The Ministry of Works collection: Photographs and images from the Conway Library - The Courtauld Institute of Art

The Ministry of Works collection: Photographs and images from the Conway Library

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The Ministry of Works collection:
Photographs and images from the Conway Library

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

The war damage collection, known informally as the ‘Ministry of Works’ bequest, has never before been seen in its entirety and 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.


Allies clear Caen Streets

 

Allies clear Caen Streets

British troops operate a bulldozer as they clear the main street of Caen, after the British and Canadian troops captured the city July 6’ 44 ending a month long struggle. The Abbey Auxhommes (sic), one of the two famous abbeys built be William the Conqueror, can be seen in the background. Caen stands on the River Orne, 16 kilometres from the coast. It was the centre of the German lines in Normandy and had been strongly defended since the Allies landed 6 ’44. The main railway line from Cherbourg runs through Caen to Paris and to the South. It is also an important road junction, five highways meeting in Caen, to provide good road communications with Rouen and Le Havre on the Seine and with all other parts of Normandy. Liberation of Caen not only gives the allies a useful port at the opposite end of the Normandy front from Cherbourg, which is being rehabilitated for the direct unloading of military supplies, but with the capture of La Haye de Puits by U.S. troops July 8’44 it lengthens the Normandy front to 93 miles.
WAR POOL PHOTO, NOT FOR USE IN BRITISH ISLES OR WESTERN HEMISPHERE
SERVICED BY LONDON OWI TO LIST B
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY STAFF CENSOR AP29604


Art treasures found in Germany

 

Private William Scollie of Chicago, Illinois, an infantryman in the First U.S. Army, examines process statues from the cathedrals of Aachen and Cologne in an underground cave at Siegen, Germany.

Private William Scollie of Chicago, Illinois, an infantryman in the First U.S. Army, examines process statues from the cathedrals of Aachen and Cologne in an underground cave at Siegen, Germany. The religious statues were stored here with other art treasures and were found by the Americans when they captured Siegen, an important Ruhr communications center, April 4, 1945. Siegen is 45 miles east of the Rhine.
U.S. Signal Corps Photo ETO-HQ-45-30106
Serviced by London OWI to List B-1
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY STAFF CENSOR
PNA EA60923


Twin steeples safe

 

The famed twin steeples of its church remain intact having escaped any serious damage.

Associated Press Photo Shows: Although St. Hilaire Du Harcourt suffered severe damage. The famed twin steeples of its church remain intact having escaped any serious damage.
GROSSI 270647
(STOCK)
13844. v.

PASSED BY CENSOR NO 349285


Bastille Day services in France

 

In the cemetery beside the frame of a shelled French church, the townsfolk of Maisy gather with American soldiers to honour them men who died to liberate the Normandy village at special services Bastille Day July 14, 44 on the 155th anniversary of French independence.

In the cemetery beside the frame of a shelled French church, the townsfolk of Maisy gather with American soldiers to honour them men who died to liberate the Normandy village at special services Bastille Day July 14, 44 on the 155th anniversary of French independence.
US SIGNAL CORPS PHOTO ETO-HQ-447499
SERVICED BY LONDON OWI
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY CENSOR 

BIPPA EA29753


Church salvage work begins in Normandy

 

M. Rene Lavavasseur lists damage to the bell of the Church of St Jacques of Montebourg

Rene Lavavasseur, Cherbourg architect charged by the French Government with the preservation of historical monuments in the Department of La Manche, lists damage to the beautifully sculptured bell of the Church of St Jacques of Montebourg, before making plans for repair of the tower which was damaged in the fighting for the beachheads nearby. 
PWD-OWI STAFF PHOTO BY GEORGE GREB
SERVICED BY LONDON WOI TO (FILES)
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR
PNS


U.S. Soldiers visit damaged church

 

 in the nave of a Catholic church near Carentan, American soldiers chat with the parish priest

Framed in the nave of a Catholic church near Carentan, American soldiers chat with the parish priest, who is showing them image wrought to the edifice during the routing of the Nazis forces from the area.
US SIGNAL CORPS PHOTO ETO-HQ-44-7762
SERVICED BY LONDON OWIL
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR

PNA EA 29906


U.S. Nurses walk through Caesar’s Arch

 

Nurses of a field hospital of the Third U.S. Army walk through the arch of the “Porta Nigra” near Trier, Germany.

Nurses of a field hospital of the Third U.S. Army walk through the arch of the “Porta Nigra” built during Caesar’s time near Trier, Germany. Left to right they are: Lieutenant Dorothy Norris of Loogootee, Indiana; Lieutenant Marguerite Chapman of Norwich, Connecticut; Lieutenant Ruth McDonald of Braintree Massachusetts, and Lieutenant Marjorie Nash of Portland, Maine. Trier, captured March 2, 1945, is the oldest city in Germany.
U.S. SIGNAL CORPS PHOTO ETO-HQ-45-21102
SERVICED BY LONDON OWI (FILES)
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR

PNA EA 58637


Ruins of a German church

An American soldier stands amid the ruins of a church in Erkelenz, Germany.

An American soldier stands amid the ruins of a church in Erkelenz, Germany. A large crucifix still hangs from the rafters. Erkelenz was cleared of the enemy February 26, 1945, as Ninth U.S. Army troops drove toward the industrial city of Munchengladbach
U.S. SIGNAL CORPS PHOTO ETO-HQ-45-16157
SERVICED BY THE LONDON OTI (INNER FULL)
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR
PNA EA 5 931


The devastation of Cologne

 

A view of the devastation wrought by bombing in Cologne, fourth largest city of the Reich.

A view of the grim devastation wrought by bombing in Cologne, fourth largest city of the Reich. This picture was taken from the towers of Cologne cathedral and shows the wrecked and blasted Hangbruck Bridge – which once spanned the Rhine*.
ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO
ALLEN/BKA 376112
9345 .GP.
SPECIAL FEE: WEEKLIES £2.2S.0D MINIMUM
(SEE STAMP)
PASSED BY THE CENSOR B NO 396648
( * Should be the Hohenzollern Bridge)


Cassino captured by allied troops

 

A view of the Abbey on Monastery Hill after its capture by Allied troops

A special communique from Allied Headquarters in Italy on May 18th announced the capture of the town of Cassino and the Abbey on Monastery Hill by Allied troops. The final assault on the town was carried out by British troops while Polish troops took the Monastery.
Picture shows – A view of the Abbey on Monastery Hill after its capture by Allied troops, taken from the air by an official R.A.F. photographer.
(PICTURE ISSUED MAY 1944)
British official photograph No C. 4365 (XP)
(Air Ministry Photograph – Crown Copyright Reserved)


Tom Bilson, Head of Digital Media, The Courtauld Institute of Art.

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