Category Archives: Volunteer Voices

Meet our volunteers… Gill, Lorraine and Bill

Audio version

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

Text version

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

Why I volunteer…

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

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

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

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

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

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

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


A favourite photo or moment?

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

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

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

Bevin Court Stairs. CON_B04266_F001_022. The Conway Library.

What do you do when not volunteering?

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

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

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

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

“Westfield Coffee”, photograph taken by Bill.

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

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

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

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

Volunteering during lockdown

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

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

One of Lorraine’s contributions to Art Club.


Artwork by Lorraine Stoker.

Meet our volunteers… Francesca and Anne

Audio version

Read by Claudia and Celia

Text version

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

Francesca and Anne

Why I volunteer…

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

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

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

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

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

Celtic crosses in the Conway Library.

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

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

AF Kersting, Eros.

What do you do when not volunteering?

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

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

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

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

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

Volunteering during lockdown

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

Frncesca’s contribution to Art Club
Art Club prompt, week 4.

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

Meet our volunteers… Heidi and John 

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

Heidi in the Courtauld lift and John in his makeshift recording studio.

Why I volunteer…

Heidi: Of all places, I saw a retweet on Twitter asking for volunteers who were needed for a digitisation project at The Courtauld Institute of Art, they needed help recording and saving many 1,000s of photographs they have stored in collections. Like most people, I knew of and had visited most of the big London museums and galleries, but the Courtauld had always had an air of mystery, needless to say, I’d been to Somerset House but had never actually gone inside. Therefore when I saw the chance to not only feed my curiosity but also my love of Architecture and the Arts, as well as doing something that sounded extremely interesting and worthwhile, I immediately applied to volunteer. I love coming to such an amazing building, I’m still overly curious about my surrounding (Somerset House is vast), the many boxes of photos, and taking part in saving minute pieces of history that all add up to one amazing collection, rather like putting together an image pixel by pixel until you get the whole picture.

John: To support the Courtauld, as the Gallery has been part of my imagination all my adult life.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Heidi: I start each shift knowing what I’m going to be doing, usually it’s Metadata, my favourite, but also knowing that there’s going to be surprises, mysteries I have to solve, handwriting for instance. But that’s what I enjoy, the repetitiveness of interesting information (I’m a born organizer), when suddenly you’re confronted by a challenge and it needs to be solved then and there. Every shift I learn something new, whether it’s through the photos themselves or the information that accompanies them.

John: Finding beautiful or unusual detail in the photographs of the Conway – such as this sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral.

CON_B00089_F002_026 with John’s drawing

A favourite photo or moment?

Heidi: The photographs that have made me stop and stare were the boxes of the Plans of the Vatican and Vatican City, several boxes containing masses of plans. I hadn’t realized the Vatican was so vast, the amount of rooms, the tunnels. I immediately wanted to go there and start exploring because you know for sure that there are going to be hidden rooms, hidden passageways not on any public records.

John: There are so many! But a recent wow moment was James Austin’s photos of the Eiffel Tower.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Heidi: Recently as I haven’t been able to go to the Courtauld or out & about really, I’ve been making things, though I have had to curb my enthusiasm for baking for obvious reasons. But I love steampunk, retro styles with a twist of Heidi woven in. So I began the lockdown all eager with some painting, note the wacky handles.

Heidi’s revamped lockdown shelves.

I have three children, and six grandchildren (7, 9, 11, 13, 16, 19) so apart from using Houseparty, Whatsapp etc we have all become penpals, which is taking up a bit of time too. I was always going to exhibitions, galleries etc but what I have been doing is going for 2-4 hour walks (…all my home baking!) There is not a better way to explore London and I have yet to get lost (touch wood), and before Lockdown I spent every other long weekend in Essex where my family are, I miss the sea and the countryside too.

John: I do a lot of drawing, and images from the Conway Library have inspired me. I am also a keen reader of history and like to relate events to what was happening in the arts at the same time.

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

Heidi: When I first started volunteering I was unsure what to expect, I decided to try everything 2-3 times then decide if I wanted to alternate or choose one task. I was drawn to Metadata as working on my own suits me but there’s always help and plenty of advice when I need it, which is often! Metadata can be like a puzzle and I’m a “puzzle foodie”. But by volunteering for the project you get the opportunity to do several jobs, from camera work to research, from group work to individual work but with the knowledge that you will always have a wealth of knowledge and help if you need it from an extremely experienced merry band of overseers. Whether you’re a chatterbox or a bit shy, whether you have an interest in architecture, the arts, or just want to learn something new, I can think of no better way of doing so than in a prestigious environment with a group of like-minded people, not forgetting an awesome common room with ever plenty biscuits, & coffee ;-).

I have been asked to provide a photo if possible, I have been on numerous outings with the Courtauld, amazing places, and when it comes time for the photoshoot I’m the one ducking down at the back  o_O  …. So the one at the top of this post is one of me in the Courtauld lift, if you see me come and say hi!

John: Just try it for a few weeks. You have nothing to lose, you can stop if you wish. Everyone is so friendly and supportive, and they would never hassle.

The Digital Media team are so friendly and positive, always upbeat, informed and interesting, so it is always a pleasure to be in their company, even if only online. They also set a tone for the volunteers, who tend to fall in with this attitude.

Volunteering during lockdown

John: During COVID lockdown I’ve found it is helpful to set a routine of tasks drawn each day from a wide variety of possible activities. Research into aspects of the Conway is a great option, really interesting and stimulating, especially with the online meetings where we can discuss our work and share ideas. I’ve been recording audio versions of blog posts too – which will be ready to listen to soon!

Meet our volunteers… Olivia and Kristiāna

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

Olivia and Kristiāna

Why I volunteer…

Olivia: I am looking to gain the experience this project has to offer, and I am extremely passionate about digitising and making this collection available for the general public.

Kristiāna: To do something special with my time and to spend it while volunteering for the Courtauld, or more specifically for the Conway Library. I find it quite special to be part of this project.

It’s a pure enjoyment to contribute my time. Learning more about the methods within archives has inspired me to look into an MA. I hope to work full time in archives one day – it would be quite special for me.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Olivia: The setting and the pictures – but I really enjoy the process as well. Also, the flexibility is amazing! Most volunteering projects require a set day of the week and a minimum of hours, while this one is super relaxed and convenient.

Kristiāna: I would say that I enjoy everything about volunteering, from the variety of tasks we can choose from to the conversations with other volunteers. But I particularly enjoy the atmosphere and the close observation of the photographs. I find it intriguing and mysterious at the same time and seeing that other people are interested in the processes and the stories of the photographs within the archives makes the whole shared experience quite special.

One of Kristiāna’s favourite images in Capture One.

A favourite photo or moment?

Olivia: I don’t have one yet! But being Italian, I had a lovely time seeing so many images from Italy, a few boxes have been almost emotional to look at, and I really hope I’ll encounter one with pictures from Florence when the Courtauld opens again – I’ve lived there for some years and miss it greatly.

Kristiāna: I don’t have a particular favourite photograph but I enjoy seeing different travel photographs especially after my own travels to Italy. It was very interesting to see photographs of the places that I visited that were taken years back, and to notice the differences in the atmosphere and people within them.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Olivia: I’m working as a visitor assistant at the British Museum and as a tour guide over the tourist seasons, but I’m also volunteering at the Royal Society of Sculptors. During this pandemic, I started working on a PhD proposal. I want to progress in experience and keep working in museums and galleries, so volunteering at the Courtauld is very related to what I do and it’s giving me an amazing experience!

Kristiāna: Unfortunately I lost my job due to the coronavirus in April, I used to work as a Creative Team Assistant for an Icelandic artist. But since then I have been helping my partner with setting up his business. I am quite crazy when it comes to details and organisation, therefore I have found the tasks at the Conway Library very related to my personality. Volunteering here really trains your attention to detail and organisation skills.

