Anthony Kersting (1916–2008) has primarily been remembered as Britain’s pre-eminent architectural photographer of the twentieth century, having extensively documented buildings across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Yet, by delving into a specific collection held in The Courtauld Institute’s vast Conway Library, we can see that it was not just the aesthetic pleasures of great buildings that caught the photographer’s eye. With many human portraits punctuating his architectural studies, Kersting seemingly had as much of a passion for people as he did for architecture. Human interactions with the built environment that surrounded them repeatedly grabbed the photographer’s attention. A look through his photographs of Nepal can show how Kersting attempted to provide an impression of the country by representing both humanity and architectural landscapes in one continuum.
A short trip to Nepal in February 1971 yielded tens of images which show Kersting’s observations of people within their built environment. This image of Durbar Square in the Nepalese city of Lalitpur exemplifies this, as Kersting adopts a distant vantage point to depict the bustle of urban living among the majestic surrounds of Newar architecture.
A more intimate interaction between person and landscape is portrayed in the study of the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple in Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon), north-east of Kathmandu. While the image is dominated by the imposing structure itself, our attention is drawn toward two separate pairs of figures. An adult man and a young girl stride nonchalantly past each other in the foreground, neglecting to look at this impressive building that may have, to them, become quotidian. And, sitting on the temple’s entrance steps, a second girl and a much younger child scrutinise something in between them, blissfully unaware (or so it seems) of the watchful gaze of the photographer’s lens.
Alongside depicting the Nepalese architectural landscape, Kersting was clearly also concerned with documenting the people who ubiquitously appear in interaction with their built surroundings. This was highly significant for Kersting’s photographic craft. Through attempting to depict a rounded picture of Nepalese life, both people and architecture become the objects of his urban scene. This objectification depends on a lack of agency, both humans and buildings exist in the photo exclusively as things to be seen. Kersting does not want to interact with these subjects, he only seeks to observe them from the outside. This sustains the supposed authenticity of his scenes – by consciously trying to absent himself from his photographs, Kersting attempts to show how Nepal would appear even if he were not looking. To perpetuate this illusion of being an absent observer, Kersting doesn’t seem to want the individuals in his photographs to appear in interaction with him in any way. Robbed of their ability to act, people regularly become monumentalised in these pictures, just like the buildings that surround them.
This image of a Kathmandu street scene epitomises the usual arrangement of individuals in Kersting’s Nepal collection. The illusion of Kersting’s absence from this scene is maintained by the most prominent figure resisting the temptation to meet the photographer’s gaze. The people who are seemingly unaware of being observed, alongside the carry-poles and market stalls, imbue this snapshot of the Nepalese capital with a flavour of authenticity.
However, occasionally Kersting cannot remain hidden in his photographs. In some images, this phantasmagorical English photographer captures the exact moment when various Nepalese people spot his presence. A few photos in the collection show some of Kersting’s subjects meet his gaze, as they stare directly back at his voyeuristic lens. Rather than remaining the disconnected objects of Kersting’s photographic gaze, this disturbs the illusion of Kersting documenting an undisturbed Nepal, as he becomes implicated in the images which he has attempted to remain absent from.
One such image is Kersting’s photograph of the Golden Gate of Bhaktapur. The Nepalese woman guarding the doorway does not act as if unobserved but, shielding her eyes from the sun’s obscuring rays, visibly strains to examine the photographer.
In the centre of the image, an older girl drags her younger companion (perhaps her sister) through the square. While the taller child rushes across the picture frame, as just another object signifying the bustle of a Nepalese city, the smaller girl noticeably slows, struck with curiosity at the imposing figure of Kersting who is capturing her image for posterity. Along with the closest figure, a man who glances back mid-stride to meet the gaze of the cameraman, this girl causes the illusion of Kersting’s absence to shatter. We are left wondering about Kersting’s positioning within this scene, as the sole European standing alone in this central-Himalayan city square, fuelling the interests of the Nepalese people who encircle him. Kersting is similarly implicated in another photo showing the Golden Gate and the adjacent Palace of Fifty-Five Windows. The foregrounding of his architectural scene is suffused with movement. Like his other photographs of Nepalese squares, Kersting attempts to show the rush of everyday life continuing undisturbed by his photographic intrusion. Yet, Kersting actually captures a moment that makes this photograph the most beautiful of all his images of Nepal.
