Modern media gave the terrible fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris a shocking immediacy. We watched it live on 24-hour television, and followed the unfolding story on social media. Now comes the slow process of stabilising and conserving the damaged building, and, more controversially, restoring and rebuilding. The magnificent and largely 13th-century wooden roof above the vault has gone, and the central spire built by Viollet-le-Duc in the 1850s collapsed dramatically into the flames. But most of the cathedral church, begun around 1160, finished by around 1330, and heavily restored by Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus in the mid-19th century, has survived surprisingly intact.
This online exhibition features images of the cathedral of Notre-Dame taken from the Conway Library at The Courtauld. We have chosen images that help to tell the story of the cathedral. Many of them are photographs taken in the 19th century, during the restoration of the cathedral by Viollet-le-Duc. We have included some prints made by English artists which show the cathedral before the restoration. Evocative images of the cathedral in its cityscape are found in photographs by a British tourist, taken around 1911, and by the great architectural photographer A. F. Kersting in the third quarter of the 20th century. The early post-war city captured by Kersting now seems almost as remote as that of 1911. Photographs from the Macmillan Commission recording war damage in Europe during the Second World War show the emotive power of the cathedral and its ability to survive.
The Conway Library at The Courtauld is a collection of approximately one million photographic and printed images of architecture, sculpture and medieval painting. It was founded by the journalist, mountaineer, politician and pioneering art historian, Martin Conway, Lord Conway of Allington. Conway began collecting images of works of art as a student in the 1880s, and bequeathed his collection to The Courtauld Institute of Art when it was founded in 1932. The collection has been augmented since then by gifts from several other photographers and collectors (including Kersting and the Macmillan Collection), and by an active programme of photography in the second half of the 20th century. A project to provide a digitised version of the entire collection is currently underway.
Prints showing Notre-Dame before restoration
The following images were made by British artists travelling in France in the early 19th century. We have included them since they are not as well-known as the many images of the pre-restoration cathedral printed in France. The print by John Coney, the architectural draughtsman and engraver (1786-1833), shows the west front of the cathedral in its pre-restoration state with clarity and sharp detail. Frederick Nash (1782-1856) also specialised in architectural drawing. His image of the south side of the cathedral, here in a proof print for the publishers Longman and Co, dated 1820, shows the battered state of the south side of the cathedral itself in the early 19th century. It also shows clearly the chapel of the palace of the bishops of Paris, commissioned by Bishop Maurice de Sully alongside his new cathedral in the 1160s.
Early Photographs of Notre Dame taken during the restoration by Viollet-le-Duc and Lassus
Viollet-le-Duc took advantage of the modern medium of photography when he oversaw the restoration of the battered medieval cathedral between 1844 and 1864. Photography was in its infancy when his restoration began. Between 1847 and 1851, Blanquard-Evrard, a printer based in Lille, developed a new photographic technique to produce prints on salt-soaked paper from paper negatives. In 1851, he set up a short-lived company in Lille to publish images using this technique, including photographs of works at Notre-Dame, some of which are shown in this exhibition. 1851 saw the introduction of new techniques in both negatives and prints. The negative image was captured in a collodion film (also used for surgical dressings) applied to a glass plate, and the print image was now held in an albumen (egg white) film applied to paper – the latter invented by Blanquard-Evrard. Between them, the two new techniques gave a much sharper, clearer image than was possible with paper negatives and salt paper prints, and they were widely and immediately adopted by photographers. This exhibition shows an example by Bisson Frères, with their striking signature, and by Achille Quinet. The photographers of the other 19th-century albumen print photographs in this exhibition are anonymous. Their images were often printed and distributed by firms of printers like Blanquard-Evrard, or Quetier, as seen in this exhibition.
Photographs of Notre-Dame by a British Tourist, probably 1911
These are taken from a collection of photographs and negatives given to the Conway Library by Leicester Museum in 1959. The photographer, J.M. Stewart, was a doctor by profession. He travelled widely between circa 1890 and circa 1940. Before the First World War, he visited and photographed Toronto, the West Indies, New York, St Petersburg, and many cities in Europe, including Paris. His photographs focus on famous buildings, but he always shows them surrounded by people, so that his photographs have a lively sense of both time and place. He visited Paris in the early 20th century, probably in 1911, and took several photographs of Notre-Dame, still fairly recently restored, but already blackened by industrial pollution.
Photographs from the Macmillan Commission Collection
The Macmillan Commission was set up in the Second World War to record war damage to buildings and the built environment in Europe. Many of the photographs from this fascinating collection were taken by journalists, or by art historians embedded with the Allied forces in 1944-5. In most cases, the photographs are still attached to their original mounts, with original commentary by Macmillan Commission staff. More than any other photographs, these show Notre-Dame as the ‘mother church’ of the people of Paris, and form a counterpart to the images that we all saw of the shocked people of Paris watching the fire threaten to destroy their cathedral.
Photographs by A.F. Kersting
A.F. (Tony) Kersting (1916-2008), was widely considered the outstanding architectural photographer of his generation, particularly renowned for the photographs that he took for Country Life. For many years, his photographs were printed by the Photographic Department at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and he bequeathed his collection of negatives to the Conway Library after his death. The classic views of Notre-Dame shown here were taken in the early-post war years, 1958 and 1964. They evoke the Paris of Sartre and De Beauvoir. They also provide a point of comparison with the 19th-century photographs, and show how much the current cathedral owes to the vision of Viollet-le-Duc.
Lindy Grant, Professor of Medieval History, University of Reading.
Dr Tom Nickson, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Art History, The Courtauld Institute of Art.