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…
At night, when people fall asleep, the city wakes up and starts to live. And this is particularly true for Roma. There is something mystical about this eternal city which seems to transcend the reality we live in. Only at night, when the streets get empty and there are no tourists wandering through the narrow alleys and hidden corners of the city, you can truly feel what it means to say: “I am in Rome”.
Roma is a protective mother who guides us from street to street, ancient palace to ancient palace, in a perpetual quest to understand the essence of our fragmented life. And as we walk, we might notice lonely and adventurous wanderers who are stuck in the same quest. And as we pass each other, we feel our nostalgia growing, even if we don’t know why. It is like we are aware that we are missing something in our lives, or that we can never fully have it: but the melancholy caused by a lack of love, success, or happiness is heartened by the warm arms of Roma.
Roma is a protective mother who cannot be fully understood. You feel loved, you feel protected, but you cannot fully understand why. You just know that you must keep walking and you must keep passing people by. Roma is unreachable, because thousands of years of history are shown off with pride every inch of the city, but you constantly sense a decadent presence that confers to the city a folksy halo.
Roma embodies the ‘Cabiria’ character in Fellini’s “White Sheik”. When the bourgeois character Ivan is sitting at night in an empty square, crying because his wife has snuck off to meet her soap opera idol, he is the lonely vagabond who’s oppressed by social conventions. And when he is lost for words, in despair, the prostitute Cabiria suddenly appears, whose only way to show love and support is by making jokes and by keeping things light. Cabiria and her friend Assunta look at the pictures of Ivan’s wife, making silly but loving comments, raising Ivan’s spirit up. Roma, as Cabiria, will never take you seriously, but it will always make you feel comforted and at home.
I become that adventurous wonderer every time I have the occasion to visit Roma. Coming from a very small village located in Southern Italy, I have cultivated, since I was a child, a fascination for Roma. The capital was just a four-hour drive from my village, but my family and I were not used to travelling a lot. So, when we visited our cousins in the city it almost felt like we were travelling to the other side of the world. Roma was on the national newscast every day; Roma was the place where my fellow countrymen were going to try their luck to find a job; and Roma was the city where my older cousin was attending University. There is a very special unsaid tradition in my family that tells you that every time you leave the village, you have to wave goodbye to every relatives’ home. And I remember those moments, when my cousin had to return to Roma, as heart-breaking and painful, feeding my view of the capital as “The” destination with no return. Even today, although travelling has become a more common thing for me to do, when I visit Roma, I feel in the same way I used to feel when I was a child.
Last August, for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my family and I decided to take a two-day trip and there couldn’t be any other destination but Roma. We arrived in the late afternoon and we were supposed to leave the following day after lunch, so we had just one night. I was really looking forward to walking through the city centre when I could have spent some time really enjoying the empty city.
It was 3 am. While my parents and my brother embarked on the impossible mission to find an open ice-cream parlour, I ventured to walk around Piazza di Spagna. I climbed the iconic Trinità dei Monti steps and, reaching the top, I was dazzled by the view: the city enlightened by hundreds of tiny yellow lanterns. It reminded me why I love Roma so much. You can get bewildered by the grandeur of the architecture, but you never feel uneasy.
On the way to re-join my family, I suddenly felt observed by two stone hollow eyes. It was like being trapped in one of those oneiric scenes of Fellini’s movies. The city was alive, and it was peering at me. I instantly remembered when I visited the Cinecittà film studios for the first time and I got hypnotized by the majesty of the Casanova’s Venusia. This massive sculpture of a crowned head, which had been made for the opening scene of the movie directed by Fellini in 1976, now stands at the entrance of the historical studios. The hollow eyes that confronted me that night were, in fact, just the entrance of the Hertziana Library of Zuccari Palace, one of the largest History of Art research sites in Europe, but I really had the impression that the huge mouth of the creature was a magical portal to enter a parallel Roma. A photograph by Anthony Kersting held in the Conway Library as G19688 captures this strange doorway.
It is funny how an elusive glimpse can take you to impossible places. But this feeling is quite common when you visit this unique labyrinthine city. It is the atypical and the bizarre that transform Roma into a human, into a mother. The intrinsic contradiction between the sacred and profane, between the solemn and familiar is the blend that continues to attract hundreds of wanderers every year. If you arrive alone, you will have the city to keep you company. The towering fountains, the cramped cloisters, the wide arcades, the charming churches are a multitude of faces that will guide you through the city, that ascends to the eternal because every vagabond will leave a peace of their soul that will live the streets forever. And at night, when it’s just you and the city, strange miracles can happen.
Anthony Kersting’s photographs of the Parliament Buildings in Nairobi illustrate, rather neatly, the contrast between the two stages of its design. The first section, built in 1957, was commissioned by the colonial government, whilst the second was completed, by the same architect, following the country’s independence in 1963. The architect in question was New Zealander Amyas Connell, who, following a career in the UK in the 1930s, relocated to East Africa, and eventually attracted the attention of Kenya’s British governors, who sought a suitable design for Kenya’s post-independence parliament.
However paternalistic a gesture, the building and its history tell a complicated story which reflects a wider trend in the Global South, whereby international cooperation and modern architecture were implemented as part of the decolonisation process, and coincided with the adoption of policies of Non-alignment.
The most prominent aspect in the first image is the clock tower. It was not, however, included in Connell’s first draft, and instead represents his response to the criticisms levelled by the British, who considered the designs not English enough, and lamented that it did not look remotely like Westminster. Indeed, the coolness and near-classicalism of the surrounding buildings represent not just the modernising of Kenya’s political environment but were designed more than anything in response to geography. The Modernist architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who did a considerable amount of work in Lagos, Nigeria, had recently published an influential and detailed study of Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone, which demonstrated the practicalities of the Modern style in equatorial countries. So as to appease the British, however, Connell included the central clock tower (then the highest building in Nairobi), a modern mock-up of St Stephen’s tower. There is something comically absurd, however, in its reduction to pure rectangles, and the omittance of Gothic detailing anywhere other than the clock-face itself.
Drew and Fry’s influences extended beyond the African continent. Most famously, they were invited by Prime Minister Nehru to be part of the design team headed by Le Corbusier for the new city of Chandigarh, a symbol of India’s post-independence development. Architectural Modernism was a prominent feature of many newly-independent nations, and, even in countries in which it was implemented prior to the end of colonial rule, a unifying feature of many Non-aligned countries.
Founded in Belgrade in 1961 and rejecting formal alliances with either of the Cold War superpowers, the Architectural Modernism movement allowed for communicative processes beyond those of ‘Iron Curtain’ politics and bloc-formation. As well as the work of Western architects, architectural historian Łukasz Stanek details the Modernist buildings designed by Eastern Europeans in a variety of Non-aligned nations at the invitation of post-colonial governments, as part of a process he deems “socialist world-making”. Although not a founding member of the Non-aligned Movement, Jomo Kenyatta represented Kenya at the 1964 Cairo conference of these countries, and the parliament buildings represent an important addition to the Modernist practices and ideological implications which developed in the Global South.
These ideals are nowhere more stark than in the second section of the buildings, in which Connell takes a decidedly Corbusian approach, and which incorporates a sculptural frieze depicting the triumphant victors of the independence struggle. It is a shame that Kersting did not take a detailed picture of the frieze (the sculptor of which is unknown) as it is the most direct affront to the pro-British sentiment of the earlier section. His photograph does, however, demonstrate the fluidity and breadth of the National Assembly Building, housing the Kenyan parliament’s lower house. It is, in its architectural form, a testament to the newness of the country, both domestically and in playing a role on the international stage.
As Dennis Sharp writes, the building is an attempt “to develop a new and relevant architecture appropriate to the burgeoning political situation”. The employment of the Modern style, which was implemented across Nairobi consistently in the post-independence period, was by no means constitutive of socialistic revolutionary activity; it was, however, and remains to this day, a demonstration of a solidarity shared across the Global South, to participate in international politics on the basis of positive neutrality, and to maintain relationships, architecturally or otherwise, beyond the division of the world into colonial and military blocs.
 Drew, J., Fry, M. (1956). ‘Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone’, Tropical Housing & Planning Monthly Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 2-7
 Stanek, Ł. (2020). Architecture in Global Socialism, Princeton University Press
 Sharp, D. (1983). ‘The Modern Movement in East Africa’, Habitat International, Volume 7, Issue 6, p. 323
As a child, growing up in a socialist household with a trade union activist as a parent, the 1960s were full of London marches and meetings. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and anti-Vietnam War causes were high on the list of mid-week and weekend activities – along with visiting art galleries, although a football match came before art! On reflection, it was a fascinating, innovative, fast-moving time, albeit an ominous and frightening decade overall.
CND marches were held annually from 1959 to 1963 when the International Test Ban Treaty was signed, which partially banned nuclear tests. The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston was always the destination for the CND annual march, starting at Trafalgar Square. These Aldermaston Marches, the CND symbol and their slogan “Ban the Bomb” became icons and part of the youth culture of the 1960s.
This photograph by Anthony Kersting bears the inscription “London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square” and seemingly captures the youth culture of the 1960s. Are we seeing the aftermath of a political demonstration, students waiting for the end of march speeches? Deep-political discussion after listening to Joan Baez and Donovan play and address the crowds at an anti-Vietnam protest?
And what did Kersting mean to evoke by his caption, ‘Beatniks and Barefoot Girls’? The media sold a stereotypical description of the Beatnik that consisted of dark clothing, turtleneck sweaters, berets and glasses – and women would go barefoot. Free love and drug-taking were also associated with the Beatnik style. Even Kersting appears to have bought into the stereotype. Yet it was always more a state of mind than a way of dressing.
But when were these beatniks in Trafalgar Square and why? It took some time, and several fruitless attempts to find the date of the photograph, but eventually the year 1965 was identified from another image held within the Collection Archive for Art and History, Berlin. This image captures the moment just seconds before the photograph held in The Courtauld library was taken.
You can imagine Anthony Kersting, armed with his camera, hanging over the concrete balustrades in front of the National Gallery, trying to capture the “perfect image”. Whereas the first photograph is far “too loose” and poorly composed, the one Kersting captures seconds later is strikingly composed, divided into two almost equal sections by a strong diagonal yet linked by engaged and connected figures. The heavily textured and rather dark top half is beautifully balanced by the lighter bottom half with its horizontal shadows and the out of focus balustrade. The image reveals a range of tones full of blacks and whites, with dark shadows and bright highlights. The high viewpoint is a creative way to enhance composition, giving the photographer an aesthetic advantage. Such subtle changes in viewpoint can add a deeper meaning or feeling to an image.
It is the physical connection seen within the line of people that draws the eye from one side of the photograph to the other side, weaving in and out of both the seated and standing figures. It is easy to become immersed in their conversations, eavesdrop on their political discussions or their thoughts of the key speakers at the demonstration.
There is a real possibility that the Anthony Kersting photograph was taken during the anti-war in Vietnam demonstration rally in Trafalgar Square where American folk singer Joan Baez, a political activist as well as a singer/songwriter, performed. Joan Baez was a fixture at marches and protests, especially in the Sixties, preaching a philosophy of nonviolence. In fact, she was everywhere – in the Village with Bob Dylan, Mississippi with Martin Luther King Jr. and Palo Alto with Steve Jobs. Both Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs were her lovers at various times. She also famously often went barefoot – although at this particular rally she was wearing shoes.
At the Trafalgar Square demonstration, Baez sang Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing. The 5th verse captures the rejection of the more conventional society:
Come mothers and fathers Throughout the land And don’t criticize What you can’t understand Your sons and your daughters Are beyond your command Your old road is rapidly agin’ Please get out of the new one If you can’t lend your hand For the times they are a-changing
If we make a reasonable assumption that the Kersting photograph in the Conway Library was taken on the 29th May 1965, it does indeed encapsulate the period itself. In the early 1960s, the Beatles’ Help premiered in the London Pavilion, National Service/Conscription was ended, and comprehensive education was introduced. Feminism became a more influential ideology, while recreational drugs became more commonly used. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Anti-Apartheid picketing continued outside South Africa House and 1968 saw the Ford Dagenham women’s strike for equal pay, while Barbara Castle became the first woman to hold the position of First Secretary of State. In March 1968, a crowd of 10,000 demonstrated against US involvement in the Vietnam War before marching to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, yet a year later in 1969 we saw the first men on the moon. It was a period of rising living standards in the UK but still dire poverty for many. A decade which was so full of promise but also disappointment and frustration.
It is also ironic that Trafalgar Square, built to separate the rich from the poor and, years later, modified to prevent public gatherings (the fountains were built solely for this purpose) would become the focus of protest, rebellion, demonstration and celebratory social gatherings.
The general public sees Trafalgar Square as a place to express freedom of speech and the ability to create change in the space. Scholars argue that change takes place when public space is used for strong protests and the historic presence of protests taken place in Trafalgar Square make it a significant area for the public.
From experience, the “space” does become a rallying point, a resting place, an enveloping space, offering comfort and safety… for the most part. Some academics have labelled the square as a “liminal space”, but introspective as opposed to uncomfortable, a place holding one on the threshold of new experiences. As a beatnik in 1965, having listened to Joan Baez in Trafalgar Square, and now talking to friends, this would indeed become a reflective, introspective space.
If Trafalgar Square is this in-between space, it is often these days geographically half-way between the start and end of a demonstration. Sometimes, one rests in the square before moving on to Parliament Square, or Whitehall. It is the space when you are “on the verge” of something new: you are between “what was” and “what will be”. A transitional space, a transformative space – as was and still is.
Looking at Anthony Kersting images from the Conway Library at first glance took me back to my youth. It’s fascinating how a photograph – familiar or unfamiliar – can conjure up images of your experiences from a period in your life. It might do so directly – capturing a specific detail of a known building – or indirectly – by having a similarity with another place entirely. Almost like an aroma, or perfume, it can take you back to a specific memory, experience, time or place.
Although at first glance I thought: “this is the temple I visited on one of my many trips to Bangkok whilst residing in Singapore”, it occurred to me that I saw so many temples in Thailand that I might be mistaken. It was only after going through my personal, disorganised archive of photographs that I could confirm that it was indeed the same one, although I couldn’t locate the image of the reclining Buddha inside the temple.
When I looked at the images I selected for this blog, they took me back to a period in my life when I had just completed my postgraduate studies in Architecture. At the time, there was a recession in the UK and the building industry is often one of the sectors that are negatively impacted first. There were no jobs for budding, enthusiastic, young architects with no work experience, like me. But this took me, thankfully, to my first job abroad in Singapore, where I lived and worked for two years, and from which I could travel around South East Asia.
The images taken by Kersting in Singapore took me back 20 years in an instant. I recall my weekend walks (in the extremely high humidity temperatures), searching for the historical context of colonial architecture, contrasting with the dizzying heights of banks, hotels and condominiums that tower over the domestic-scaled “shop-houses” on this tiny sovereign island city-state in South East Asia.
Kersting captured St Andrews Cathedral, white as icing on a wedding cake, and the Cricket Ground near City Hall, where you could envisage, under colonial rule, a game of cricket being played. These were all on my daily route to the office I worked in, as well as the Old Supreme Court which was the last building to be built in the Classical style in the former British Colony. This building is now part of the National Gallery.
I marvelled at the way this island expands at such speed from a construction perspective and at the amazing architecture that exists. The skyline continues to progress and increase in density, and the structures become more and more challenging. For this reason, this is a place I always want to revisit.
The last time I was fortunate enough to travel to Singapore was ten years after I had worked and lived there and I couldn’t believe the number of new buildings that had emerged.
It made me think of the images of places that have been recorded in history and time, buildings that have disappeared forever due to wars, human intervention and natural disasters, many of which are captured in the Conway Library.
Photography is an important tool for recording places and people as they are in a particular time. This makes the Conway Library, and other photographic archives of this kind, vital to reconstructing our heritage and history and makes the efforts to digitise it and present it to the public even more important. Preserving these items is to preserve that time and place forever, making it accessible to all across the globe, enabling research and consultation for whatever purpose.
Sat here in London on a rainy November day during lockdown 2, exploring Kersting’s photographs was a wonderful moment of escapism that transported me in an instant from my current burdening thoughts and worries to memories of the past. It made me feel more hopeful for the future, during a year of overwhelming disruption and changes to life as we know it.
Finally, for readers looking to spend some time with a good book on memories and olfactory triggers, I recommend Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by German writer Patrick Süskind.
Muny Morgan Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
The mix of European sculpture such as a George and the dragon sculpture and a European bust, alongside a young Bahamian apprentice, busy glazing a plate, piqued my interest.
Kersting’s hand-written note on the back of the photograph reads Nassau, Bahamas and Chelsea Pottery.
To put the Kersting photograph into context, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw Nassau as the playground of the rich and famous, who arrived to sample the social scene – the sun, the wild parties and one of the most important and prestigious motor racing events on the race calendar! At the same time, more American and European money began flowing through Nassau, and there was a market for fine pottery, especially among foreign tourists and the affluent ex-pat community in Nassau.
Obviously, Chelsea Pottery was the first line of enquiry. In fact, Chelsea was the brainchild of David Rawnsley, a highly gifted and innovative man who had trained as an architect and engineer but who had also worked as a very successful art director in the British Film Industry. For those of us old enough to have watched the following in the 1960s with our grandparents or parents – One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and In Which We Serve (1942). His film innovations were widely ridiculed by the Rank film crews. Despite this, David Rawnsley developed independent frame storyboarding and back projection, both radical improvements to the filmmaking process.
At the end of the war, Rawnsley had already set up an ‘atelier libre’ in Paris, followed by another in London 1952, where painters and sculptors could work alongside each other exploring the use of clay and sharing ideas and experiences, for a daily charge. Yet, he decided to leave Chelsea London and set up a pottery along similar lines, in Nassau in the Bahamas.
A newspaper article – Chelsea Pottery of London comes to the Bahamas 1958, published January 11th, 1958, in the Miami Times describes this branch of his famous London pottery house headed by David Rawnsley and assisted by two European ceramic artists. Two Bahamians, George Huyler and Kendal Hanna, were permanently employed.
Instead of pursuing the Chelsea pottery line of enquiry, I wondered about the young man in the photograph… was he one of the apprentices or full-time employees George or Kendal?
Trawling through online articles and photographs of the Chelsea pottery in Nassau, two images showed a young man identified as Maxwell Taylor, who became a much admired and respected Bahamian artist. I contacted Max Taylor and he kindly confirmed that it was him in the Anthony Kersting photograph.
So how did this young Bahamian who trained as a ceramicist in the Chelsea Pottery eventually become one of the greatest Bahamian artists, renown as a painter, sculptor and printmaker?
Along with Brent Malone and Kendal Hanna, Maxwell became one of the ﬁrst apprentices of the Chelsea Pottery in Nassau. He always had a strong desire to draw and paint and admitted that David Rawnsley was instrumental in instructing and encouraging him. After the pottery closed, he later moved to New York and studied at the Art Students League of New York. Maxwell left New York after 20 years and travelled to South Carolina and Europe.
Over the past 40 years, Maxell Taylor has dealt with issues which reflect his own life experiences, such as Bahamian women as single mothers, immigration, political satire and political commentary, the Middle Passage and Slavery – celebration and misery.
Maxwell Taylor, the young man who against all odds worked to become an artist, became a teacher, a highly accomplished craftsperson and is now renowned for his ceramics, paintings, and printmaking.
He certainly had an interesting life from his time as an apprentice in Chelsea Pottery, when Anthony Kersting photographed him, to his well-earned status as one of the greatest – possibly the first – Bahamian artist.
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.
Rome is a very special place to me and this is a small, perfect jewel in its crown. The Keats-Shelley House on the Spanish Steps in Rome is a museum dedicated to the second-generation English romantic poets who lived in, and were inspired by Italy. The house hosted PB and Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron, but more importantly, it was the final home of John Keats. I am not a lover of poetry, having endured Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at school, but the various Odes by Keats and Paradise Lost by Milton somehow embedded themselves in my artistic imagination. Ode to a Nightingale by Keats is a personal favourite, it even recently prompted the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association’s 2020 Keats-Shelley Writing Prize theme of Songbird.
Anthony Kersting’s black and white photograph of the house, with its half-shuttered windows, patchy exterior paintwork and the overall dilapidated appearance, exudes a post-war feeling of decay – almost a reflection of Keats’ own situation – tired, worn out, dying. The building appears almost tragic – reflecting a tragic life and story. Ode to a Nightingale was written two years before Keats died in this building in 1821 and yet the following stanza captures the ‘beauty’ and essence of this photograph.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. [read more]
Today, the striking, renovated building, has a secure future, thanks to the ongoing programme of maintenance and restorations to the interior and exterior of the House. So, before climbing the 138 Spanish steps, It is worth taking a walk through a series of beautiful rooms, containing many treasures and curiosities associated with the lives and works of the Romantic poets, as well as one of the finest libraries of Romantic literature in the world, now numbering more than 8,000 volumes.
In addition to the museum, library and exhibition rooms, there are two spacious terraces boasting stunning views, a book and gift shop, and a small cinema room. The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (London) purchased the house in 1906 and oversees this house, as well as the Keats House in London, and his grave in Rome.
I don’t know her name. I don’t know the name of the young woman who stares out at me from the photograph I hold by its slightly curved edges. I’ve stared at this photograph for days, coming back to it and to her. She is elaborately dressed, wearing beaded necklaces with big metal pendants piled in great layers around her neck.
Her hair is mostly wound up in a headscarf but pieces have come loose and fall around her face. It’s her face that lingers in my memory. Large dark eyes, serious expression, black lines and dots punctuating her skin. With one hand she holds a woman partially cut off by the framing of the photograph. Her mother? A friend?
I flip the glossy photograph over, hoping for more insight. “NORTH IRAQ A YEZIDI GIRL” in pencil at the top of the page. A set of numbers that has been crossed out, another set written below. F48-51. F11-57. And then an address, A.F. Kersting, 37 Frewin Road, London. S.W.18. But no name, no clue to who she was or how she came to be photographed – her image now kept in a bulging stack of similar glossy black and white images in a pale blue box on a shelf of similar pale blue boxes in a chilly London basement library.
The pale blue boxes containing thousands of photographs, together with boxes of negatives and tattered hand-written ledger books, form the archive of the English photographer Anthony Kersting (1916–2008), which now resides in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute.
Since its entrance into the library’s collection, Kersting’s work has fascinated many, as evidenced by the blog posts from other digitisation interns who have been caught up in the ongoing endeavor of trying to make sense of these enigmatic images and their enigmatic creator. The majority of Kersting’s images reflect his career as a photographer of architectural sites in Britain and abroad, but there is a smaller set of pale blue boxes that contain piles of pictures of people.
These unexpected images come largely from Kersting’s trips to Transjordan, Iraq, and Iran in the 1940s. Tom Bilson, the Head of Digital Media at the Courtauld and Kersting’s biographer, emphasized how surprising these images of people, festivals, and daily life are in relation to Kersting’s broader corpus, where people are usually entirely eliminated from his shots.
I have spent my brief stint at the Courtauld immersed in these images of people, partly because of my own research interests in visual culture and the Middle East but also because these images unsettle me with their unknowns. I have spent the week asking questions of them. I’ve received only fragmented whispers.
Approaching the Archive
I am an anthropologist and an archaeologist with a particular interest in museums and material objects – the artifacts of the everyday. But I am also captivated by the lines of connection and meaning that extend from objects, connecting, overlapping, and severing as things and people move through space and time.
Unsurprisingly, photographs and archives are like catnip to me. They’re physical things that have been made and shaped by people and institutions over time while also being visual records of places, events, and people. The photographs in the Kersting collection preserve both Kersting and his subjects, albeit only ever in a partial way.
My background leads me to approach these photographs in particular ways, focusing in turn on their histories and contexts, their material properties, and their silences. These multiple approaches complement and complicate each other but cannot ever offer a complete explanation of these images.
The Iran and Iraq Images
I am going to focus specifically on Kersting’s photographs from Iraq and Iran during 1944. From a historical perspective, we know that Kersting visited Iraq in August 1944. A logbook, in which he recorded what and where he photographed, shows that he was in Iraq for at least 11 days beginning in Amadya and Mosul and ending in Baghdad. During this time he photographed people and places in Dohuk, Kirkuk, Hatra, Al Kosh, and Lalish.
The photograph of the Yezidi girl comes from his time in Lalish, when he photographed a Yezidi religious festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi. His photographs show scenes of baptism, dancing and music, and feasting together during the festival. According to the same ledger, Kersting visited Iran for at least 9 days in November and December of the same year. He travelled less widely according to captions on the images and the ledger, spending most of his time in Tehran, Isfahan, Ray, and Delijan.
There are several copies of a photograph of a large R.A.F. bus against the desert landscape which gives some insight into Kersting’s method of travel. On the back of one of the copies, Kersting has written “Trip to Iran,” while on another, “Modern desert travel. The Nairn bus running between Baghdad and Damascus. When this photograph was taken, the bus was being used by the R.A.F.” As an addendum and in different ink, “The R.A.F. Nairn Bus: Habbanniya to Damascus.”
The different captions are confusing. Was this taken on the route between the R.A.F. base in Habbanniya, Iraq, to Damascus, Syria? Or near Baghdad? Or in Iran? Why was he on a military bus in the first place? Who are the other people – some in uniforms but one in the foreground clearly not – in the image?
Tom Bilson informed me that Kersting was part of the R.A.F. for a period of time, but it is unclear whether he was on military business during these trips to Iraq and Iran. It certainly would not be unusual for an intelligence personnel to use photography as a cover for espionage, particularly in 1944 during WWII in this region, which had experienced the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran and the Anglo-Iraqi War just three years earlier.
This political history is largely absent from Kersting’s images themselves, save for two intriguing photographs taken in Duhok, Iraq. The first is a group of men, some in traditional Iraqi dress and others in suits and even shorts, outside of an unmarked building. On the back Kersting has written:
“Iraq, A group round the M.O.I. reading room in Dahook [sic], a Kurdish town between Amadia and Mosul. Allen, M.O.I. public relations officer in Mosul, who arranged my transport for me, is in the centre of the group. A. F. Kersting. Aug 1944”
M.O.I. is often used as an acronym for both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Information, though Ministry of Information might be more appropriate here in the context of a reading room. “Allen” is not mentioned in any other images or in Kersting’s ledger.
In a second image, a group of men read magazines and books together, possibly in the mentioned reading room. Arabic and English maps on the rear wall show theaters of war. “War Map of the USA and Japan” reads one.
These photographs obliquely show Kersting’s historical setting and his network of contacts, military and governmental, that made his journeys possible, but they also raise questions about the purpose of Kersting’s trips in the region, which was still an active site of British military negotiation and surveillance.
Viewed today, these photographs are still politically relevant, especially considering the persecution and violence faced by both Kurdish and Yezidi people. Kersting’s photographs highlight visibility and cultural vibrancy, providing a record of these communities’ traditions, longevity, and physical presence.
Besides trying to situate these photographs and Kersting himself in a particular historical and political moment, I’ve also tried to approach these images as cultural records. They simultaneously portray different ethnic and national communities and also record Kersting’s own understanding and classifications of these groups.
The images from Iraq, in particular, I think, reflect Kersting’s interest in the communities he met. On the back of a photograph (Image 9) of a Kurdish man, Kersting has written, “Iraq, A typical Kurd, inhabitant of Kurdistan in North Iraq. He wears the typical colored trousers, and carries a rifle, with a band of ammunition round his waist.” He gives some context to the man’s clothing as well as Kurdish people’s geographic presence in Iraq.
The photographs of the Yezidi festival at Sheikh Adi, in particular, are somewhat ethnographic, that is, trying to portray the experiences of people engaged in a specific activity or way of life. They show the smoke from pipes and incense, musicians mid-song, dancers moving together, children running around, mothers carrying children to baptisms. Kersting isn’t just capturing an event but an atmosphere.
However, like photographs taken and used by anthropologists in the early and mid-twentieth century, Kersting’s photographs and captions are reductive. “A typical Kurd,” “A Yezidi girl,” “Yezidi man,” “A typical Assyrian.” By these captions and categories, Kersting appears more interested in (stereo)types of people rather than specific individuals. Hence the lack of names.
I wonder about Kersting’s interactions with the people he met and photographed. Did Kersting ask to take people’s photographs? Were they excited or made anxious about this? Did they ever see the photographs of themselves? How would they or living relatives feel about these anonymized images sitting in a box in London?
Materiality in the Archive
In addition to being visual images, these photographs are physical objects. They take up space in boxes and shelves. Their curved edges and stains show age and wear and damage over time. They contain the physical marks of Kersting’s pen and pencil, recording the movements of his hands. Some theorists in anthropology have suggested thinking about the biographies of objects – their moments of coming into being, moving through the world, and their eventual “deaths.”
A biography of these images provides yet another way of looking at them. We could think about the technologies, materials, and skills required to produce them. Kersting worked with multiple cameras, which would have taken up space and required particular environments to prepare properly. The images would have been rendered on glass plates treated with special chemical solutions. They would have had to be printed onto specific kinds of paper using yet more chemicals to render the image and fix it in place.
After printing, Kersting inscribed them with dates, log numbers, descriptions, copyright stamps, his name and address. And while there are copies of certain images, no two are exactly the same because his descriptions vary. Some copies have additional, intriguing marks from R.A.F. censors or printed marks indicating that the paper is government-issued. What kinds of review processes did these images go through? And why do only some of them show signs of being reviewed or processed by the military?
It’s intriguing to think about the lifespan of these images. Did Kersting keep them in an album or display them in his home? Were these travel photographs shown off to friends? Were they commissioned by a particular organization? Did he consider them to be documentation of “exotic” people (a term now considered highly problematic but which circulated in popular discourse in his time), personal mementoes, or fine artworks? Why were some printed on glossy paper and others on flat matte paper? These are questions for which we don’t know the answers. But we do know more about these images’ futures.
These images, like the rest of the Conway Library’s photographic and print collections, are in the process of being digitized so that they can be stored and accessed online. The digitization process is an immense one, requiring hundreds of volunteers to help sort, label, photograph, and categorize all the images in the library.
So these photographs will live on in a digital form even after their physical forms degrade. But does our experience of an image change when it becomes pixels and code instead of photographic solution and paper? I can’t have the same experience of handling a photograph and flipping it over in eager anticipation of more information. But rendering high-quality images for a digital collection does make these images more accessible, potentially even allowing their circulation within the communities in Iraq and Iran that they portray.
“Quieter than Silence”
The anthropologist David Zeitlyn describes archives as spaces between memory and forgetting. They’re repositories of information, stories, and moments, but they also can outlive their subjects and makers, becoming ghosts of bygone people and places. Working in archives is extremely gratifying because it provides opportunities for rediscovery but it can also be frustrating as more and more question marks develop.
The more I look at these photographs through different analytical lenses the more I realize just how much I don’t know and will probably never know about them. Through digitization, crowdsourcing, and circulating the photographs back within their communities of origin certain individuals could potentially be identified, but Kersting’s motivations remain unknown.
Unannotated photograph of Yezidi musicians and attendants of the annual festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944. I am particularly struck by the young men in the bottom left corner who stare curiously into the lens of Kersting’s camera.
The photographs are even more ghostlike and frustrating to me, too, because they emphasize just how much is missing in appreciating the moment or person that is captured. It reminds me of the musical performance Quieter than Silence by Mehdi Aminian and Mohamad Zatari. In their fusion of Syrian and Iranian traditional music and poetry, the two men reflect on friendship, loss, and conflict. They emphasize the pain that comes with knowing that there should be sound or life in a moment but not being able to find it – experiences that seem quieter than silence.
These images seem quieter than silence to me in some ways because these places and people were not still and silent but teeming with movement, noise, color, and life. In the photographs, though, they have been frozen, silenced, detached. I long to reinvest these images with sound, smell, taste, and touch. So as I hold the photograph of the Yezidi girl, I think of her necklaces clinking together. I imagine the textures that surround her, the noise of a celebration, the click of a camera’s shutter closing.
Anthony Kersting was an expert photographer of architecture. He was clearly prolific, resourceful and much-travelled, this is reflected in the thousands of photographs and negatives he left to the Courtauld after he died.
Photographs themselves have an agency that goes beyond aesthetics, not just in the way they interact with the world, but in the way they change it. Creating photographs alters the way we perceive the world: photographs are not only a commentary, but they are also a component of the world. We have, therefore, altered the world with the action of capturing it in photographs.
Photographic images become new objects in the world, objects that affect and influence their perceiver and prompt new action. The vast number of photographs in this collection led me to create a list of proposals to maximise public engagement (see appendix at the bottom of this post for the full list).
One of my proposals is to make a puzzle game using Anthony Kersting’s photographs:
Anthony Kersting was an agent who was actively and constantly taking photographs in the world.
Most of his photographs focus strictly on architecture, and Anthony Kersting seems to have been committed to eliminating human presence by scheduling shoots at times when tourists and passers-by would not be expected.
I was intrigued, therefore, to find two boxes of images shot in Jordan, which contain photographs of people and urban life. The images contained in these two boxes felt deeply human. I was also left wondering: why did Kersting want to take photographs of the people here, when he doesn’t seem so interested in capturing people elsewhere?
Often, the best photos are not taken but given by the subjects, when subject and photographer are equals. In the end, a photograph is only a photograph when it meets with a spectator. The subjects in Anthony Kersting’s Middle East photos meet our gaze.
Exploring Anthony Kersting’s collection, I felt I was being asked to start watching rather than just look at each image – turning his photographic prints over I found his handwritten inscriptions and annotations as equally interesting as the images. The annotations vary wildly from very detailed to elusive and mysterious, written as if he might otherwise forget where the shoot took place.
Sometimes, it feels like he is planning some sort of crime – he captures particular places in forensic detail, or the way his portraits are so intimate…
Theodor Adorno says “creative art is an uncommitted crime” although I find this phrase somehow dubious, it resonates, and I enjoy the thought of “committing crimes” with Tony, in the journey of seeing through his photographs. Seeing the world through his lens.
I found myself exploring the ideas that photography is only complete when it meets with a spectator; that a photograph is an object in itself, and not just an image of something else.
Absorbing the ethos behind the Digitisation Project’s activities was fascinating, it was very much of my honour to contribute to researching the collection, and I had an amazing week.
Proposals that may never happen for engaging with Anthony Kersting’s photographs in the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House. Inspired by Peter Liversidge’s book Proposals / 1997-2005 (Belfast: Ormeau Baths Gallery, 2005, in an edition of 500).
I propose that users are able to access the archive photographs in various interactive online formats. This way, users might watch the photographs as though they were actual events, rather than observing them passively. The game should be called Knowing Anthony Kersting.
I propose making Anthony Kersting’s photographs into puzzles. These can be organised by content and difficulty levels. Next to the puzzle, a description should provide the context of the photograph, or reproduce the back of the photograph with Kersting’s handwriting with his detective-like description of the context of the information about the photograph.
I propose linking all the photographs together and making them into a VR experience.
Users could learn how to type or improve their touch-typing skills by copying AF Kersting’s handwriting on the back of his photographs, and completing the typing within a certain time frame. (See the typing practice game- Kingsoft TypeEasy).
I propose to make a drawing game, either on a flat computer screen or inside a VR simulator. Users would trace all of the outlines of the photograph [using a mouse or, in VR, a controller]. Once finished outlining a photograph, individuals can save their drawings without the photograph on the back. Or they could have choices, draw from the photograph, make the photograph next to it, make it into a digital drawing session. When the drawing is done, there could be pop-ups or animations of the content. Also, a social space where individuals can share their works too.
A painting or mind map using Kersting’s photographs as inspiration. An exercise focussed on transforming and interpreting photographs, turning them into other things, thinking about issues that are beyond the photograph.
A travel plan based on all the places Kersting visited, showing mostly street photography and architecture sites, and linking to personal photographs of those places. This project could be named “How much land do I know”.
Looking at his images felt like we were sneaking around together, “committing crimes”. The idea would be to replicate the shots of locations devoid of people.
A Snake Game on Google Maps, tracking all the places in which we have been to, with individual players as the snakes, when we reach every destination of Anthony’s photographic descriptions, we get a point and we can also track how big the avatar Snake has grown.
We could map out all the places that he has been to in Google Maps and explore those places with 360 virtual tours on Google Earth, and make a film out of it. Travelling around Europe while being in the house.
Using the portraiture that Kersting took in Jordan to retrace his steps and try to find out who those people are or were.
Come back to the Courtauld another day and volunteer in here, focussing on Anthony Kersting’s collections especially.