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

Olivia: Just try once – the place and the people you meet are lovely, and it’s so convenient and easy to fit around any schedule, that you’ll keep coming for sure.

Kristiāna: I would say that they should try before deciding it isn’t for them. There are a variety of tasks that we can choose from, but you can develop your favourite and if you don’t like others you can stick to that one. I didn’t have any particular expectations when I started but I knew it would be incredibly interesting and that I should take everything as it comes.

 This experience has been an eye-opener for me as I have decided that I want to do a postgraduate in archives and records management (hopefully in the near future) and to develop this as my profession. Being a part of the project has not only helped me to realise my future career goals but it has also been feeding my curiosity. 

Volunteering during lockdown

Olivia: I’ll admit I had a lot of ideas and wanted to get much more involved in so many things, including volunteering, when the pandemic started, and then I slowly started to feel the pressure of the situation and ended up doing way less than what I originally planned (as a lot of people, I guess). However, the team came up with lots of little projects, challenges and fun ideas for volunteering from home, which was lovely! I tried the “pass the pencil” challenge which was a really fun and easy way to break the pandemic routine, and I look forward to trying out the other tasks.

Kristiāna: I haven’t been volunteering at home that much due to personal and family reasons, but I am willing to find more time to focus on the tasks as I really enjoy being part of the project that is particularly photography related. I appreciate the opportunity to do the volunteering at home, it can shift your mind from this rather weird time in our lives now. 

Meet our volunteers… Muny and Shawn

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

Muny and Shawn

Why I volunteer…

Muny: Having worked in a stressful office environment in architecture for all of my professional career, in London and internationally, after starting a family I decided not to go back to that industry on a full-time basis.

Once both my children started school I decided to volunteer as a way of building my self-confidence and doing something for myself that I enjoy which would fit around school hours so I can bring up my children.

Shawn: I volunteer to gain experience working in the archival library, as well as to familiarise and better myself at data entry. I often volunteer on the accession task, typing up the names of photographers from each photograph.

Shawn often chooses the attributions task

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Muny: The Digital Media department’s enthusiasm for the project and making each volunteer valued is a strength to this project. I really enjoy the different aspects of the roles, every shift is unique depending on the tasks that are carried out each week. I also really enjoy meeting and working with different volunteers every week who all have enriching diverse backgrounds and I’m fascinated to hear how they came about volunteering too.

Shawn: I enjoy making new friends, and discovering place names of unheard landmarks locally or internationally. Most importantly of all, I enjoy trying new skills in whichever task provided by the digitisation team.

A favourite photo or moment?

Muny: Hands down, Italy, especially Ravello and various images of Tomar in Portugal and Leptis Magna in Libya.

Shawn: I enjoy everything at the Courtauld, but what I loved most was the Italian architecture dating back to the early twentieth centuries. I’ve never been to Italy, but seeing those photos got me interested in Italian culture and heritage.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Muny: Alongside my background in architecture, I have always had an interest in heritage, arts and photography and this led me to volunteer on the digitisation project at the Courtauld. The volunteer programme has been very well organised and there is a degree of flexibility in the hours and shifts which works perfectly around my busy family life with my children.

Shawn: I’ve been spending time trying to find other volunteer positions similar to Courtauld, but most of the time I do fun stuff such as baking, knitting or fixing up statues for the nativity scene at the local church in Warlingham where I live.

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

Muny: For me personally, I’m hoping that working hard as a volunteer will open new avenues and roles where there’s more flexibility in terms of hours. I am gaining confidence in myself slowly and learning so many new skills. I’m also gaining an invaluable and niche insight into the collection. I would highly recommend volunteering to others, to gain personal confidence or learning new skills. You have nothing to lose and it’s a welcoming environment in such a beautiful setting! Win-win situation!

Shawn: You don’t need prior experience to volunteer at the Courtauld because you’re here to learn, gain a new set of knowledge and skills, and to make friends.

Ravello. Photo by Muny Morgan.
Ravello. Photo by Muny Morgan.
Ravello. Photo by Muny Morgan.
Muny recreated Henry Moore's sculpture by taking a picture of her family dressed in white and lying on the lawn.
One of Muny’s submissions to Art Club.

Meet our volunteers… Celia and Erva

Audio version

Text version

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

Why I volunteer…

Celia: I enjoy keeping busy and helping out. This was a project I thought worth supporting. 

Erva: By volunteering, I contribute to both myself and other people around me. I focus on what brings me joy and what I can do to make a difference in other people’s lives, and as a result of that, I feel happiness in my own life. Also, different projects enable me to gain a new perspective and take stock of what I like, what I don’t.

I love to create. I’m passionate about editing and making it fun. My dream is to inspire others through my art (esp. photographs and films!). Time goes by in the blink of an eye, and I want to capture every moment. When it comes to the digitisation project, it allows me to deal with photographs and a variety of collections. That’s why I know what works for me. I become happier when I come across street and portrait photos.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Celia: I feel privileged to be a part of this project and to work with the amazing works in the library. The very positive and welcoming behaviour that volunteers get from all members of the Courtauld staff has been the unexpected bonus. You can most often find me in the camera room, taking photographs of the illustrations and photographs.

Celia and Erva can often by found in the camera vaults! Photo by Erva Akin.

Erva: The building and the environment of the Courtauld itself are very quiet and silent. I like the way we focus and dedicate time to our tasks with such commitment. I like the volunteer managers’ efforts to make us comfortable (biscuits and tea are great!). I remember many times staff encouraging us volunteers to take a break, I really appreciate that.

A favourite photo or moment?

Celia: Among many others, I really enjoyed the photos of church ruins in Turkey, for instance in box 3844, and early 20th century German architecture in box 4367. I love the way the ruins of many Turkish churches often appear to be one with the rocks that surround them. As with so many of the images I have photographed at the Courtauld, I often feel compelled to research them further, not content solely to digitise them.

When I taught Humanities courses in Norwalk High School, Connecticut, over four decades ago, I often spoke of these landscapes and histories. When relevant, I sometimes showed photographs I had taken on my travels. The Courtauld’s Digitisation Project often allows me to revisit or see for the first time, important and beautiful sites.

Celia enjoys photographs of ruins, for instance, this one, CON_B03844_F004_011. The Conway Library.

Erva: I don’t remember the box number, however, I really liked the Syrian woman portrait displaying in Hermitage Museum, Russia.

One of Erva’s favourite images: a sculpture of a “Syrian Woman”.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Celia: I am a Team London Ambassador, one of thousands of volunteers linked to the Office of the Mayor of London. I am a member of the Older People’s Advisory Group (OPAG) of Age UK Camden and participate in many of the age and or disability-related meetings and conferences in London. I love to walk and take photographs wherever possible.

Erva: I moved to the UK and I have been living in London for 8 months since September to study abroad. I am a law master student at Istanbul University, however, I hope to study filmmaking in the upcoming years in London. Since moving to London, I have participated in many volunteer activities such as London Short Film Festival (volunteer photographer) and Charing Cross Library (leading the English speaking club) while I am working on my LLM thesis. I like photographing and filming. I took an introductory documentary filmmaking course at UCL.

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

Celia: As I seem to espouse to everyone, even people I meet in the cinema, this project is a lovely mixture of art and technology. Anyone who wants to look at amazing photographs and illustrations, or learn more about cataloguing, processing, or digitisation will find something to interest them. 

Erva: Volunteering at the Courtauld involves learning the technical and theoretical details of digital visual products which I focus on the intellectual property law side during my LLM at the university. Through these activities at the Courtauld, I am trying to build an interdisciplinary approach to the field. I would say “if you value art and photography and you want to feed your sense of beauty with aesthetically beautiful pieces of art, that’s the perfect place for you!”.