Most of the images we have from Kersting’s 1971 trip to Nepal show one side of the photographic process, only exposing the view of the man wielding the camera. However, we should remember that photography is a symbiotic exchange between photographer and subject. Despite his attempts to inculcate the illusion of absence in his photographs, when Kersting looked at the people of Nepal in order to capture their image, the people of Nepal would have looked back at him. Unfortunately, the thoughts of Kersting’s Nepalese subjects are lost, and we are left with only speculations about how these people felt about having their pictures taken or whether they wanted to be photographed at all.
The compositional style of Kersting’s photographs can seduce us into believing that the photographer was a man who wasn’t there. However, by meeting the gaze of our cameraman, Kersting’s Nepalese subjects highlight the photographer’s eternal presence in the images he created.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Contemplation on the Intimacy within the Kersting Collection
Throughout the multi-tiered, collaborative process of digitization at the Courtauld Institute of Art is a persistent emphasis on materiality. When we think of digital images – as copies, as mere representations of an object (which are themselves a version of the object as it occurs in nature) – we probably think of the yawning distance – and likely deterioration – between the ‘actual’ image and its digital progeny. Especially with the accumulation of images online there seems to be an increasing disconnect between the ‘original’ and the ‘copy’. Michael Taussig describes this type of phenomenon as part of “the wonder of mimesis” which “lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power” (Taussig, 1993: xiii).
So then, as Taussig puts forth, expanding upon mimesis as an idea of imitation, the copy can be endowed with as much power, in both cognitive and affective dimensions, as the initial object, being, or concept depicted (see Keane, 2013: 8–10). I believe that the digitization projects implemented and enacted in many museums and galleries around the world have the capacity to, in this multimedia world, bridge this burgeoning sense of abstraction from materiality and physicality. As I discuss materiality in the body of this essay, I will refer less to the materiality (or lack of materiality) of digital text and more to the notion of materiality common to the social sciences which is that: “the physical properties of a cultural artefact have consequences for how the object is used” (Lievrouw, 2014: 24–5).
While cataloguing and photographing collections from the Conway Library it became clear that the approach to digitization at the Courtauld was not simplified, a reduction of the original image, though perhaps not in quality so much as in its affective potential, through a rush to scan and upload images onto online databases. In the often mechanized, efficient process of capturing, scanning, and cleaning images of objects to be displayed in a digital library, many other digitization projects may incidentally contribute to the loss of engrained complexities of subject, object, audience, and materials within their collections. Instead, the Courtauld Institute of Art has chosen to remove the contagious tedium of transferring archives by attempting to encompass all an image and its corresponding context. This is accomplished in multiple stages through a variety of techniques. One, within the digitization studio, uses a high-tech camera, lighting, and table set-up to capture the contents of all the boxes within the Conway Library – every box, every folder, and every item.
The overall goal ends up being not just to capture the photograph, the illustration, or the architectural plan, but to include every element of the collections, regardless of the marks, stains, or tears which may be included. By photographing each page in its entirety, showing the rough edges, the blemishes, the final product effectively (and affectively) conveys the materials. They translate the feel of the images and reproduce their presence within the environment. In this arrangement, the camera becomes an “apparatus of power” (Karp, 1991), capable of bringing audiences, including ones who cannot venture into the Courtauld’s halls themselves to peruse and handle prints, into the lived experience of viewing the collections.
And this despite the perceived irreconcilable feeling of distance elicited by an ‘immaterial’ digital format. Such a conscious construction of materiality through digitization would not be possible without considering the relative distance and familiarity future viewers may have with the collections held by the Courtauld Institute, whether connections are forged through an image’s subject, their historical insights, or the creator of a portfolio of work.
The result of the Courtauld’s efforts at a more holistic digitization approach is one which I believe is vital to many museum exhibits and collections, and that is the preservation of context.
Even through digitization, the Courtauld maintains the original context of the material image to the best of their ability. Much like an ‘in-context’ museum exhibit, the inclusion of materials even if they aren’t considered ‘aesthetically pleasing’, ‘pure’ or ‘pristine’, is more honestly authentic to the copies contained in the library. Such inclusion mimics the idea of placing cultural artefacts in-context, a move, although not particularly revolutionary, increasingly in widespread use in museum institutions.
Some may find the ‘info dumps’ included in certain uses of in-context exhibition – i.e. signage and labelling with blocks of text accompanying each artefact – distracting or an attempt to impose dominant points of view. However, ‘cleaning-up’ pictures echoes process of ‘cleaning-up history’ and tends to remove a sense of reality, of humanity. In the cataloguing portion of activities at the Courtauld, while meticulously labelling each page, the order of the photographs in each folder becomes a matter of subtle sifting and distinguishing between the contents of each image. The aim of this ‘attention to detail’ is to replicate the experience of, in the case of the Conway Library, walking through a myriad of architecture in any number of regions from cathedrals in Tomar, Portugal to the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The guide for volunteers on how to label the Conway captures the sentiment of not just the accession numbering step of digitization but the quest for and the journey through materiality that I believe defines the spirit of the whole project. It reads: “Pictures or folders of the same building should be ordered to recreate the experience of moving closer to it. Plans & drawings > exterior from afar > interior > details.”
Although this line of instructions on the sorting system may seem mundane at first glance it struck me for the succinct, yet evocative way it describes a photographic journey. A journey that was first experienced by the photographer, Conway himself, and, now, by everyone who views his collections. We may not precisely trace the paths that Conway traveled nor the order in which he took his shots of archways, windows, and molding details. But, regardless, it was a serene, almost dream-like experience to organize the photos as if, we too, were wandering among the past streets of a city square or the well-tread pathways leading to a monastery. I believe that the use of proximity and distance in the sorting of the images is an invaluable aspect of the material journey which hopefully more and more people will have the opportunity to experience for themselves.
As a brief example of this kind of journey on a smaller scale and relegated to the analysis of specific images, their content, and possible meanings, I will look to the work of Anthony (“Tony”) Kersting.
Kersting’s corpus of travel photography spans an impressive range from Western Europe to Northern Africa to the Caribbean and South Asia. Much of his work shines the spotlight on architecture and landscapes, but several ‘jewels’ in his collection show a marvelous ‘humanity’, a sense of intimacy between people that comes through the images as handled and hopefully viewed in digital form.
I found the images Kersting took in 1944 in Jordan, of the Bedouin people he met and traveled with, to be particularly illustrative of tensions between and among the familiar and the distant. I will mention outright that my initial impression of these photos was that they were and still are ‘a product of their time.’ Some, though not all, communicate observations of the people and places in Jordan as perceived through Orientalist, colonial eyes.
There is an air of the ‘exotic’ in these photographs, punctuated by the absence of Kersting himself who repeatedly is not a subject to be photographed but remains the spectator and authority behind his apparatus. There he stays, in varying ways both literal and metaphorical ‘capturing’ or ‘ensnaring’ the people through his camera lens. And, in many ways, Kersting’s work echoes the mode of thought within T.E. Lawrence’s own writings and photographs of strange and unfamiliar lands.
However, the Kersting pictures I focused on were ones which brought a sense of real time and space back to even an unfamiliar setting, momentarily erasing the idea of the Bedouin as a people suspended in some timeless, ‘Other’ place. These photographs, curiously enough, are ones containing Kersting’s other traveling companion, a New Zealand nurse he often refers to as ‘Sister Adams.’
In multiple photographs, Sister Adams appears along Bedouin men and women, her interactions delivering a sense of familiarity and comfortable intimacy with people we might assume are her regular traveling companions. The notes Kersting has scribbled on many of the photos occasionally provide additional context or ‘proof’ of the type of encounters and relationships between the people depicted through his camera lens.
Interestingly, in Kersting’s collection, different copies of the same image contain different descriptions. For example, the image below alternately read alongside: “Petra. The Bedouin boys watch the lady put her socks on!” and “Life in Petra! Sister Adams puts on her socks, to the amused gaze of the Arab youngsters.”
These separate inscriptions, despite referring to the same event and people, communicate notably different moods and subjectivities. The first seems detached, to-the-point, and factual, while the second reads more as an entry in a photographic travel journal composed by Kersting. It holds a sense of emotion and meaning behind the relationships, hinting at the way Sister Adams and the boys may relate (or don’t relate) to one another.
In these different comments on the same scene we can read how distance and familiarity can exist simultaneously, on display in a snapshot frozen in time. And, it is thanks to the different thoughts going through Kersting’s head each time he jotted down observations on the back of his copies, those identical thoughts which bring the materiality of the journey to viewers today.
We may not know exactly the kind of journey Anthony Kersting and other photographers experienced while committing reality to print and paper, but that is part of his work’s value as not just a photographic object, but as a cultural artefact.
And, in the 21st century, more than ever, it is possible for people to track and craft their own journey. That journey doesn’t have to be conducted blindly, erratically, without context or a sense of where to start and where to end. The processes dedicated to reproducing the materiality of touching, flipping through the collections and noting what path was once followed through a cathedral or where copies of the same image differ from one another, can serve as an irreplaceable guide. And not even a guide which follows a predefined set of rules or certain “ways of seeing’” (Berger 1972). The digitization undergone at the Courtauld Institute offers the opportunity to take the materials converted to digital form, but no less real for it, and take it any direction, down any path.
And that is exactly how this essay came to be: as an exploration and a contemplation into the inexhaustible potential of a process and the collections involved.
Berger J (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Modern Classics: Penguin UK.
Karp I (1991) Culture and Representation. In: Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Keane W (2013) On spirit writing: materialities of language and the religious work of transduction. In: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, pp. 1–17.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett B (1991) Objects of ethnography. In: Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Lievrouw L (2014) Materiality and Media in Communication and Technology Studies: An Unfinished Project. In: Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot. MIT Press Scholarship Online, pp. 21–51.
Taussig M (1993) Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. Great Britain: Routledge Press.
Looking at the world as if it were a picture is a relatively recent phenomenon, yet nowadays, with the advent of smartphones and social media, the practice of producing pictures is embedded in our daily routine, and the term “picturesque” is more relevant than ever.
The Rievaulx Terrace at Duncombe Park in Yorkshire triggered my interest as it makes such a picturesque use of the exquisitely ruined Cistercian abbey nearby. Both sites are well recorded in a photo reportage I found in the Conway Library while digitising the box. The focus of the photo series, partly conducted for Country Life, are the temples, especially the rotunda, which gives us a trustworthy example of how the Rotunda in Stowe, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, should have looked like before Borra remodelled it. Of all 113 pictures, two are clearly outstanding; they were taken by Anthony Kersting.
Despite being described forty years ago as the foremost photographer of his generation, there are no publications dedicated to Anthony Kersting’s work. Although evaluating Kersting as the best photographer of his generation is a matter of personal judgement and every scholar or critic has his favourites, what is undeniable is the value of his contribution to the British photographic scene and his place alongside photographers like Yersbury, De Mare and especially Edwin Smith. Carefully selected and framed, their pictures poignantly explored another Britain, prizing evolution rather than revolution, variety, rootedness, and respect for landscape and vernacular architecture.
If we analyse Kersting’s pictures in detail, we can trace his painstaking and meticulous approach to framing architecture. Looking at the negatives, the brightly centre-lit abbey stands out immediately as the protagonist of the composition. The horizon is high in the picture – above the centre line – which places emphasis on the nature of the landscape. Indeed, the vantage point chosen by the photographer perfectly positions the viewer to enjoy the content of each plane of the image. Our sight of the distant hills might have been blocked by the foliage that dominates both sides of the photographs but, as it is, this position gives us an all-encompassing view, as in Claude Lorrain’s paintings. The abbey, like the two temples, stands perfectly vertical, framed between the wavy grass lawn and a dramatic cloudy sky – Kersting’s signature. In the image of the Ionic Temple the vantage point chosen is especially significant: to obtain his chosen angle, Kersting would have had to walk down the slope to position his tripod and wait until all the columns were fully lit.
To conclude, Rievaulx Terrace constitutes a unique example of landscape moulded on a picture’s composition before photography came along. Even if the visitor – an 18th-century guest of Duncombe or 21th-century influencer – perceives the Rievaulx landscape as natural and spontaneous, it is in fact totally constructed on a vantage point to recreate the effect of picturesque paintings. Likewise, looking at Kersting’s photographs through his framing device – a half plate camera – we can see that he didn’t just construct a picture, he also altered the vertical lines, as though he were a painter.
This is what I asked myself as soon as I walked into the building.
A pretty lady, nicely presented with a red lipstick smiled at me and swiftly asked for my name.
As a volunteer, I was preparing myself to either welcome guests or help with the drinks…
The email said: confirmation – you have been approved for Gallery Music: new compositions from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama between 15.00-16.00 on Sunday 19th of May.
For the last three years, students have been inspired to use the Courtauld’s collections, history and location as a starting point for their pieces. On this occasion, the pieces would be performed in the library, and I was in the audience.
Operatic singers, musicians, partitions, a clarinet, a cello, a viola, and a blue helium balloon took over the Conway Library amongst the iconic scarlet boxes.
What a contemporary concert: magical, unique and breathtaking… and YES I am glad I signed up for it.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Curated by Dr Charlotte de Mille with Dr Bretton Brown and Dr Cassandra Miller, the pieces performed were:
Ben Jonson Settings – Harry Harrison
The text in this piece is taken from three Jacobean “entertainments” by Ben Jonson. They were presented to Queen Anne of Denmark, who moved into Somerset House upon her arrival into London in 1603. Queen Anne patronised and supported many artists and composers during her lifetime, and her extravagant and daring masques were a crucial development in women’s performance. Rosemarie Morgan, soprano; Thomas Pickering, recorder
Tractatus – Efe Yuksel
…one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be… Tom Mole, baritone; Henrietta Hill, viola
Upon the Battlements – Ben Pease Barton
A dramatic musical exploration of identity, self-acceptance, loneliness and despair, setting text from four alternative translations of Kafka’s novel The Castle. On browsing the Conway Library, I came across a wonderful historic photograph of Karlstejn Castle in the Czech Republic, perched upon a mountain and soaring high above a sunken village in the forested valley below. I was reminded of the Czech scenery in which Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle, is set. Faryl Smith, soprano; Aline Christ, cello
To a Mouse – Mara Pruna
The piece follows the narrative of the famous poem with the same name, by Robert Burns. The flowing character and the subtly onomatopoeic texture reminds the listener of the fragile communion between humans and nature. The numerous musical surprises outline the idea that things don’t go to plan, even when one tries their hardest. Mary Walker, soprano; Michael Stowe, cor anglais
Get Well Soon – Mathis Saunier
This is a homage to David Lynch’s movie Mulholland Drive. Trapped between dream and reality, Bettie, a young star of Hollywood, suddenly realises that her entire life is not a lie but a dream, and that what she has just committed is indelible. Manon Gleizes, soprano; Rachael Hannigan, bass clarinet
Wilderness – Cloe Hotham Wilderness is the title of a collection of lost poetry written by Jim Morrison, the lead singer of 60s psychedelic rock band The Doors. I am hugely inspired by the artistic links Morrison made between the work of Aldous Huxley, William Blake, and other great writers in his own work, and sought to do something similar with my piece by blending Beat-like poetry written by a rock musician, with my own “classical” music, and find music and art from the time of the beat generation to be wonderfully raw and powerful in trying to express the human condition, which was something that was important to explore to both me and my singer, Emily Peace, in this collaboration. I have a strong interest in writing vocal and operatic music, drawing inspiration from literature spanning from the medieval period up to working with living writers to create new works. The setting of the Courtauld, and especially the Conway Library, has been a wonderful reminder to think of my work as not existing in a contemporary music vacuum, and to continue to be inspired by older works of art, literature, and music as well as the contemporary arts scene. Emily Peace, soprano; Charlotte Walker, cello
This is the second of two posts about Northampton architecture featured in the Conway library that I came across during a visit to the town, you can read the first post here.
Energetic local businessman W.J. Bassett-Lowke (1877–1953), or “WJ”, was the man behind the development of the UK’s model railway industry. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of modernism and this led him to engage two leading architects of the early 20th century to design his homes: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Peter Behrens.
In 1916, WJ’s father purchased a modest Georgian terrace house as his son’s wedding present. But ahead of the marriage WJ decided to remodel the house and asked Mackintosh to provide the redesign. The work was carried out during the difficult circumstances of WW1.
The new interior was striking, especially the decoration of the hall lounge with black walls and a golden frieze. It has been suggested that the couple found the scheme somewhat overpowering because soon WJ asked Mackintosh to lighten it. This second version is depicted in the photograph in the Conway library.
You can still see the original design because it has been reinstated at 78 Derngate which is now a museum.
The Bassett-Lowkes had not been at 78 Derngate long before they decided to move. They wanted a brand new home further away from the River Nene, hoping that this would be more comfortable for Mrs Bassett-Lowke who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Mackintosh was in poor health by the time WJ was ready to commission the work. Unable to find a British architect with modern ideas that matched his taste, WJ turned to the pioneering German architect and designer, Peter Behrens. The result was New Ways, probably the first modernist house in the UK and the only one in this country designed by Behrens. It perfectly suited the Bassett-Lowkes whose home it remained for many years.
Modest from the outside, but decidedly modern throughout, this Grade II* listed house was recently on the market and, at the time of writing, could be yours for £875,000.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
During a recent visit to Northampton I soon realised that this Midlands town is a treasure-trove of interesting architecture and so it seemed like a good idea to find out what images the Conway library holds.
The first building I came across was the Guildhall, a striking example of the high Victorian Gothic revival by architect E.W. Godwin and completed in 1864. It is wonderfully ornate (or horribly ornate depending on your point of view):
This was Godwin’s pièce de résistance and established his reputation. He was only 26 when he won the commission to design it.
Amongst the many friezes and sculptures adorning the building is a series of scenes of Northampton life, carved on the capitals of the columns. At the time, Northampton’s most important industry was shoe-making, but it also had a racecourse. Both these are referenced in the Conway, along with many more:
These capitals are by R.L. Boulton who had a successful business in Cheltenham. He worked on a wide variety of sculptures, mostly ecclesiastical, for many of the well-known architects of the day, including Pugin.
It turns out that the Conway does not carry any general photographs of the interior of the Guildhall, so here is a snapshot of the colourful main hall:
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
For almost ten years, I have had an intense love affair with Canada. Why exactly I love Canada has always eluded me; maybe it’s the friendliness of the people, or the vastness and natural beauty of its varied landscapes from sea to shining sea, or the numerous films and TV shows that are reeled out every year.
While the entire country inspires me, no other region of Canada inspires me more than the east coast. My dream of visiting Canada was finally realised a couple of years ago, when I visited Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for a week – in the midst of winter. Although the weather was far less than ideal, it did help me discover what life in Canada was really like, away from how I’d imagined it to be in my mind.
During my time at the Courtauld, browsing the Conway Library I discovered some old photos taken around Canada. Although it is a rather young country by political and geographical standards (it only became an independent dominion in 1867, and finally ratified its own constitution in 1982), Canada nevertheless does have a rich history – both socially and architecturally.
These photographs were taken in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, in possibly the 19th century. PEI is very close to Nova Scotia, the province I went to, so I was naturally very attracted to these photos. The province is well known for being the setting of the classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables, about a redheaded orphan girl with braids, Anne Shirley, adopted by a family on PEI. The family originally wanted a boy, but Anne – originally from Nova Scotia – was sent instead as a mistake. The story has enchanted many generations and has been adapted into TV shows and films countless times, including – most recently – a series release with a major online content provider.
As the former capital of New France (Nouvelle-France) and now the capital of Francophone Canada, Quebec is often called the Europe of North America. Its architecture is greatly inspired by Old France, with the castle-esque Chateau Frontenac – now a hotel – majestically overlooking the historic French fortress and the St. Lawrence River with its verdigris domed roof.
Quebec is one of Canada’s largest inland ports, being an important stop along the St. Lawrence River for cargo and passenger ships heading out to the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a pleasure port, as can be seen in this drawing, where rowers sail their boat along the river waves. Quebec’s history as a French fortress is clearly visible, as the city is raised above the river on a cliff.
I often watch a TV show called Murdoch Mysteries. Set in Toronto around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the titular character is often called Canada’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Using methods contemporary to the period, William Murdoch is on the trail of crime in Toronto, even meeting a few icons of the day in his pursuits, like Alexander Graham Bell and even Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock himself.
Upon seeing this photo, I immediately thought of Murdoch Mysteries and the Toronto of the turn of the century. Even the fashions of the people and the horses and carts remind me of the characters and how they get around the city on the journey to a crime scene, so if I didn’t know this was a real photograph, I would’ve thought this was a scene from the show itself.
So far, I’ve only seen two places in Canada – namely Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – but I want to go on a road trip there one day, visiting all the sights and cities that grace the country, and even make it my home.
Whilst digitising the Conway Library, I often come across confusing visual anomalies like the one at the bottom left of item CON_B00756_F007_025. Understanding what has caused the image fault requires a bit of a technical explanation. In this case, what we are seeing is an example of vignetting, which happens when using large format cameras capable of perspective adjustments.
Anyone interested in mastering these issues should study the fantastic Ansel Adams‘ The Camera, in which he states the vignetting “occurs when part of the negative area falls outside the image-circle of the lens and thus receives no exposure” (see chapter 10 “View-Camera Adjustments”).
In this image we can see that the photographer has adjusted the camera movements to control perspective in order to construct an accurate representation of the building that is aesthetically pleasing and free from distortion. However, in making such adjustments, they have inadvertently moved the lens out of the negative area, cutting off part of their image (either by tilting or shifting the front standard too far).
These kind of errors are fascinating as they exhibit the high levels of control required to practice the medium of photography successfully. This type of image control is still carried out by architectural photographers today when they choose to utilise tilt/shift lenses on modern digital cameras. Here, minimising lens distortion and configuring perspective to meet highly rigorous visual requirements.
Adams, A (2003) The Ansel Adams Photography Series 1 The Camera. Little, Brown and Company.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
When I started volunteering on the digitisation programme, I never thought it would reignite my interest in the history of art. Yet here I am in the second year of a part-time M.A. in History of Art and Photography, and loving every moment of the challenge. I am about to start my final essay before commencing the dissertation, and I have chosen as my final option This is Tomorrow – Architecture and Modernity in Britain and its Empire, 1930-60.
Professor Mark Crinson (University of London) describes the option module as a study of the entanglements of architecture and ideas of modernity, the home and the city in mid-twentieth century Britain, as well as how these issues related to Britain’s place in the world and its relation to its empire. Modernity, whether through the arrival of modernism or the various forms of state modernisation, has long been the focus of written accounts of modern architecture in Britain.
The Conway library has led to this and is already proving a fantastic resource in my initial reading and research. There is an excellent collection of London photographs, which I am slowly helping to label, while also identifying useful images for use in the Architecture and Modernism essay and for discussion in seminars.
