Caterina Domeneghini: Beyond Ruins – New Insights into the War Damage Collection in the Conway Library

Has not that ruin, say he, a good effect?
A Dialogue on Stowe, 1746

The Conway Library

War-time ruins have always exerted an inexplicable fascination on the observer – a puzzling and not infrequently morbid sentiment that has been targeted as a serious object of academic enquiry since at least the aftermath of World War II. Besides provoking an undeniable and undeniably problematic aesthetic pleasure – one should only think of Albert Speer’s theory of Ruin Value (Ruinenwerttheorie), by which he persuaded Hitler that they should only employ materials that would make “good ruins” in the event of collapse during their architectural plans for the Third Reich – ruined monuments and buildings have also been exploited as a political tool. They have been constantly overwritten, either literally or figuratively, by the activities of bulldozers and cranes, bricklayers and architects, as well as journalists and photographers commissioned to record the revival of a city.

The purpose of the following article is, broadly speaking, to explore concepts of ruination and transformation, drawing from the war damage collection in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Known informally as the Ministry of Works bequest, it comprises several hundred photographs taken by soldiers, historians and architects across Europe towards the end of World War II. The collection is part of the Conway Library, which takes its name from writer, traveller and mountaineer Martin Conway. The first Director General of the Imperial Museum of London and Professor of Art at Liverpool and Cambridge, one of Conway’s chief interests was photography as a record of buildings that might suffer war damage. The Ministry of Works images continue precisely that tradition: taken by allied troops chiefly from the US, Britain and Poland, they record in often shocking detail the destruction of cityscapes as collateral or deliberate acts of annihilation.

What these pictures capture, as we shall clearly see, is the pars destruens. They crystallize a single moment, and that moment is desolation, devastation, destruction. But this is not the whole narrative. As much as the images speak for themselves, they also leave much unsaid. There is a hidden story behind these photographs, a story of human efforts and contributions to the process of preservation, rebuilding and revival, which successive generations have perpetrated in written documents and oral narratives. At a time when cultural heritage is still dangerously under threat in many corners of the globe, it is all the more imperative to continue to fill in the gaps. This article encourages us to do just that. We desperately need a pars construens; that part will be equally explored here, by taking advantage of the invaluable potential of ruined infrastructures to present themselves as a challenge to be either replaced or restored – as they were, in fact. The unfinished nature of ruins, by definition, creates a sense of superseding that invites the observer to inscribe them into a narrative of progress. For every part we see in the Ministry of Works photographs, there is a part that we do not see, which acts as a catalyst of imagination, an engine of speculation. A ruin bears the trace of unscripted possibilities. In so doing, it generates questions on the process of reconstruction and its dilemmas: whether to reconstruct or to preserve; how much to reconstruct; whether to construct anew rather than to rebuild.

The Pleasure of Ruins, and Beyond

In 1953, English writer Rose Macaulay, a civil servant in the War Office, published a ground-breaking and controversial study on ruination, the first of its kind, entitled Pleasure of Ruins. Her approach, as her introduction and the title of the book itself point out, is that of a pleasurist (some would rather say of a voyeur…). Often criticized for being excessively self-indulgent, Macaulay offers complacent incursions into “that eternal ruin-appetite which consumes the febrile and fantastic human mind”. She argues that “The human race is, and always has been, ruin-minded. The literature of all ages has found beauty in the dark and violent forces, physical and spiritual, of which ruin is one symbol”. Starting with the ancient world, her account ends with a two-page coda, “On the new ruins”, foregrounding the conjecture that the devastation evident across post-war London and other parts of Britain will one day be looked on with admiration, just like we now admire the ruins of antiquity.
On a very superficial level, Macaulay must be right. There is an undeniable aesthetic component to decaying buildings and crumbling monuments: they provide a treasure trove of encounters with the eerie and the unexpected. As we first approach the Ministry of Works photographs without context, we might gaze in awe, for a moment, at the oddly unique shapes that missing bricks and huge cracks conferred onto the architecture captured in a snapshot (figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. The Conway Library
Fig. 2. The Conway Library

There is an element of honesty to these photographs, which equates them to the apocalyptic stories and dystopian novels that many of us also adore. Even if they represent the worst possible scenario, such narratives still feel real to us as we know too well that human beings are capable of committing the worst crimes. The devastation of WWII, so harshly and honestly depicted in the images, is probably the closest to apocalypse we have ever drawn (figs. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3. The Conway Library
Fig. 4. The Conway Library

In addition to that, stories predicting the future speak to an innate desire to have control over our fate; we seem to appreciate ruins because, in a similar way, they trigger our imagination. They encourage us to think of elsewhere, a phenomenon that works in two directions. One the one hand, to perceive a ruin is to recognize that it has once been otherwise, and thus to travel back in time; on the other hand, the ruins captured in the photographs increase awareness of the present and future condition of our society. As photographer Yves Marchand, co-author of Ruins of Detroit, puts it, “To us, the ruin allows you to see the past, as well as your present condition, and what you’re going to be – you can see all those three at the same time”.

The main limit of Macaulay’s approach is that it is unidirectional. She makes the example of traveller Mr Thomas Coryat, who arrived on the Trojan shore opposite Tenedos in 1612. After seeing extensive ruins, the remains of a goodly fortress, marble pillars and sepulchres, he spent his afternoon guessing: one of the sepulchres must have belonged to King Priam; the fragments of the great buttressed wall on his left were first built by Ilium when he enlarged the city, and then rebuilt by Priam. I suggest we need to go further than that. We cannot simply self-indulge in the pleasure of fantasizing about what was once there, driven by mere antiquarian frenzy; when looking at these photographs, we must think of what is now there, just like the soldiers and civilians in situ must have imagined what was going to be there once restoration was completed. “Exploring abandoned buildings isn’t about revelling in their collapse at all,” argues Dylan Thuras, author of the foreword to Dan Barasch’s Ruin and Redemption in Architecture. Upon recalling an adolescence spent in the thrall of deserted flour mills in Minneapolis, now partially restored structures, he evaluates such imperfect architecture as occupying “a shadowy liminal space between self-destruction and the possibility of rebirth”.

We can infer from the visual examples below how this whole process of imagination, moving in limbo between destruction and rebirth, might have worked for the observers of the time, looking grimly at the ruined buildings around them, and works equally well for us today as we examine such buildings in the photographs. In images 5 and 6, René Levavasseur – the architect charged by the French government with the preservation of historical monuments in the Department of La Manche – is caught scrutinizing the damage of two churches in Normandy.

In fig. 5, he lists damage to the beautifully sculpted bell of the Church of St Jacques of Montebourg, before making plans for repair of the tower – an unfortunate victim of the fighting for the beachheads nearby. Confronted by ruins without being intimidated by them, his serious and attentive gaze makes us think that he was already anticipating in his head the steps and strategies through which the reconstruction of the tower might be carried out, leading us to wonder in turn whether and how this actually took place at all. Here, imagination gives way to historical documentation: archives of Le Monuments Historiques inform us that reconstruction works were undertaken in 1949, after a deeper and more resistant foundation for the church had been secured. The square floor of the bell tower was completed in February 1950, followed by the stone spire in August of the same year. Finally, in October 1952, the building was returned to worship. In fig. 6, similarly, Levavasseur is shown holding a gargoyle “knocked loose from the tower of the cathedral at Carentan before American forces drove the Nazis from the area”. There is both intimacy and remoteness in this picture. The architect holds the gargoyle firmly with both hands, as if a father with his child, but also keeps it at a distance, in order to better scrutinize it. Again, his expression suggests he has full awareness of the exact spot the piece will occupy after reconstruction. This photograph gives out very strong ritual vibes. Levavasseur almost looks like a priest holding a newborn during some religious service, laden with symbolic meanings. A new life is brought into the community and exhibited triumphantly before the eyes of its participants. A new life, by the same metaphorical token, is also given to the cathedral: the gargoyle will be inset back into the tower.

Fig. 5. The Conway Library
Fig. 6. The Conway Library

Ruins and Bodies

I found it a funny coincidence that so many of the buildings hit by the blow of war were cathedrals, churches, places of worship. In these images, the desolation of conflict blends with a vacuous, sinister spirituality, almost verging on mysticism. Ruins shelter the spectres of the past while standing for an uncontrolled present. And such is a present in which very little faith remains. “There is Auschwitz, therefore there can be no God”, Primo Levi famously asserted. Just as God has abandoned men, men seem to have abandoned God. In the images below, the crucifix, the only element left intact among ruins in a deserted land, becomes an almost surreal symbol of such a legacy. In fig. 7, a crucifix still hangs from the rafters of a severely ruined church in Erkelenz, Germany, damaged by artillery fire in February 1945; in fig. 8, a battered cross survives, bending, in a battle-scarred roadside shrine in Dahnen, where no trace of human presence can be found. The Church, no longer the living and breathing body of those assembled in worship, is reduced to a speechless mound of matter. Yet at the same time the very integrity of the cross, a leftover functioning as an ironic symbol of defiance in the midst of so much destruction, must have represented a glimmer of hope for many a passerby. Perhaps it is true, as Professor Charles Lock has written, that one of the secrets of ruins is that “inasmuch as they retain a trace of spirit, of motion, they speak to us of something other than perdition”.

Fig. 7. The Conway Library
Fig. 8. The Conway Library

That must be as true for monuments as it is for bodies. In fact, the architecture and people in the photographs seem to share similar histories. Buildings are as maimed as the invisible corpses of soldiers and civilians who fought around and for them. Indeed, a fallen stone or one still standing might be analogous to the human body, Lock has suggested: “the upright stone reminds us of a person standing, liturgically; that which is cast down was once, like a corpse, a spirit’s dwelling”. The collection offers some glaring testimony of the tense, uneasy co-existence of ruins and civilians, whose complex relationship would only be fully healed with the passage of time, by means of concrete urban intervention and re-planning. Fig. 9 shows a man cycling undisturbed through the streets of Palermo, in spite of the bleak view of crumbing Palazzo Trabucco marked in the background by cracks resembling the bites of giant jaws. Life goes on amidst wreckage: not giving up your daily business was as powerful a form of resistance as concrete military manoeuvres, sometimes. The same sort of disquieting blending is manifest in fig. 10, depicting the interior of the Cathedral in Messina – which underwent a controversial and not fully transparent plan of reconstruction from June 1943 to August 1947. The photograph captures a man standing still, as if striking a pose amidst debris of wood. In so doing, he almost becomes part of the triptych behind him, the Altar of the Pietà.

Fig. 9. The Conway Library
Fig. 10. The Conway Library

On the other hand, several pictures from the collection keep for themselves some crucial hidden truths, and it is down to us to uncover these through historical research. It is not so widely known, for example, that the urgency of starting reconstruction works at Montecassino – where the famous Abbey had been reduced to little more than a sandcastle by the bombing of May 1944 – was dictated by a humanitarian motive other than a merely moral, or for that matter artistic, one (fig. 11). The bodies of dozens of civilian victims who had not been able to leave the monastery before the bombing lay buried under the debris. Their discovery and burial would only have been possible with the removal of the rubble. When people can finally stand up and pull themselves back together, then it is also the right time for monuments to rise again from the ashes. Succisa virescit are the words that can be read on the coat of arms of the Abbey – literally meaning “cut, it grows back”. And indeed for the fifth time in its history, despite the difficulties caused by the post-war period and its widespread destruction, the Abbey of Montecassino was brought back to the light. The restoration aimed to reproduce the original structure and was carried out from 1948 to 1956, under the direction of engineer Giuseppe Breccia Fratadocchi. Two hundred and fifty workers took part in the project, working side by side with the monks embodying the mantra of their master Benedict buried there: ora et labora. The statues of the benefactors – popes, kings and princes – which had originally occupied the Chiostro dei Benefattori (Cloister of the Benefactors) were placed under a canopy. In a rather curious turn of events, the statues now looked at these other humble benefactors working with zeal, having no treasures or privileges to bestow but their hands. All the church coverings, marbles, mosaics and sculptures were also restored.

Fig. 11. The Conway Library

We can contrast this extraordinary story of successful cooperation and resilience with a less fortunate one, again from Italy, which can nevertheless function as a memento to the importance of implementing strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage in times of conflict. The Church of Santa Maria in Passione on the hill of Castello, Genova, was severely damaged by two aerial bombardments; the first, on 22 October 1942, caused the roof to catch fire, but the most destructive was a second attack on 4 September 1944, which almost razed the top of the hill of Castello to the ground. The bombardments almost completely destroyed the frescoes and caused serious damage to the outer walls, some of which had to be demolished (fig. 12). The monastic complex remained in ruins for decades. Then, in the 1970s, a project devised by the Municipality of Genoa and supervised by architect Ignazio Gardella gave the go-ahead for the restoration of the area with the construction of the new headquarters of the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Genoa on the site of the former convent of San Silvestro, the Niccolò Paganini Foundation and the headquarters of the Permanent Urban Observatory, created to promote initiatives for the rehabilitation and enhancement of the historic centre. Starting in the 1990s, another project (“Progetto Civis Sistema”) envisaged more conservation and restoration work. However, this was interrupted in 1997 and the site was completely abandoned. Everything was enclosed with barbed wire. It was only in 2012 that a group of students decided to break the fences and clean up the area. Since then, Santa Maria in Passione lives almost exclusively thanks to the support of citizens through donations and voluntary work.

Fig. 12. The Conway Library

Concluding Remarks

So, to reprise the question from which this article started: do ruins have a good effect after all? The answer is yes, I would say. But it should be remembered that for every good effect there is always a price to pay. In tracing a history of destruction and reconstruction through painstaking human efforts, I have tried to raise awareness of how essential the preservation of cultural heritage is for the wealth of communities. Several collaborative strategies have been implemented for this purpose both before and during World War II, as we have seen.  Examples feature the Service des Monuments Historiques in France, of which the abovementioned Levavasseur was a member, founded in 1830 and charged with several “passive defense” and reconstruction measures as early as 1935; or the Roberts Commission in the US, leading to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the allied armies (the “Monuments Men”) with the aim of both protecting works of art and buildings from deliberate destruction and of returning them, so far as possible, to their owners or the appropriate local authorities. Similarly, after the conflict, international organizations acknowledged the urgency to create conventions to protect sites and artifacts in conflict zones. UNESCO, among others, was established in 1945. However, as several speakers at the Courtauld talk Post-conflict: Art History and Cultural Heritage in Dialogue on 15 June 2021 illustrated, UNESCO and world heritage have been criticized for many failures in recent years, including that of deterring the destruction of heritage during times of war. There is need for greater cooperation between different groups – professionals in the field and governmental authorities in primis, but also scholars, local organizations, and no less the general public. As the example of Santa Maria in Passione demonstrates, ordinary citizens are often in a unique position to help when the threat of destruction, deterioration or looting looms over them. The very significance of the Ministry of Works collection, which has never before seen in its entirety as a consequence of being spread across hundreds of boxes, is now being understood thanks to a major digitisation project at the Courtauld, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported entirely by volunteers. If ruins, as it has often been suggested, are essentially “democratic” – their appeal is for everyone, from children visiting a site for the first time to experienced archaeologists – then their protection and revival becomes, by the same token, a universal responsibility.

 


Caterina Domeneghini
Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Humanities, Oxford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Andreas Schmid: Original Reproductions: Paul Laib’s Photographs of Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining Figure (1933)

Many artworks are only preserved in photographs. When the originals are lost, for instance in the turmoil of war, photographic reproductions often remain as the only way to access them. But the importance of photography exceeds mere preservation: without reproductions, the original would be an isolated object in a museum or an archive with only an expert group of people knowing about it. It is only through the copying and reproduction of photographs that a work of art can be experienced worldwide and become part of general knowledge.

I would go as far as to say: there is no original without reproduction. Over the course of time, reproductions can become originals themselves – at the latest when they are archived as objects of independent value in an art institute, digitised (i.e. reproduced) and appreciated in a public space like this weblog.

This could (should) be the case with Paul Laib’s photographs of artworks taken in the first half of the 20th century. Not much is known about his life and work, but it is evident that his photos have served mere illustrative purposes – they were perceived as media granting access to the artworks and they have not been credited for their aesthetic and technical quality.

Laib was working with some of the most accomplished visual artists of the time, among them Barbara Hepworth. She was one of the British avant-garde sculptors who, inspired by continental European artists, shaped abstract art for most of the 20th century. The photos Laib took of her sculptures are particularly insightful with regards to the difference creative photography can make to how we see a work of art. And they are also fascinating examples of Laib’s skilfully executed photographs, which, I hope, will no longer be seen as transparent windows to other artworks, but rather as artworks in their own right. I will focus on four of his photographs, all of which depict Hepworth’s 1933 sculpture Reclining Figure in very different ways.

On Reclining Figure
Searching for Reclining Figure today, one will find mostly sculptures by Henry Moore. Beginning in the 1930s and especially after the Second World War, Moore and Hepworth were in a friendly rivalry and competed for attention in the international art world. Moore undoubtedly won. He was more successful in seizing funding, he found support in the British Council and he enjoyed more popularity worldwide. Early texts on abstract sculpture in England pin Hepworth’s objects on their femininity, attributing to them passivity and mere beauty that could not match the qualities of thought and reflection found in Moore’s works (Buckberrough, 1998: 48). This biased view held in the early history of abstract sculpture theory marginalised Hepworth’s own achievements. In this respect, her entry into Moore’s specialty, the Reclining Figures, can be rediscovered today as her resistance to many years of neglect.

However, that was probably not the sculpture’s original meaning. The alabaster object, only about 30cm long, was created in 1933, the same year that Hepworth took a trip to France with her new partner Ben Nicholson. In France, Hepworth met, among others, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and, in particular, Hans Arp, who might have had a significant influence on Hepworth’s sculpture. Also in 1933, Arp presented Human Concretion, a sculpture not unlike Hepworth’s Reclining Figure.

Hepworth’s main achievement was thus the transmission of Dadaist and Surrealist art from France to Great Britain. In this sense, she prolonged the life of the historical avant-garde movement, which ended years prior to the beginning of the Second World War.

Fig. 1: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Paul Laib (front view). Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness


The Human Dimension
Let’s take a closer look at the sculpture. At its highest point, we can discover the carving of a circle and wavy lines. Is it the sun with clouds above it? Or is it upside down and the sun is above a sea of waves? Is it perhaps the abstract version of an artist’s signature? What is the arrangement supposed to represent – or is it supposed to represent nothing at all? A popular claim, after all, is that abstract art shows form as such, without wanting to represent anything real.

At least in this case, the situation turns out to be more complex. A recent photo of the same sculpture (fig. 2), taken by Cathy Carver for the Hirshhorn Museum, helps: taken from above, a face in profile view becomes clearly visible; the wavy line forms a large nose and overemphasizes the lips; the circle represents the eye. The angle of this photo immediately draws attention to the face. And if one recognizes the face, it is easy to define the whole figure as a torso: to the left and right of the head with the facial features are the shoulders, and the two curves at the other end indicate the legs. Perhaps one could even say that the figure is reclining on its right arm, stretching its feet towards the sky, counting the clouds.

Fig. 2: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Cathy Carver (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Paul Laib’s photo, on the other hand, ungraciously cuts off the nose line. Thus, at first glance, it is not at all clear what the circle and the implied lines are supposed to represent. Laib was apparently not concerned with highlighting the human shape of the sculpture. But now that we have seen the other photo and know – or think we know – that it is indeed an anthropomorphic figure, can we get rid of that knowledge? Can we unsee the human shape again? Can we again perceive it as a purely abstract form without committing it to human body parts?

Let’s have a look at the rear view in Laib’s second photo (fig. 3). What is recognizable as a leaning arm in the Hirshhorn photo makes a surprisingly unstable impression from behind – a single spike holds the right half of the figure above the ground and the supposed arm melts into the back beyond recognition. What was distinguishable from the front and especially from above as an oval head shape suddenly appears as a slightly overhanging plateau. The overexposed centre of the figure suddenly looks like a sharp angle, no longer a gentle sweep. And something else is remarkable: in the rear view, the shadow play of the photographer spills over onto the wall in the background.

Fig. 3: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Paul Laib (rear view). Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

In the Shadows
Laib’s photographs work with pronounced lighting and shadows. In the front view, the shadow swallows the figure’s supporting points, so that its contact with the surface underneath cannot be pinpointed – it almost floats. In Laib’s photo, the deep shadow lines in the figure’s curves add depth and plasticity, whereas in Hirshhorn’s photograph, where shadows are used much more sparingly, the figure looks almost flat in comparison. Note especially how the “shoulders” appear like flat surfaces, while Laib makes them resemble humps, and how the curve in the front centre appears much deeper in Laib’s photo. The sharp contrast of overexposed surfaces merging into glistening white on the one hand and shadows swallowing up into the black background on the other could be reminiscent of the era of expressionist film, which was just coming to an end in Germany.

In the rear view, the use of shadows goes beyond accentuating the figurative features and adds its own artwork to the back wall. Different layers of shadows overlap, creating a multifaceted play that cannot simply be made to coincide with the shapes of the figure. We have seen that the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human being as long as the focus is not on the face or if it is viewed from behind, from where it is not so easy to infer human forms.

Just as the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human, the shadow play does not necessarily represent the sculpture. This does not mean that they have an autonomous life of their own. Rather, they embrace the ambivalence of interdependence and free expression. The sculpture represents a human being and at the same time not, just as the shadow simultaneously does and does not represent the sculpture. Or, in Hepworth’s own words: “The best carvings are necessarily both abstract and representational” (Hepworth, 1932: 17). And we could add: the same goes for photographs.

Going a step further, I would argue that it is not only a game of (non-)representation. The emphasis on the curve and the smooth rounded edges in Laib’s photo make invite the viewer to grasp the subject. In its floating state, it loses the appearance of a massive and heavy block of marble, becoming seemingly light and easy to handle. The rear view shot makes the centre of the sculpture appear particularly narrow, as if it could be encircled by a single hand. If we imagine it as larger, we might even interpret it as an armchair or a child’s seat. The depth and dynamism of the object, amplified by the shadows, do not imply that it should look like a human, but that it might have been shaped for humans. It evokes an aesthetics of ergonomics by pointing to the object’s potential haptic qualities (Lewinson, 2015: 783). The human quality of the sculpture, then, is not only representational: it can be an invitation to future human use, as well as the document and product of a past human interaction, namely that with the sculptor.

Fig. 4: Barbara Hepworth’s studio, photo by Paul Laib. Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

On the Workbench
Laib took photos of Hepworth’s studio (fig. 4). Scattered around the workbenches are tools, raw materials, but also a coffee cup and finished sculptures. In the first photo, what catches the eye is the massive stone on the left, and perhaps the large window overlooking the garden; what is somewhat lost is the Reclining Figure, which can be seen on the workbench in the foreground. It is positioned like in the rear view photograph, but slightly rotated and the perspective is slightly elevated. The strong shadows are missing, and the sculpture almost seems to merge with the surface of the bench: both being bright white. Although it is lying on the workbench with a hammer and other equipment next to it, it looks finished, and it may have been positioned there just for the purposes of the photo.

In the second photo (fig. 5), the Reclining Figure is more prominently placed in the foreground and it has been rotated almost 180 degrees. Upon closer inspection, we notice that the other objects on the table have also changed position. The hammer and the coffee cup are behind the sculpture, a chisel protrudes over the edge. But the change in the arrangement is much less elaborate than it seems: what moved was the workbench, not the objects. A notch in the wood in front of the sculpture (fig. 5) reveals that the bench was rotated for the photos. And even if some of the objects were rearranged, this rotation accomplishes one thing above all: the Reclining Figure can be seen from two sides. It seems that Laib or Hepworth, whoever directed the photos, was concerned with showing that the Reclining Figure has at least two sides. Thus, the essential ambivalence of the sculpture, its indecision between representation and abstraction, which can at least partially be brought into congruence with the contrast of front and rear views, has also been realized photographically.

Fig. 5: Barbara Hepworth’s studio, photo by Paul Laib. Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

On the other hand, in both views the sculpture dissolves into the white of the workbench. Its human form disappears completely and its contours are difficult to discern. It might have been primarily technical circumstances such as the bright daylight that make the Reclining Figure almost invisible, yet there seem to have been enough darker surfaces available that would have provided a stronger contrast to the sculpture to make us guess that the positioning was deliberate.

The contrast, on the other hand, is to be found in setting the delicacy and smoothness of Reclining Figure among the dark, worn tools. One almost fears that the fine object could be damaged in the untidy pile of tools – yet it was precisely these tools with which this delicacy was created.

If we assume that the “white-out” of the sculpture was intentional, however, the figure begins to transcend the question of abstraction and representation, and its materiality becomes problematic. We might find Hepworth‘s enthusiasm for Christian Science and the emphasis on the immaterial world in it (Kent, 2015: 475). The Pierced Forms, one of which is seen in the background, are held as the culmination of her engagement with these ideas: the hole represents and exhibits the absence of material. In the Reclining Figure, the immaterial is not integrated into the sculpture, but the exposure technique in the photographic reproduction even surpasses the effect. The sculpture is itself and as a whole in transition to the immaterial. It is, in more than one sense, illuminated.

Original Reproductions
Paul Laib’s photographs throw a different light on Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining Figure. Providing very particular angles and guiding our interpretation, they should also be appreciated as works of art. Maybe we can call them not reproductions of a sculpture, but artworks inspired by this sculpture. Just like literary texts, film and indeed sculpture always draw on other works of art to critically reflect, celebrate or further develop elements of them, the photos of sculpture find inspiration in their objects but tell their very own story.

___________________________________________________________

Andreas Schmid
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

Bibliography:
Buckberrough S (1998) Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective by Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson. Woman‘s Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 , 47-50.
Hepworth B [1932] The Aim of the Modern Artist: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson. Interview with Hepworth. In: Bowness S (2015) Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations. London: Tate Publishing, pp. 14-17.
Kent L (2015) Christian Science and Ben Nicholson’s work of the 1930s. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 474-481.
Lewinson J (2015) Barbara Hepworth reconsidered. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 781-786.

Lorraine Stoker: The Hop Exchange

Audio Version

Read by Celia Cockburn

Text Version

The Hop Exchange is one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the South Bank/ Southwark area. In fact, Southwark was for centuries associated with hops, breweries and coaching inns with the local area being the centre of London’s brewing industry. All road traffic from Kent, Surrey and Sussex came through Southwark with Borough High Street and Old London Bridge the only land route from the south into the city until as late as 1750. Eventually traffic began to by-pass the Borough as hops were transported by railway to London Bridge Station, or by boat up the River Thames.

A photograph of the Hop Exchange in Southwark. The photograph is a close up detail of the classical style pediment (triangular detail) above the front entrance. The pediment features carvings of hop harvesting figures and plants.
‘London, Hop Exchange’, detail of design by RH Moore. CON_B04088_F001_008. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

The Conway library image CON_B04088_F001_008 draws your attention to the portico and the tympanum, with the hops and malt crop depicted either side of the ‘hop picking’ central scene, indicating the importance of this industry to London. This building was designed by R. H. Moore and built in 1866-67, and although it is neoclassical in design this was not just an idealised vision of ancient agriculture: in reality the same hop picking scene was visible in the fields of Kent until the late 1950s.

Traditionally, the impoverished local population and Londoners would descend on the Kent hop farms. This ritual saw mainly women and children (with male overseers) hop-picking for a few weeks every year to supplement their meagre income.

The tympanum (the decorated area) clearly shows the long hop bine hanging from above, being pulled or cut down for the women to pick the hop flowers. (Hops have ‘bines’ rather than ‘vines’, with ‘hairs’ rather than tendrils to help them climb).

This Pathé newsreel gives an excellent and accurate account of the process of hop-picking and an insight into the so-called ‘holiday spirit’ of the families who travelled to the hop fields to bring the harvest home.

Close up of CON_B04088_F001_008. The carvings show hop harvesting figures and plants.

The photograph in the Conway library of the Hop Exchange portico is not ‘picture perfect’ in many ways: it is oddly cropped and at something of an uncomfortable angle. However, I chose it as a starting point for this blog for several reasons. Born and bred in Kent, I have fond memories of hop-picking with my grand-mother, with the smell and the beauty of the hops and making mud pies with other children. Almost sadly, within a few years, mechanisation was to spell the end of this labour-intensive tradition. On reflection, it is also an indication of the vast improvement in the lives of ordinary people in Post-war Britain, with food rationing coming to an end, an increase in the social housing building programme and a society who wanted better for the next generation.

It is ironic that this beautiful grade 2 listed building actually had a very short life as a trading floor for the hops and the brewing industry. Some hop firms did rent the offices within the Hop Exchange but it was built too late to be effective or profitable and fell into disuse in the early 1900s. To understand why, we need to understand the industry. The building had eleven storage areas and was intended to be used as a single market centre for dealers (like the Stock Exchange) where trade was conducted on the trading floor. The dried and packed hops travelled to London and were originally intended to be viewed under the gallery roof which provided the natural light needed, even if the hop picking season started in September and inspections took place in February and March. Unfortunately, for the Hop Exchange, the buyers acting on behalf of the growers – called hop factors – now owned their own showrooms and acted very successfully as middlemen. Just a little further south from the Hop Exchange there is still the façade of an original hop factor showroom owned by W.H & H. LeMay (No. 67 Borough High Street). Its frieze also shows a scene of hop picking. Within such showrooms hop merchants would buy on behalf of the brewers.

A photograph showing WH and H le May Hop Factors Southwark by Lorraine Stoker. The building is a terracotta colour, and above the windows the name of the hop factors is displayed along with carvings of idealised hop picking scenes.
WH & H LeMay Hop Factors, 67 Borough High Street, Southwark, photograph by Lorraine Stoker.

Selecting CON_B04088_F001_008 was also an excuse to showcase the beauty of the interior of the Hop Exchange. Southwark’s hops came from Kent and the symbol of their origin can be seen in this beautiful interior of the Hop Exchange. The main hall is a vast open atrium with three levels of ornate balustrades with hop plant ironwork decoration. The green of the ironwork contrasts beautifully with the red of Kent’s county arms – Invicta – a white horse on a red background, and the muted cream tones of the paintwork. The interior draws us in, almost envelops us – not merely to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and long-lost memories of childhood, but also inviting us to stand in awe of the Victorian design.

A photograph showing the inside the Hop Exchange, by Lorraine Stoker. This is a view of the central hall, with three levels of balconies around the hall, all decorated with green ironwork with red details, and a huge skylight.
Inside the Hop Exchange, by Lorraine Stoker.

The Hop Exchange building exudes a confidence both with its name and design but what started as a ‘speculative building’ became too great a risk and the venture failed miserably. Originally the Exchange was two stories higher with a glass barrel-vaulted transept for natural light, but a fire in 1920 saw the removal of these damaged levels and the building was then used for offices. Acquired by a private company specialising in property investment, development and management in 1983, this company then restored and transformed the interior, changing the dirt and tarmac flooring (highly suitable for its previous trade) to a Victorian style replica. The building remains a general-purpose office and event venue, and successfully conveys a very functional, business-like environment.

There were many similar floor exchanges across London (originally eleven in total), including the Coal, Metal and Stock exchanges. However, wartime bombing, redevelopment and modernisation have left the Hop Exchange as the last remaining Exchange building in London. It remains a grand Victorian commercial building, gently following the curve of the then newly constructed Southwark Street, which had been laid out by Joseph Bazalgette in 1860 and opened in 1864. Although Grade 2 listed, its future can never be assured given the tide of demolition and facadism within the Borough of Southwark.

Alessandro Torresi: Wanderers / wonderers through the Roman night

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.

A still taken from “The White Sheik” where an open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.
A still taken from “The White Sheik”, 1952. An open-mouthed Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) sits next to Ivan, who is crying.

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.

Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari, in Via Gregoriana, Rome. By Anthony F Kersting.
Two furious eyes reveal the entrance of Zuccari Palace, Rome. Photograph by Anthony Kersting, “Photograph of the doorway of Palazzo Zuccari Via Gregoriana, Rome. KER_PNT_G19688. The Courtauld.

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.

Cornelia Chen: A Sequel to The “Unfinished Symphony” of Charles Sargeant Jagger

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams, who also kindly fact-checked and added screen-readable art historical detail to this blog post

Text Version

Having served in the British infantry during the First World War, Charles Sargeant Jagger was able to create realistic war memorials that made us reflect on his identity as a historian. Instead of putting a seal on the past, he channelled his first-hand experience of the ruthless side of the war – often considered a controversial topic in its aftermath – into art pieces that would be experienced by the authorities and the public. Artist Martin Jennings, on BBC’s Great Lives, described Charles Sargeant Jagger as being “arguably the first British sculptor to capture the horror of war”, but somehow his memorials seem to have eluded the attention of the general public for many years, becoming “hidden treasures” waiting to be re-discovered.

While exploring the role of photography in mediating history and memory in the Conway Library, thinking about the sensory process needed to form memories inspired me to add the dimension of sound to selected images from the Charles Sargeant Jagger collection. The audio is generated and edited using Pixelsynth – a browser-based synthesizer that reads pixelized information from each photograph. In my experimentation, I took photographic information and translated it into a digital language for each image, and finally for the image they create when viewed collectively. [1] The title is inspired by Pathé’s short film An Unfinished Symphony in Stone, (1935) which is available in the British Pathé archive.

Consistently, in Jagger’s monuments that are currently publicly displayed, the strong, almost paradoxical relationship established between the monument and their surroundings becomes a very intriguing feature. The realistic way in which he presents his subject matter, made me think of urban monuments with similar qualities in China, for instance, the group sculptures placed outside of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. These powerful and disturbing war memorial sculptures are located within the historical site of the tragedy to commemorate the victims of the tragedy and emphasize the sentiment of the memorial to visitors who have chosen the site for a visit. In contrast, some of Jaggers well-known works are on display in spaces that aren’t specifically linked to tragic war events, and that are still in regular use by residents and visitors for transport and relaxation. Examples include the Great Western Railway War Memorial in Paddington Station, and the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London. The positioning of the memorials in locations of public transit and leisure, allows individual experiences of the monuments to intersect freely, without necessarily purposeful or structural influences of interpretation.

The Conway Library includes photographs of different views of the Royal Artillery Memory at Hyde Park Corner. The memorial consists of a Portland stone cruciform base supporting a one-third over-lifesize sculpture of a howitzer (a type of artillery field gun). At the end of each arm of the cross is a sculpture of a soldier—an officer at the front (south side), a shell carrier on the east side, a driver on the west side, and at the rear (north side) a dead soldier. The sides of the base are decorated with relief sculptures depicting wartime scenes. The Conway images show the black statues of the soldiers stark against the white stone plinth, the huge squat barrel of the howitzer pointed to the sky. Another photograph shows part of the relief carved in the side of the memorial depicting two soldiers in an observation post scanning the distance, looking in the same direction as the gaze of the statue of the officer at the front of the Memorial.

C S Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 

Detail of C S Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 

Detail of C S Jagger’s Artillery Memorial, Park Corner. Photograph by Anthony Kersting. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

Instead of posing in a celebratory moment, Jagger’s figures are usually found standing in a guarded position to symbolize their solemn role and the terrible losses of war. Another photograph in the Conway library shows the figure of the driver on the Royal Artillery memorial [3], with his arms spread beneath his cape as if on a crucifix, his face in shadow beneath the brim of his helmet. The culminating example of Jagger’s unfiltered representation of reality lies in the choice of depicting a soldier’s corpse lying at eye level at the rear side of the Memorial, which pulls you in with the gripping realism of 20th-century warfare. The photograph, negative number 246932, is an unflinching view of this carved corpse, draped with his greatcoat, his helmet on his chest.

C S Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.


Some photographs in The Courtauld’s Conway Library capture Jagger’s presence alongside his memorials; these images document his studio work and possibly present an opportunity to investigate his condensed mode of production from 1919 to 1925, which moved to the pace of one sculpture every three months. The picture below shows Jagger as he works on the Monument to Ernest Shackleton that now stands outside the Royal Geographical Society building in Kensington, depicting the heavily clad and hooded Antarctic explorer at over-life size, dwarfing the sculptor. His enlarged casted shadow looms in the background, while his assistant works on a maquette model in the foreground.

CS Jagger working on the statue of Shackleton. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 


Although depicting a chaotic historical period, The Sentry figure which Jagger carved for the Watts Warehouse (now the Britannia Hotel) in Manchester, seems unexpectedly “calm” in his expression and execution. This sense is highlighted by the smooth and rounded edges of the soldier’s cape that drapes him, and the intricate details where Jagger sculpted the realistic textures of the cloth material.

C S Jagger, The Sentry. Maquette for the War Memorial at the Britannia Hotel, Manchester. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

While Jagger’s statues were documented in long shots in the Conway Library, his reliefs for the frieze intended to commemorate the First battle of Ypres are recorded with close-up images focusing on the details. This frieze was to feature in a proposed Hall of Remembrance that eventually was not built;  Jagger’s bronze and plaster work was given to the Imperial War Museum. The photographs show a fibreglass resin casting taken from the original, that produces a wrinkled texture in the pictured artwork, conveying the impression of a freshly unfolded scroll.

The close-up photos also bring out tender details, like the depiction in the relief around the base of the Royal Artillery Memorial of a three-in-one folding knife, fork and spoon set and a frying pan. They represent the very human condition of soldiers at war, making the contrast between the large and conceptual nature of war and the basic and practical human needs like eating and drinking. A striped towel’s texture is beautifully enhanced by the cascading pattern on the rock’s surface. The fact that the basic coexists with the heroic on the Royal Artillery Memorial balances the artist’s attention to the general living conditions during warfare and his intention to relate with and obtain the acknowledgement of the public. This next sound piece explores this domestic detail.

C S Jagger, The First Battle of Ypres. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 

Detail of C S Jagger’s Artillery Memorial. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

 

Detail of C S Jagger’s The First Battle of Ypres. Held in the Conway Library, currently without accession number.

I created further sound pieces for a photograph of the Hoylake and West Kirby war memorial. This is a tall four-sided, curved-top granite obelisk; on opposite sides of the obelisk stand two bronze figures. In true Jagger style, one depicts a hooded, robed woman. On the opposite face stands a British infantry soldier, his helmet pushed back off his head.[1] The photograph in the Conway Library must have been taken before the current railings were put up around the memorial, and it emerges starkly from the surrounding scrubland.

C S Jagger, the Hoylake and West Kirby War Memorial.

 

 

The two final pieces use two different photographs of the memorial commissioned after the Great War in recognition of services rendered by the Belgian People to British Prisoners of War. The first sound responds to a photo of the monument completed and in situ in Brussels. Two soldiers – one British, one Belgian – stand centrally in the monument; to their sides are reliefs showing Belgian peasants assisting wounded British soldiers. The second piece is the sound created by a photograph of Jagger in his workshop putting finishing touches to the over-size statues of the twinned soldiers.

C S Jagger, Anglo-Belgium Memorial to British Expeditionary Force.

 




___________________________________________________________

Chen Chen
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant


References:
[1] M. Jenning, Interviewee, Martin Jennings on Charles Sargeant Jagger. [Interview]. 5 January 2016.
[2] B. Pathé, “An Unfinished Symphony In Stone (1935),” 13 April 2014. [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTo9ClKa-Sk.
[3] “Royal Artillery Memorial,” [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Artillery_Memorial.

Ben Britton: Building Independence – the Kenyan Parliament

Audio version

Text version

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.

A photograph of the Nairobi parliament building, taken by Anthony Kersting. The photograph is black and white and shows the modernist clock down rising up from the low buildings. The photograph is catalogued as KER_PNT_G06606.
‘Nairobi, National Assembly Building’, by Anthony Kersting, KER_PNT_G06606. Kersting’s ledgers date this photograph to the 12 March 1968. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

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[1], 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”[2]. 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.

A print of a black and white photograph of the parliament building in Nairobi, taken by Anthony Kersting. This photograph is catalogued as KER_PNT_G6608.
‘Nairobi, National Assembly Building’, by Anthony Kersting, KER_PNT_G06608. Kersting’s ledgers date this photograph to the 12 March 1968. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

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”[3]. 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.


Ben Britton
Digitisation Volunteer

References

[1] Drew, J., Fry, M. (1956). ‘Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone’, Tropical Housing & Planning Monthly Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 2-7

[2] Stanek, Ł. (2020). Architecture in Global Socialism, Princeton University Press

[3] Sharp, D. (1983). ‘The Modern Movement in East Africa’, Habitat International, Volume 7, Issue 6, p. 323

Julian Wood: A Photographic Detective Story – The Curious Case of the Sultan in the Cellar

Audio version

Read by Meredith Loper

Text version

Sherlock Holmes would have loved The Courtauld. Less than three miles from his Baker Street rooms, beneath its walls lies an unsolved mystery. Within its libraries, a small, battered photograph album has lain concealing secrets from Holmes’ age. While the latter was out collecting evidence of London’s crimes, somebody else was collecting history. They assembled pictures of the first modern Olympic Games, recorded now-vanished ossuaries in Malta, and even preserved the same Turkish Sultan whom Holmes allegedly assisted – just before the Ottoman Empire vanished forever.[1] Yet, who this person was, and what their story might have been, have vanished with the places they recorded.

That is, until now. For, paradoxically, the album’s survival has also immortalised its compiler. It has left a physical relic which, although inanimate, is a testament to the agency of a living person. Every image, after all, tells a story – as does the very act of assembling them into a set. No photographs are mere imprints of momentary “truth”, but are products of human choice.

The New Mosque, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) viewed from the North. In an almost straight southward line behind it is the famous Hagia Sophia.

Through a bit of detective work, we can for the first time penetrate the lost life of this peculiar artefact. Thousands of images beneath the Courtauld have these stories to tell, and it is only now that they have been digitised that we may begin to solve their mysteries, and bring their creators back to life once more.

The Acropolis of Athens, taken from the south-east. On top is the famous Parthenon and in the foreground the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

Our first bit of sleuthing must take us towards attempting to uncover the compiler, and only two clues allow us to do this. They are a note inside the inside cover, and a manufacturer detail upon the back:

What can we unpack here? “A. L. R.” gave this album to “D. Radford” in 1896, and the album was made by “J. Barfett Clark”, based in Penzance and Tavistock. If we assume, not unreasonably, that “A.L.R.” was also a “Radford” given the shared surname letters, then we have a search on our hands. We need to find an associated pair of English speakers, of literate age in c.1896, called D. and A. L. Radford, who perhaps have links to the South West, and might have been interested in history or travel.

In times far from that of the album, online resources allow us a possible answer. We can find one A. L. Radford, who died in 1928, as a listed Recorder of Ancient Monuments for Devon during the early 20th century.[2] The same man sought, between 1921-3, to restore the medieval Norman House, on King Street in Exeter: a site which would be destroyed war bombs in May 1942.[3] Crucially, his father, one D. Radford, had lived between 1828-1900, and was settled in Tavistock. Moreover, this D. Radford not only a wealthy coal merchant but also a cultured man: active in the Devonshire Association.[4] These details fit perfectly with the album’s fragments, and so, for the time in decades, we can suggest a potential match.

So, if A. L. Radford of Devon probably compiled the album, our next question is simple: did he actually visit the sites?

This is a bit of a conundrum. In terms of a “journey”, the album contains 59 photographs, grouped in a sequence. 28 from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), then 21 from Athens, and 10 from Malta. This categorisation could suggest a reflection of a real journey, though on its own it could be as much a case of “armchair travel”. We can see that the photographs are annotated with notes in red fountain pen, which seems to match that of the dedication inside the cover: especially in the particular way in which the lowercase letter “a” is written. We do not know when these were made either, though they do help us to probe further into this issue, especially with this picture:

This photograph is perhaps the most startling in the entire album, and for one simple reason. It is catastrophically wrong. This is indeed a “Temple of Victories”: it is the “Temple of Wingless Victory”. In Athens. Not, as Radford would suggest here, in “Salonica” (the Turkish name for Thessaloniki in northern Greece, which was then still part of the Ottoman Empire).

This error is particularly puzzling because the Temple is on the Acropolis of Athens. It is right next to the famous Parthenon, and is unashamedly visible (circled in red here) in another of the album’s photographs:

There is no similar building in Thessaloniki. Despite it being extremely picturesque, there is, in fact, no other photograph from this city. The error is so significant that we are left wondering whether Radford went to Thessaloniki at all.

There are three main possibilities: Radford had an atrocious memory (or was not paying proper attention to his surroundings); he deliberately wrote down a false name (perhaps to impress the recipient?); or he did not go to Greece at all and relied on (inaccurate) second-hand information. It is impossible for us to be sure, but whichever is correct, it shows how one small detail can reveal so much about the lives of the people behind The Courtauld Libraries’ collections.

However, the detail is not alone in baffling us, for another photograph demonstrates an intriguing gap between annotation and image:

We can now confirm with certainty that Radford did not take all of the album’s photographs. While those which we have seen already could be of too high a quality to suggest this anyway, this image confirms it. It is from a professional, and attested in the 1868 collection of French photographer Pierre Gigord.[5] If Radford did venture to Istanbul himself, perhaps he picked up this photograph there, from a seller?

Yet, whether he did go is made uncertain by his annotation. The view is labelled as from the “War Office”, a three-storey building which now part of Istanbul University.[6] Yet this is not where the photograph was taken. The angle and elevation are clearly from the nearby Beyazit Tower, a separate, 85m tall structure used to monitor urban fires and weather phenomena.[7] How could Radford have known, therefore, that it was next to the War Office? He could have conflated them, having visited and seen their proximity, perhaps in order to appeal to his father with the more glamorous “War Office”?

Alternatively, Radford could have received his information from a secondary source, who had done the conflation before him. Certainly, it is intriguing that the term “War Office” was used. It had been known since 1826 as the Gate of the Serasker (a word meaning “vizier” or military commander). This had been changed in 1876 to “War Office”, though between 1890-1908 the building again reverted to the longstanding name.[8] So, when the original photograph was taken, and when this album was compiled, the misattributed building had a different name. Our conclusion must be the same as before: either Radford deliberately used the obsolete name “War Office” because it resonated with his recipient; he made a very unlikely mistake; or he did not visit Istanbul and acquired this print from somebody who knew Istanbul and/or used the obsolete name. We do not know for certain, but the evidence suggests something of a gap between the truth of the album, and the intentions of the man behind its creation.

This gap is mirrored in another way: when we appreciate how unaware Radford could have been of the significance of his photographs to posterity. This photograph is a perfect example:

This is the Nibbia Chapel in Valletta, Malta, a Roman Catholic building decorated after 1852 with skeletal remains of the dead, taken from its cemetery (and leading to the celebrated nickname “Chapel of Bones”). What Radford could not have known, however, is that – like the Norman House he tried to restore – the entire site would be levelled in 1941 by aerial bombardment, leaving nothing but fragments.[9] His album, therefore, unbeknownst to him, not only compiled history but preserved it forever.

As with other photographs, this one was not a product of his own making. This image was taken in 1881 by John Edmund Taylor, though it does not attempt to hide this.[10] Within the image itself we see a caption: “Chapel of Bones, Malta”, and this is clearly from a separate album containing this photograph, because the original by Taylor extends our view behind the caption bar to slightly further down into the ground. This shows that Radford was using photographs taken and labelled by others, and also that he was not ashamed of doing so when presenting them to his father. It raises the same question of whether he might still have picked up this image in Malta, which cannot be ruled out, as the caption’s English could be explained by the site’s popularity with tourists and by Malta’s then-status as a British Protectorate. Of course, it is also significant that Radford did just copy the photograph’s caption, and did not specify – as he does on some other photographs of Malta – that this distinct building is in Valletta. Could this suggest that Radford was merely getting his information about each photograph from a secondary source? Thereby explaining the limitations of some of them? It is hard for us to be certain, but it does suggest a distinct possibility and places another potential layer of separation between Radford and the importance of the scenes photographed within his album.

The same recording of a changed world is evidenced by another pre-existing print utilised by Radford:

This picture is one of the richest in the album. Here we see a snapshot of a vanished era: that of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, ruler of everything from Greece to Iraq between 1876 and 1908. He is entering the Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque, which he himself commissioned only a decade before: between 1884-1886. We cannot make out the Sultan himself – perhaps he is the figure getting out of the carriage closest to the entrance stairs, though he certainly would have emerged from this vehicle. This image was taken by the Abdullah Brothers, a notable family of Armenian photographers who served as the official court photographers of the sultans.[11]

While it captures a routine ritual, occurring every Friday during the most important of the week’s prayers, it holds more significance. The photograph depicts the same ceremony, in the same spot, probably with most of the same participants, where 9 years after Radford’s dedication the sultan would be nearly assassinated. Even more strikingly – although Radford couldn’t have known this either – it would be by an Armenian revolutionary group reacting against the sultan’s persecutions and thereby contributing to the final decline of the Ottoman Empire. The artist and the subject are linked inexorably by history, yet for A. L. Radford this would be just another sneak-peak into the customs of a distant land.

This fleeting capture of significant history, by a man with unclear intentions, reaches its climax with the most startling photographs of the album. These are the two images of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens between 6th-15th August 1896:

These two photographs record the first revival of the Games since their traditional ancient staging between 776BCE – 394CE. 241 athletes from 14 nations competed in 43 events, to a crowd of around 100,000 spectators, with the majority being held in the place shown here: the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. Much has changed since. Winners during this period won silver medals and olive branches, with copper for runners-up. More concerningly, only men, and only from Europe and the United States, took part.[12] But, these images represent the first incarnation of something that has become a modern-day tour de force. The Olympic Games even returned to the same stadium photographed here, over a century later in 2004.

Radford again did not take these images. They have been recorded in other collections, though we cannot be sure who took them.[13] The two main photographers were the German photographer Albert Meyer, and the Greek photographer Iannis Lampakis. Both took very subjective photographs of ceremonies and participants, but we do know that Lampakis favoured scenes that were more naturalistic than Meyer’s, which might suggest that these photographs were originally by the former.[14] Of course, they could also be taken by amateur photographers, who were restricted to the spaces from which these were taken. It seems odd, if Radford had attended, why there should only be two photographs of such an important event, and, likewise, why his annotation should be the minimalist “Stadium I” and “Stadium II”. This would fit with the mislabelling of “Salonica”, the confusion over the Beyazit Tower, and the visible label on the photograph of the Nibbia Chapel to suggest that Radford might have assembled these photographs into an armchair “travel” experience for his father. Perhaps his father was already ailing, given his death four years later, and this, therefore, could have been an act of compassion to provide him with escapism?

Ultimately, our efforts cannot leave us unsure of whether A. L. Radford journeyed across the Mediterranean before 1896. However, we can suggest that his album of photographs, dormant and overlooked in The Courtauld for decades, was a carefully assembled gift from father to son – possibly as a form of swansong in the twilight years of an old man’s life. If Radford went to the Mediterranean to create his gift, he did so with an almost bumbling fervour which bleeds into the errors of his album. If Radford did not go, and created his vicarious journey in Devon, then he did so clearly through immense effort, even if the stretch of that effort had to lead to some mistakes.  We may never know what the true version of events was, but we can now know something of the emotion and human presence behind this hitherto silent artefact. A. L. Radford is one of the many lost voices preserved by The Courtauld, and it is only through engagement with its treasures that we may unlock their secrets, and bring rouse them in the 21st century to speak once more.

 

Bibliography:

[1] Kayahan AB (2018) Sultan meets Sherlock Holmes: Abdülhamid II’s passion for mystery. In: Daily Sabah, 28 July. Available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/feature/2018/07/28/sultan-meets-sherlock-holmes-abdulhamid-iis-passion-for-mystery (Accessed: 12 December 2020)

[2] “Cecily Radford”, Devonshire Association Transactions, 1968. Available at: https://devonassoc.org.uk/person/radford-cecily/ (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[3] Cornforth D (2016) The Norman House – King Street. In: Exeter Memories, 13 February. Available at: http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_buildings/norman-house.php (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[4] “D. Radford”, Reports and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for The Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art, 32 (1900), pp. 43-44. Available at: https://archive.org/details/reportandtransa18artgoog/page/n51/mode/2up?q=Radford (Accessed: 10 December 2020).

[5] BEYAZIT KULESİ’NDEN PANORAMA / 1868 / 3. PARÇA. In: Eski İstanbul Fotoğrafları Arşivi, 2020. Available at: http://www.eskiistanbul.net/6296/beyazit-kulesi-nden-panorama-1868-3-parca (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[6] Brosnahan T (2019) Beyazit Square, Istanbul, Turkey. In: Turkey Travel Planner. Available at: https://turkeytravelplanner.com/go/Istanbul/Sights/Beyazit/index.html (Accessed: 14 December 2020).

[7] Sarı E (2017) Turkey Travel Guide: Turkey History and Travel Guide. Antalya, p. 25. Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Turkey_Travel_Guide/EK2sDgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=beyazit+tower+85m&pg=PA25&printsec=frontcover (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[8] Bernard L (1986) “Bāb-i Serʿaskeri”. In: The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, Volume I: A–B. Leiden, p. 838.

[9] Drury M (2019) Lost Maltese treasures: Valletta’s Chapel of Bones was decorated with human skeletons. In: GuideMeMalta, 16 January. Available at: https://www.guidememalta.com/en/lost-maltese-treasures-valletta-s-chapel-of-bones-was-decorated-with-human-skeletons (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[10] ‘An altar bearing a Latin inscription surrounded by an array of human skulls and bones and a cloaked skeleton. Photograph by J. Taylor, c. 1881’, Wellcome Library no. 32810. Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/y8e6chnz (Accessed: 12 December 2020).

[11] “Image 2B00P0J” CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo, 2010. Available at: https://www.alamy.com/turkey-ottoman-ceremony-at-the-hamidiye-mosque-in-yildiz-district-istanbul-photograph-by-the-abdullah-brothers-fl-1858-1900-c-1890-the-yldz-hamidiye-mosque-also-called-the-yldz-mosque-turkish-yldz-hamidiye-camii-yldz-camii-is-an-ottoman-imperial-mosque-located-in-yldz-neighbourhood-of-beikta-district-in-istanbul-turkey-on-the-way-to-yldz-palace-the-mosque-was-commissioned-by-the-ottoman-sultan-abdul-hamid-ii-and-constructed-between-1884-and-1886-the-architecture-of-the-mosque-is-a-combination-of-neo-gothic-style-and-classical-ottoman-motifs-image344224626.html (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

Shaw WMK (2003) Possessors and possessed : museums, archaeology, and the visualization of history in the late Ottoman Empire. Berkeley, p. 141. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=v65XlSj4ud8C&lpg=PA141&dq=abdullah%20freres&pg=PA141#v=onepage&q=abdullah%20freres&f=false (Accessed: 11 December 2020).

[12] Athens 1896. In: Olympic.org, 2020. Available at: https://www.olympic.org/athens-1896 (Accessed: 13 December 2020).

[13] View Of The First Modern Olympic Games In Athens 1896. In: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images, 2020. Available at: https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/view-of-the-first-modern-olympic-games-in-athens-1896-news-photo/804435202 (Accessed: 12 December 2020).

[14] Veja imagens da primeira olimpíada da era moderna em Atenas – 1896’. In: arte ref, 17 June, 2016. Available at: https://arteref.com/fotografia/veja-imagens-da-primeira-olimpiada-da-era-moderna-em-atenas-1896/ (Accessed: 14 December 2020).

Surya Bowyer: 9,763 Red Boxes

Audio version

Read by Christopher Williams.

Text version

 

Minimalist ink drawing showing the figure of a person sitting at a table in the Conway Library, surrounded by red filing boxes.
Illustration by Simba Baylon @simbalenciaga

It begins with a box. Not a large or particularly remarkable box. Similar in size and shape to a foolscap box file. But different: an ever-so-slightly curved spine, a coarse fabric exterior.

Actually, it begins before the box. Walk down a spiral staircase and then along the aisles. Read the spine labels. Pick a box. Take it off its shelf.

Open the box. What’s next? There are two options. Two types of looking.

Option one: place it on a table under a camera.

**

Look at your phone. The blue-yellow light of its screen. Look at an image on it. Where has this come from? When we look at an image on a screen, on a phone, laptop, tablet, we seldom think of its story.

Inside the box: paper folders, held together without glue, with creases and folds and tabs pushed into slits. A tiny structural wonder. Inside each folder, a pile of papers. On each piece of paper, an image.

Officially: The Conway Library contains over one million images: photographs and cuttings of world architecture, architectural drawings and publications, sculpture, ivories, seals, metalwork, manuscript illumination, stained glass, wall paintings, panel paintings and textiles.

Place each image, in turn, on a table, under a camera.

In Sontag’s words: The view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera has informed photography from the beginning. [1]

In Barthelme’s opening sentence: The captured woman asks if I will take her picture. [2]

In Blake’s lines:

He caught me in his silken net,

         And shut me in his golden cage.

 He loves to sit and hear me sing,

         Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;

Then stretches out my golden wing,

         And mocks my loss of liberty. [3]

Yet something, invariably, escapes. Slips out through the gaps in the cage. And the thing that remains behind bars is not the same as the thing escaped. The camera might capture something of the image, but when you see the resulting photograph, on a phone, laptop, or tablet, something else is not there. Paper to pixel. Physicality foregone. The object’s matter remains at large.

What does it mean to capture – partially – an object? Each morning, you click off the lights. You click on the camera, the computer. Before you have touched a box, you place a piece of thick plastic on the table under the camera. A grid of squares, each a different colour. Whimsically named a Macbeth chart. You’re not sure why. The click of the shutter; the chart flashes up on the computer’s screen.

This photograph on the screen is used (officially) to adjust the colour, the exposure, the saturation. Yet as you adjust these things, readying the apparatus for the task that will follow, it becomes clear that for everything you do capture, you must miss something else. To catch the detail of a dark area, you must expose a lighter expanse. The camera sketches the object on the table under it. The thing on the table is itself a reproduction. A drawing of a drawing of a drawing.

The camera sketches the object on the table under it, but to sketch is to approximate, to decide what to keep. Something, invariably, escapes. Perhaps this is the nature of drawing.

But not all of the red boxes are ready for this yet.

**

Minimalist ink drawing of two persons sitting at a table sorting and labelling the contents of red filing boxes.
Illustration by Simba Baylon @simbalenciaga

Officially: There are 9,763 boxes in the Conway Library. Inside the boxes the items are divided into folders. A folder can correspond to a town, a building, a section of a building, or smaller features. Folders are sorted alphabetically within each box.

To ready the papers, continue inward. Within each folder, the task (officially): to recreate the experience of moving closer to the building. Option two.

**

A front projection of a building. Below the drawing, a date, 1729, in a scratchy serif, words around it, some capitalised, seemingly at random. The pillars catch my eyes, returning them to the drawing above. I blink.

I am on a path I have not yet walked. It winds forward, manicured grass on either side, trees with undressed boughs. A regal edifice up ahead, the path snakes around it. I blink.

The side of the building, closer. White framed windows, curved at the top, darkness beyond them. Blink.

A doorway, cherubs carved into its lunette. Blink. A geometric marble floor, a carved wood ceiling, space (lots of it) in between. Blink. Another room, smaller, softer, a chaise longue, a fireplace, objet d’arts on the mantel above it. Blink. Two children playing, long strands of ivy encompassing them, carved in dark metal, covering an abyss; on either side, oak leaves, carved in stone; above, the same mantel. Blink.

**

I drag a pencil across a page, charting a path I have not walked. These images – photographs, cuttings – these drawings, with them I create the experience of moving closer to the building.

A caged building. Alike but not one with the other: bricks and mortar and stone and metal that I have not touched. The other which remains at large, and unvisited. With this pile of papers (now ordered) on the table in front of me, I have created a building.

I put the papers back in the folder, the folder back in the box. Close the box. Return the box to its shelf. Pause. Then: It begins, again, with a box.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Anchor Books, 1977), p. 55.

[2] Donald Barthelme, “The Captured Woman”, in Sixty Stories (Penguin, 2003), p. 280.

[3] William Blake, “Song: How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field”.

 


Surya Bowyer
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
https://twitter.com/suryabowyer

Illustrations by Simba Baylon
https://www.instagram.com/simbalenciaga/ 

 

Alessandro Torresi: Craco and the fascination for the abandoned

I was 16 years old when I moved to my current house on the hill in Marsicovetere, Italy. I remember that the first thing I did, after throwing my stuff on the bed, was to put on a pair of comfortable shoes to reach the tiny, abandoned stone house I could see from my terrace. I ran along a footpath by the wooded coast directly to the entrance of what I later learnt was, in the late 1960s, the humble house of a family of farmers. I imagined some children looking out from the turquoise window, spying on their parents working the land, checking if they had enough time to plan a bit of mischief. That ordinary abandoned house became a powerful spark that made my imagination and curiosity wonder and flourish.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite days of the year was Good Friday, when the entire village would walk the Way of The Cross. Through the narrow streets of the old town, we would march to reach the abandoned monastery at the base of the mountain which, once a year, became the designated spot for the representation of the last stations of the Passion of Christ. For me, the folklore of this unique day was better represented by the image of the abandoned monastery; a ruined place, inaccessible for 364 days of the year, that for just one day could be reborn as an agora (meeting place) for all the peasants.

I have always been fascinated by abandoned places and by the special mystery of worlds that could have been but, for adverse reasons, stopped accomplishing the purpose for which they were built – I bet that each one of you reading this piece has at least one memory that took place in an abandoned site. Maybe it is because we like the idea of finding ourselves in a situation of danger (perhaps we even dare to imagine being witnesses of nefarious night-time crimes). Maybe it is because everyone has felt abandoned at least once in their lives; so it’s like we can claim to be the temporary owners of places that have seen a multitude of lonely explorers stepping inside and thinking they are the first to have discovered such a mysterious spot all for themselves.

While working on the classification of the photographic collection of The Courtauld’s Conway Library on Zooniverse, a series of pictures of St. Hilarion Castle in Cyprus caught my attention. Before I could even realise, I started to imagine what it must have been like when the castle was at the height of its use as a defensive fortification during the Byzantine Era.

The first picture below shows the ruins of the cistern of the castle. What was once one of the most vital places of the site – since a high storage of drinkable water can play a significant role for an island with drought problems like Cyprus – is now a cistern of abandoned memories that cannot be re-discovered anymore. I thought about the splendour of Byzantine chapels, with their iconic coloured cupolas, and I felt a sense of nostalgia and melancholia when I saw the second picture, which shows the remains of a once-glorious chapel. St. Hilarion Castle appears to be perched up high, and its rock walls defend a past made of secular traditions that cannot be replicated. It is as if the stone walls of the third picture were hiding a mythological creature who is asleep and waiting to live again.

Of course, this is only my perception but what I really want to stress is that heritage sites like St. Hilarion Castle are fundamental for our cultural consciousness. They stimulate our curiosity towards the past, but they stimulate also new visions of the future pushing us to think about how we can avoid the same mistakes that led these beautiful sites to perish, and how can we start again.

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This image is blurred at the top (a finger over the lens, or maybe some fog!). In the bottom 2 thirds of this landscape oriented photo you can see an old stone wall with an arched wooden doorway nestled in the middle. The place looks like a ruin, but it's a close up shot so hard to tell what the surrounding area looks like.
St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F002_016, bottom right on mount. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

 

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This image is taken inside the ruined castle. Here the damage is clear: what was once a domed or vaulted roof is now open to the sky. The walls are in various states of disrepair, with jagged brickwork exposed. This must once have been a grand room, but now it's empty.
St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F001_007. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

 

St Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. This photo is down the hill, looking up at the castle. From here, it looks like the castle is perched on the edge of a sheer rock face. The castle is clearly overgrown with plants, and the roof is clearly damaged. It's a plain, square, stone building, stark against the landscape.
St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus. CON_B01180_F002_016, bottom left on mount. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

What intrigued me the most about the images of St. Hilarion Castle was their resemblance to the memories I had of a once abandoned Italian village called Craco, nowadays a popular touristic destination.

Craco, perched high on a hill. Photo c. Alessandro Torresi.

In 1963 a landslide forced the inhabitants of this little stone village of the Basilicata region, situated at the top of a hill surrounded by gullies, to move to a newer town named Craco Peschiera. They had to leave their homes abruptly, abandoning Craco and turning it into a “ghost town”. As the years went by, nature gradually took over, creating an evocative environment where time seems to have stopped. This atypical setting re-entered the centre of the conversation when it was chosen as the location of important international film productions such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion (2004). Suddenly, institutions started to realize the unlimited potential of abandoned heritage sites like Craco. They represent a past that for many years we tried to forget, because they could not fit in the narrative of the fast world, of industrialized and smart cities. Places like Craco, or even the nearby Matera that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been “shameful” for many Governments who saw in them the failure of their vision of progress. They were cut off from the public conversation, existing only in the bitter memories of the people who once lived there.

However, in 2020 we witness how quickly cities stopped being the safest and most desirable place to be. The high density of social contacts in urban areas meant a higher density of Covid-19 cases, and, as a result, large numbers of people decided to move, permanently or temporarily, to the countryside, putting the spotlight on those places that never had the chance to “shine”, and for which conservation and preservation are now of primary importance for the social and cultural wellbeing of the rural inhabitants.

Maybe, my fascination with abandoned sites lies in the idea of rebirth and second chances. A place with no present can have many possible futures. Craco has had its rebirth in 2011; from that year onwards it has been possible to visit the main street of the village with a guided tour that touches on the ancient palaces and convent as well as the ruins of the once inhabited houses. Wearing a protective helmet, you can take a trip through time, travelling back to the 1960s and experiencing a different side of the Italian dolce vita.

Inside an abandoned building, Craco. A single wooden chair is off-centre inside a once-grand, now crumbling room with barrel-vaulted ceilings. A tree is growing, indoors, on the back wall. Photo c. Alessandro Torresi.

I visited the beautiful yet mysterious Craco last summer. I am used to the slow life of the Italian southern villages, however, I was not expecting to feel such a realistic impression of being stuck in an ancient medieval village, where the only signs of modernity were the “explorers” taking pictures (as you can see from the pictures below, taken during my visit to the heritage site in 2020). I was even more surprised to see many international tourists, which is (unfortunately) quite uncommon for heritage sites in my region.

Scenes from Craco, Italy. Tourists in hard hats explore the ruined streets. Donkeys roam on the cobbles. The buildings are so decayed it’s easy to imagine they are growing out of the hill, rather than falling back into it. Photos c. Alessandro Torresi.

Craco can represent a succesful model, exportable everywhere, of sustainable fruition of an heritage site where human intervention is resepctful of the place’s history and natural environement, while representing an invaluable asset for the local cultural and economic development. It’s abandonment, and its resulting mysterious atmosphere, may therefore save it.


Alessandro Torresi
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Lorraine Stoker: London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square

Audio version

Read by Celia Cockburn.

Text version

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.

In 1962, the US and the USSR had engaged in a 13-day political and military stand-off, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Robert Kennedy would also be assassinated in 1968. The Vietnam war raged on, the British government pursued a Cold War nuclear policy, which saw squadrons of V- bombers armed with nuclear warheads. The government also continued with a commercial nuclear reactor programme – Sellafield and Dungeness, for example.

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?

“London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square”, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_U02, The Courtauld, CC-BY-0.4.

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.


Lorraine Stoker
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer