Rhoda Welsford, Courtauld Librarian 1932-1957 Founder of Photographic Survey, 1953, Head, 1957-1961
Rhoda Welsford, Courtauld Librarian 1932-1957 Founder of Photographic Survey, 1953, Head, 1957-1961

Just over 50 years ago, with the assistance of the Pilgrim Trust, the Courtauld Institute acquired a van. It was specifically for use on photographic expeditions, with a roof-rack for carrying an extra-long folding ladder. It could be turned into a basic darkroom so that film could be changed in the dark-slides that are needed for the plate cameras still used in much fine art photography. Until recently we still had to look out for a completely dark cupboard somewhere in a country house so that the photographer could change film. Although unlovely and utilitarian, the van transformed the activities of the Photographic Libraries and opened up new horizons for the Institute. Its purchase also marked the establishment of the Photographic Survey of Private Collections.

In that first year Photo Survey made a brave start by photographing collections at Warwick Castle, Cowdray Park, Aynho Park, Bowood and Longleat, among others. The concept had been mooted around 1931-2 by Miss Rhoda Welsford, the Courtauld’s all-powerful Librarian (with sway over the Book Library as well as the Conway and Witt Libraries) and she appears to have developed the more detailed scheme with Anthony Blunt and Ellis Waterhouse following a decisive luncheon with Miss Frick in the summer of 1953; the latter was to provide financial support, and set up the American part of the all-important subscription scheme. Blunt was aware of possible pitfalls closer to home. In a letter to Miss Frick, of 23rd September, he pointed out that the full co-operation of the English butler — as he put it, "that most remarkable but prejudiced race of men" — was "absolutely essential in these projects". He was right, although these days they are rarer.

Over the years the Institute’s Photographic Department has undertaken almost all the photography. Former members of the Department remember Miss Welsford with cautious respect, whilst colleagues in the Photographic Libraries thought her 'a wonderful woman’. The files show that she oversaw all stages of the operation, requiring the owner to provide not only elevenses and tea but also three strong men, an electrician and a carpenter, plus a sturdy table.

As Blunt pointed out, photography in private houses is very specialised work; it has to be done quickly, often with great ingenuity and always with great care. It is labour-intensive, whether the photography is done in situ, sometimes using scaffolding, or in an improvised studio; the latter is usually down a long corridor with uneven flooring, up or down some steps, in an icy room where the photographer impatiently awaits the next picture to take his or her mind off the cold and the lack of a view (the shutters are always closed in order not to interfere with the lighting of the picture). And of course there’s always the legendary 'East Wing’ that no-one mentioned earlier, the existence of which is revealed the day before we are due to depart. We have not yet encountered Miss Havisham, but we have wondered about the odd ghost.

Fortunately, Professor Blunt was over-pessimistic in his observation that English owners are "apt to be rather tired of the whole business of picture photography". Fifty years on we can say that we have cornered a niche market and won a reputation for ourselves worldwide. We now have a veritable archive, having photographed and catalogued some 70,000 works of art in over 500 private collections. Over the years many discoveries have been made and still there remain great and small collections which are little known. The contents of these often uncatalogued collections can continue to be made accessible to scholars and members of the public alike through Photo Survey, which guards the interests of the owners of collections by protecting their anonymity (if they so wish) and has carefully built up and nurtured relationships of trust over the last 50 years. Now we are looking forward to the next fifty years and establishing a new system that will serve us and our users as well or even better. The benefits of digital photography, electronic subscriptions and - blessing of blessings — a database, are all there to be seized and moulded to our purposes. If Blunt and Miss Welsford could but see us now . . .

Jane Cunningham and Melanie Blake

Issue no. 17 : Spring 2004 Newsletter