Lord Conway's companions including A.D.McCormick, sculpt a snow bust of Conway in the Himalayas in 1892. Photograph on early roll film, by Lord Conway
Lord Conway's companions including A.D.McCormick, sculpt a snow bust of Conway in the Himalayas in 1892. Photograph on early roll film, by Lord Conway.

Lord Conway was unlucky in his biographer, the formidable medievalist, Dame Joan Evans. She disapproved of him. She thought him a dilettante and a journalist rather than a scholar and an art historian. She found him an unprincipled politician, who shifted effortlessly from Liberal to Conservative. She found his dogged pursuit of a baronetcy, and his continual demands for money from his American in-laws - he had married a news-paper heiress - reprehensible. His dealing in works of art offended her sensibilities: she had little understanding of the sort of man who might have to buy his own furniture. And she saw little point in his greatest love - mountaineering. It is easy to follow Dame Joan, a woman of grace, distinction, and substantial private means, in dismissing Martin Conway as an opportunist who squandered his undoubted talents in too many directions. But there were real achievements.

His political career was the least of them, though it brought him a Liberal knighthood and a Tory baronetcy. His mountaineering career was one of real distinction, at a time when the British were effectively inventing alpinism as a science. He climbed extensively in the Alps, the Andes and the Himalayas, and led surveying expeditions to the Himalayas and Spitzbergen. A luminary of both the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society, he wrote spirited and often moving accounts of his experiences in the mountains.

The finished Conway with cap and pipe
The finished Conway with cap and pipe

What interested Joan Evans was his career as an art historian. He held the first chair of Art History at Liverpool University, and was appointed Slade Professor at Cambridge in 1894. He sat on the boards of various national museums, and he was founder and first director of the Imperial War Museum. He wrote and lectured incessantly about art, on everything from Merovingian sarcophagi to the art treasures of Soviet Russia. Much of this was journalism, for Conway had to earn a living. But he produced serious and lasting scholarship too. His analysis of the liturgical treasures of the abbey of Saint-Denis was ground-breaking, and retains its place in the extensive bibliography of the abbey. His tastes and range of knowledge were catholic. He enjoyed German and Italian Renaissance painting, but his interests and expertise focussed increasingly on early medieval sculpture, ivories and metalwork. Apart from the Saint-Denis article, he published little on this material, but the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his scholarship are apparent in his many notations on photograph mounts in the Conway Library.

He collected and dealt in works of art with the same catholicity - Persian faïence, medieval statuary, fine furniture and Renaissance painting. In The Sport of Collecting (1914), a charming book, in which he readily admits the role of sheer good luck, he describes some of his happiest finds. He had a weakness for collecting castles. He bought Allington Castle in Kent and restored it lovingly. After his first wife's death, he married the widowed owner of Saltwood Castle (which was bought, after her death by Kenneth, the future Lord, Clark) and he was sorely tempted when Hurstmonceaux came on the market.

But his most important collection was the archive of photographs of architecture, sculpture and medieval painting, which bears his name. He began collecting the photographs as a student in the 1870s. A frequent visitor to Germany, he was aware that art history was emerging in German universities as a new discipline - a discipline that could only be pursued as a serious science by amassing together images of its primary material, much as 19th century scholars worked to amass in the Rolls Series, or Patrologia Latina, or the Recueil des historiens de la France, or Monumenta Germaniae Historica, the primary sources on which the pursuit of history would depend. At first, he collected images of all art, but in 1903, he discovered that Robert Witt was doing much the same. They agreed to divide the task between them: Witt would collect painting from the Renaissance onwards; Conway would collect architecture, sculpture in all its many forms, and medieval painting. Witt and Conway regarded their collections as complimentary and as constituting the national collection of art historical images. They considered housing the collections at the V&A or the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge. But when the Courtauld Institute was founded in 1931, it was immediately seen as the obvious home for both collections.

Conway died in 1937. His collection has grown since his death to around 1 million images. Other important collections have been added over the years. Some of the earliest came through Conway's own connections, including, for instance, an important set of some 50 glass and film negatives of Armenian monuments, taken in 1893/4 by Conway's friend and fellow mountaineer and politician, H.F.B.Lynch, for his great two-volume Armenia, published in 1901. Conway used them in articles he wrote for Country Life in 1916 on the destruction of Armenian monuments. The Conway has also expanded by means of photographic expeditions, and by providing film and prints to Courtauld students undertaking research for their MAs or PhDs. Conway would surely have approved. He was a keen photographer himself, of both monuments and mountains.

Conway's collection has changed. His conviction that "straightforward things such as cathedrals, Greek sculpture, vases, barb-arian jewels - these and their like slip easily into their places" in a system that classified by century, and then by Art was hopelessly optimistic. It soon became necessary to rearrange architecture topographically.

New technology has driven the most recent changes to the collection. Parts of it are now catalogued electronically, and digitisation of images is opening up exciting new possibilities. Thanks to a generous gift from the Gil and Ilkiko Butler Foundation, the Conway has digitised its 19th century photographs of Rome. Thanks to four enthusiastic interns from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the digitised images and their catalogue will soon be launched on the web with a neat and searchable interface. If the Courtauld Institute's NOF bid is successful, we will be able to put 100,000 digitised images from the Conway onto the web. This however is a mere 10% of the archive, and we will need more funding to continue the digitisation process.

Would Lord Conway have approved? I think on balance he would have done. He himself always kept up with the latest technical developments. On his 1892 expedition to the Himalayas, for instance, he used roll film, which only became available in 1889. In 1927, he toyed with the possibilities of recording lectures on art for the gramophone. This last is revealing. He was, in the best sense of the word, a populist where art was concerned. He felt strongly that all should have access to it. Unlike Joan Evans, he saw no incompatibility between his scholarship and his journalism. His approach was, perhaps, informed by his American family connections and sympathies. He saw his photographs as forming, along with Witt's, the national collection of images of art, and he would surely have delighted in the wide access to his archive that the new technologies offer.

Lindy Grant
The Conway Library