A Queen’s visual education: A letter from Kenneth Clark to Fritz Saxl, 27th July 1943

 “Dear Saxl”, Kenneth Clark writes on the 27 of July 1943 to the director of the Warburg Institute, “I have given away the original sets of photographs of the bronze effigies in Westminster Abbey”. As enigmatic as these few words may seem at first, they speak to some of the most pertinent aspects of the history of the migration of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg and its early years in exile.

Clark, at that time director of the National Gallery, had been aware of Aby Warburg and his private research institute since he had heard the scholar speak in Rome in 1928: “[a]round him”, he later recalled the scenery, “were screens of photographs embodying almost all the subjects which had ever occupied his mind”. This experience left a lasting impression on Clark: “it changed my life and I am eternally grateful”. Only a few years later, he was to be given the chance to show this gratitude. With the library’s arrival in London in 1933, Clark became what was without doubt one of the most important allies of Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing. The latter were tasked with integrating the institution for which they were responsible into a new academic environment and with advertising its particular project of an image led study of a history of European civilisation.

Warburg Institute Archive, General Correspondece, Kenneth Clark to Fritz Saxl, 27th July 1943. Image: Warburg Institute Archive.

This is the context of the extensive correspondence between Saxl and Clark that is kept in the Institute’s archive and to which the present letter belongs. Indeed, this letter is representative of the nature of their conversation, which kept returning over the years to one topic in particular: photographs. The refugee scholars brought with them the stock of photographs which Warburg had assembled over the course of his life’s workand then formed the core of what was to grow into the Warburg Institute’s Photographic Collection as it exists today. More importantly, however, apart from the equipment to produce photographs, Saxl and his colleagues also had at their disposal a unique experience in working with them: they were not only accessing works of art in the form of their reproductions, but using them to formulate scholarly arguments and to pose research questions, just like Clark had witnessed Warburg do in Rome. Convinced by this approach, he enthusiastically supported the photographic exhibitions the Institute staged during WWII (cf. Image Journeys. The Warburg Institute and a British Art History, ed. by Joanne W. Anderson, Mick Finch and Johannes von Müller, Passau: Klinger, 2019).These exhibitions played a crucial role in expanding the Institute’s audience beyond the confines of academic circles, thereby revealing the photographs’ importance in attaining the visibility the Institute sought in its precarious situation as a refugee institution. 

Bronze effigy of Henry VII from his tomb in Westminster Abbey by Pietro Torrigiani (1472-1528), ca. 1512-18. Photograph by Helmut Gernsheim for the National Buildings Record ca 1942-43.

As such, the Institute had to constantly justify its presence in Great Britain. The specific photographs Clark is referring to in his letter have to be positioned in the context of this very effort. They had been taken by the German photographer Helmut Gernsheim who had come to London in 1937. Together with Rudolf Wittkower, the first curator of the Institute’s Photographic Collection, Gernsheim worked for the National Buildings Record. This governmental initiative had been introduced after the outbreak of the war to visually document monuments of historical and political importance in case of their destruction. By participating in this scheme, the Warburg Institute, once more relying on its expertise in dealing with photographs, seized this opportunity to demonstratively contribute to the “war effort”. The documentation of a place of such outstanding national importance as Westminster Abbey and its interior, must certainly have been of particular significance. Thus, the Institute put photographs to a political use, also playing on their symbolic potential. However, they were also vital in more prosaic economic terms.

The letter quoted above reveals this rather pragmatic, almost mundane significance, namely in sustaining the networks the Institute was depending on once they had been established. The reason why Clark tells Saxl that he has given away the photographs Gernsheim had taken for the NBR was, of course, that he had borrowed them from the Warburg Institute. The extent to which Clark made use of its resources is shown by an earlier letter. On 20 October 1942, Saxl mentions to Clark the “£250 for our photographic work”, almost apologising for bringing up the issue of money but having “to confess that we need it very urgently”. As the account books show, during that time the Photographic Collection ran on £200 a year, the entire Institute on little more than £5.000. Clark’s outstanding debts for photographs therefore ran to a substantial 5% of the Institute’s annual budget. Clark must have been at least aware of Saxl’s concern with the immense expense associated with the production of photographs: he writes after all, that he would like to “BUY six more sets” of the photographs he had given away, carefully capitalising and thus emphasising the expression of his willingness to enter into a financial transaction.

It almost seems as if the Warburg Institute had to ‘bribe’ the National Gallery’s director with photographs, or at least keep him on side by supplying him with this precious resource. However, Clark is anxious to give a truly noble reason for having given away the photographs. Before ending his letter with the assurance to use them to impress people who “would be in a position to help the Warburg”, he insists on the value of his support (and therefore also its price) by stating that he had given the pictures to none other but the Queen herself. As Clark informs Saxl, she “was enchanted”. This news alone would have been enough to justify Clark’s generosity, for it implied potential future support from the highest rank. However, Clark is able to report further that the photographs now “are being used in the history lessons of Princess Elizabeth”, and he lets Saxl know: “you see that your scheme of visual education is beginning at the very top”.

This letter touches on a whole range of aspects of the Institute’s first years in Great Britain: its economic struggle as well as the political pressure it had to react to, its undiminished academic ambitions and the contribution to cultural life that those ambitions were directed towards. It even invokes Saxl’s pedagogical agenda that drove most of the initiatives of the Warburg Institute during this time. It even suggests the cheering possibility that this, then newly-arrived refugee institution, contributed to the education of the young princess and future Queen Elizabeth II: due to an expertise that was considered foreign, it acted as medium between the images of the most English kings and queens and the very person who was about to become the icon of the British state and its symbolical embodiment.


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