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William Henry Fox Talbot and the Variety of the Photographic Archive: Exploring Oxford’s Photography Collections

History of Art at Oxford University

By Dr Mirjam Brusius

Last month’s blog post talked about the strong ties between the discipline of art history and the medium of photography. These ties go back to the very beginnings of photography whose 175th anniversary we celebrated this year. In 1839, photography was announced to the public in France by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787 –1851) and in Britain by the English Victorian scientist William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). While Daguerre’s images, the Daguerreotype, were unique copies on a silver plate, Talbot’s process, the calotype, was reproducible and became the technique that we used until recently, when the birth of digital photography made analogue photographs almost redundant. Talbot is now primarily remembered as the inventor of photography, but he was an antiquarian and gentleman of science. From the beginning, Talbot’s interests ranged across the natural sciences, classical scholarship and, above all, decipherment of cuneiform script. 1839, when most thought him…

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Pterodactyls and bootprints

One of the pleasures of being a conservator is that unlike art historians, we are not necessarily restricted to the output of a particular period or country. This means that over the last few years I’ve worked with 16th century Persian manuscripts, First World War documents, and during my recent post at Tate, with a huge variety of 20th and 21st century art (including works produced within the last month!).

Possibly my favourite project whilst at Tate was the conservation of a collection of Graham Sutherland sketchbooks, which are part of the Archives holdings. The Archives at Tate are really something special: not just documents such as letters and diaries, but countless sketchbooks, drawings, studies, photographs, ephemera: often works that would be displayable as “art” in their own right. The Archives are currently involved in a project to digitise some of the collection and make it more accessible to the public, which is a wonderful thing as the images of the work will be of great benefit to researchers and the interested public. Sutherland’s sketchbooks were lovely to work with as they tell you a lot about his working processes: he would have a sketchbook per project (including one full of pterodactyls, probably associated with the painting The Origins of the Land, in Tate’s collection) and clearly worked in a very rough-and-ready way. Paint splashes everywhere, dog-eared corners, squashed spiral-bound rings, and sometimes bootprints. I imagine him in his studio with all his sketchbooks open on the floor, treading on the paper as he tries to transfer his vision to the canvas. I wrote a blog post for Tate’s own website about the project, which you can find here. Due to copyright, I haven’t reproduced any images here so do please follow the link to see!

A Journey with Lapis Lazuli Pigment

A Journey with Lapis Lazuli Pigment

An enlightening post from Anita Chowdry regarding lapis lazuli and preparing it for use. Particularly interesting to see how useless the Cennini recipe is!

Anita Chowdry

Premium quality Lapis Lazuli from the collection of David Margulies (copyrighted image) Premium quality Lapis Lazuli from the collection of David Margulies (copyrighted image)

Just look at that – a beautiful precious Blue, its subtle variety of shades and striations, shot through with streaks of calcite and glittering iron pyrites, describing some imaginary landscape. It is the original royal-blue, the best blue ever, valued as a jewel and a pigment for millennia  both in  the Occident and the Orient. It graces the pages of the most opulent and sumptuous manuscripts of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, along with gold, cinnabar, red lead and copper greens, equally valued as the ornaments of choice for volumes sacred and secular in Christendom and the Islamic world.

Premium quality lapis lazuli pigment made by David Margulies Premium quality lapis lazuli pigment made by David Margulies  (copyrighted image)

The first time I encountered a quantity of fine quality lapis pigment was in the very early 1990s, when I met David Margulies, who had a shop…

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Historical Graffiti

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Graffiti has a complex place in the world: sometimes art, sometimes defacement, sometimes territory-marking or social campaigning. Above all, it often speaks of some kind of primal need to leave a mark: a name or identifier that is personal to the individual. More mundanely perhaps, it just speaks of boredom and the idle need to fill some time. So the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Society’s survey to identify and record pre-Reformation graffiti in Medieval churches reveals that in past times the urge has been just a strong, and reveals  that many a church-goer had the urge to inflict a lasting mark on their surroundings – whether due to boredom, religious fervour, or some other kind of passion. These marks have a wonderful sense of immediacy – a crack in time showing how our ancestors hands were compelled to do the same things as we do today, similar to the marginalia, doodles and notes that can often be found in contemporary library and school books, as well as historic manuscripts.

When fresh and recently applied, a scribbled name or unwanted comment can be distracting and infuriating. Sometimes, it can be far worse than this – a recent trip to the extraordinary Davit Gareja monastery complex in Eastern Georgia showed copious amounts of 20th century (and maybe more recent) graffiti across the 10-13th century frescos.

11th century Last Supper Fresco at Udabno, Davit Gareja

11th century Last Supper Fresco at Udabno, Davit Gareja

Graffiti on fresco at Udabno, Davit Gareja

Graffiti on fresco at Udabno, Davit Gareja

However, the same holiday also encompassed a visit to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, where 9th century Viking names carved into a ledge have become an attraction in their own right. It helps that like much of the graffiti recorded by the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Society, at least Halvdan and Are chose a fairly plain surface to inscribe their names on, recording them for posterity to an extent they may have not been able to imagine. Still, it’s worth considering this advice when tempted to leave your mark somewhere:

Window sign, NYC

Window sign, NYC


Voyeuristic book-making

An author friend of mine Viccy Adams recently prevailed upon me to assist with a creative project at Hack the Barbican. The brief was to use (or ‘hack’) the Barbican’s spaces and facilities to create an installation, so our project book / jacket focused on ‘stealing’ overheard conversations and cctv-style snapshot images (both collected on site), which we then immediately printed out and sewed into little booklets. We hoped the books would be pocketed and slipped into coats and bags, and discovered again later, as a kind of voyeuristic record of a visit to the Barbican.

We wanted to make the booklets appealing and covetable, as well as maintaining an ad-hoc aesthetic in order to reflect their origins as collated material rather than created material. Using a Japanese-style stab sewn binding allowed us to produce these booklets quickly on-site with minimum equipment, whilst having creative input in choosing thread colours and different sewing patterns so each one could be unique. I think this made a really nice contrast between the impersonal ‘found’ images and text inside and the hand-sewn, crafted nature of the sewing. Viccy has written a post about the project too, which includes a very nice slideshow with all the images and text so I recommend having a look.  We were also interviewed by Laura Davidson, who has explained in more detail Viccy’s inspiration and aims for the project.

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IWM Young Reporters Workshop

Following on from the podcast interview with IWM’s Young Reporters, we decided to offer them a series of workshops with the conservation and collections care staff at the museum. This was a unique chance to show 9 and 10 year olds around our studio, and then teach them some of the techniques and skills that we use in our day-to-day treatments. I found this a really exciting project to be involved in – although I often talk about my work I rarely get the opportunity to actually be involved with hands-on workshops, and I think what we do makes much more sense when you see it in action. Obviously we’d rather not encourage amateurs to attempt their own conservation, but I do think it could be valuable for children to see what our profession is and maybe consider it as a career for themselves, especially as the conservation workforce in the UK is rather homogeneous. The good thing for us was that this kind of workshop does not involve self-selected candidates coming of their own volition (i.e. those who already visit museums and might know about our work), but rather brings a whole class along (whether they like it or not!) who may never learn about our profession otherwise. Anyway, I wrote up my experiences of the workshops for IWM’s own blog, which can be found here: Young Reporters: Cleaning and Repairing First World War Posters
You can also find posts by my colleagues about the other workshops they ran, on objects conservation, bug hunting, and book binding. I think I can safely say we all found the experience rewarding, and many of the children professed an interest in becoming a conservator following the workshops. However I also suspect that the bug-hunting session may have been far and away the most popular of the classes…

Visible Conservation, and an Islamic Art Lecture

Whenever conservators come out from their studios and into gallery spaces the public are invariably fascinated and keen to engage with us and our slightly hidden area of work. The British Museum’s Conservation in Focus project involved setting up a temporary studio in one of the galleries so that visitors could see conservation treatments taking place and ask questions of the conservators. Whenever I visited during this exhibition, the gallery was always busy and visitors took a great interest in conservation treatments. Fine art exhibitions are starting to reflect this area of interest by including science and conservation details in the text used on interpretation panels and the materials they provide as part of the exhibition: a recent example is the Tate’s Rothko exhibition which included conservation light-boxes to display the findings of research into Rothko’s technique and materials. There is an evaluation of how visitors reacted to this information here , and this quote tells us a lot about how much this kind of in-exhibition resource is valued:

The new insights provided in this room were generally greatly appreciated, with many visitors reporting that this section changed their viewing habits in later rooms. The majority of visitors we spoke to would like similar resources in future exhibitions. Even those who were not interested in conservation were still glad that the information was available for others. Visitors tended to be surprised by this section and were not expecting this kind of content in the Rothko exhibition.

A current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art similarly uses the research and findings of conservators to inform their exhibition Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art (ends August 4th). A variety of events have run alongside this exhibition, including several lectures and discussions which have  generously been made available on the website. Most of all, I would like to direct your attention to this Arts of the Book Lecture, given by Associate Conservator Yana van Dyke who is a leading expert in the field of conservation of Islamic art on paper.