Volunteering during lockdown

Celia: I have done only a bit of volunteering for the Courtauld during the lockdowns. I have researched a couple of photographers for Courtauld-related Wikipedia pages, and recorded a few audio versions of Courtauld blogs.
As a Team London volunteer I distributed face coverings at Euston and King’s Cross St Pancras Underground stations on four days in June. The Older People’s Advisory Group has continued to meet via Zoom and telephone every month, and I and other members have taken turns writing newsletters to maintain contact. I have continued to try to represent older and disabled people in virtual meetings with TFL, Positive Ageing in London, and other groups.

Erva: I lose track of time in the time of coronavirus, so working on lots of different things at the same time is really difficult. Still, I find doing a little volunteering helps my mental wellbeing.


Celia with her ‘covid warrior’ outfit during the lockdown.

Meet our volunteers… Dora and Ellie

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

Dora and Ellie

Why I volunteer…

Dora: Because I want to learn new skills – or use my own skills – related to the conservation of artefacts, to contribute to the project!

Ellie: Having graduated last July, I started volunteering at The Courtauld in order to gain experience working in archiving. I am also very passionate about photography and the Digitisation Project provides me with a perfect opportunity to enhance my photography knowledge.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Dora: I enjoy being part of a team and being appreciated for my contribution. I like discovering interesting photographs especially in remote parts of the world where also the inhabitants have been captured. The Conway files sometimes are like opening a time capsule.

Ellie: I love speaking with the other volunteers and often meet new people every week!

A favourite photo or moment?

Dora: These two are my favourite images so far.

The Conway Library. CON_B02929_F003_009.
The Conway Library. CON_B03845_F001_063.

Ellie: I spent a number of weeks working on images of churches across Italy, and would have to say that this has been my favourite part of the collection thus far. The detail on the religious engravings is unbelievable! I also found it particularly interesting when we would come across images of completely different churches that would have almost identical engravings and sculptures. 

What do you do when not volunteering?

Dora: I am a fine art artist, a painter, I love art, art history and especially contemporary art, so working for the Courtauld Connects digitisation project is great. When I do not paint I love cooking, reading books, visiting the latest art exhibitions, theatre, cinema.

Dora painting

Ellie: I love photography, particularly film photography, and am often photographing my friends in my spare time. I love to use a Canon T50 and just recently brought a flash which is proving to be so much fun to play around with!

Ellie Coombes, self-portrait

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

Dora: There is a lot of categorising and processing photographs digitally. It is also a treasure trove for photographers and historians. I like the environment that the staff has created for the volunteers – it is great to work with them, they are supportive and encouraging.

Ellie: I would definitely recommend volunteering. There are various different aspects of the project that you can participate in and I am certain you would find something you enjoy. It is also a great opportunity to meet new people. 

Volunteering during lockdown

Dora: I am very grateful to be part of the team as I was given the opportunity to volunteer some work during COVID19. I personally liked researching buildings for the Layers of London and it fitted perfectly with my life at home. As a volunteer, it is important to keep the connection open and alive during this time. I enjoy the support of the staff and the creativity that drives this project in an unusual way at a distance.

Ellie: I have really enjoyed being able to volunteer whilst self-isolating because it has helped to keep me busy and has been a great distraction tool. 

A painting by Dora Williams

Meet our volunteers… Barbara, Diane and Michael

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

Barbara, Diane and Michael

Why I volunteer…

Barbara: To get out, meet people and do something useful.

Diane: I became a volunteer in 2018 when I had already been a pensioner for quite a few years. I have always been very active since finishing work with lots of projects on the go. However, when it was suggested to me by a friend to join the Courtauld it sounded interesting and something different. I try to attend every Monday morning when possible. I have made a new group of friends through joining and coming on a regular day. It’s a great feeling to somehow feel part of the real world again after just being a pensioner for so many years.

