This guest post is courtesy of first year Architecture student Theodora Stefan, who has been working on the collection of architectural historian Adrian Gibson (d.2006) as part of a CUROP project with the Welsh School of Architecture and Special Collections and Archives.
As a first year architecture student at Cardiff University, I have been studying the complex relationship between photography and architecture. I have been particularly fascinated by the evolution of photography and its recognition as ‘art’ in its own right, and so I was delighted to have the opportunity to work with the Welsh School of Architecture and the Special Collections and Archives team on a summer research placement, ‘Scoping and Safeguarding the Adrian Gibson Collection’.
Architectural historian Adrian Gibson (1931–2006) was the foremost authority of his time on the study of timber-framed buildings, and his collection of 20,000 photographic slides was donated to Cardiff University in 2017. As well as images of historical timber-framed buildings, there are photos of archaeological digs, and nine A3 portfolios of intricate drawings and notes by Adrian Gibson and Cecil Hewett. For a student, and indeed anyone interested in historic or photographic architecture, this collection provides a truly unique resource.
However, like most new donations, the descriptive information is minimal and inconsistent, and in some cases lacking entirely. My role is to analyse the collection and create an electronic list of the contents. I have also been tasked with improving the physical storage of the slides, which are currently in random order in metal filing cabinets. Many are dusty and inappropriately packed in acidic paper packages secured with deteriorating elastic bands, jeopardising the sustainability and accessibility of the collection for immediate and future research. Part of my role will also involve repackaging the slides in acid free boxes, thus ensuring their survival, while my list and analysis will provide an essential insight into the contents of the collection for current and future researchers.
Passionate about archaeology as well as vernacular architecture, Adrian Gibson managed to create a truly beautiful and diverse collection. The slides are evidence of his extensive journeys throughout Britain as well as Europe, showcasing his never-ending enthusiasm and desire to travel, analyse and employ a comprehensive recording system. He photographed the finest construction details and facade embellishments as well as creating a visual record of impressive interiors and surviving timber framing systems. At the start of the programme I envisioned that I would primarily work with slides containing information about timber frame buildings mainly from Essex, Sussex and Wales, and was initially completely unaware of the real potential and complexity of the collection.
Nevertheless, once I started recording and transferring the metadata I became aware of just how elaborate, comprehensive, and incredibly diverse the collection is, addressing subjects such as Romanesque, Gothic, Classical Revival and English Baroque architecture as well as early medieval and Anglo-Saxon architectural remnants. In addition, I uncovered multiple packages of slides visualising famous megaliths such as Pentre Ifan, Carreg Sampson and Cortan, with many depicting distinct points of interest and view angles of these prehistoric architectural forms.
The collection is stored in five filing cabinets containing up to 4000 slides each. The challenge is to sort out each drawer, copying the metadata written on the packages, counting the slides and ordering the misplaced ones. This is surprisingly a refreshing and intellectually stimulating activity, as each and every package has its own points of interest, and the research process that follows the sorting and the description is something that truly enriches my architectural knowledge.
Last week, for example, I came across multiple packages with technical drawings, sections, plans and elevations of one of the oldest surviving architectural complexes in the UK. The medieval barns located in Cressing Temple, near Braintree in Essex, were once owned by the Knights Templar. This exquisite example of English vernacular architecture was carefully recorded and investigated by Adrian Gibson, offering me an extensive insight into timber framing construction and the assembly process, as well as the geometry of both the Barley and Wheat Barn.
By contrast, among many intriguing examples of Romanesque vestiges from France, I came upon the Jumièges Abbey, a mid-7th century monastic assembly that was reconstructed in the 11th century following extensive deterioration caused by Viking raids. The remaining yet majestic stone ruin depicts a former impressive Romanesque abbey held in high regard by the famous William the Conqueror, whose origins can be traced to Normandy. This week, I encountered multiple 17th and 18th century English halls, designed in either Adam or Wren style, as well as a 13th century property, bearing the name of Stokesay, which was once owned by one of the most powerful wool tradesmen of medieval England, Lawrence of Ludlow.
The collection has not only enhanced my architectural knowledge, but also my historical awareness as a result of researching the historical context of these rare architectural examples, which is appropriate, because this form of art is designed to be embraced and integrated in society, leaving us the opportunity to interact with history itself and all its conundrums. With 12,148 slides already completed, I can’t wait to see what I will discover next, since I am only halfway through the recording process. I am sure though that in the weeks to come, I will encounter many more intriguing pieces of architecture that are endowed with a vivid historical past.