Looking at Anthony Kersting images from the Conway Library at first glance took me back to my youth. It’s fascinating how a photograph – familiar or unfamiliar – can conjure up images of your experiences from a period in your life. It might do so directly – capturing a specific detail of a known building – or indirectly – by having a similarity with another place entirely. Almost like an aroma, or perfume, it can take you back to a specific memory, experience, time or place.
Although at first glance I thought: “this is the temple I visited on one of my many trips to Bangkok whilst residing in Singapore”, it occurred to me that I saw so many temples in Thailand that I might be mistaken. It was only after going through my personal, disorganised archive of photographs that I could confirm that it was indeed the same one, although I couldn’t locate the image of the reclining Buddha inside the temple.
When I looked at the images I selected for this blog, they took me back to a period in my life when I had just completed my postgraduate studies in Architecture. At the time, there was a recession in the UK and the building industry is often one of the sectors that are negatively impacted first. There were no jobs for budding, enthusiastic, young architects with no work experience, like me. But this took me, thankfully, to my first job abroad in Singapore, where I lived and worked for two years, and from which I could travel around South East Asia.
The images taken by Kersting in Singapore took me back 20 years in an instant. I recall my weekend walks (in the extremely high humidity temperatures), searching for the historical context of colonial architecture, contrasting with the dizzying heights of banks, hotels and condominiums that tower over the domestic-scaled “shop-houses” on this tiny sovereign island city-state in South East Asia.
Kersting captured St Andrews Cathedral, white as icing on a wedding cake, and the Cricket Ground near City Hall, where you could envisage, under colonial rule, a game of cricket being played. These were all on my daily route to the office I worked in, as well as the Old Supreme Court which was the last building to be built in the Classical style in the former British Colony. This building is now part of the National Gallery.
I marvelled at the way this island expands at such speed from a construction perspective and at the amazing architecture that exists. The skyline continues to progress and increase in density, and the structures become more and more challenging. For this reason, this is a place I always want to revisit.
The last time I was fortunate enough to travel to Singapore was ten years after I had worked and lived there and I couldn’t believe the number of new buildings that had emerged.
It made me think of the images of places that have been recorded in history and time, buildings that have disappeared forever due to wars, human intervention and natural disasters, many of which are captured in the Conway Library.
Photography is an important tool for recording places and people as they are in a particular time. This makes the Conway Library, and other photographic archives of this kind, vital to reconstructing our heritage and history and makes the efforts to digitise it and present it to the public even more important. Preserving these items is to preserve that time and place forever, making it accessible to all across the globe, enabling research and consultation for whatever purpose.
Sat here in London on a rainy November day during lockdown 2, exploring Kersting’s photographs was a wonderful moment of escapism that transported me in an instant from my current burdening thoughts and worries to memories of the past. It made me feel more hopeful for the future, during a year of overwhelming disruption and changes to life as we know it.
Finally, for readers looking to spend some time with a good book on memories and olfactory triggers, I recommend Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by German writer Patrick Süskind.
Muny Morgan Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
The 27th October 2020 marks the launch of The Courtauld’s first global crowdsourcing project: World Architecture Unlocked, a transcription task on Zooniverse.
From Somerset House to the Zooniverse
Since we started our work to bring over 1.5 million items from The Courtauld’s photographic libraries online we knew that to reach such an ambitious goal we would need the help and abilities of as many people as possible. We reached out to volunteers and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Our digitisation volunteers are passionate and dedicated – and these two characteristics can really make the difference between what is and isn’t possible.
However, we also knew from the start that it would be impossible for our digitisation volunteers to transcribe the metadata for every single item in the Conway Library, so we decided to capture the metadata for boxes and folders, and that the single items would inherit metadata from their parent folder, until item-level metadata would become available.
Meanwhile, the staff team decided it was time to learn python and put together a project on Zooniverse so that we could jump ahead and start collecting item-level metadata.
Enter World Architecture Unlocked
Zooniverse makes it possible for image-based research projects to upload their images to their platform and set up simple workflows. Our workflow means that the transcription task is broken down into steps: you are guided to look for different pieces of information written on stamped on each item.
For the tester phase, we uploaded thousands of images digitised so far (including plenty of images of Cathedrals in Britain!), so that anyone who felt like it can write down what they see on the screen, with some guidance from us. We are now launching thousands more images of buildings, art, and design from across the world!
One of the main objectives of our team and volunteers’ efforts is to free the Conway Library from the limitations of its current physical form and deliver it to the world as a new, digital entity. This will undoubtedly be a fantastic resource for researchers, but it will also greatly appeal to the general public.
As digital objects, the images will be able to finally travel back to the places they were born, and be seen by the people currently living there. In itself, this is already a beautiful way to complete a full cycle.
The more detailed our metadata, the easier it will be for visitors to find the right images to match their interests. Faye, Digitisation Manager
Our on-site volunteers are busy taking photographs of the rest of the collection as quickly as possible, and we will continue to add new sections of the library to Zooniverse for transcription.
