MA History internship 2019

An image from: Report on the manufacture of sisal hemp at Togo Plantation, Togoland, 1919

The post below is made on behalf of Ed Thompson, who is undertaking an MA in Modern History at King’s. From January to April 2019, Ed undertook an internship in the Foyle Special Collections Library, in which he researched early photographic representations of the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

An online exhibition showcasing Ed’s work will be available here shortly.

By Ed Thompson

In a recent piece for the London review of books, Susan Pederson, Professor of History at Columbia University, has claimed that archival research acts as ‘the foundation for most breakthroughs in the field of history.’ Whilst my project does not claim to provide any significant ‘breakthroughs,’ having the opportunity to spend 100 hours amongst primary material gets to the heart of what it means to be a historian.

My time in the Foyle Special Collections Library has predominantly been spent collating and researching photographs of the British Empire contained within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) historical collection. Before its acquisition by King’s in 2007, the collection acted as a library for consultation by the staff of the FCO and its former associated offices of government and was described by Gladstone’s Foreign Minister, Lord Granville, as the ‘pivot on which the whole machinery of the Office turned.’

This internship has been exciting, novel and fascinating, with the potential to take my first foray into co-curating an exhibition presenting a challenging but engaging task.

The scope of the collection

The wide scope of the collection has brought me into contact with official documents and reports ranging from A collection of 1937 coronation celebration documents, which includes a programme of the first broadcast football match in Accra, now capital of Ghana and photographic representations of places like Cyprus and Hong Kong, to a work on Togolese Sisal hemp manufacture. Indeed, the materials remained in the process of being catalogued throughout my time, with new items of relevance being added to the catalogue on a weekly basis.

It has introduced me to both broad themes of colonial history and specific (at-times idiosyncratic) narratives and individuals. It can be easy to lose sight of individual tales given the size and depth of the British imperial project. Yet these tales can enlighten empire-wide themes, often hierarchical and profit-driven in nature and mostly presented through official reports.

An image from EW Birch’s 1885 report

EW Birch’s 1885 Report on the Cocos-Keeling Islands is an example. The Islands, situated in the Indian Ocean and now an external territory of Australia, became a formal part of the British Empire in 1857. Before this, from 1820, the Scottish Clunie-Ross family ruled the island as self-styled ‘kings,’ and continued to dominate the island until its sale to Australia in 1978.

The family enforced a racial and patrimonial hierarchy upon the indigenous peoples of the islands and Bantamese immigrants from Java. Whilst they had also appealed to the British government for the installation of a telegraph cable to connect them to the wider world, the seclusion of the Isands was almost absolute.

In the photographs from the report, Birch and his photographer Adams appeared to get along well with the Clunie-Ross family, who themselves had been educated amongst the British elite at Eton and Oxford.

A view of a village from EW Birch’s 1885 report

In this one unexpected example, the colonising behaviour of the British is put into view. Perceived European racial superiority was established as legal and economic realities, with the hierarchy revolving around the Clunie-Ross family. More than anything, it evidenced that the imperial project was as much a private enterprise as it was state-based.

For Birch, a government agent, photography presented a good medium through which he could visually exhibit this unfamiliar and remarkable territory.

The age of empire

The period described by Eric Hobsbawm as ‘the Age of Empire,’ (1875-1914) coincided with the rise and proliferation of photographic technology and, as one might expect, photography became more common in reports towards the beginning of the Second World War.

Hence, my project has brought me into contact with a wider field of theoretical discussion on the photograph, particularly in the colonial context. It has been particularly interesting to question the purpose and unspoken undertones in photographs of the period, an exercise which can reveal a great deal about the cultural processes that go into the creation of any image.

The collection can also demonstrate the complexities and heterodox nature of the imperial project and its agents. Therefore, my exhibition attempts to highlight as much of the full-range of photographic material as possible, covering many different areas and genres which are to be found within.

