The Ministry of Works collection

Photographs and images from the Conway Library

A collection of photographs taken in the last days and months of WW2 is revealed in The Courtauld’s Conway Library.

The war damage collection, known informally as the ‘Ministry of Works’ bequest reveals new insights into European cityscapes reduced to mounds of rubble and broken timber as a consequence of bomb damage from all sides in the conflict.

The collection comprises several hundred photographs taken by soldiers, historians and architects across Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands towards the end of WW2. Its prints are instantly recognisable on account of the distinctive orange card to which they are attached, alongside captions typed in often urgent, telegraphic prose.

The Courtauld’s Conway Library comprises nearly one million photographs documenting world architecture of all periods up to the present day alongside sculpture, decorative arts and manuscripts. Its 10,000 red boxes contain highlights including rare prints of Istanbul in the 1880s by James Robertson, T. E. Lawrence’s images of Saudi Arabia, the construction of Le Corbusier’s designs for Chandigarh, Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum and Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith’s brutalist, love it / hate it vision for Sheffield’s Park Hill Flats. Many images focus on a particular building or architect, while others reflect the personality and interests of the photographer.

The significance of the ‘Ministry of Works’ bequest is now being understood thanks to a major digitisation project that is currently underway as part of our ‘Courtauld Connects’ transformation project. This ambitious programme will make our world-class artworks, research and teaching accessible to more people, in the UK and internationally, when we reopen in 2021, and has also enabled The Courtauld to set up an innovative volunteer programme, part funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Over 900 volunteers are helping to make the entire Conway Library collection available online as high-resolution images so that a wider range of people can access them. and so that the Library will be easier to search and use as a research and educational resource. The volunteers have learnt new skills and received training in areas such as cataloguing and photography. The Courtauld has worked in partnership with a range of organisations such as BeyondAutism, the Terrence Higgins Trust and My Action for Kids to ensure that volunteering can be an experience enjoyed by all.

Some images in the ‘Ministry of Works’ collection depict the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (the MFAA), established in 1943 with two objectives: to safeguard works of art and architecture from damage, and to return paintings and sculptures which had been looted or hidden for protection. The work of the men and women of the MFAA is known to a wider audience today thanks to the film, The Monuments Men, after the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.

Other images record in often shocking detail the destruction of cityscapes as collateral or deliberate acts of destruction, and appear to have been taken by allied troops chiefly from the US, Britain and Poland. Where present, dates show that the images were taken from mid-1944 onwards, with many clustered around VE Day on 8 May 1945.

We see a Bastille Day service held in the French town of Maisy attended by US troops and townsfolk against the backdrop of a ruined church; a Catholic priest conversing with soldiers in a pool of daylight cast through the shattered remains of his chancel roof; and an aerial view of the Abbey at Monte Cassino looking like a collapsed sandcastle without form, detail or scale. Ruskin’s phrase from the Seven Lamps of Architecture “Therefore when we build let us think that we build forever” now reads more like an epitaph to these incalculable losses, yet in other images, we see architects beginning to document, measure and plan widespread and optimistic acts of restitution and restoration.

The small selection reproduced here embodies the ideology we have adopted in digitising our collections, preserving context and form as much as content. We photograph rather than scan. We never crop but instead leave a narrow border around the edge to emphasise that every print, mount, or glass plate has an edge. We record colour as faithfully as possible, and we never retouch. The aim is to emphasise that every image presented online is a true representation of its physical counterpart that sits in a library box which, in turn, links us with the personalities and circumstances of its past.

As we mark VE Day, these images present not only new evidence of the disruption and disturbance to society caused by war but also record and celebrate the women and men who recorded it so that it might never be forgotten.

Access to the collection is currently limited whist digitisation is underway, but we anticipate publishing the Ministry of Works collection in its entirety along with the rest of the Conway Library in 2021.