Michael: The main reason is to use my time in retirement positively and with the purpose of contributing to something that is of great interest to me.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Barbara: I enjoy meeting the Monday morning group and discussing materials which vary week to week. Someone always has something interesting to organise or something witty to say. We are a noisy and fun bunch! Really missing the Monday morning bunch while we are on lockdown!

Diane: Technology is not my thing so I’m a bit limited in what I do but I really enjoy the sorting and labelling. I also enjoy working on the camera taking photos of the negatives. I really enjoyed the Italian section.
I feel it is a privilege to be a volunteer at the Courtauld and to be able to work on this wonderful project. I do miss coming in and look forward to returning after lockdown.

Michael: The community of volunteers on the project, particularly the diversity across age, gender and ethnicity. This is brought together by a committed, friendly and highly skilled staff team. The inclusiveness of their approach is exemplary.

A favourite photo or moment?

Barbara: I helped to organise a box of Epstein sculptures at what was the BMA and now Zimbabwe House on the Strand and also Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris. A lot of the Strand sculptures haven’t survived in their original condition so it was special to see them intact in a building near Somerset House.

Two images of the strand building of the british medical association featuring statues.
429 Strand. The Conway Library. CON_B07186_F003_009 and CON_B07186_F003_020.

Michael: It’s a Kersting photograph, a cathedral in France maybe. An interior shot – a woman kneels, as if in prayer, light rakes from a high window into the nave enhancing the spiritual significance of the building.

Kneeling in prayer, the Conway Library.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Barbara: I retired last year as an information literacy librarian at UCL, and previously I was a teacher. In both roles, I spent a lot of time learning and organising learning and information. At home, I care for my husband who has Alzheimer’s, yet I still enjoy travelling, gardening, attending plays and galleries, reading and meeting friends.

Diane: I was an Illustrator and lecturer in Art and Design when I was working. I still draw and paint and am always working on a project of some kind. I’m also a keen gardener. I go regularly to the gym. I’m a grandmother so I am very involved in childcare.

Michael: My interest in art generally and my affiliation to the Courtauld through its Public Programmes is encouraged further by my involvement in the project and the contact this affords with other volunteers.

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

Barbara: There are so many different jobs to do on the project, that if one job doesn’t suit, you can switch to another. It’s a real privilege to see historical photographs of bygone life and to work with friendly and interesting people.

Diane: Give it a go you may enjoy it!

Michael: I think I might say “give it a try, come and meet the team and see what’s on offer”.

Image showing a group of volunteers in the library.
Monday morning crew in the Conway Library.

John Ramsey: A Sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral

Audio Version

Text Version

This sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite of George Zarnecki, former librarian of the Conway and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute. In the latter part of the 20th century, he was a leading authority on sculpture of the Norman or Romanesque period.

Detail of capital 9 in St Gabriel's Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral depicting two partying goats.
St. Gabriel’s Chapel, Capital N.9. Canterbury Cathedral. Attribution: G. Zarnecki. CON_B00089_F002_026.

For his book English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140, he chose it as the image for the front cover. It is a carving on a capital of a pillar in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. It dates from 1070 and shows two animals playing musical instruments. The inspiration for the images came from local illuminated manuscripts.

Zarnecki acknowledged that showing animals playing musical instruments was a popular theme, as they featured in humorous folk tales and fables. However, he had not seen any other work to compare with the sophistication shown here. He was struck by the complex composition, the richness of the imagination and the superior quality of the draughtsmanship and modelling.

The purpose of the sculpture


In medieval thinking, the universe was divinely ordered so therefore everything could be given a theological explanation, and everything on earth reflected different aspects of Heaven.

In the middle ages, most people were illiterate, so sculpture and painting provided the images and pictures to illustrate sermons and stories. People lived in a harsh world full of superstition and fear of the unknown. They had the same IQ as ourselves, and exercised it through powerful imaginations, myth-making and storytelling, as they tried to make sense of the world.  Meanwhile, the Church aimed to secure a sense of awe and apprehension, a fear of divine retribution. So, popular images could be used to illustrate a moral message.

Churches were carved all over and painted. It was believed that they were seen not only by people but also by God, so symbolism had to be everywhere. 

Animals in the Medieval imagination


Medieval stories have attracted an extensive field of academic research, which tends to analyse stories as:

  • Fables with a strong moral tone, e.g. Aesop’s fables from the 5th century BC;
  • Myths: creation stories, focussed on Gods and mortals;
  • Folk tales, designed both for entertainment and for moral guidance. They were more playful and less structured. Stories were told and retold, continually changing and adapting, to reflect the point to be made, or the circumstances of the time. They were not written down until the 16th.

These categories overlapped of course. Also, stories travelled widely around the world along the trade routes and picked up many influences. Animals featured strongly. They developed specific characteristics, and many fantastical, mythical animals were created. Animals were seen as sources of instruction, as in the Book of Job: ‘’Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee – and the fowls of the air’’ [Job 12:7]. 

Animal symbolism and musical instruments


Here are just a few examples, to provide some context for the animals in this picture:

  • A cat – represents laziness and lechery;
  • Playing a fiddle – suggests a mewing sound;
  • Dog – faithful, loyal, but also can be stupid and lustful;
  • Donkey – Christ’s beast of burden, or used derogatorily to represent either stupid or lower class people, but can also be lustful;
  • Goat – loves the mountains like Jesus, represents fertility but also the horned devil. Can represent intelligence and mischievousness. And lust.
  • Sheep – can represent Christ/the lamb of God. Indicates purity, gentleness, wisdom, but not as canny as goats. (It’s the only animal I can find who is not associated with lust!)
  • Playing a lute – suggests a bleating sound.

Sheep and goats were the earliest animals to be domesticated and feature heavily in folk stories. Animals from all over the world were introduced as these stories circulated, so non-indigenous types such as a mountain goat or ibex would feature in English folk tales.

What this carving shows


In order to understand it, I drew it as a simplified picture to clarify the detail that is hard to decipher from the photograph. I have also added in some features that look to have become worn or broken.

What I think I see is a sheep, an ibex, and a fantastical creature.

A sketch by John Ramsey.

The sheep is female and playing a violin or maybe a lute with a bow. She has a human torso which is smooth like skin, a human breast and hands, but hooves for feet. The sheep also has wings, is standing upright and appears to be singing.

The sex of the ibex is not visible, but it is playing a cornet or trumpet, so my assumption is that he is male. He has the head and body of a goat. He is playing the horn with his cloven forefeet. His hind feet, however, are human. His right foot appears to be wearing a shoe and is between the sheep’s instrument and her leg, possibly pointing towards her groin.

He is riding a creature which has the head of a dog, front legs with hooves but the tail of a fish. The creature is stretching back to bite the ibex, which may indicate that the ibex is planning mischief, or is making too much noise. (Where medieval animals are seen biting themselves, this means they have made a mistake and are punishing themselves. E.g. a wolf bites his foreleg if he treads on a stick and makes a noise as he creeps up on a chicken shed.)

Conclusion: The ibex is trying to seduce the sheep, who is pure. The instruments may indicate their respective voices or symbolise their sexual parts. One senses the sheep is wise and the ibex will have his work cut out!

What is the story?


There are many story and reference books, but from what I can find online there is no obviously popular story that could feature this scene. The crypt of Canterbury was a pilgrimage destination, so perhaps this and other wonderful carvings there were used to entertain them or to remind them of a clear moral point.

Would anyone like to write the story? Or offer an alternative interpretation of the picture?



Zarnecki G (1951) English Romanesque Sculpture 1066 – 1140. London: Tiranti.

Kahn D (1991) Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Sculpture. Austin: University of Texas Press. (Deborah Kahn was a pupil of Zarnecki and her work remains the definitive analysis of Canterbury Cathedral’s sculpture.)

John Ramsey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Alexander Bird: on the Shelley Memorial by Edward Onslow Ford

Audio version

Read by Christopher Williams


Text version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Bird
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer