Tag Archives: Poetry

Pietro Bordi: Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s Object Compositions, Photographed by Paul Laib (1933): A ‘Poetic’ Exhibition

Paul Laib (1869-1958) was a photographer who in the early decades of the 20th century captured the works of some of the most important contemporary artists working in Britain between 1890 and 1950. His large corpus of over 20,000 negatives were gifted to the Courtauld in 1974 by Patrick de Laszlo, son of Philip de Laszlo, the famous portraitist who for many years had been Laib’s client. In 1933, Laib visited the studio of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson at ‘No. 7 The Mall’ in Parkhill Road near Hampstead. His collection of photographic glass plate negatives depicting the works and compositions of assorted objects in Hepworth’s and Nicholson’s artistic residence remain some of the most puzzling and charming images in the Courtauld’s vast photographic library. By accompanying these images with vivid poetic descriptions containing excerpts from Hepworth’s own writings and memoirs, this virtual exhibition hopes to shed light on the aesthetic significance of these objects for the artists’ developing views on sculpture, painting, form and space.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

At first glance, the compositions from Laib’s photographs appeared to me almost as deliberate, still-life shots. The artworks depicted are embellished by the objects which encircle them: could this be the work of a photographer who is showcasing the art in its studio environment? Precariously balanced crockery gives the illusion of momentary arrangement. A slender white bottle reappears in different assemblages. Small level inclinometers, like elegantly shaped pocket-watches, litter our field of view,  and are added and removed between each picture. The concept turned out to be as unlikely as it was originally alluring. Courtauld digitisation specialists suggested Laib would have been perhaps too shy and discreet in his operations to have meddled with the objects in a renowned artist’s home – as suggested by the darkness of his negatives, the Hungarian photographer was often hasty in providing his famed clients his service, leaving little time for his glass plates to be exposed by light through his camera. Upon closely reviewing Hepworth’s writings and meditations from her period with Nicholson, I increasingly came to understand the arrangements as compositional masterpieces, highly wrought visual works assembled by the artists and informed by their developing thoughts on the nature of form, abstraction, and space.

Portrait of Ben Nicholson, No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.









Inclinometers being placed and removed between photographs, No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

The images taken by Laib present groups of objects, trinkets, souvenirs, and other puzzling paraphernalia. Presented on different planes and contrasting positions, these objects assume a life of their own, responding to each other in both thematic and formal qualities. Desert cacti are combined with wine bottles and fishing floats. A hammer is juxtaposed to a fragile glass. At the same time, the ensemble of curves, triangles and squares inherent in the objects’ outlines resemble those simplified in Nicholson’s geometrical works. A small coffee plate might for instance mirror an abstract gesso dot. The outline of a plant is reminiscent of his linocut profiles, and a protruding shelf or bookcase might match the indentations in his white, sculptural reliefs. These correspondences also reflect Hepworth’s interest in sculptural groups, which, like the duo’s object compositions, conversed in what Hepworth called “a silent language of forms”.[1]

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

Among the string of random articles assorted in careful balance, the artworks themselves feature as a reminder of their co-existence with these shapes. Some lie in the corners and borders of the composition. In other pictures, Nicholson’s linocuts provide a backdrop for the arrangement itself. Often, a sculpture or white relief might be the main photographed piece, but we gain access to the work’s close surroundings through the space left in the narrow margins of the picture. In some cases, the resemblance between the artwork and its formal environment is impossible to ignore. In Laib’s photographs of Hepworth’s studio, we witness the sculptures next to the shapes and objects which inspired them: “I like to have a lot of material lying about the studio for a long time – even for years – so that I feel intimate with each piece”(33). The artists wanted the works photographed in the context in which they were originally conceived, before they would be bought, framed, and displaced in the white-washed setting of a gallery or museum. In her writings, Hepworth explains that sculptures and other artistic creations are almost inseparable from its immediate surroundings, being conceived out of precise qualities found in nature or in one’s studio. Existing in a state of “harmony” with the other “individual forms which inspired it”, these are, as Hepworth claims, “for their own specific landscape”(134).

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

While the significance of Nicholson’s collection of everyday objects has been the subject of discussion in recent years (a 2021 Pallant House Gallery exhibition described these as “a source of almost endless inspiration for the artist”), Barbara Hepworth’s own fascination with spatial arrangement and object composition has been left relatively unobserved.[1] This is especially surprising given the wealth of literature on the subject: in her own writings and conversations (1930-1970), the sculptor makes ample reference to the significance of grouping objects into what she called “rhythmical” composition, a musical idea she applied to forms in natural landscapes as well as to the domestic environment of her home or studio. The impact of Ben Nicholson’s work, on the other hand, opens up for her a “new and imaginative approach to the object in landscape, or group in space”(61). The specific nature of the arrangements photographed by Laib are themselves described at length in Hepworth’s memoirs, in which the artist recalls the provenance and significance of certain objects for the artistic duo – objects which we can directly retrace to Laib’s images. Exceptionally fluent in communicating her aesthetic ideas, Hepworth was also particularly conscious of the transmedial nature of the arts, and where a sculpture, a studio, or an artwork is described, language from poetry and music is employed to articulate its significance. “Carving is, perhaps, more similar to music”. Art is the “perfect realisation of rhythm, composition, order and harmony”. Sculpture, on the other hand, is “dictated only by my poetic demands from the material”(43-68). Like few artists of her generation, Hepworth was also acutely aware of the expressive potential of poetic language in conveying abstract ideas. During her travels in Greece, she resorted to free-verse compositions to conjure the appearance of a natural landscape littered by marble forms. Her artistic beliefs are often expressed with the use of imaginative vocabulary and rhapsodical prose, both of which are referenced and integrated in the poetic works below. Throughout her life, Hepworth composed countless verses, many of which can be today found in Tate’s archive of unpublished manuscripts.

Epidaurus, 1954. Tate Archive. Dame Barbara Hepworth, Greek Sketchbook interleaved with pressed flowers and plants, Tate Britain.

Feed the flame’, manuscript draft (earlier of two manuscripts), 1938-9. Tate Archive. Dame Barbara Hepworth, Handwritten notes by Barbara Hepworth, Tate Britain.

Honouring Hepworth’s fascination with poetry and its relationship to visual art, the following portfolio of ‘word-image’ compositions responds to Laib’s photographs through the creative use of poetic language, hoping to articulate the different forms of dialogue between the objects as well as the various interrelationships between the artworks and their immediate formal surroundings. A poem (by its broadest of definitions) can itself be understood as a thoughtful assemblage of single elements. Words, rhymes, assonances and line-breaks are all examples of single devices which amount to a larger, choral whole, giving a poem a sense of overall unity. Much like Hepworth and Nicholson’s own assemblages of selected objects, these participate in a greater “symphony”(56).

By incorporating direct allusions to Hepworth’s writings within the creative text, I hope to present the possibility of a ‘poetic exhibition’, whereby an informed, ekphrastic description (vivid, verbal account of a figurative work of art) is offered, as if to replace a museum caption or mere textual note. Inspired by a recent exhibition at the Courtauld which saw works by Peter Doig and poems by Saint Lucian writer Derek Walcott displayed side-by-side, this project hopes to demonstrate how a transmedial presentation of this kind could urge the viewer to establish a deeper connection with the inner themes and concepts underpinning a visual work of art. Without the constraints of prose syntax, I believe poetic language allows us to delve into the fluid and inarticulable concepts matured by the artists themselves in realising their compositions.

As one of the interns at the Courtauld, I was particularly drawn to the archive’s efforts to render the material qualities of the photographs perceptible in digital reproduction, the same way one would in attempting to digitise a Renaissance panel painting, or an Impressionist masterpiece. As a result, I have decided to accompany each of the poem titles with the original combination of numbers marked by Laib and previous archivists onto the negatives themselves, in an effort to highlight the material quality of the images as physical works of art.

I think every sculpture that’s made must have some relation to a place. I don’t think you can make it in a vacuum – at least, I can’t. It always has some kind of position in the landscape or in architecture, in one’s imagination.

— Barbara Hepworth in conversation with Reg Butler, Artists on Art, BBC Third Programme, Recorded in London, September 1951




And yet best critical account of a picture may well be that of a sonnet or of an elegy…

Charles Baudelaire, Salon de 1846



A Large Rock

The whole great studio filled with soaring forms and still, quiet forms, all in a state of perfection in purpose and loving execution, whether they were in marble, brass, or wood… Everything I saw in the studio-workshop itself demonstrated this equilibrium between the works in progress and the finished sculptures round the walls, and also the humanism, which seemed intrinsic in all the forms.

                                                Barbara Hepworth on Constantin Brancusi’s Studio, The Poetry of a Figure in Landscape, London, 1931-34

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

It is a nest of infinitesimal detail

which confronts us,

a temple of unparalleled creation.

Unformed asteroids rest in the foreground.

Sculptures are hallowed by morning light.


Imagine hands that, whirring,

conquer elements, carving,

cast unwieldly designs.


They are like plants propagating in a small solarium:

a strange verticality dominates the scene.

It is as though we witnessed the growth of a number of cylinders.



Here we observe not the instruction of forms,

but the destruction of laws into bare essences.


Why might a stool, placed on a stool, give the illusion of upward growth?

And why might a window, harbinger of light,

be reflective of the source of all things present?

We do not know, until a jagged rock dominates the scene.


A large rock, like a statue,

may “give the sense of a new enjoyment”,

Hepworth says, “when placed in a small room”.

It is “a new aesthetic experience which cannot be got

through any other kind of art”.



It is as though our hearts were invested in the future of these silhouettes.

We entertain the notion of scale by watching a rock create obliteration.

It is the uncivilised shape that we abhor, which like some cruel intruder

is uncouth among smooth stones we may very well hold,

pebbles which could fit in our palms.


“There is a symbolism, of course, in stone”.[1]


[3] Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, pg.36, 80


Works by a Window

As regards lighting and setting for my work, I like as much light as can be obtained, and I like a feeling of space. This does not mean actual physical area, but more the feeling that one gets near a window where the eye travels outwards…

                                    — B.H. in ­‘Approach to Sculpture’, Studio, London, 1946

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.



These are the inhabitants which populate the corner.

We see them rearranged in newfangled order.


A festival of forms informs the surfaces in view,

and standing like some trilogy

of strange thematic symmetry,

three shapes among the objects make their central rendezvous.




The first, in opposition, lies reclined across a table,

surrounded by the tools which have enabled its creation.

An octagon of sorts imparts a rhythm of erosion,

a scalpel lies for indentations subtler than skin.

Beside a wedge a straw suggests the energy of suction –

a bell-like hammer sits behind, inverted, like a pin.


What is this creature, motionless and firm,

lying naked like the offspring of some bird?


Embryonic is the vein which cuts across the mineral

of a sculpture of full shape unknowable,

of scale unreconcilable.


It possesses the inevitable stumps of that which imitates humanity.

The marble remnants of a neck, the narrowing of abdomen –

its bowels could resemble both fertility and foetus.

A womb slackens laterally, conjoined, like a sack,

and lying on its back it rests on two bottom features.


“I find that it is possible to take

a pebble of fine and simple shape

and carve in addition successive planes

suggestive of the human form”.


Reclined across a table it retains its human form.




Our eyes observe a second shape of similar conception,

lit beneath the window, focused by the camera.


Dark and prehensile, volcanic and obsidian,

it was cast and preconceived with a meteoric cavity.


Obliquely it retains a kind of central torsion,

a motion, if you will,

akin to that of human shoulders,

of balanced contrapposto.


Around it are a number of identities,

illumined by the light which gives full play to its concavities.

A glass transparent bottle, shaped like a lute –

symphonic in its similar appearance to a torso.

Inverted hammers play an inane game of balance –

as do the saw and the crutch, which touch, amiably.


Marble slabs and rectangles surround it here and there,

some strewn across a table, a few erected by a chair.


What is the hole pierced into it

if not an exploration into “the special accord”

between the “inside and outside in every form”?

A “nut in its shell”, a “child inside its womb”,

the shape of “shells and crystals”

and “the architecture of human bones”?


“Every shadow, cast by the sun from an ever-varying angle

reveals the harmony of the inside to outside”,

gives the eyes their “tactile perception”,

reveals “the interplay between space and volume”.


Stark and dark and hollow

and with a hole pierced into it,

the figure faces us, illumined

on a far corner of the table.




We need not search for the third sculpture,

as it stands so high above the others on a tower

of cylindric proportions – of diminishing dimensions.

From the bottom to the top,

cubes and blocks and cylinders



The figure at the top is stupefyingly streamlined, a body so round

its sound could be akin to that of a guitar, or of a globular cello –

its shape to Donatello’s David and the nudes in the Bargello.


“Growth, movement and balance.

All these things interlock,

and are principles which,

when expressed aesthetically,

do re-create a vitality…


There is life in stone and in wood”.[3]


Cactus Compositions


Small things are found and kept for their lovely shape, their weight, their texture and intense pure colour. Objects that we place near to each other, in their different aspects and relationships create new experience. A scarlet circle on the wall, a slender white bottle on a shelf near it, a bright blue box and lovely-shaped fishing floats that rest in the hand like a bird, weighty pebbles, dull grey, some gleaming white all these move about the room and as they are placed, make the room gay or serious or bright as a frosty morning …

B.H. on the objects in the Mall Studio, Unit 1: The Modern Movement in British Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, London, 1934

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

This is perhaps the most exquisite of constructions:

a study of form and shape in its basic rudimentariness.


Geometries commingle making complex combinations.

The pattern on the table like a crossing in the street.


One questions if the artwork in the middle is the feat

or if the objects are abstractions in the artworks made concrete.


Plates and plants and flowerpots repeat the shapes on paper:

a shoe-polish, from CHAT BOTTÉ,


retells the forms and radii of small concentric circles.


A fishing rod, a line, a pipe with straws inside:

these mirror the strange nexus of connections drawn behind.




Correspondence is the visual key.


And veritably we find in these very same objects

an equal desire for growth and formal structure,

to grow, to breathe, to change and think – respire,

and for an upward momentum, comparable to sculpture.


Desert cacti are like flags, erect in planets of creation.

A bottleneck aspires to a higher order, something different:

organic, complete.