How easy is it to contribute?
Anyone can contribute immediately, without any background knowledge
The main consideration in launching the Zooniverse project was to provide an accessible introduction to the collection and the work involved in the transcription. It felt important that World Architecture Unlocked should share the same vision as the wider digitisation project: to be approachable, informative and fun.
Through training our volunteers on the various processes involved in the digitisation project, we learnt what the most common questions about the collection are, and this informed how the online tasks should be introduced and structured.
When the Courtauld decided to start a Zooniverse project for its photo collection, I jumped at the chance because it was a great way to keep contributing to the digitisation project during lockdown. The interface was pretty straight forward to use, and because it only takes a short time to transcribe the information surrounding each photo, it was easy to feel I was doing something useful even when I could only spare a few minutes at a time. Figuring out some of the handwriting or faded numbers can be a bit of a challenge, but that’s half the fun. Some of the photographs are amazing. Jane, Digitisation Volunteer and Zooniverse tester and moderator
What does World Architecture Unlocked aim to do?
By opening up the digitised images of the Conway Library collections to an online audience, we are able to capture item-level description. This will have a huge effect in terms of the information and searchability of the collection.
The information we are gathering through World Architecture Unlocked (such as city, architect name, date of construction, and image description) will be added to the collection’s database, and will become extra information from which you can search the collection once our website launches.
Interested in browsing 1930’s European architecture? No problem! Want to see a list of all the buildings by Le Corbusier? Of course! Working on decolonising architecture? What a perfect starting point! – item-level description will make this kind of research easier and will provide a more intuitive search experience.
One of the things I really love about the digitisation project is
how it teaches industry-standard knowledge (about digitisation, archiving and object handling processes) in an accessible and open way to all, and I feel that the spirit of Zooniverse is very much aligned with this. Victoria, Digitisation Assistant
How does your transcription help?
Countries and Cities By transcribing the country and city name, you are helping us to build an interactive world map of the collection. Each country/city transcribed will become a geolocation on a world map, offering users a visual way to see the breadth of the collection, and browse it by country and area.
Name of Architect By capturing the architect’s name, users of our future website will be able to discover the work of a specific architect who might have worked in different countries, and begin to explore who did and didn’t make it in the collection, and why.
Date By recording the date of construction, you are helping to provide a chronological search of world architecture through its development and movements. This offers a more in-depth way for researchers to search specific time periods.
Description The option to transcribe an image’s description opens up the collection to a much more intuitive way of searching. For example, it will be possible to see at a glance that the collection contains exterior, interior and detail shots of a specific building, and users interested in fonts, mosaics or statues depicting mother and child in architecture will be able to search and see those images only.
By providing examples and tutorials on World Architecture Unlockedwe encourage contributors to be as accurate as they can. To make sure the data generated is as useful as possible, we are presenting every image three times to Zooniverse transcribers before marking it as completed. We will then compare the three entries to obtain the most accurate description for each item.
We also have a Talk page within the project where you can ask questions about what you find, or query any images that have information presented in an unusual way. Some of our existing digitisation volunteers are also moderators and will be happy to answer your questions.
The collection contains extraordinary old photographs of architecture and artefacts from around the world. I have handled many boxes and files working through the various steps of the digitisation process and I understand how important is to capture all the information contained on the card and to transcribe it in order to build the metadata. I volunteered to moderate on this pilot project to help others with their transcription and answering their questions.
I have also transcribed over 800 records and each time I have learnt something new or noticed a beautifully photographed detail which escaped me during a visit to a Cathedral, for example. Dora, Digitisation Volunteer and Zooniverse tester and moderator.
When can you start?
Immediately! You can start transcribing your first item by going to the World Architecture Unlocked page and clicking Contribute, or – even better – you can create a profile first so that you can keep track of your transcription progress and save any images you like.
On Zooniverse, you can drop in for 5 minutes or settle in for a few hours, each and every contribution makes a big difference in sharing our collections and making them more accessible for everyone – enjoy!
Digitisation, Database and Cataloguing Manager Courtauld Connects
‘Huge picture windows look out over a peaceful oasis of greenery and mature trees. Many a time I have sat and been simply uplifted by this lush view of nature or been stunned by the beauty of the sun burnishing the windows opposite with a copper glow’.
Su Cross, resident of the Alexandra Road Estate
In the aftermath of the Second World War, social housing developments transformed city skylines across Britain. High-rise tower blocks were idealised as utopian ‘streets in the sky’. By the mid-1960s, however, far from being hailed as innovative feats of architecture, tower blocks were condemned by residents and architects alike as undesirable, inconvenient and structurally unsound. The partial collapse of Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block, in May 1968, fuelled growing calls for a change in direction.
Neave Brown, a New York-born British architect (1929-2018), envisioned a new style of social housing. He believed that ‘ziggurat style terraces’ could revolutionise publicly-owned estates: the sloping structure would provide residents with access to their own outdoor space, in the form of private balconies and terraces, and provide each home with its own front door opening directly onto the street.
