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Discoveries From Our Photographic Archives

We share three amazing stories uncovered while digitising our collection of over 3.3 million historic images

Through Courtauld Connects we will ensure that our extensive photographic collections are available to everyone, via the development of an ambitious digitisation project encompassing 3.3 million prints and negatives. The Witt and Conway Libraries form the basis of the collection, the former of which serves as an essential resource for anyone looking for an in-depth history of western art, from 1200 to the present day. It features original photographs, cuttings and published material on 70,000 artists, as well as the De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib negatives, which documents paintings and sculpture by artists working in London between 1900 and 1950.

The Conway was formed by Lord Conway of Allington as a teaching and research resource and was given to The Courtauld in 1932. Since then it has grown to encompass over a million images of architecture, ivories, seals, metalwork, manuscript illumination, stained glass, wall paintings, panel paintings and textiles.

The digitisation project is made possible through our dedicated team of staff and volunteers, who have shared some of the incredible discoveries they have made during the process:

The Squares and Fountains of My Childhood
Faye Fornasier, Digitisation Coordinator

The Squares and Fountains of My Childhood  <BR>Faye Fornasier, Digitisation Coordinator image

For Faye Fornasier, The Courtauld’s Digitisation Coordinator, uncovering the work of photographer Anthony F Kersting’s was a process akin to embarking on a virtual, round-the-world tour: ‘Part of the mystery surrounding Kersting is that he travelled so extensively.’ she explains. A handwritten ledger accompanies the 4,923 Kersting negatives held in The Courtauld Collection, with each number indicating where the image was taken. ‘Opening the ledger page at random, you can see that one day he was in Jersey, the next in Scotland, the following entry would be Munich, then Dubrovnik, then Madrid,’ she continues.

Kersting’s complex method of recording his travels means the digitisation process is, in part, detective work: ‘It makes tracing his steps and locating a particular town very tricky – and transcribing the ledgers very necessary,’ Fornasier explains. During her travels through Kersting’s archives, Fornasier decided to search for her hometown of Belluno, in the Italian Dolomites. ‘I wanted to see it through his eyes,’ she explains. She hunted through the prints collection, tracing Italian cities through the small pencil annotations that marked each: ‘to my delight, I found the squares and fountains of my childhood, almost untouched by time, with the only exception being the clothes of the passers-by and the cars parked where they shouldn’t be.’

Uncovering the Identity of Mysterious Creatures
Evie Mc, Digitisation Volunteer

Uncovering the Identity of Mysterious Creatures <BR>Evie Mc, Digitisation Volunteer image

Evie Mc is one of the dedicated volunteers making The Courtauld’s ambitious digitisation project possible. When she came across ‘a mysterious biblical print’ in our collection, she decided to delve deeper: ‘The image of wheels with eyes, a disembodied hand and multi-headed winged creatures seemed unusual,’ she explains. ‘I thought I’d try to find out more.’

Text across the print gave some clues: ‘A short quote at the bottom of the frame is from Isaiah 6:6, a chapter in the Bible that references a seraphim flying with a live coal in his hand,’ Mc explains. ‘The picture seems to depict a scroll, rather than a coal but the description fits the mysterious beings.’ A second quote at the top of the frame is from Ezekiel 1, and alludes to four-face creatures – ‘with wheels complete with eyes beside them.’

She found a description of similar creatures, described as ‘cherubim’ in Ezekiel 10:
‘And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had.’ For Mc, this verse suggested the mysterious creatures weren’t seraphim, but cherubins: ‘the term cherub means ‘to be near’ or ‘near ones’, suggesting they are close to God and serve a servant or bodyguard function – they are not the chubby babies wafting about on clouds that we have come to recognise.’

Portraiture Through the Eyes of Anthony Kersting
Alia Ahmad, Intern

Portraiture Through the Eyes of Anthony Kersting <br>Alia Ahmad, Intern image

Intern Alia Ahmad is supporting the extensive work of the digitisation team, and recalls being ‘in awe’ of the enormous collection of archives ‘kept everywhere’ around the Witt and Conway libraries. He joined Faye Fornaiser in exploring the ‘mysterious and enchanting world of British photographer Anthony F. Kersting’.

‘What struck me most was the sheer number of boxes that bear his name,’ said Ahmad. ‘I was curious about how much this man achieved, travelled and explored throughout his life. Kersting was a photographer whose interest focused on religious monuments, landscapes, portraits and private homes around the world. Although frequent travelling was still unusual in his early years as a photographer, his images and journal entries represent irrefutable proof of his gallivanting around the world. Despite the expense and often hazardous circumstances, he spent the 1930s travelling to places such as Norway, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco and the Bahamas.’

What most excited Ahmad, however, was Kersting’s ability to capture subjects from across the globe with an intimacy that appeared entirely natural: ‘Kersting creates an effortless relationship between him and his subjects, and each photograph seems at ease in its own habitat. His portraiture reflects reality through the eyes of the beholder.’

 

How can you help The Courtauld digitise its collections?

Help us to bring a globally significant photographic collection to life online through our volunteer programme. To find out more contact: camilla.ellingsenwebster@courtauld.ac.uk

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