While I am looking forward to studying the Conway photographs in relation to mainstream Modernism, the influence of émigré architects and the search for utopia is already evident and enthralling in the photographs I have labelled and catalogued. The amazing Bevin Court (a personal favourite) is one of several post-war modernist housing projects in London designed by the Tecton architecture practice, led by Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian architect and pioneer of modernist design in the 1930s.
An organised visit to the penthouse at The Isokon Building (Lawn Green Flats) was impressive. Built in 1934, The Isokon is a rare Grade 1 listed modernist building and an example of a progressive experiment in urban living at the time. The building was home to Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer, designer of modernist furniture, and László Maholy-Nagy, headteacher of art at the Bauhaus school. Early advertising stated: “All you have to bring with you is a rug, an armchair and a picture.” Acquired by Camden Borough Council in 1972, it gradually deteriorated until the 1990s, when it was abandoned completely. Avanti Architects, specialists in refurbishing modernist buildings, restored the Isokon in 2004. The Conway photographs and images from the current sales listing of the Isokon penthouse – at nearly a million pounds – provides a fascinating insight into the concept of ‘one-room living’.
Then there is BRUTALISM! I really am spoilt for choice, as photographs of key Brutalist buildings in London are also found in the Conway archives. Watch this space, as I delve further into this incredible resource and identify a research title worthy of the Conway collection of London’s 20th century architecture.
While digitising a box of photographs of Oxfordshire churches with fellow volunteer Muny, we found a wonderful wall painting in a Kersting print; a welcome surprise after the usual mix of white-walled naves and pillars.
In the Middle Ages, it was common practice to paint the walls of churches. Few people could read, so it was necessary to teach by using pictures. During the Reformation, these images were covered over as they were considered symbols of Popish idolatry.
The painting is on the wall which separates the nave from the chancel, and is an example of how certain images became assigned to specific positions in the church. One of the most common is Doom, or the Last Judgement. The symbolism explains the positioning of the Nave as representing the ‘Church militant’ and the chancel as the ‘Church Triumphant’, separated by the judgment before which all souls must pass.
The Last Judgment in South Leigh follows a traditional pattern. Two angels with trumpets are waking up the dead. On the left, an angel in white is calling to the saved, with a scroll above announcing ’Venite Benedicte Patris Mei’ (Come you blessed to my Father). They then move towards the north wall where (not visible in the photograph) St Peter awaits them at the gates of Heaven. On the right, the angel wears dark clothing and summons the damned, the scroll above saying ‘Discedite Maledicti’ (Depart you cursed). They are bound together with what looks like barbed wire and are being pushed towards the jaws of hell, which are just visible on the south wall.
The image is clearly designed to scare the wits out of the congregation:
The original paintings were discovered in 1870, when the old layers of whitewash were removed after the new vicar, Gerard Moultie, decided the church needed restoration. The work was carried out for £85 by Messrs Burlison and Gryllis, a firm heavily influenced by William Morris. This is particularly evident where the originals were too faint to copy and were effectively replaced by 19th-century design, for example in the painting of flowers and birds beneath the Last Judgment.
The original artists were probably trained in monasteries. They were not necessarily monks, but young men who showed artistic ability and were trained in monastic scriptoria. There is also evidence of a growing number of itinerant painters who were associated with the Guilds of Painter-Stainers in London and other cities.
For a small village church, South Leigh has several associations with the famous. The ancestors of William Morris owned land there, and it is only 10 miles or so from Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s country house.
In 1725, John Wesley preached his first sermon from the pulpit (he returned in 1771 and was refused entry).
Between 1947 and 1949, the poet Dylan Thomas and his wife lived in the village and maintained an eccentric lifestyle. This was many years after he wrote ’It is the sinner’s dust tongued bell claps me to churches’, though it would be wonderful to imagine him seeing the Last Judgment through an alcoholic haze and wondering which way he would go.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer