2005: Persistence of Antiquity
The Persistence of Antiquity Research Project was an initiative developed by the Conway Library and the Research Forum to explore the history and archaeology of the Conway collection. Four Courtauld research students – three MA students and one doctoral student – were appointed to Research Assistantships, funded by the Research Forum. The 2005-6 Getty Research Institute theme, ‘Duration: Persistence of Antiquity’, was adopted as a tool with which the Research Assistants could excavate aspects of the Conway Library collection.
For the first term, two students were asked to explore the attitude of Lord Conway, the founder of the collection, to antiquity and its later reflections. The other two were asked to explore photographs of contemporary buildings and sculptures which in one way or another represented the persistence of antiquity. In the second term, these themes were slightly adjusted and refined.
Katharine Higgon started her work on Lord Conway with an exploration of monuments and objects produced in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, material with which Conway became increasingly interested. In the second term she focussed on Conway and the genesis of the collection, exploring Conway’s and Agnes Conway’s role in building up the collection of 19th-century prints of Rome. Her work led to a real understanding of Lord Conway’s working methods, in the context of the development of the subject of art history in Britain and Europe, to insights into how Conway’s collection was transformed when it came to the Courtauld Institute in the 1930s, and into the fate and transfer of early photograph collections in the early 20th century.
Seonaid Goody’s researches focussed on the classical sculpture holdings within the collection. She began by analysing Lord Conway’s, and his daughter Agnes’, own contribution in that area. In the second term, building on that analysis, she went on to consider how early approaches to photographing classical sculpture have contributed to the way that classical sculpture has been and continues to be understood, interpreted and discussed within the art historical discourse.
Hannah Parham worked on the ways in which photographers framed their images of contemporary buildings. In the first term she compared the visual responses of some 20th-century photographers to contemporary buildings which were classicising or modernist. The photographs of Robert Byron, in particular, proved a fruitful area of study. In the second term she extended this approach to analyse two collections of photographs: Charles Marville’s photographs of the new wing of the Palais de Justice in Paris, taken in the 1860s when the building was in the course of completion, and a fine set of photographs showing buildings of the Soviet State taken in the 1940s. Both sets show classicising buildings which represent the power of the state, and both sets were taken and distributed with clear political intent.
Silvia Loreti analysed photographer’s responses to the classicising and the classical. In the first term she explored the works of the early 20th-century sculptor Medardo Rosso, who used the relatively new medium of photography in both the creation and presentation of his own sculptures. She also showed how later studio photographs of his sculpture classicised his works and rendered them appropriate for appropriation by Mussolini’s Fascists. In the second term she explored the development of two iconic classical sites, the Acropolis and the Roman Forum, setting an analysis of their topographical development alongside an analysis of the way photographers between c.1850 and c.1930 responded to them, creating iconic images of place against an evolving topographical reality.
The students presented their researches Silvia Loreti’s report at two Conway workshop lunches, the first held on March 15th, the second on June 21st. Both were open to the research community at the Courtauld Institute; a few guest respondents were invited to the second workshop lunch. Both workshop lunches were felt to be very successful. The students ensured that their presentations were brief, leaving ample time for discussion. Discussion was lively and many complex questions to do with both collections and photographs were raised. It was felt that this initiative has provided new insights into the rich collection of collections which form the Conway Library. The students themselves have said that their work within the collection has enhanced their understanding of art history in its broadest sense.