In 1968, Brown designed what would become the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, London. One of the most significant issues which the project needed to address was the sound and vibration from trains which passed directly adjacent to the site. Brown designed an 8-story stepped building which would block noise from the trains, built on rubber pads to minimise the vibration. His plan consisted of 520 apartments, to house over 1600 people, a school, a community centre, a youth club, a heating complex, a care home, a special needs school and a park. When Brown presented his model for the development to the Camden Council in 1969, the councillors applauded its ‘ambitious and imaginative quality’.
Construction work on the project began in 1972, and this marked the beginning of a succession of unfortunate events, including unforeseen foundation problems and external issues such as high rates of inflation and shortages of reinforcement steel. The project ultimately cost £19,150,000 (over double the anticipated £7,200,000) and took 6 years to complete (rather than the anticipated 3 and a half). Alexandra Road was deemed a ‘wildly expensive’ ‘disaster’ in the media, and Neave Brown never worked as an architect in Britain again. However, despite its reputation in the press, Camden’s housing department found that the flats at Alexandra Road ‘were probably the easiest ever to let’.
Su Cross, a resident of the estate, describes her first impression of Rowley Way (the main street): ‘the dazzling white concrete structures had such a jolly Mediterranean feel. It was immediately possible to visualize its potential as London’s equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’.
The striking architecture, easy parking and straightforward access to the estate has made it a popular area for location scouts. Scenes of the estate can be seen in BBC shows such as Spooks, Silent Witness and London Spy; films such as Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); as well as numerous music videos including J Hus’s ‘Calling Me’ (2015) and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’ (2016).
In SPID Theatre’s 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’, filmed on the Alexandra Road Estate, one young person said: ‘I know it definitely made me proud to say yeah, my estate was filmed in Kingsman, my estate was filmed in different documentaries’.
However, filming in the area is not popular with everybody: other residents interviewed in the documentary were worried that frequent filming diverts attention away from poor conditions and maintenance issues. One resident explained how ‘there isn’t a day that goes by where you’re not seeing some film crew or photographer or model. For the people living on the estate, it’s a double-edged sword’. She felt that ‘their privacy is being invaded or… that it’s just for show’, and expressed concern that ‘how they live is not necessarily being taken care of, so things like the repairs and maintenance is probably the most important thing in the front of their mind and they just want the council to sort it out’. Polena Barbagallo similarly described how ‘we have people filming here every day’, but ‘underneath all that the structure is decaying.’
Residents have also expressed concern over how the estate is being represented in the media. Council estates have often been used in TV and film as a ‘shorthand for crime and deprivation’, perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes. Residents have noted how set decorators will often ‘dirty up the estate with fake graffiti and rubbish and generally [make] it look threatening’, which ‘totally misrepresents the estate’.
Equally, there is the issue of the ‘fetishization’ of council estates, whereby ‘urban’ and working-class aesthetics are monetised by labels and celebrities for profit, while the challenges facing the residents of such estates are side-lined and neglected. As of 2012, only 18% of the estate’s flats were leasehold,  but estates like Alexandra Road are quickly becoming gentrified, with private flats on the estate now costing anything upwards of £500,000 to purchase.
In 1994, Peter Brooke, then National Heritage Secretary, hailed the Alexandra Road Estate as ‘one of the most distinguished groups of buildings in England since the Second World War’. In 1995, Andrew Freear (recipient of the Architectural League of New York’s President’s Medal) declared Alexandra Road to be ‘the last great social housing project’. However, the estate is by no means a relic of the past. In 2012-13, a group of residents put forward a bid to the National Heritage Lottery and received £2 million to put towards developing the park, a project which was completed in 2015. Since 2012, the Tenants Hall has begun to be used as a space for yoga classes, table tennis and a fruit and vegetable food cooperative. The ever-evolving nature of the estate is captured by Elizabeth Knowles, a long-term resident: ‘When I think about Alexandra Road it seems it has taken on a life all of its own — and there seems to be no stopping it.’
Alexandra Road Estate Spotify Playlist I hope you enjoy this ‘Alexandra Road Estate’ playlist I have created – all the music videos for these songs were shot on location at the Alexandra Road Estate!
The mid-1920s in Frankfurt, Germany saw a desperate housing shortage. The First World War had swept through the city a few years prior, leaving the need for much of its housing to be re-built. In 1925, architect and city planner Ernst May was employed to head a new social housing project, known as the New Frankfurt, which would see the construction of 10,000 new homes for the working classes. It would be the largest social housing project of the Weimar years.
A modernist designer with utopian ideals, May saw the New Frankfurt project as an opportunity for increased domestic liberation through design. Inspired by the emerging theories of ‘efficiency engineering’ and household rationalisation – ideas which promoted the time-saving possibilities of ‘better’ object placement and applied them to the home – May believed that a well-designed home could make life easier for its occupants. He enlisted the help of Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky – Austria’s first female architect and fellow efficiency advocate – to design a new and thoroughly modern kitchen, befitting of this vision. The Frankfurt Kitchen, as it has come to be known, is arguably the most important legacy of the New Frankfurt project and is widely recognised as the first example of the modern fitted kitchen, as we know it today.
The 1920s were a time of social change for women in Germany. Declared to be the equals of men, women were granted the vote under the Weimar constitution. Increasingly, women were single, working, and less interested in family life, and the figure of the ‘New Woman’ emerged as a symbol – with her shorter hair and traditionally ‘unfeminine’ attire – depicting this shift.
The New Woman symbolised a lifestyle of work and leisure, following the expansion of employment and education opportunities that became available to women during the War. However, many took an aversion to this new sense of female independence. Conservatives worried about the long-term effect the New Woman might have on traditional values, as more women were in university than men, male joblessness was high, and the birth rate had dropped. Fewer women were working as servants, and so many middle-class homes also found themselves at a loss. A coalition of interest groups began to steadily form, seeking to readdress the woman’s place as being in the home, and the idea of the ‘professional’ housewife emerged, using efficiency engineering – specifically, its scientific language and approach – to intellectualise the idea of housekeeping. Suddenly, the same notion of rationalisation so embraced by modernist architects for its critique of traditional design was being used in socio-political terms to argue that the home would provide a suitable and modern experience for women, and, thanks to its new methodology, would be held in the same regard as a man’s professional work. This campaign to reaffirm the domestic sphere resulted in the introduction of a state policy called ‘Female Redomestication’, and education and employment options for women were largely diminished once again, as they returned to the home.
Back in Frankfurt, Lihotzky was designing her efficient kitchen. She consulted housewives and experts, drew inspiration from the spatial design of factory floors and train dining cars, and studied psychological and material evaluations. She realised that by placing the sink, stove and workspaces in a triangle, less time was spent walking between each. Her final design came pre-equipped – for the first time – with built-in storage, a gas stove, fold-down ironing board, adjustable ceiling light and a swivel stool. It was the first German kitchen with electricity. Efficiency was in every detail: the cupboards were painted blue as it was understood to be fly-repellent; cutting surfaces were made from beech to resist staining and knife marks; aluminium chutes were designed to hold staples such as flour and sugar for easy storage and pouring. The floor space, measuring in at just 1.9 x 3.44 metres, was decreed optimum for carrying out the tasks therein, and the room could be shut away with its sliding door.
It was designed as a gleaming embrace of technology and the future. It waved goodbye to the time-consuming and labour-intensive traditional kitchen: poorly ventilated, dimly lit, disorganised, and badly furnished. Lihotzky had optimised domesticity. She would later say that by doing so, it acted ‘very well as propaganda’ for the ‘bourgeois ideas of the time that a woman essentially worked at home in the kitchen’, and was aware that her gender, as designer, added to this narrative. Nevertheless, she would describe her time spent on the New Frankfurt project as amongst “a group that stood up for certain principles and architectural ideas, and fought for them uncompromisingly”.
How is it possible for such different interpretations of efficiency (conservative ideas of re-domestication, and modernist ideas of liberation through design) to co-exist? The answer lies in a 1923 book by author and housewife Christine Frederick, titled ‘Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home’, which has been referred to as the ‘the bible of progressive architects of the 1920s’.
“Couldn’t we standardise dishwashing by raising the height of the sink? Did we not waste time and needless walking in poorly arranged kitchens? I came to earnestly believe that scientific management could, and must, solve housework problems as it had already solved other work problems”.
The quote above – from the introduction of Household Engineering – begins a rallying cry for improved health, design and efficiency in the home. Frederick coined the concept of scientific home management after she began to apply the same principles used by her husband (who worked as an Efficiency Engineer) to her work as housewife, realising its time-saving potential. Her husband’s profession gave her writing credence and an ideological slant: with better working practices, the housewife would be freer. Architects used the practical advice in Household Engineering and applied it to their floorplans, and May and Lihotzky recognised the evolutionary role that considered design could have for the occupants of their social housing. However, this is perhaps where the cross-over of progressive design and domestication ends. While Household Engineering explores in detail how best to carry out housework, it takes a less radical approach towards who will be doing this work. Frederick frequently refers to the person in the kitchen as ‘the worker’, and it’s clear from Household Engineering’s floorplans of accompanying servant quarters that working-class women were expected to provide labour for middle-class households as servants still, only now with ‘scientific’ guidance on which tasks it would be acceptable for them to sit down during: “This permits the worker to give her entire energy to it, thus resulting in quicker and better work”.
If there was any question as to what the New Woman would do with her newly saved time, Frederick seems to imply the answer is more work. Indeed, Frederick herself admits to pouring her saved time back into improving her workflow, to every minor detail: “Every day I tried to find new ways, new methods and new short cuts in my home problems. If I made out a good schedule of work for one week I tried to improve on it for the week following. No housework detail was too small or too unimportant”.
A question naturally arises from this: how did the architects and designers of the New Frankfurt envision occupants using their newly rationalised space?
Throughout the project, May published a journal of the same name (Das Neue Frankfurt) and a 1927 article titled “The new apartment and the household effects” (Die Neue Wohnung und der Hausrat) written by Franz Schuster (architect and furniture designer) sheds a light on the team’s vision for women and their labour. It suggests intellectual pastimes in place of housework, and views the latter as unimportant and to be done quickly through improved efficiency: “The woman no longer wants to spend the entire day cleaning the house and doing meaningless things; she wants to be able to take part in contemporary intellectual life, and must be able to survive in the economic competition. She can no longer afford to waste her thought and effort on trivial things, whether she is a mother, or wife, or on her own – she wants to be a valuable comrade-in-arms in the building of a new Era. Thus she must demand of her home – as we do from everything else – that it not restrict the development of our best and most vital powers, but rather advance them; no one would claim that dusting, cleaning, and furniture brushing are particularly valuable in themselves. Thus the Era itself demands the new [efficient] household”.
It has been said before that the modernist movement set out to change more than architecture, and the Frankfurt Kitchen is a good example of this. Its design was intended to make life easier for Frankfurt inhabitants, helping women to spend less time on their own chores. The main criticism of its design at the time centred on the small scope for individualisation that the built-in furnishings allowed for, particularly at a time where women were spending more time at home. However, Lihotkzy has maintained that herself and the wider Frankfurt team considered the efficient kitchen an emancipatory space, describing it as “a modern laboratory where work was able to be done as quickly as possible”. She hoped to create a culture of less housework, and her kitchen is a successful piece of design which improved – with lasting effects – convenience, technology, health and safety and workflow within the home. It would go on to influence kitchen design through to current day, and it served as Lihotzky’s contribution to the issue of housework.
The Frankfurt Kitchen provided a means, rather than an end, to a problem.
However, it did so by designing a vision of the future where efficiency equated to greater freedoms (both leisurely and intellectually) – so that when society was ready to move in the same direction, the structures for positive change would be already in place.
The mix of European sculpture such as a George and the dragon sculpture and a European bust, alongside a young Bahamian apprentice, busy glazing a plate, piqued my interest.
Kersting’s hand-written note on the back of the photograph reads Nassau, Bahamas and Chelsea Pottery.
To put the Kersting photograph into context, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw Nassau as the playground of the rich and famous, who arrived to sample the social scene – the sun, the wild parties and one of the most important and prestigious motor racing events on the race calendar! At the same time, more American and European money began flowing through Nassau, and there was a market for fine pottery, especially among foreign tourists and the affluent ex-pat community in Nassau.
Obviously, Chelsea Pottery was the first line of enquiry. In fact, Chelsea was the brainchild of David Rawnsley, a highly gifted and innovative man who had trained as an architect and engineer but who had also worked as a very successful art director in the British Film Industry. For those of us old enough to have watched the following in the 1960s with our grandparents or parents – One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and In Which We Serve (1942). His film innovations were widely ridiculed by the Rank film crews. Despite this, David Rawnsley developed independent frame storyboarding and back projection, both radical improvements to the filmmaking process.
At the end of the war, Rawnsley had already set up an ‘atelier libre’ in Paris, followed by another in London 1952, where painters and sculptors could work alongside each other exploring the use of clay and sharing ideas and experiences, for a daily charge. Yet, he decided to leave Chelsea London and set up a pottery along similar lines, in Nassau in the Bahamas.
A newspaper article – Chelsea Pottery of London comes to the Bahamas 1958, published January 11th, 1958, in the Miami Times describes this branch of his famous London pottery house headed by David Rawnsley and assisted by two European ceramic artists. Two Bahamians, George Huyler and Kendal Hanna, were permanently employed.
Instead of pursuing the Chelsea pottery line of enquiry, I wondered about the young man in the photograph… was he one of the apprentices or full-time employees George or Kendal?
Trawling through online articles and photographs of the Chelsea pottery in Nassau, two images showed a young man identified as Maxwell Taylor, who became a much admired and respected Bahamian artist. I contacted Max Taylor and he kindly confirmed that it was him in the Anthony Kersting photograph.
So how did this young Bahamian who trained as a ceramicist in the Chelsea Pottery eventually become one of the greatest Bahamian artists, renown as a painter, sculptor and printmaker?
Along with Brent Malone and Kendal Hanna, Maxwell became one of the ﬁrst apprentices of the Chelsea Pottery in Nassau. He always had a strong desire to draw and paint and admitted that David Rawnsley was instrumental in instructing and encouraging him. After the pottery closed, he later moved to New York and studied at the Art Students League of New York. Maxwell left New York after 20 years and travelled to South Carolina and Europe.
Over the past 40 years, Maxell Taylor has dealt with issues which reflect his own life experiences, such as Bahamian women as single mothers, immigration, political satire and political commentary, the Middle Passage and Slavery – celebration and misery.
Maxwell Taylor, the young man who against all odds worked to become an artist, became a teacher, a highly accomplished craftsperson and is now renowned for his ceramics, paintings, and printmaking.
He certainly had an interesting life from his time as an apprentice in Chelsea Pottery, when Anthony Kersting photographed him, to his well-earned status as one of the greatest – possibly the first – Bahamian artist.
One photograph that Anthony Kersting took during one of his journeys through Madrid reveals a site whose open roof, skeletal towers and central cavity would easily classify it as a plain depiction of an early twentieth century abandoned architectural project.
As alluring as images of outmoded objects and sites are, they very often carry the intrinsic ability to make their viewers venture into a purely nostalgic cul-de-sac. American artist Robert Morris unsympathetically asserts “that all the great ruins have been so desecrated by the photograph, so reduced to banal image, and thereby so fraught with sentimentalising historical awe”. I would’ve concluded with a similar statement had I not discovered the note Kersting wrote at the back of the photograph:
“The Madrid facade of the new Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena as it now appears. The Cathedral was started in 1895, but only the Crypt was completed. Recently, however, the framework for the Twin Towers of the facade has been completed.”
In his caption, Kersting introduces the subject of the image, the Almudena Cathedral “as it now appears”, which was most certainly the moment when the image was taken in 1956. It also seems that at a later date he added two other details to the description, namely a note to say that 1895 was the year when the construction of the building began, and a more recent moment, when (to his seeming surprise) the twin towers of the façade were completed. This caption, attached to the image, pencils the troubling timeline of the Cathedral’s biography.
Due to insufficient funding, the building of the Cathedral was put on hold shortly after the laying of its foundations in 1895. The resumption of the project was further complicated by the death of Francisco de Cubas, the architect who drafted the initial plans. As such, only the Neo-Romanesque Crypt was finished and opened to the public in 1911. The following eruption of the Spanish civil war led to a more than a two-decade stagnancy.
In the 1940s, aesthetic criteria changed. Finalising the construction in a Gothic style was no longer suitable because of the stark contrast it may create with its urban surroundings. Therefore, the Directorate General for Fine Arts organised a national contest, which selected Fernando Chueca Goitia and Carlos Sidro to complete the Cathedral’s construction in a Baroque fashion.
Not accidentally, the exercise of visualising the Cathedral’s hectic timeline is interrupted by the skeletal towers, the centrepiece of Kersting’s photograph. At first sight, the moment of Kersting’s “now”, the “now” when he clicked the shutter, captures the absent façade of the building, which was not completed until the 1960s. This corresponds to one of the periodic moments in the Cathedral’s life when a cloud of uncertainty was hovering around its construction.
Closing the timeline of the Cathedral’s building is the completion of the Baroque cloisters and façade in the 1960s, and the subsequent embellishing of its interiors in 1993. Within a prevailing Neo-Gothic nave, “statues of contemporary artists, in heterogeneous styles, from historical revivals to pop-art decor” are housed. The palimpsestic nature of the Cathedral’s architecture, coupled with Kersting’s ambiguous photograph, further highlights the tumultuous process of how it eventually came to be a fully functional site. Their association also proves that “the history of images is a history of objects that are temporally impure, complex, overdetermined”.
A photographic document like Anthony Kersting’s is deceiving. It demands us to flip the “inert” or “escapist” side of the picture and read its description to realise that the captured moment is the indivisible and decisive element of the monumental timeline which concludes with the Cathedral’s eventual unveiling. In “Iteration”, Robin Schuldenfrei mentions the “barely visible”, yet visceral nature of “iterative gaps”. She gives the example of a ship, whose sailing from one destination to another is incredibly physical, in its speed through water and in the mechanics of towing, yet the “iterative gap” lingers in the uncertainty as to whether it will reach its destination. Natural or technical threats constitute some of the many dependencies that such a travel embodies. These conditions are, however, predominantly neglected once the ship reaches the shore. In the case of the Cathedral, a gap is closed as the completed a place of worship in unveiled. While capturing such an iterative gap, Kersting encourages the unhealed edges of the edifice’s history to surface. Rather than a standstill, we have reached a crossroads.
 R. Morris, 1970. The Present Tense of Space, in Continuous Project Altered Daily.
 Almudena Cathedral – Madrid Tourist Attractions. (n.d.). http://www.madridtourist.info/almudena_cathedral.html
 G. Didi-Huberman, 2000. Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism, in Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History.
 R. Schuldenfrei, 2020. Iteration: Episodes in the Mediation of Art and Architecture.
In the Conway library’s photographic collection there is a photograph of an artwork titled ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, taken in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991. The artwork is by David Ward, a contemporary artist (born 1951) whose works include installation, photography, light, and sound pieces.
The piece consists of eight small rectangular mirrors, the type that wouldn’t look out of place hung above a bathroom sink, attached to the wall in a horizontal line. In the black and white photograph we can see reflections in some of the mirrors of what appear to be the doors into the room and the corner of another artwork. There are no people in the photograph, either viewing the mirrors or reflected in them. It must have taken a lot of thought and positioning for the photographer to capture an image of the mirrors without also photographing their own reflection.
The title is unusual: Imagination Dead Imagine. This is also the title of a short prose text by Samuel Beckett published in 1965. In this, Beckett uses imagination to explore imagination itself. He questions what the limits of an artist’s imagination are, and how these limits could be accessed.
By attaching a series of mirrors to a wall, Ward also seems to be questioning the viewer: what are the limits of an artist’s imagination?
In an art gallery it is expected that the viewer will examine pieces that interest them and look closely at work created by artists. Ward subverts this expectation, instead presenting the audience with themselves and their surroundings. They are the art. As the room constantly changes, with people moving in and out, so do the images that the mirrors reveal.
By ensuring the art reflects its surroundings, Ward cannot fully imagine what this artwork will look like before it is in situ. It exists outside of his control.
However, within a photograph the viewer’s experience of the artwork changes dramatically from that experienced in the gallery.
Because of the fixed nature of a photo, we are unable to interact with the piece, to see ourselves jumping from mirror to mirror as we walk across the room, or to see our changing surroundings reflected opposite us. Therefore, we are unable to see the artwork as it would have existed.
For all its attempts to preserve the artwork, the photograph is, in many ways, doomed to fail. As soon as the mirrors become frozen on film, they become unable to fulfil their purpose. They cannot reflect the viewer of the photograph. Through this image, we see the mirrors in a way we were never meant to, we see them without seeing ourselves.
Although our experience of the artwork shifts when it is viewed through a photograph rather than in person, there is some continuity between the formats.
The artwork remains a product of its surroundings, the surroundings just happen to have been selectively chosen by the photographer. The photographer is a collaborator in the creation of the artwork. It is not our own position, perspective and surroundings that create the art we see reflected. Instead, we see through the eyes of a photographer, stood still for a moment in 1991.
To see the artwork without seeing any people reflected defies the nature of the mirrors. This ultimately pushes Imagination Dead Imagine even further in challenging the limits of the artist’s and viewers’ imagination. Although much of the experience of the artwork is lost when photographed, the questioning of imagination’s limits remains.
You can now find over 100 photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. Layers of London is a fantastic resource and website run by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. In brief, Layers of London allows you to pin photographs into a digital map of London, and add a short description.
Since lockdown in March 2020, 28 Courtauld volunteers have been extremely busy sharing photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. In a series of blog posts, we’ll be sharing just a few of the records they have made to try and encourage our blog readers to go explore the map and photographs!
In this post, we have reproduced three of four records (and counting) made by our volunteer Emily Redfield. Thank you, Emily, for writing such evocative descriptions of these photographs of modernist and post-war gems in London, and bringing together photography, art history, and experience.
“Despite being locked down halfway around the world from London at the moment, writing and researching for Layers of London has virtually transported me to corners of the city I never would have otherwise discovered.
I’m far from an expert on London’s architecture—as an MA student at The Courtauld I took Dr. Jo Applin’s New York-centric course, ‘The Sixties’—so examining the Conway Library photographs has been a total learning experience. But it’s probably no surprise that among my favorite discoveries is St. Paul’s Bow Common, a post-war building that’s been completely shocking to parishioners since it opened in 1960.
Looking beyond these sometimes strange, sometimes nondescript building exteriors, I’m excited to feel like I’m beginning to better understand so much of the architectural thought and theory that created the London we see today.”
“Defined by expanses of brick and little decoration outside and in, architect Robert Maguire’s building has drawn mixed opinions since it was consecrated in 1960.
In this image, the church’s central altar emerges from the startlingly barren brick-and-concrete space of the building’s interior. Defying convention, the open floor plan shocked parishioners, but it created possibility as well—an opening, literal and symbolic, of the space the church would provide its East London community. Lighting and defining that space is the main identifying feature of St. Paul’s: the light-filled lantern above. Where stark walls and concrete floors stretch unbroken, its effect is sublime, casting a geometry of light in angular forms.
In another Conway photograph uploaded to Layers of London, part of artist Ralph Beyer’s inscription above the church’s exterior entrance can be read. The full quote from Genesis works in no small part to identify the otherwise ambiguous building to passersby: ‘Truly this is none other, But the House of God, This is the Gate of Heaven’. Not unlike the unyielding modernity of St. Paul’s, the lettering declares itself resolutely, less a whisper, more a shout.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.
“Elements of play and whimsy are clear on the exterior of the buildings of Benthal Primary School, photographed here in 1998… The buildings shown here were designed by architect Paul Maas.
These black and white views of the building exteriors evoke a futuristic, space-age geometry of sinuous lines and questionable functionality. Each of the eight Maas buildings houses a single classroom, with the Moorish pavilion-inspired roofs providing light as well as a distinctive tent-like appearance…
‘Nobody seemed to be designing schools for small children’, Maas said, reflecting upon his design, ‘I wanted Benthal to feel like a children’s world in which adults were invited’.
Thus, taking his own children as inspiration, he lowered windows to children’s eye levels and transformed classrooms into doming, cave-like spaces. The curves and portals serve an essential purpose. They create an environment scaled and suited to a child, like a secret hideaway, designed to invite curiosity in.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.
“Commonly known as the Alexandra Road Estate, the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in the London Borough of Camden exemplifies 1960s brutalist architecture in concrete.
In these photographs, the clean lines and stark monochrome of concrete may appear harsh and imposing. If so, they bely the true nature of the Alexandra Road Estate. Brown was one of a generation of architects committed to elevating London’s council housing beyond the generic tower block. Rejecting a cheap, one-size-fits-all solution, Brown designed Alexandra Road for the brief at hand. The result is humanistic high density housing centred around shared community spaces… Pictured here as largely empty, the balconies are now lush with verdant growth, carefully tended gardens indicative of the life overflowing from within.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.
In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited two friends, Charles and Sebastian, lounge in the colonnade of Brideshead Castle, the stately home of Sebastian’s family. They have just come down from their first year at Oxford. It is a peerless summer’s day. Charles is sketching an ornamental fountain.
Referring to the main house, Charles says, “Is the dome by Inigo Jones, too? It looks later”.
Sebastian replies, “Oh Charles, don’t be such a tourist”.
It is believed that Waugh based Brideshead on Castle Howard, the only stately home of England to have a dome. It also has its own box in the Conway Library, with many photographs taken by Anthony Kersting. One image, showing the south front from the fountain, looked wrong somehow. Why? The dome had disappeared.
Inspired by the photographs in the Conway, I visited Castle Howard on another peerless summers day, two years ago, and discovered the story.
During the Second World War, stately homes were either requisitioned by the army or by private schools needing to move away from towns and cities. The owners preferred the schools, as the army would damage the structure and ruin the landscaped gardens. Castle Howard became a girls’ school. Tragically, this apparent good fortune did not prevent damage to the structure. In November 1940, a fire broke out in the South-East wing and swept through the house into the Great Hall, destroying the dome. The Howard family were determined to rebuild the house and to live in it again. The dome was finally completed in 1962.
Work still continues, as time, money and opportunities permit. In conjunction with the filming of the TV serial, Brideshead Revisited, in 1981, the Garden Hall was rebuilt. Apparently, many tourists believe that the novel was based on historical events, and the characters on real people.
The reference to Inigo Jones is also a fiction. The architect was John Vanburgh, best known at the time as a Restoration playwright. He was a member of the elite Kit Kat Club, along with the then owner of Castle Howard, Lord Carlisle, who was looking for an architect to rebuild his medieval castle. Vanburgh had trained as an architect but had never built anything. However, Carlisle believed Vanburgh could design a structure of appropriate grandeur and dignity, that reflected the spirit of the age. Vanburgh had toured Europe extensively and the result is a sumptuous blend of the Baroque and the Palladian: ornate sculpture and decoration, with symmetry, arched windows, and temple-like features. He was supported by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral and was the architect of several City churches rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.
I am not sure why being a tourist was such an insult. Presumably, the aristocracy at the time could afford to despise the idea of visitors paying to see their estates. It crops up later in the novel when Charles and Sebastian visit Venice, and “become tourists” themselves.
Please do be a tourist and visit Castle Howard. It is a completely wonderful experience, and they still need the money.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Rome is a very special place to me and this is a small, perfect jewel in its crown. The Keats-Shelley House on the Spanish Steps in Rome is a museum dedicated to the second-generation English romantic poets who lived in, and were inspired by Italy. The house hosted PB and Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron, but more importantly, it was the final home of John Keats. I am not a lover of poetry, having endured Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at school, but the various Odes by Keats and Paradise Lost by Milton somehow embedded themselves in my artistic imagination. Ode to a Nightingale by Keats is a personal favourite, it even recently prompted the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association’s 2020 Keats-Shelley Writing Prize theme of Songbird.
Anthony Kersting’s black and white photograph of the house, with its half-shuttered windows, patchy exterior paintwork and the overall dilapidated appearance, exudes a post-war feeling of decay – almost a reflection of Keats’ own situation – tired, worn out, dying. The building appears almost tragic – reflecting a tragic life and story. Ode to a Nightingale was written two years before Keats died in this building in 1821 and yet the following stanza captures the ‘beauty’ and essence of this photograph.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. [read more]
Today, the striking, renovated building, has a secure future, thanks to the ongoing programme of maintenance and restorations to the interior and exterior of the House. So, before climbing the 138 Spanish steps, It is worth taking a walk through a series of beautiful rooms, containing many treasures and curiosities associated with the lives and works of the Romantic poets, as well as one of the finest libraries of Romantic literature in the world, now numbering more than 8,000 volumes.
In addition to the museum, library and exhibition rooms, there are two spacious terraces boasting stunning views, a book and gift shop, and a small cinema room. The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (London) purchased the house in 1906 and oversees this house, as well as the Keats House in London, and his grave in Rome.