catches the eye is the massive stone on the left, and perhaps the large window overlooking the garden; what is somewhat lost is the Reclining Figure, which can be seen on the workbench in the foreground. It is positioned like in the rear view photograph, but slightly rotated and the perspective is slightly elevated. The strong shadows are missing, and the sculpture almost seems to merge with the surface of the bench: both being bright white. Although it is lying on the workbench with a hammer and other equipment next to it, it looks finished, and it may have been positioned there just for the purposes of the photo.
In the second photo (fig. 5), the Reclining Figure is more prominently placed in the foreground and it has been rotated almost 180 degrees. Upon closer inspection, we notice that the other objects on the table have also changed position. The hammer and the coffee cup are behind the sculpture, a chisel protrudes over the edge. But the change in the arrangement is much less elaborate than it seems: what moved was the workbench, not the objects. A notch in the wood in front of the sculpture (fig. 5) reveals that the bench was rotated for the photos. And even if some of the objects were rearranged, this rotation accomplishes one thing above all: the Reclining Figure can be seen from two sides. It seems that Laib or Hepworth, whoever directed the photos, was concerned with showing that the Reclining Figure has at least two sides. Thus, the essential ambivalence of the sculpture, its indecision between representation and abstraction, which can at least partially be brought into congruence with the contrast of front and rear views, has also been realized photographically.
On the other hand, in both views the sculpture dissolves into the white of the workbench. Its human form disappears completely and its contours are difficult to discern. It might have been primarily technical circumstances such as the bright daylight that make the Reclining Figure almost invisible, yet there seem to have been enough darker surfaces available that would have provided a stronger contrast to the sculpture to make us guess that the positioning was deliberate.
The contrast, on the other hand, is to be found in setting the delicacy and smoothness of Reclining Figure among the dark, worn tools. One almost fears that the fine object could be damaged in the untidy pile of tools – yet it was precisely these tools with which this delicacy was created.
If we assume that the “white-out” of the sculpture was intentional, however, the figure begins to transcend the question of abstraction and representation, and its materiality becomes problematic. We might find Hepworth‘s enthusiasm for Christian Science and the emphasis on the immaterial world in it (Kent, 2015: 475). The Pierced Forms, one of which is seen in the background, are held as the culmination of her engagement with these ideas: the hole represents and exhibits the absence of material. In the Reclining Figure, the immaterial is not integrated into the sculpture, but the exposure technique in the photographic reproduction even surpasses the effect. The sculpture is itself and as a whole in transition to the immaterial. It is, in more than one sense, illuminated.
Paul Laib’s photographs throw a different light on Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining Figure. Providing very particular angles and guiding our interpretation, they should also be appreciated as works of art. Maybe we can call them not reproductions of a sculpture, but artworks inspired by this sculpture. Just like literary texts, film and indeed sculpture always draw on other works of art to critically reflect, celebrate or further develop elements of them, the photos of sculpture find inspiration in their objects but tell their very own story.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Buckberrough S (1998) Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective by Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson. Woman‘s Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 , 47-50.
Hepworth B  The Aim of the Modern Artist: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson. Interview with Hepworth. In: Bowness S (2015) Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations. London: Tate Publishing, pp. 14-17.
Kent L (2015) Christian Science and Ben Nicholson’s work of the 1930s. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 474-481.
Lewinson J (2015) Barbara Hepworth reconsidered. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 781-786.
One photograph that Anthony Kersting took during one of his journeys through Madrid reveals a site whose open roof, skeletal towers and central cavity would easily classify it as a plain depiction of an early twentieth century abandoned architectural project.
As alluring as images of outmoded objects and sites are, they very often carry the intrinsic ability to make their viewers venture into a purely nostalgic cul-de-sac. American artist Robert Morris unsympathetically asserts “that all the great ruins have been so desecrated by the photograph, so reduced to banal image, and thereby so fraught with sentimentalising historical awe”. I would’ve concluded with a similar statement had I not discovered the note Kersting wrote at the back of the photograph:
“The Madrid facade of the new Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena as it now appears. The Cathedral was started in 1895, but only the Crypt was completed. Recently, however, the framework for the Twin Towers of the facade has been completed.”
In his caption, Kersting introduces the subject of the image, the Almudena Cathedral “as it now appears”, which was most certainly the moment when the image was taken in 1956. It also seems that at a later date he added two other details to the description, namely a note to say that 1895 was the year when the construction of the building began, and a more recent moment, when (to his seeming surprise) the twin towers of the façade were completed. This caption, attached to the image, pencils the troubling timeline of the Cathedral’s biography.
Due to insufficient funding, the building of the Cathedral was put on hold shortly after the laying of its foundations in 1895. The resumption of the project was further complicated by the death of Francisco de Cubas, the architect who drafted the initial plans. As such, only the Neo-Romanesque Crypt was finished and opened to the public in 1911. The following eruption of the Spanish civil war led to a more than a two-decade stagnancy.
In the 1940s, aesthetic criteria changed. Finalising the construction in a Gothic style was no longer suitable because of the stark contrast it may create with its urban surroundings. Therefore, the Directorate General for Fine Arts organised a national contest, which selected Fernando Chueca Goitia and Carlos Sidro to complete the Cathedral’s construction in a Baroque fashion.
Not accidentally, the exercise of visualising the Cathedral’s hectic timeline is interrupted by the skeletal towers, the centrepiece of Kersting’s photograph. At first sight, the moment of Kersting’s “now”, the “now” when he clicked the shutter, captures the absent façade of the building, which was not completed until the 1960s. This corresponds to one of the periodic moments in the Cathedral’s life when a cloud of uncertainty was hovering around its construction.
Closing the timeline of the Cathedral’s building is the completion of the Baroque cloisters and façade in the 1960s, and the subsequent embellishing of its interiors in 1993. Within a prevailing Neo-Gothic nave, “statues of contemporary artists, in heterogeneous styles, from historical revivals to pop-art decor” are housed. The palimpsestic nature of the Cathedral’s architecture, coupled with Kersting’s ambiguous photograph, further highlights the tumultuous process of how it eventually came to be a fully functional site. Their association also proves that “the history of images is a history of objects that are temporally impure, complex, overdetermined”.
A photographic document like Anthony Kersting’s is deceiving. It demands us to flip the “inert” or “escapist” side of the picture and read its description to realise that the captured moment is the indivisible and decisive element of the monumental timeline which concludes with the Cathedral’s eventual unveiling. In “Iteration”, Robin Schuldenfrei mentions the “barely visible”, yet visceral nature of “iterative gaps”. She gives the example of a ship, whose sailing from one destination to another is incredibly physical, in its speed through water and in the mechanics of towing, yet the “iterative gap” lingers in the uncertainty as to whether it will reach its destination. Natural or technical threats constitute some of the many dependencies that such a travel embodies. These conditions are, however, predominantly neglected once the ship reaches the shore. In the case of the Cathedral, a gap is closed as the completed a place of worship in unveiled. While capturing such an iterative gap, Kersting encourages the unhealed edges of the edifice’s history to surface. Rather than a standstill, we have reached a crossroads.
 R. Morris, 1970. The Present Tense of Space, in Continuous Project Altered Daily.
 Almudena Cathedral – Madrid Tourist Attractions. (n.d.). http://www.madridtourist.info/almudena_cathedral.html
 G. Didi-Huberman, 2000. Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism, in Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History.
 R. Schuldenfrei, 2020. Iteration: Episodes in the Mediation of Art and Architecture.
Mihaela Elena Man
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant