The Conway Library contains almost 1 million photographs of world architecture, architectural drawings, sculpture, decorative arts and manuscripts. The collection is arranged by time period, and then alphabetically by nationality and location.
Primary visual content: Reproductions of architecture, sculpture, manuscripts and decorative arts.
Primary medium: Photographic prints, mounted onto paper mounts.
Origin: Mostly original photography undertaken by Courtauld staff; some bequests.
Estimated size of collection: 939,410 images in 57,044 folders in 9,892 boxes.
The collection consists of photographs and cuttings of architecture, architectural drawings and publications, sculpture, ivories, seals, metalwork, manuscript illumination, stained glass, wall paintings, panel paintings and textiles.
Martin Conway (later Lord Conway of Allington - 1856 - 1937) began collecting as well as taking photographs of art and architecture whilst a student. In 1885, at the age of 28, he was offered the post of Roscoe Professor of Art at Liverpool, and in 1901 he became Slade Professor at Cambridge. A meeting with Robert Witt in 1903 caused him to focus his collecting activities on architecture, sculpture and medieval painting, leaving Witt to collect post-medieval paintings. A writer, traveller and mountaineer, one of his interests was using photography as a record of buildings that might suffer war damage (Conway was instrumental in establishing the Imperial War Museum in 1917, and became its first Director General).
He wrote in Country Life in 1916:
The destruction of Louvain and Rheims, the peril still to be evaded of other Belgian and North Italian cities – these horrors are generally realised and deplored; but how many are conscious of the danger that has threatened remoter architectural treasures? Some of them of an almost equal importance, and the more to be deplored because the threatened buildings have not been thoroughly studied, planned and photographed.
Conway’s daughter, Agnes, helped her father with his photographs and publications – on the front cover of The Courtauld Library copy of Conway’s Historical Paintings in the Houses of Parliament, he has crossed out his own name and written Agnes’ instead, to acknowledge the true author of the work. Agnes worked with him in preparing his collection for donation to The Courtauld in 1932. In the intervening years up to his death in 1937, Conway worked with The Courtauld’s then-librarian, Rhoda Welsford, on the filing system and box structure of the collection.
Many of these images are original photographs donated to the collection in the form of prints or negatives. The bulk of the collection comprises prints from staff photographers and graduate students whose informed insights make the library an especially valuable instrument of research.
The Conway is divided by subject: Architecture, Architectural Drawings, Sculpture, Decorative Art and Manuscripts, and then by date. Each section is idiosyncratic in its organisation: there is no over-arching system of cataloguing: in most sections the primary classification is location, in others (e.g. manuscripts) it is date, and in some it is material or subject matter.
Each box is hand-labelled with information relating to period, nation, and subject matter. Boxes hold an irregular number of open folders and a varying number of corresponding loose-leaf mounts.
In 2017 The Courtauld began digitising its Witt and Conway photographic collections. Through using two entirely different methods, one outsourced to a commercial contractor, the other in-house engaging volunteers, we have been able to gain a clear understanding of the economic, practical and social benefits of both approaches as well as making excellent progress. Both projects are led by Tom Bilson, Head of the Digital Media Department.
Our initial discussions about digitising the Conway with the National Lottery Heritage Fund – one of the major funders for Courtauld Connects – made us realise that the levels of public engagement and benefit expected of an organisation receiving their support could not be achieved through contracting out the work. The answer was to rescope the project from one conducted externally, and in a relatively short space of time, to one carried out entirely in-house by volunteers between 2017 and 2022.