It is exciting to know that several of the photos included in the exhibition are being presented for the first time outside of their Foreign and Commonwealth Office context. Most of the photos used are originals, taken and stuck into typescript reports to inform officials in London and in governing areas as to the progress (or lack thereof) of varying events or projects in the colonial world.

Insights into the collections

Alongside the exhibition I have been given a fantastic insight into the work here at the Foyle Special Collections Library and have been given introductions to the role of cataloguing and digitisation. The latter has been a crucial part of this process and is of vital importance, in helping to preserve these images for later generations to examine for themselves.

It remains to be said that at times the materials I used were extremely distasteful (and offensive) by modern standards, yet it is imperative that rather than shying away from these sources, historians and indeed the wider public confront Britain’s imperial past and its legacy.

The British Empire remains a large, if often unspoken, influence on British society. Thus, investigating the ways in which colonial territories and subjects were presented is an invaluable exercise in comprehending British colonialism and gives a sense of the processes that have driven the particularities of continuing imperial influence.

As a final note, I would like to extend my thanks to the staff at the Foyle Special Collections Library for their help in directing me through the FCO Historical Collection and, of course, for fetching materials and then digitising most of the photos on display in the online exhibition.

Select bibliography

Eric Hobsbawm. Age of Empire: 1875-1914. London: Abacus, 1987

John Scott Hughes. Kings of the Cocos. London: Methuen, 1950

Susan Pederson. ‘I want to Love it: Eric Hobsbawm: a life in history by Richard J Evans’, London review of books, 41 8 (2019), p.14

James Ryan. Picturing Empire: photography and the geographical imagination. London: Reaktion, 1997

Nick Squires. From our correspondent: the man who lost a ‘coral kingdom’, 7 June 2007[http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/6730047.stm accessed 13 April 2019]

On the occasion of John Ruskin’s bicentenary

Self-portrait of John Ruskin aged 52. From: Terence Mullaly. Ruskin a Verona, 1966

This post is written by Sergio Alonso Mislata, Library Assistant in the Foyle Special Collections Library.

The 8 February 2019 marked the bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin (1819-1900), and I thought it would be unfair to let this go unmentioned, if only because there are some threads that link Ruskin to King’s College London.

Ruskin was the star art critic of his time: he was a fervent supporter of JMW Turner (1775-1851) and the Pre-Raphaelites; and had an important influence on William Morris (1834-96) and the Crafts Movement. He also had an enormous impact on the Gothic Revival.

With his passionate defence of the fragile architectural styles he saw in danger of disappearing across Europe, he established the spiritual foundation for conservation and heritage enterprises to follow. He was also a skilled draughtsman and watercolourist.

As well as being an art critic and academic (he became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1869), he wrote about many other subjects and was a distinguished advocate for social causes. This is not to say that there were not also shadows in his life, and that he did not have a complex personality.

Ruskin and King’s College London

A street scene from the northern Italian city of Vercelli, painted by Ruskin in 1846

A street scene from the northern Italian city of Vercelli, painted by Ruskin in 1846. From John Ruskin. The poetry of architecture, 1893

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Ruskin attended lectures at King’s (established 1829) during 1836, before he went into residence at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1837.

As a background to this most direct link to King’s, between 1833 and 1835 Ruskin had attended a school run by the Anglican priest Thomas Dale (1797-1870) of St Matthew’s Chapel in Denmark Hill. Thomas Dale was appointed professor of History and English Language at King’s in 1836 and Ruskin followed.

The second visible link of Ruskin to King’s has just been hinted at: he spent his childhood and an important part of his adult life in the Camberwell area, between Herne Hill and Denmark Hill, not far away from where King’s Denmark Hill Campus is located today. People familiar with the area will know that the name of the beautiful park that neighbours King’s College Hospital is no other than Ruskin Park.

Another connection with King’s is found in the King’s College London Archives where letters (and copies of letters) written by Ruskin to author George MacDonald, a King’s alumnus himself, and to Edgar Prestage, who would later become the first Camões Professor of Portuguese at King’s, can be found.

Items in our collections related to Ruskin

Most of the items by or about Ruskin in the Foyle Special Collections Library belong to either the Miscellaneous Collection or the Adam Collection. Items from the Adam Collection were part of the personal library of Romania-born literary editor Miron Grindea (1909-95). Below are some notable items which we hold in our collections.

Image of the tomb of Cansignorio, Verona, painted by Ruskin

Image of the tomb of Cansignorio, Verona, painted by Ruskin. From: Terence Mullaly. Ruskin a Verona, 1966

The first of these is The poetry of architecture (a collection of articles from the Architectural magazine, 1837-38, published as a book in England in 1893). In this book, Ruskin argues that the basis of all grace and the essence of beauty in architecture is a:

unity of feeling … its adaptation to the situation and climate in which it has arisen … its strong similarity to, and connection with, the prevailing turn of mind by which the nation who first employed it is distinguished

And much to his regret he feels he needs to highlight that the excesses and incongruence of English modern architecture denote an ignorance of this principle:

We have Corinthian columns placed beside pilasters of no order at all, surmounted by monstrosified pepper-boxes, Gothic in form and Grecian in detail, in a building nominally and peculiarly national

For this, he blames not only the architects who will not make an effort to capture the poetry of architecture. He wants to also appeal to the average person who lets the state of things go on unchecked with their passivity:

in a climate like ours, those few who have knowledge and feeling to distinguish what is beautiful, are frequently prevented by various circumstances from erecting it. John Bull’s comfort perpetually interferes with his good taste, and I should be the first to lament his losing so much of his nationality, as to permit the latter to prevail.

In Unto this last (1862), a book comprising articles about political economy published in Cornhill magazine in 1860, Ruskin says of these articles ‘I believe them to be the best, that is to say, the truest, the rightest-worded, and most serviceable things I have ever written; and the last of them, having had especial pains spent on it, is probably the best I shall ever write.’ The pamphlet The rights of labour according to John Ruskin  (1889), consists of excerpts of Unto this last arranged by Thomas Barclay.

The crown of wild olive: four lectures on industry and war (1912), comprises not only the 3 lectures included in the 1866 first edition of the book, entitled, ‘Work‘, ‘Traffic’, and ‘War’, but also a fourth lecture entitled ‘The future of England’, with the appendix ‘Notes on the political economy of Prussia’.

Special Collections also holds some exhibition catalogues related to Ruskin:

These two final exhibition catalogues include the essay ‘Proust and Ruskin’, by Marie Nordlinger-Riefstahl, which discuss the influence of Ruskin on Proust – the Frenchman being a notable translator of Ruskin.

Other publications about Ruskin include A disciple of Plato: a critical study of John Ruskin, by William Smart (1883), and a chapter (written by RH Wilenski) dedicated to him in the book The great Victorians (1932).

Photographic portrait of Ruskin aged 63

Photographic portrait of Ruskin aged 63. From Marcel Proust 1871-1922: an exhibition, 1956

More works by and about Ruskin can be found at the Maughan Library, including his most famous works: Seven lamps of architecture (first published in 1849) and The stones of Venice (first published between 1851-53).

I hope this brief overview has managed to spark your curiosity and that some of you might decide to use our wonderful resources to delve deeper into Ruskin’s work and life. A few final words by Wilenski to perhaps fuel this possibility:

There was a good deal of Cockney impudence in Ruskin; he was vain, conceited, and arrogant; and judged by modern standards, he was inadequately educated in most of the fields in which he worked … But he was a great man all the same. He is commonly regarded as a sentimental moralizing aesthetician. He was nothing of the kind. He was a man of action, who was condemned by an unlucky accident to act for the most part by means of words and sentences …

Select bibliography

France. Direction des Relations Culturelles. Marcel Proust and his time, 1871-1922. London: Wildenstein Gallery, 1955 [Adam Collection PQ2631.R63 F68]

R Hewison. Ruskin, John (1819–1900), art critic and social critic. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. Retrieved 4 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-24291

Terence Mullaly. Ruskin a Verona. Verona: Museo di Castelvecchio, 1966 [Adam Collection NC242.R8 M85 MUL]

Marcel Proust, 1871-1922. An exhibition of manuscripts, books, pictures and photographs. Manchester: Whitworth Art Gallery, 1956 [Adam Collection PQ2631.R63 Z725]

John Ruskin. The crown of wild olive: four lectures on industry and war. London: George Allen & Sons, 1912 [Adam Collection PR5255 RUS]

John Ruskin. The poetry of architecture. London: George Allen, 1893 Miscellaneous Collection FOL. NA2550 RUS]

John Ruskin. The rights of labour according to John Ruskin. Leicester: Chas D Merrick, [nd] [Miscellaneous Collection PAMPH. BOX HD8390 RUS]

John Ruskin. Unto this last. London: George Allen & Sons, 1912 [Adam Collection PR5261 RUS]

William Smart. A disciple of Plato: a critical study of John Ruskin. Glasgow: Wilson & McCormick, 1883 [Miscellaneous Collection PR5267.P5 SMA]

RH Wilenski. ‘John Ruskin’, in The great Victorians. London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd., 1932 [Hamilton Collection DA562 MAS]

The Interior of a Tank Factory: Thinking about how we explore images

Through my work in the archive and exploring our digital collections I’ve encountered several incredible photographs. Recently I have been preoccupied with thoughts on how we provide access to these images, and particularly how digital technology allows us to explore things in particular ways.

Through digitisation we have extremely high-resolution copies of original documents. These act as surrogates that we can share much more widely online, proving access beyond only to people who are physically close enough to visit the archives in person, which is great; access and knowledge are democratised. What I’ve found in looking through these high-resolution digital copies is that they change how I look at images.

This photograph is from the Stern collection here in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.

Interior of a British Tank Factory during the First World WarThis shows the interior of a tank factory during the First World War. The composition and lighting are striking. The sense of scale and level of industry and resources, both in terms of workers and material, are made very apparent.

The digital copy of this image was scanned at a resolution of 6,919 x 5,656 pixels. At this extremely high-resolution we can zoom right in and explore the image in great detail. As I zoomed and panned around I ended up lingering on different sections of the image, fascinated by vignettes I was seeing. I was drawn to the people.

The first thing I did was zoom in on the area showing the boys at the work bench. They seem so incredibly young. Looking back at the image as a whole, you can see them, but at this scale they become individuals, with their own lives.

Crop of Interior of a Tank Factory

These different faces and poses have such personality. My colleague and I spent time a long time exploring this one image, fascinated by all the individuals. As you go through each part in this way, zooming in and panning around, the screen becomes a new frame within the original frame of the photograph. Isolating elements of the photo in this way allows you to see things in different ways, and obviously at an incredible level of detail.

It seems clear that the workers have been called to look towards the camera. Some are posing, some are looking up from their work, and others are ignoring it and just carrying on.

Look at the pose of the man leaning on the tank tracks!

The upshot of all this is that I found this ability to zoom all the way in and pan around the image was a different experience to looking at the photograph as a whole. One could compare the experience to that of looking closely at a physical print of a photograph with a magnifying glass. I think the point is that we should carefully consider how we present digital copies of material to users. The technology is now such that we can provide this experience to people online, whereas even relatively recently a digital copy was a lesser version of the original, but at least you could see something. And having found that the experience of roving across the photograph impacted the thoughts and questions that were coming to me, I think it’s more than just ‘oh, we can stick really high-resolution images of photos online.’ The act of zooming and panning to create new frames within the image felt very different to just panning around a fixed level of zoom.

Due to storage limitations I can’t share the same experience in this blog. But there are tools available that mean in the near future we should be able to provide this experience to users accessing material remotely, looking through collections online. This democratises not only the access to material but also to the experience of getting extremely close to material.