Barbara Hepworth's Studio, Hampstead, c.1931
Paul Laib, Barbara Hepworth's Studio, Hampstead, c.1931

The De Laszlo Collection comprises 22,000 negatives, mostly glass plates, made by Paul Laib. Laib was a naturalised British subject, born in Hamburg circa 1870 and by 1901 living in South Kensington, working as a photographer. He made photographic records of paintings, drawings and sculpture for his artist clients. The majority of photographs were taken whilst work was in the artists’ possession and there are some studio shots showing artists at work or posed for a portrait. In addition Laib was commissioned to photograph private art collections of works from all periods; houses and their furnishings; stained glass and occasionally subjects as diverse as bridal bouquets and workers reaping herbs for Culpepper.

Amongst the many Laib negatives are some wonderful portraits of artists and studio interiors. Photographs from some of these are used in a small exhibition in Barbara Hepworth’s studio, St. Ives, for example, Hepworth’s Hampstead studio with curtains of her own design and sculpted works, both finished and in progress, un-worked stone, tools, pebbles and the accoutrements of daily life.

Amadeo Modidgliani, Study of a Girl
Amadeo Modidgliani, Study of a Girl, (Anne Bjarne),
Hugh Blaker Coll. detail

The Tate has a Laib print of Hepworth’s early work, Pierced Form, 1931 and the Witt was contacted for publication rights during the preparation of the catalogue for the centennial exhibition of Hepworth’s work. Pierced Form was destroyed during the War and Laib made the only existing photographic record of this work when it was in Hepworth’s Hampstead studio. Pierced Form is of considerable importance, being the first piercing of the closed form in Hepworth’s work, one of the main compositional and emotional developments in her sculpture. She said of the experience:

…in Pierced Form I felt the most intense pleasure of piercing the stone in order to make abstract form and space; quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism.

Robert Meyrick, Curator of the University Collection, Aberystwyth, consulted me hoping to reconstruct the collection of Hugh Blaker, a consultant, painter, critic, dealer and collector. Laib photographed Blaker’s collection, which included four works by Modigliani. Blaker claimed to be the first collector to buy Modigliani, 'the only man to give a tuppeny damn about 'em’. Unlike the picture that was eventually bequeathed to Tate after Blaker’s death in 1941,the remaining three Modiglianis in Blaker’s collection had been unidentified, until we found one of the three, a study of a young girl, identified as Anne Bjarne, photographed by Laib and previously unrecorded. The identity of the two remaining Modigliani pictures lies hidden somewhere in the Laib negatives.

Hepwoth and Modigliani were linked for me by my visit this summer to the Barbara Hepwoth Centennial Exhibition at St. Ives. On the tour our guide mentioned that Hepworth and her contemporaries at the Royal College of Art had been influenced partly by the work of Modigliani.

I recently met Robert McNab, of the Artists on Film Trust, to discuss the possibility of using this archive to raise awareness of this kind of visual material in the study of art history. McNab defines photographic portraits of artists and their environment as archaeological evidence on which to document the history of an artist’s life. As film is a series of stills, is it proposed that photographs made from Laib’s negatives will make an appropriate contribution to the work of the Trust.

Meanwhile the negatives made by Laib remain largely unknown. They were saved from destruction by Patrick De Lazslo, son of the portrait painter. The collection was given to the Courtauld in 1974 as the De Lazslo Gift. They are important en masse as a document of artists working in the early 20th century, their patrons, their subject matter and their social and working environment. It is also a document of an individual photographer, his patrons and working methods and an archive of great significance in the study and scholarship of the history of photography. Conservation and cataloguing of the Collection is a large project and urgently in need of funding. Anyone interested in the De Laszlo Collection and wishing to contribute to this project please make contact with me or with Jennifer Evans, Director of Development.

Witt Librarian