A strung-up fishing float (perched on a diagonal)

hovers in the foreground like some bird.


These are planes and patterns that intersect,

orbiting geometries and shapes

so close to one another they hold

a gravity and discover thus

their role in formal landscape:

“the balance of one form poised against another form”.[4]



Lino Cut Inclinometer


I was fascinated by Miro’s unique way of picking up pebbles on the beach and arranging them swiftly so that his gesture revealed a Miro painting in movement.

                                                — B.H. on Miró, Constructive Forms and Poetic Structure, 1934-39

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

This picture consists of impossible equivalence:

a strange delusion of the simpleness of shapes.


It is the image in geometric resolution,

a pun between the circle and triangle in space.


Across a wooden linocut,

lines project illusions of awkward equilibriums,

each barely managed, obdurately upheld.


They are the chair and the window conceptualised,

the tablecloth abstracted,

the bonnet reimagined.

It is as though two people enjoyed lunch

in a strange visual paradigm.


In a corner, two spheres, like eyes,

assess each other’s weight

through the value of a string.




And it is in this world of correspondences

two inclinometers appear, outside –

giving almost the impression of time,

or of time petrified.


And we relish in their form

and the rings bound to them,

repeating the reprise of the painted correspondences.




Objects, reduced to the simplest of essences,

Inflect their presence through proximity and incidence.





The impact of Ben Nicholson’s work had a deep effect on me, opening up a new and imaginative approach to the object in landscape, or group in space, and a free conception of colour and form.

B.H. on the objects in the Mall Studio, Unit 1: The Modern Movement in British Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, London, 1934

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

This image is another of a series of assemblages,

a thoughtful merging of amusing situations.


Among a stray ashtray, a number of things remain.


A flower strokes the contents of a strung guitar,

like a plectrum reflective of what these things are,

or might in fact turn out to be.

Overlapping profiles are marked by a total blackness.

A guitar could entertain the serenading of a kiss.


Its shape is made on the basis of sweet

vacancies and rhythm,

absorbed into sensations

of leisure and delight.


Lyrical lines characterise

both linocuts and profiles,

the silhouettes and spheres

which meet the patterns on the instrument.


The sound between the pictures

is of poetic predilection:

like words and punctuation

they are marked by gradual intervals.


The sentence they assemble

is a visual figuration.


The wooden panel,

warped like an oar,

cut like a byzantine relic,

is alighted on a table,

where a glass of water meets an adjacent ashtray,

shimmering with similar reflections.


Half-full, half-empty, it produces new illusions.



Profiles by a Flowerpot


A sculpture, as I conceive it, is for a specific landscape. My own awareness of the structure of the landscape, I mean the individual forms too that contribute towards its general quality, provides me with a kind of stimulus. This object, once I have created it as a sculpture, may harmonize with the landscape that inspired it, in that its form suggests those that I observed.

                                                — B.H. interviewed by Edouard Roditi, Dialogues on Art, London, 1960

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

How is it can we reconcile

a letter with these two profiles?

Or is it three or more we see,

circled almost rapturously,

and not a letter – but a sheet,

folder over, like a warranty?


And where is their resemblance with a cactus plant,

growing like a desert beansprout,

turning on its axis like a strange guitar,

dancing on its torsion like a flute?


It is, without a doubt, the flowerpot

which we decree as their inheritance,

its exultant silhouettes

casting so sweetly, so perfectly

upon the human shapes below.


Is it the ridges of the face

which fit the undulating leaves,

the chin, the nose, which in their still repose

transpose the essence of these shapes?


Or is it the shut, Hellenic mouth,

voluptuous by an eye which seems

aseptic, a pupil like a glass bead,

and perfect, and stolen from a fish?


We do not know – but relish in the slow relay of shapes

and formal aptitudes of plants, and in the way they all translate

the rise and fall of rims and crests of flowers.

We profit from their proximity, as they stand obliquely

so close to one another, exhibiting their brotherhood.




And of what colour we know not,

but black and white,

and not of spots but stripes

and transepts, bisected

like those cut into the canvases

and contours of the face.




It is the play between the silhouettes

and their inevitable backdrop

which produces numerous possibilities, interminable faces.


A flowerpot inspires all such delineations.

[1] Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, ed. by Sophie Bowness, (London: Tate, 2015), pg. 72

[2] Ben Nicholson: From the Studio (2021). [Exhibition]. Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK. 26 June – 24 October 2021.

[3] Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, pg.36, 80

[4] Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, pg.46-76


Pietro Bordi is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. His interests include the relationship between literature and the visual arts, particularly in the Renaissance and Modernist periods, and his doctoral thesis focuses on pictorial interpretations of the Divine Comedy in the twentieth century. Passionate about poetry, creative writing as well as ‘ekphrastic’ approaches to image and text, Pietro is College Representative for the Edgar Wind Society for the History of Art at Oxford, and at Balliol organises group visits to London’s National Gallery.

Oxford Micro-Internship

The Digital Media department at The Courtauld was awarded the 2023 Gold Standard Internship Host by Oxford this year.

Caitlin Campbell: Bombs, Fire and Time – Tales of Destruction in the Conway Library

During my internship at the Conway Library, I focused on finding photographs of damaged art, specifically sculpture and stained glass. What follows are three poems I wrote on what I found to be the three most interesting of these images. After this is a discussion of these pieces, examining their historical background and their worth as damaged pieces of art.




A close-up, black and white photograph of a clover shaped recess in a stone wall, known as quatrefoil 248. [CON_B00248_F003_022 – ENGLAND, Somerset, Wells Cathedral. North face, facet: K, quatrefoil 248, N.W tower, N side, pre-restoration. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]


A close-up, black and white photograph of the same quatrefoil pictured above. The images are almost identical. [CON_B00248_F004_010 – ENGLAND, Somerset, Wells Cathedral. Facet: C, Colchester no. 248, N.W Tower, N side, post- restoration. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]



I was brought into creation,
With my brothers,
We three standing proud,
Brought beneath us,
Were those others,
Who curl their faces to the ground,

Beneath our feet,
I call to them, “Men,
Why don’t you rise?”
They shudder softly and say,
“You will see, when,
The outside takes your eyes.”

My brothers told me not to listen,
To men who feared the sun,
“We were created by the righteous,
See how they look on us with awe,
Brother this is our dominion,
Nothing here will slight us.”

For many years we stood,
With prideful benevolence,
For the men who cried below,
Until my brother’s hand lost,
Its finger, the severance,
A creeping blow.

“You are marked a sinner,”
Boomed my brother with hand intact,
We saw it as a punishment,
“But please, brothers, I do not know,
What I did or what I lacked.”
We did not doubt His judgement,

And those beneath us howled,
As we froze and shunned,
Our kin with his sinner’s mark,
They implored us,
“Don’t let yourselves be numbed,
Don’t let the outside take your heart.”

When my brother’s ears,
Started to fall away,
He turned his accusation downwards,
To the “whimpering, conniving hoard,
Who crouch as though to pray,
But feed the devil broken shards,

Of flesh taken from the holy.”
The grovellers tried to protest,
But my brother knew sound no longer,
And he could not hear them say,
That “the outside will not rest,
Until none of us are what we were.”

I begged forgiveness from my brothers,
For standing tall while they withered,
But only one could hear my sorrow,
And he was the one whom we had wronged,
And though I know his lip quivered,
He let no emotion for me show.

A storm took the head of my brother,
He who had squalled against sin,
And as we wailed those hateful,
Soothsayers said loud,
“We told him he would not win,
Against the outside’s great pull.”

My brother came to forgive me,
While we cried for our lost,
We cursed the snivellers in their hole,
For they had committed the crime,
Of being unblemished at the cost,
Of our dear brother’s soul.

My nose had vanished by the time,
My second brother lost his head,
And I hated the cowards keeping their secret,
Of how to remain whole,
“Why is it they are dead,
While you men meet no threat?”

“We warned you to fear the outside,”
They admonished me hard,
“You thought yourself an equal,
To its power,
You let your brothers disregard,
That which comes before the fall.”

“But how can I not stand tall!
When my creator made me so?”
They hid their answers undercover,
And so I aimed my question out,
“Oh creator, did you know,
That you built us only to suffer?”

I received no answer,
But eventually there did appear,
Disciples with wands of creation,
I could have collapsed with joy,
That they would restore what was dear,
I would cease to be a family of one.

They brought potions to clean our bodies,
Cracks they took days to restore,
But they did not return my brothers,
And when I tried to scream and beg,
I found that I had a mouth no more,
And all my noise was smothered.

I faced my recreation,
With corpses by my side,
I wish I did not see their degradation,
But the outside never took my eyes.



A black and white photograph of a neo-classical sculpture in marble, depicting the Ancient Greek mythological figure Andromeda. [CON_B04109_F002_013, ENGLAND, London, Sydenham, Crystal Palace Gardens. “Andromeda”. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]



She was chained to a rock in the ocean,
Waiting for him to come,
Blinded here by the sun’s reflection,
Blinded so that she cannot remember,
Why it is that she is here,
What she did to deserve such a punishment,
As being a feast for so many monsters.

She was chained to a rock in a house of glass,
Waiting for him to come,
Stares remind her that she is frozen,
With hands that cannot cover and eyes that cannot close,
She doesn’t know if it is part of her punishment,
Being up here on display,
A feast for so many monsters.

She was chained to a rock in the ashes,
Waiting for him to come,
Hands frozen she cannot wipe away,
The soot that clings to her,
Or the weeds that grow through the cracks,
She wonders when it was she was forgotten,
Whether it is a mercy to be here alone,
And she still cannot remember what it is that she did,
To have been the prize of so many monsters.


A black and white photograph mounted on card depicting the interior of the choir of Aachen Cathedral. [CON_B09767_F01_010 – GERMANY, Aachen, Munster. Showing interior of Gothic choir, interior vaulting of the apse. 18 Nov. 1944. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]


A black and white photograph mounted on card. Caption: “Those beautiful stained glass windows were the only part of Aachen Cathedral seriously damaged by war. A bomb fell through the Church roof Christmas Eve, 1943, rolled out into the street and exploded the following day, blowing out those windows, which are called “the tallest in Europe.” [CON_B09767_F01_018 – GERMANY, Aachen, Munster. Showing the damage of the stained-glass windows in Aachen cathedral’s choir. Attribution: Lawrence Riordan. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]



The bombs are dropping and we’ve been left behind,
Too large to move, not worth it,
Shaking in our panes,
As the world falls to pieces.

The ground is being torn up,
Every friendly thing made a projectile,
The city is being warped into weaponry,
To be turned inward on itself.

An arrow through Peter,
That once was a branch,
A bullet through Matthew,
That once was a stone,
And Mary holds her child tightly,
But is no shelter from the cannonball,
That once was a chimney-pot.

So far above, do they look down,
And see the slaughter they’re unfolding?
Or are they shielding eyes and ears,
Minds never here at all?
So far above they won’t ever know,
How Jesus’ body shattered.

The morning is come and they are gone,
But the sun doesn’t halt its rising,
And if you in the rubble were to stop and look,
You would see sunlight unfiltered,
Where once was red and green and blue,
And if you were to stop and see you’d know,
That splinters of glass look smoother when warmed with gold.

And we are gone to dust on the floor,
But the sun sees us clear,
And the cowering relics turn their heads,
Never having known a glow untainted by us.

And if you were to find them, miles away,
Watching homes burn and counting their dead,
Would it bring them relief or rage to know,
That what they did let the light come in?



I wrote the above poems while examining three photo sets from the Conway Library, all showing art that had been variously damaged. What fascinated me about the pieces was that, despite being disfigured, they were all enthralling. They had inspired photographers to capture them, and they had inspired me to write about them. Would it be unfair to say then that their damage decreased their artistic value?

In the course of my week at the Conway I have researched these three photographic subjects and have here compiled short histories of each. I hope that in understanding the subjects the true impact of their being damaged may become clear.

Wells Cathedral

To begin with the subject of the first poem, a small group of carvings within a quatrefoil at Wells Cathedral, Somerset. They sit on the north face of the north-west tower of the cathedral’s magnificent west front and constitute one of many quatrefoil carving groups on the cathedral. This cathedral, along with its carvings, is medieval, having been built between the 12th and 15th Centuries, with the west front probably being completed in the 13th Century. It is the first English cathedral to have been built in the ornate Gothic style in which intricate carved representations of biblical stories were common.

The subject here is the Transfiguration of Jesus, a New Testament story in which Jesus (here carved in the middle) begins to glow with heavenly light (represented here by a halo). He is visited by the prophets Moses and Elijah, who here stand on his either side. The figures cowering below him in the carving represent his disciples, Peter, James and John, who were praying with him at the time of the transfiguration and were overwhelmed by what they were witnessing. The story is given particular theological importance by the voice of God, which here referred to Jesus as his son and bade all to listen to him. That this element of the story is not represented here is presumably due to the difficulty of depicting a vocal address in a carving, and it was likely assumed that many viewers of the group – if indeed they could see it properly from the ground – would know the Transfiguration story.

The carvings as seen in the first photograph were heavily damaged due to the simple face of having been exposed to the elements over time. What is more interesting is that the second photograph shows them after having been restored during a massive west front restoration project in the 1970s. My first thought when seeing this second photograph, was that the carvings look hardly changed from how they had been prior to having been restored. The heads of the prophets are still missing, but more striking to me is that the face of Jesus is still worn away, none of his features having been redefined.

Further research led me to summaries of the restoration work from which it was clear that the goal of the work was simply to clean the work and preserve its present state, with no aim to restore the original appearance. That the restoration had these purposes is revealing of the changed way in which we in the modern era interact with medieval Cathedrals compared to those in the time in which it was built. While in the Middle Ages the aim of such carvings seems to have been to represent bible stories, perhaps with the intention of teaching parishioners or perhaps out of some reverence to God, now it does not seem to be of much relevance whether the story is legible.

Indeed, some of the quatrefoil carvings were so damaged that one could only guess as to what they had been. When people now come to visit historic churches such as this, the interest for many is either in the history or the aesthetic beauty of the place. Even those visiting for religious reasons may be more interested in seeing the authentic expressions of faith of those 13th Century workers, increased literacy meaning there is less of a need for the bible to be told in visuals. There is an argument to be had that to repair the old carvings with modern additions, even if they look as close in style as possible to the original, would be to detract from this authenticity and, as Carolyn Korsmeyer puts it, to commit an act of ‘aesthetic deception’.

There is definitely an element of the Ship of Theseus debate in such a line of thought and, like this philosophical conundrum, there is no agreed upon correct answer. At York Minster, for example, the permanent stonemasons yard carves new grotesques to replace those adorning the minster’s exterior when they become damaged. Evidently it is the consensus here that retaining the appearance of the stonework is more important than retaining its genuine historical elements. At Wells Cathedral, the damaged state of the figures is preserved – the effects of the elements over the years have shaped the carvings into something new which is considered worth saving.

Andromeda, Crystal Palace

The sculpture of Andromeda from the Crystal Palace has an entirely more dramatic, and ill- fated, backstory. The sculpture is neo-classical in style, probably made between about 1760- 1860 when the fixation on the classical age was at its peak in Britain.

The story it represents is the Greek myth of Andromeda. In this story Andromeda, the princess of Aethiopia, is chained nude to a rock in the sea as food for a sea monster. Her punishment was not at the result of anything she did, but a response to a claim her mother made that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids. Poseidon, father of the Nereids, found murdering Andromeda to be a fitting revenge. In the story she is saved from her fate by Perseus, who slays the sea monster and carries Andromeda home to Argos to be his queen.

With no available information about the sculptor of this work, it is difficult to guess at why exactly the myth of Andromeda was chosen as a subject. But this certainly wasn’t the only example of a neoclassical depiction of her and comparison to others, particularly the 19th Century Italian work by Romanelli, suggests that the obscured object at her feet to the right, is the broken head of the sea monster which was originally shown circling her.


A colour photograph depicting a white marble neo-classical sculpture of the figure from Ancient Greek myth, Andromeda, on a black background. A naked female figure, draped in cloth, is shown chained to a rock, the head of a sea monster rising up from sculpted waves below, as if to bite her. She raises her free hand up above her head, her mouth slightly open in shock and fear. [ITALY, Florence. “Andromeda”, sculptor: P. Romanelli, 19th Century. Attribution: Sotheby’s auction catalogue.]


 This sculpture was one of many artworks that had its home in the Crystal Palace, the grand glass Victorian structure which stood originally in Hyde Park, where it was built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, after which it was moved to Sydenham.


A black and white photograph depicting the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, London, from the air. [CON_B04109_F002_001 – ENGLAND, London, Sydenham. Aerial view of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]


In Sydenham it reportedly struggled to attract visitors, despite its large collection which included British sculptural works such as this one. Its ultimate fate was to be destroyed almost entirely by a fire in 1936 (the cause of which was never determined) with its final remaining tower structures being pulled down during World War 2 and its gardens been left in disrepair.

This photo of the forgotten Andromeda was taken in the 1970s, decades after the fire. Another image taken at the same time shows that she was stood in a cluster of similarly abandoned neo-classical sculptures, many of which miss limbs and heads. It is difficult to know whether she was inside the building when it burnt, some sculptures being designated for the Palace’s gardens. A comparison to other fire-damaged marble statues has suggested to me that the black stain across her torso is consistent with her having at least been close enough to the flames to have been scolded by them.


A black and white photograph of abandoned sculpture fragments in the gardens of Crystal Palace. To the right is the aforementioned Andromeda, these two photographs were likely taken at the same time. To the left of the photograph, three other fragments are visible. [CON_B04109_F002_012 – ENGLAND, London.  Sculptures in the Crystal Palace gardens, Sydenham, 1970s. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]


Why then was Andromeda deemed worthless while the Wells carvings were preserved? Part of this will be a question of age, medieval carvings being older and so considered more valuable than neo-classical. One can be sure that, had this sculpture been genuine Graeco- Romano, she would not have been left to be broken by vandals. Another is probably a simple question of finances. Those with vested interest in the Crystal Palace would have suffered an immense blow when it was destroyed and the cost of repairing and transporting a minor, now damaged, artwork from within it probably was not worth the hassle. The final point is one of context. The Wells carvings have the benefit of being both religious in nature and attached to a historically significant building.

As such, as long as there is still a clergy at Wells Cathedral, and tourists coming to admire it, there will be incentive to prevent their further decay. A sculpture from a completely destroyed building, in a style typically associated with the vanity and pretentious tastes of Europe’s aristocracy, has less protection.

The current fate of our Andromeda is not known. The only reference I could find to her was a 2007 contributor on an online forum dedicated to Sydenham who claimed that the Andromeda ‘lost her head!’ since the 1970s image. Whatever her exact present state, it is clear that Andromeda was abandoned by those who had decided to display her in the Palace.


Aachen Cathedral

The final set of images was taken of Aachen Cathedral after the western German city fell to the American forces in 1944. It was the first major German city to fall to the Allies and faced heavy bombardments, by air strikes and then by the incoming American land troops, throughout late 1943 and 1944. Aachen reportedly anticipated the possibility of their cathedral being damaged in bombing and so transferred all its movable treasure to less conspicuous locations. In light of all this, the images of Aachen Cathedral actually seem remarkable for how intact the church is.


A black and white photograph mounted on card. Excerpt from caption: “AACHEN FALLS TO AMERICAN TROOPS. U.S. troops examine the main altar and the wreckage inside Aachen Cathedral. The cathedral was damaged during the bitter fighting for the city, which fell to troops of the first U.S. Army on October 20, 1944, seven days after expiration of a “surrender or die” ultimatum.” [CON_B09767_F001_019 – GERMANY, Aachen. “Aachen falls to American troops”. Attribution: Keystone Photo 484403. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]


The bomb that damaged these windows was reported to have fallen through the church roof on Christmas Eve, 1943 and to have then rolled out onto the street where it finally detonated, blowing in the windows.

The cathedral was first commissioned by Charlamagne in around 796 and then was added to in 1355. This addition was in the form of a Gothic choir, the focal point of which was the magnificent stained-glass windows. These 14th Century windows were not the same ones which were destroyed in the bombing. They had in fact been shattered already by a hailstorm in 1729; those in the cathedral in 1944 were a neo-Gothic replacement.

In photos taken before the war, the windows can be seen to have detailed figural designs at the bottom, but with a much simpler geometric pattern in the rest of the space. This is quite strikingly different from the modern iteration of the windows, designed post-war by Walter Benner, Anton Welding and Wilhelm Buschulte, which have a far greater number of figural compositions as well as more intricate geometric design.


A black and white photograph mounted on card, depicting the untouched interior of the choir of Aachen Cathedral. [CON_B2200_F002_002 – GERMANY, Aachen. Aachen Cathedral. Int: choir looking NE. Taken before the windows were bomb-damaged. Attribution: Photo Marburg 64678. The Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC]


[Image to follow]

A colour, digital photograph of the interior of the choir of the Aachen Cathedral. Large, multicoloured stained glass windows wrap around the curved side of the choir and the wall to the right of the photograph. The glass is coloured mainly in vibrant blues, reds, pinks, and purples. The interior is well lit with electric lights hanging from the vaulting, visible on the ceiling. To the left of the photograph, a painted wooden sculpture of three angels or cherubs is visible. In the centre of the choir there is a hanging sculpture decorated with gold leaf. The walls of the interior are richly decorated, though it is unclear if they are painted or tiled.
[GERMANY, Aachen. Aachen Cathedral Choir. Taken after the new, post-war windows were installed. Attribution, alamy.com. DWP911]


It is obvious why the windows were not left in their damaged state, which would have left the cathedral completely vulnerable to the elements, but perhaps surprising is that they chose to reinvent the windows rather than recreate the old ones. Part of this is probably, like with the other two pieces discussed, a question of age. As mentioned, the windows damaged by the bombs were not the originals and as such would have held less importance to the city’s historical fabric than they would have done had they stood there since the 14th Century. Also of possible relevance is the appearance of the windows themselves. The original design was very sober in comparison to the modern one and it is not inconceivable that those in charge of arranging the cathedral’s repairs would have seen the damage as a blank slate from which the cathedral’s appearance could be altered.

Unlike in the cases of Wells Cathedral or of Andromeda, the windows of Aachen had the dual factors of being irreparably damaged and a crucial structural part of the building. The combination of these two meant that it was imperative that the windows were remade, but that they could be made potentially in any style because the historic craftsmanship which may have been otherwise preserved was destroyed.

If the three examples used are looked at as a group, then it seems clear that there are no set protocols for dealing with damaged art and while some is seen as worthy of preservation, other works are discarded. It is understandable why artwork that is damaged is sometimes destroyed or abandoned, Aachen Cathedral could not function with broken windows and  the place which had displayed Andromeda had ceased to exist. However, this does not mean that the damaged pieces are worthless or that they should be forgotten. Here is where photography can become so useful as a medium. Even if damaged objects or buildings cannot be kept in their state forever, photographs can capture them in this vulnerability beyond the time in which they have been repaired, replaced or further degraded.


Caitlin Campbell
Courtauld Connects Digitisation
Oxford University Micro-Internship

Surya Bowyer: 9,763 Red Boxes

Audio version

Read by Christopher Williams.

Text version


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

In Blake’s lines:

He caught me in his silken net,

         And shut me in his golden cage.

 He loves to sit and hear me sing,

         Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;

Then stretches out my golden wing,

         And mocks my loss of liberty. [3]

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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


Surya Bowyer
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Illustrations by Simba Baylon