Tag Archives: Malta

Rosa Coomber: The Making of Suzon’s Clues

My name is Rosa Coomber, and I was lucky enough to work with the collection as the Digital Narratives and Storytelling Intern from August 2022 to the end of July 2023. I was excited to join this internship not only due to the opportunity to work with an incredible collection, but also due to the apparent commitment to creativity and freedom fostered by my colleagues. Digital narratives and storytelling are necessarily vague phrases; with a collection as vast as we have at the Conway, and a staff and volunteer body so broad and dedicated, there are more than enough stories to tell! After studying for a few years, I was keen to take a break from essay writing, and instead sought to ponder the question “how else can we tell the story of this collection?”

It turns out that there are almost infinite ways to do this, but the one that I spent most of my time on was Suzon’s Clues. My aim was to delve into the details of individual pieces in the collection and to document the physical experience of the library that we all know and love. A video game seemed to be the perfect medium for this, setting a mystery against the sights and sounds of the Conway.

A screenshot of a title screen for a video game. On the left of the screen are the Start/Load menus, Preferences and Help Panes, and links to read more information about the game or quit the application. To the right, the title “Suzon’s Clues” is written in capitals. The background image is the tea room of the Conway Library with photoshopped smoke covering the bottom half.

[Image: Suzon’s Clues Title Screen. Background image: Tea Room, Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Jan. 2023. Photograph taken by the author. Sidebar graphics created using Procreate © for IOS]

“It’s your first day as a new volunteer in the Conway, and you’re greeted by a rather mysterious individual. Work together to explore the library and uncover clues, but beware, you may find more than you’re bargaining for…”



It’s time for your first shift at the Conway Library. You arrive at the Courtauld Institute of Art, collect your volunteer pass, and make your way downstairs. You can feel a presence following you, but you push the thought to the back of your mind; you’re in Somerset House after all, a building with hundreds of years of history, and there are bound to be things hanging around. You open the door to the Witt Library, where you are suddenly intercepted by a mysterious young woman who introduces herself as Suzon. She seems to have been expecting you, and can barely contain her excitement. Suzon explains that she needs someone to help her decode objects that are materialising in the library; they appear to be Conway photographs, but each of them is obscured somehow. It’s going to be more complicated than simply finding their box numbers and filing them away.

Through a series of multiple choice questions, the player explores the library to find clues, whether these are poems, newspaper clippings, or even witness testimony from yet more obscure characters. Once they are cleaned, translated, and stitched back together, they are returned to their rightful places in the library. The aim of the game is to learn more about the photographs in the collection and to integrate them into their historical and cultural context. The more clues the player finds, the clearer the picture becomes. This not only applies to the photographs, but also to the appearance of the elusive Suzon, who seems more familiar as the story progresses. There are four main chapters and one bonus problem, where the player has to opportunity to solve the mystery of Suzon herself. The game is intended not only as an educational exercise, but also as a kind of tribute to the library as a physical space and a centre of memory. This game is not recommended for children under 12, given occasional horror-related subject matter and descriptions of violence and death.



Before I settled on creating a video game, I was more focused on the “point of view” element of the project. I had come across an interesting photographic project from the Wellcome Collection’s volunteering department, which photographed the route from Euston Road, inside the main building, and eventually ending at the library itself. This project had practical purposes, of leading volunteers to their work space, but it also made me think about materiality, and what significance these seemingly innocuous and functional photographs would have in future years. Tom Bilson, Head of Digital Media at the Courtauld, had spoken to us often about the importance of documenting the collection and library “warts and all”: scuff marks on folders and torn labels on the red boxes. My initial plan was to create a kind of photographic project, documenting the volunteer experience from the volunteer’s point of view. Through compiling these images, I hoped that we might create a faithful visual representation of the Conway Library experience. It is interesting to note, between September 2022 and the time of writing in July 2023, the Wellcome Collection photographic route is nowhere to be found online, including via the Wayback Machine. This is perhaps testament to how fleeting these moments in time and space truly are, even with the seeming permanence of the internet.

A collage of nine different photographs. The images chart the walking route from outside the main entrance to Somerset House, through the reception area, and down into the Witt Library. From here, the route continues down into the Conway Library and ends in the photography vault.

A selection of images taken in and around the Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Photographs taken by the author, Oct. 2022-Feb. 2023.


It was only once I started actually compiling these images that I realised what a resemblance they bore to a typical video game route. I have always been interested in more immersive, interactive learning, and so finally I settled on creating a POV supernatural horror/mystery game. The Conway Library, and its setting underneath Somerset House, is the kind of environment which is naturally ripe for spooky goings on; indeed, I have heard many stories of ghosts clattering about the vaults or floating across the courtyard in the middle of the night. Given the importance of featuring the space in almost every scene in the game, it made sense to import some of its ghostly energy. I am a big fan of horror games, and horror in general, but I have seen very few educational games with a horror slant (most of these would be better known as horror games with an educational slant, see Baldi’s Basics, for example). The mystery genre plays into this as well, as my aim was not simply to unsettle or scare, but also to explore and investigate lesser known pieces in the collection through the lens of the supernatural.



After settling on this genre, I began to explore the collection, choosing boxes almost at random, and trying to avoid anything I’d spent too much time on before. After a couple of days of this, I settled on ten sources, which I quickly realised I would have to whittle down to four, an experience I feel is not uncommon when exploring the collection. The sources are as follows:

A black and white photograph mounted on card. The photograph depicts a bust of a woman, facing off to her left with her mouth slightly open. She is frowning slightly.

[CON_B06070_F004_002] – Marble Bust of Costanza Bonarelli by Gianlorenzo BERNINI, Lit.: Bellesi, Paragone, L, 589-591, 24-25, Mar.-May, 1999. ITALY: Florence, Bargello.

This source was the first I chose, and another piece that cemented the decision to focus on pieces in the collection with darker histories. On the surface of things, this is a simple bust of a woman named Costanza Bonarelli, sculpted by famed Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini. Once I had researched the image further, I discovered that Bonarelli eventually had an affair with Bernini’s brother, and in response Bernini hired someone to slash her face with a dagger. Immediately, this sculpted image of intimacy and adoration had taken on an air of obsession, possession, and violence.


Black and white photograph mounted on card. Depicts a small child standing at the foot of a ladder against a wall that is covered in small memorial plaques and bunches of flowers.

Detail of [CON_B06922_F004_029] – TOMBEAUX HISTORIQUES (Père Lachaise), 16 – LE COLUMBARIUM – Monument ou les cendres des Incinérés sont déposees. On y releve les noms de Felix Pyat, Paule Mink, Lissagaray, etc., FRANCE: Paris, Père Lachaise.

This clue uses only the latter image of the two pictured here, of a little girl standing next to a wall covered in flowers. The secret of this image is more straightforward, as the little girl is standing in the colombarium of one of the most famous cemeteries in the world, the Cimitière du Père Lachaise in Paris. What at a first glance could be a photograph of a child in a flower shop takes on a deeper, more macabre significance.


Black and white photograph mounted on card. A small, grainy photograph of a crypt wall and part of its ceiling. The wall is covered in hundreds of skulls and other bones arranged in patterns.

[CON_B03465_F004_007] – Malta, Chapel of Bones, Vincenzo Galea, Malta-Valletta.

I was first attracted to this photograph because of how unusual it was, in a folder full of church façades and street shots. A small, soft, black and white postcard with the simple inscription: “Chapel of Bones”. A crypt, the walls covered in skulls and bones, and one of the more gruesome photographs I’ve come across in the collection. Upon researching the site, I discovered that the chapel had been left to go to ruin, with much of its original structure lost. It is presently unknown whether the crypt still exists after years being trapped underground, and this was exactly the kind of mystery I was looking for.


Black and white photograph mounted on card. The focus of the photograph is a large stone gate at the end of a wide, white path. At the centre of the gate is a carved stone face, underneath the face there is an archway flanked by two stone columns. Behind the gate there are many trees. There are several people walking towards the gate on the white path, which itself is flanked by rows of stone statues.

[CON_B01159_F001_003] – Angkor Thom, South Gate to Bayon. A.F. Kersting, G31041, taken 2001. CAMBODIA.

This is the final photograph that I chose, and is the most hopeful of the clues. I couldn’t not include a Kersting shot in this selection, and there was something about this one which captivated me. Taken in Angkor Thom, Cambodia, the last surviving and most enduring capital of the Khmer Empire, this photograph depicts the famous face of the city’s South Gate. What I found most mesmerising about this shot is how well the gate has survived, given that the city has been abandoned for at least 400 years. There was something quite poignant about the face of King Jayavarman VII, cast in stone, looking out over the overgrown city, and so I included this as the final clue, symbolising endurance through centuries of history.



When I first started this project, although I had a pretty clear view of the finished product, the route to its completion was decidedly murkier. I had heard of several programs for creating visual novels and role-playing games, and so in the end I settled on using perhaps the most popular; a program called Ren’py. Ren’py is designed for users with minimal experience of coding, with much of the game development relying on inputting background images and props. The program works by providing a central interface for the script, and a number of folders for backgrounds, character sprites, and sound effects. A degree of knowledge of coding was required to write the script, but there were useful guides on Ren’py’s site and the wider internet. I definitely appreciated being given the time to learn some coding, as I had no prior experience.

First of two screenshots from Atom, a scripting program on Windows. It depicts a list of video game character names, followed by details of how their characters appear in game, including text colour, font, and font size.

[Some examples of code used in the game: character names and specifications at the beginning of the game. Edited with Atom via Ren’py]

Second of two screenshots from Atom, a scripting program on Windows. It depicts some introductory dialogue welcoming the player to the game.

[Some examples of code used in the game: opening dialogue between Suzon and the player, as well as the first choice in-game. Edited with Atom via Ren’py]


This approach suited my aim to immerse the game in the Conway’s architecture, as it allowed me to place emphasis on changing scenes, visual clues, and exploring the library. I didn’t want to overcomplicate the gameplay and end up creating a kind of decision-making labyrinth. Every standard background is an unedited shot of the Conway Library or Courtauld Institute, and many of the props were also photographed on site. For example, the original boxes belonging to each source were also photographed and used in the “Chapter Cleared!” screens at the end of each chapter.

Two collages. The first is comprised of three images of a red box. In the first, it is open, and displaying a lack and white photograph of the first source used in the video game. In the second, the box is closed. In the third, the spine of the box is visible, with the text reading “17th Century Sculpture – Italian – Gianlorenzo Bernini – Busts – Female, Popes, Royalty. CON_B06070. The second collage is comprised of three images: the first is a photograph of the carpet in the Conway Library. The second is a photograph of a volunteers pass on a purple Courtauld lanyard. The third is a torn and scrunched up piece of paper covered with illegible handwriting.

[A few examples of some “props”, including Bernini’s bust of Bonarelli in its box, a section of carpet, a volunteer pass, and a handwritten “clue”.]


In addition to this, most of the sound effects were also recorded in the library, for example the sound of the wind heard in the demo was recorded one chilly afternoon in Vault 3, and the sound that plays when a clue is discovered is the sound of a Kersting print being flipped over. I had learnt from attending a workshop with sound artist Robin the Fog that smartphone recording apps are often sufficient for capturing audio of a reasonable quality. This is what I used to create the sound effects used in the game.

A screenshot of the iPhone Voice Memos application. There are nine recordings in total, titled: Boxfall, clap, windwhistle, windchime, smallthud, thud, photo flap, box close, and box open. They are all between one and three seconds long.

[A screenshot of the sound effects compiled here.]

Through this approach, I hope that I have injected as much of the Conway into the project as possible, I wanted to imbue the whole thing with a kind of “library flavour”. There are some photographs of Conway milestones included as well, such as the before, during, and after of the process of photographing the red boxes, and the decorations put up in the Witt Library for the Witt and Conway Staff Reunion.



A collage of three photographs of the same area of the Conway Library. In the first photograph, there are piles of boxes covering the floor. In the second, the boxes re gone and have been replaced by photographic equipment and piles of red boxes. There is also a large table covered in black fabric visible. In the final photograph, all equipment and boxes has been cleared away, and the space is empty.

[Photograph of the approach to the vaults, taken before, during, and after the photographing of the red boxes, photographed by the author.]

The door to the Witt Library in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Above the door, multicoloured paper bunting has been draped across the walls.

[Photograph of the Witt Library, taken shortly after the Witt and Conway Staff Reunion, photographed by the author.]


Once the sources were selected, the next step was to obscure them. I wanted to create a kind of puzzle where the player would have to learn more about their item in order to locate its box, “bring it home”, and advance to the next chapter. So, after the research I compiled a selection of facts about each object. For example, with regards to our first problem, the bust of Costanza Bonarelli, its first clue relates to location and time; a map of 17th Century Siena. The bust was created in the 17th Century, and Costanza herself was originally from Siena. Next, a poem from well-known poet of the Italian Renaissance, Torquato Tasso, included for the line “not that I hope for anything from you, my sweet life, except misery”. This is a reference to the tumultuous affair between Bonarelli and sculptor Bernini. Next, after some exploration, a dagger is discovered in the vault, making an obvious reference to the dagger that was used to disfigure her. From here, almost at the end of the puzzle, Suzon and the player follow the sound of music, which gets louder and quieter depending on how far away the player is as they move through the Conway. The music is an aria from Handel’s cantata, “Apollo e Dafne”, which references Bernini’s most famous work, Apollo and Daphne. This is the final clue which connects Bonarelli and Bernini. From here, the player is given a choice of boxes and, when the correct option is chosen, the item is returned to its home, and in a sense is laid to rest.

This formula is followed for the remaining sources, with some variations. I wanted to try to make the sleuthing process as varied as possible, taking advantage of different forms of media. It seemed like to do otherwise would be a waste when Ren’py allows for the integration of text, pictures, and audio. Another benefit of this approach is the inclusion of a number of characters to further enrich the experience: There is Suzon, of course, who many will recognise from the painting, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”, by Édouard Manet, who also makes an appearance. Torquato Tasso arrives to read his poetry, and the vaults are frequented by a ghost by the name of Georgiana. She is named after the Spritualist and artist, Georgiana Houghton, subject of an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery entitled “Spirit Drawings” in the Summer of 2016. By including Georgiana, Suzon, Manet, and indeed a short cameo from Samuel Courtauld in the introduction, the Gallery, Institute and Library are all represented in the gameplay.

A photograph of the painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”, by Édouard Manet. A young woman is looking out at the viewer, standing behind a bar and surrounded by bottles of alcohol, flowers, and a bowl of oranges. Behind her, the rest of the bar and its patrons are visible. The painting is framed by an ornate, carved wooden frame and hanging on a white wall.

[A photograph of Suzon in situ, photographed by the author in the Courtauld Gallery, Strand, London, December 2022.]


Testing and Launch

Once the chapters were written, the script, images, sound effects and music were all combined within the game directory provided by Ren’py. I had, perhaps naively, thought that the bulk of the work was finished, but as always when using unfamiliar technology, there are going to be a few hiccups. The music or sound effects come in too early, too late, too loud, or too quiet. One character sprite fills the entire screen, another doesn’t show up at all. After a couple of weeks and many hours of rewriting code, the game finally ran successfully. I must extend my gratitude to my fellow interns and staff in the Conway Library for playing through the demo and providing some much needed feedback: it’s always helpful to look at these things with as many sets of eyes as possible! It was also fun seeing everyone’s reactions to the experience of moving around the library in-game, and I’m happy that this was well-received.

Once the testing was over and everything was tidied up, it was time to finally launch the game. Suzon’s Clues is hosted on the independent game developer site, itch.io: Suzon’s Clues on itch.io.

A screenshot of the developer’s page of an independent video game website. To the left, there are several descriptive boxes, including: Title, project URL, Game Description, and Classification. To the right, there is an image of the game cover, which depicts the character Suzon against a gold background, with the title “Suzon’s Clues” to the left.

[A screenshot from the developer’s page of “Suzon’s Clues” on itch.io, depicts title and cover art.]

A screenshot of the developer’s page of an independent video game website. To the left, there are two uploads of the game files, titled “SuzonsClues-1.0-mac.zip” and “SuzonsClues-1.0-pc.zip”. To the right, there are several gameplay screenshots, including one from the opening to the game, and another of one of the video game characters.

[A screenshot from the developer’s page of “Suzon’s Clues” on itch.io, depicts the uploads of the game files.]


Once the content warnings, game description, installation instructions, and game file were uploaded, everything was done. It was strange to stop working on this project, at times it felt like it would never be finished! I felt that I would always be writing new mysteries for Suzon and whichever unwitting volunteer she had managed to capture, and certainly felt some sadness writing the final scenes.


The aim of Suzon’s Clues was, in part, to explore the ways in which we can interpret the pieces in the collection. Are they to be used to understand the processes and inspirations of sculptors, painters, architects, and photographers? Can we use these photographs to understand social, cultural, and political trends? What about making statements about which objects are preserved, and why? Are they a collection of pictures that are nice to look at? Of course, all of these are true.

The photographs in this collection are preserved with varying degrees of detail, and it would be a truly gargantuan feat to attempt to research the mysteries of every last piece. What I hoped to achieve with the tiny number of sources used was to demonstrate the sheer amount of information that is just waiting to be discovered within these boxes, and the intrigue and fun we can have if we attempt to unearth them. Further to this, Suzon’s Clues is something of a love letter to the Conway Library. So much more than just a building; it is a centre of memory and has been the home of the collection. More than that, the Conway has been the beloved workspace of hundreds of volunteers, staff, students, and visitors. I hope that I have been able to capture a sense of the experience of working on this project, and working in this space. Whether we are sorting through Kersting prints on the mezzanine, poring over masters at the table on the bottom floor, or digitising it all in the vaults.

When I first arrived in the Conway Library in Summer 2022 I was almost overwhelmed by the size of the collection and the methods of telling its story. We as interns have all been given so much freedom to run with our ideas, which has been both deeply rewarding and tremendous fun. Happily, I think we will all leave with new skills and very fond memories.

Rosa Coomber
Courtauld Connects
Digitisation Project
Digital Narratives and
Storytelling Intern

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

Audio version

Read by Meredith Loper

Text version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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