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Exhibition: Patrick Reyntiens and John Piper

Interconnections between artist, archive and book


An Idea Starts To Formulate

Back in 2019 an idea started to formulate for an exhibition to celebrate the wonderful stained glass Chapel windows here at Robinson, made by Patrick Reyntiens and John Piper.  We believed that they were a hidden gem, and had a vision of sharing the story of our beautiful architectural glass with Cambridge residents, through the Open Cambridge festival. Initial discussions with the Chair of the Visual Arts Committee, the late Dr Steve Trudgill, and our freelance Archivist, Joan Bullock-Anderson, allowed themes to develop and the identification of items that might be included.

It soon became obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic would mean that participation in Open Cambridge 2020, a festival held in September each year to open up places not normally accessible to the public, would not be possible.

It was not until Open Cambridge 2022 that the idea finally came to fruition. By this time the emphasis was firmly focused on giving equal recognition to the work that Patrick Reyntiens had done in his fabrication of the windows. A student volunteer, working in the Archive, had “discovered” letters between Reyntiens and our first Warden, Jack Lewis, suggesting that Reyntiens perceived “a very considerable injustice”. The injustice in question was the lack of acknowledgement of the part he had played in the story of our stained glass Chapel windows.

The exhibition, held in the Library, was well attended but could only run for two days; for those who couldn’t make it we hope you enjoy this online version.



“items play a silent waiting game, sitting in readiness to be chosen”

 Victoria Lane in All This Stuff: archiving the artist, 2003


In our archive we have a letter written by Patrick Reyntiens in 1989, describing what he perceived as “a very considerable injustice.” The injustice in question was the lack of acknowledgement of the part he had played in the story of our stained glass Chapel windows.

This lack of recognition may have started from the fabled comment made by David Robinson, our benefactor, when his ideas for the Chapel window changed from plain glass to stained glass. After watching a programme about the post-war rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral David Robinson is believed to have asked for “the chap who did the glass at Coventry”.

Reyntiens realised that the impact of the windows came from the placing of the colours side by side.  He said “the interaction on the frontiers of the colour is where the drama lies”. He also knew that some understanding of the manufacturing process was necessary for a true appreciation of their beauty.

It is our intention that this exhibition redress any historical injustice and that both artists are celebrated for their contributions to the art of stained glass.

ITEM 1     3 Letters between Patrick Reyntiens and Lord Lewis



Chapter One – Setting the Scene


“The late 1950s were to prove a wonderful moment for modern art when suddenly the long shadow of the war years lifted and everything began to change.”

Alan Bowness in Generation Painting 1955-65, 2016

Our story starts in the 1950s, the decade when Patrick Reyntiens and John Piper started working together in stained glass. Reyntiens thought of fifties Britain as “an amalgam of hope and determination” – it was a country recovering from war.

With the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the establishment of the state-funded Arts Council, the nation embarked on a celebration of British arts, science and industry, to uplift the people in a time of austerity.

It marked a new start for Patrick Reyntiens and his wife Anne Bruce as they purchased Burleighfield House in Buckinghamshire, where they were later to run an experimental arts school for thirteen years.

John Piper was enjoying new found recognition following his work as a war artist where he had perfected the art of showing beauty within decay. His drawings and photographs of the war-torn Coventry Cathedral of St. Michael earned him, and Reyntiens, the commission from Basil Spence for the new Baptistry window in 1957. It is interesting to note that the bottom right of this window was signed by both artists, indicating equal recognition of the makers.


ITEM 2     The Beauty of Stained Glass by Patrick Reyntiens

ITEM 3    John Piper and Stained Glass by June Osborne

ITEM 4   Letter from June Osborne to Bishop Walker

ITEM 5    Paintings, Drawings, Prints & Illustrated Books by John Piper, with text by Rigby Graham

ITEM 6    Mermaid Books

ITEM 7   Towards Impressionism, After Impressionism, Romantic and Abstract, Since the War

ITEM 8    What do they talk about? The British and the Festival of Britain

ITEM 9   Trafalgar Square by Ceri Richards

ITEM 10   Double Monument by Alan Davie


Chapter Two – The Path to Glass


In 1952, after completing his studies at Edinburgh College of Art, Nicholas Patrick Reyntiens (1925-2021) secured a job at the Stained Glass Studio of J. E. “Eddie” Nuttgens, which paid him £3 a week. This position came at just the right time, when he was desperately in need of a job! He worked at the Nuttgens Studio until 1954 and whilst working there was given the chance to produce a trial panel for John Piper. His growing knowledge of stained glass was enhanced further in 1954 when he received the Andrew Grant Art Travelling Fellowship, enabling him to tour the medieval cathedrals of France.

For John Edgerton Christmas Piper (1903- 1992) fascination with stained glass started early in childhood, with weekend jaunts to local churches with his father. Guidebooks like the Highways and Byways series, which he bought with his pocket-money, were a big influence inspiring him to fill sketchbooks with drawings. When invited to write the guide to Oxfordshire, as part of the popular Shell Guides, his love and knowledge of English churches, and of capturing the spirit of a place, was put to good use. He went on to jointly edit the series with John Betjeman, later becoming the sole editor after 1967. The Shell Guides remained popular for over forty years. Piper was in his late forties, however, before he turned his hand to designing stained glass. What had come before – his love of ecclesiastical buildings, experimentation with abstraction, collage work and an interest in colour theory – perfectly equipped him for excellence in this artistic medium.


ITEM 11   Patrick Reyntiens: Catalogue of Stained Glass by Libby Horner

ITEM 12   Stained Glass of the XII th and XIIIth centuries from French Cathedrals, text by Marcel Aubert, edited by Dr Hans Zbinden

ITEM 13   Cambridgeshire Shell Guide by Norman Scarfe

ITEM 14   Highways and Byeways in Cambridge and Ely by Rev. Edward Conybeare, illustrated by Frederick L. Griggs

ITEM 15   “We shall fight them in the galleries”… by Jonathan Jones

ITEM 16   British War Artists

ITEM 17   Interior of St. Michael’s Cathedral, Coventry

ITEM 18   Cwm Pennant by Raymond Coxon



Chapter Three – Glass on a Vespa


How do two people co-operate for so long? I think mutual professional respect is the main binding force; but this is followed closely by personal respect and a love for each’s real qualities.”

Patrick Reyntiens in John Piper: master of diversity


The working relationship between John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens lasted over 30 years and was a significant partnership in post-war English stained glass. At the time of their meeting, in 1951, Piper was 48 and Reyntiens was 26.

Reyntiens credits the start of this long and productive partnership to a boy throwing a stone through a window. The window was the west window at St Peter and St Pauls’ Church, Wantage, Oxfordshire and it was John Betjeman who suggested that Reyntiens was the man to repair it. Betjamin was so impressed by the repair work that he introduced the young artist to Piper, a meeting which resulted in Reyntiens leaving with a challenging design to go away and work on. Six weeks later Reyntiens returned with the finished stained glass panel balanced between his knees whilst riding his Vespa! It was also Betjamin who was instrumental in the pair getting the commission in 1953 for the three windows at Oundle School Memorial Chapel – their first paid job together. Patrick acknowledged the influence that John had on him, calling it a quasi-apprenticeship.

After some fifteen years of working together the window for the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King was a true partnership of equals. The story goes that eventually their partnership dissolved because of Piper’s tendency to underquote for their commissioned work.


ITEM 19    John Piper: Master of Diversity

ITEM 20   To John Piper on his Eightieth Birthday, edited by Geoffrey Elborn

ITEM 21   Excerpt from Patrick Reyntiens Interview (10 of 15) National Life Stories Collection: Craft Lives (9:40-14:37) from British Library Sounds



Chapter Four – Home Libraries


“Books filled the house. There was no formal library, but every room contained books.”

John Martin Robinson in Catalogue 1241, Books from the library of John and Myfanwy Piper, 1997


Both men were avid book collectors and had extensive home libraries. The library at Burleighfield, Reyntiens’ Victorian home in Buckinghamshire, was loved by the art students studying there. At Fawley Bottom Farm, Piper’s Georgian flint and brick farmhouse in the Chilterns, complete with cowshed studio, was much loved by guests and visitors.

Susan Hill, who was good friends with John Piper and his wife Myfanwy for nearly thirty years, recounts her memories of their book collection in Jacob’s Room is Full of Book: A Year of Reading, 2017:

 “I always slept in the Book Room, which was literally that, dark, comfortable, ever-interesting. You only had to look round, reach out a hand to a shelf, to find treasures, and often signed treasures by old friends. The 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, poetry, fiction, topography, France, Venice, art, John’s own books, complete Shell Guides to Britain which he produced with John Betjeman, runs of magazines – Horizon, the London Magazine, catalogues from galleries, often of John’s own exhibitions. I could have spent days in there, looking and reading.”

Reyntiens, who amassed more than 16,000 books during his lifetime, had a cherished memory of his nanny, a woman called Violet Grey, reading Dickens to him every night before bedtime. The family home at that time was 63 Cadogan Square, London with Arnold Bennett four doors away.


ITEM 22   Books from the library of John & Myfanwy Piper

ITEM 23   Frances Hodgkins by Myfanwy Evans

ITEM 24   John Piper From his studio

ITEM 25   The Technique of Stained Glass by Patrick Reyntiens

ITEM 26   Tall stack of Dickens books


Chapter Five – Modern Designs and German Glass


“He gave you this sense of wonder about glass- the idea that you were taking something so ordinary and transforming it into something so magical...watching my dad is watching a man who is totally in love with his work.”

John Reyntiens on watching his father at work in the studio.


There are just three places in Cambridgeshire where you can find Patrick Reyntiens and John Piper windows in buildings:

  • St Peter’s Church, Babraham, the East Window, 1966
  • Churchill College Chapel, eight windows, 1970
  • Robinson College Chapel, two windows, 1978-80

In addition there is an autonomous panel in the Stained Glass Museum at Ely:

  • Experimental Panel, c.1956

The joint creative process for the main window at Robinson started with Piper using gouache paint, ink and collage to produce cartoons or designs of the windows, (cartoon coming from the Italian cartone, meaning large sheet of paper). Reyntiens then cut small samples from the cartoons to help with colour matching and stuck these “slivers of colour” into an exercise book - with a calculation about the quantity of glass that would be needed – to take on his travels to Germany to source the glass. After some hard bargaining Reyntiens purchased £14,000 worth of glass from Hilden and Waldsassen. His calculations were so accurate that just £400 worth of glass was left over once the windows had been completed.

The main window is made up of 66 separate panels, with a total area of approximately 66 m2. The glass is hand-blown antique glass, a mixture of English and German glass. The side chapel window is one panel of 1.44 m2 made using multi-techniques of painting, plating, acid-etching, enamelling, oxide painting and oxide staining.


ITEM 27   “Well, that’s Robinson for you”

ITEM 28   “Mullions as thin as possible…”

ITEM 29    CVMA panel numbering system

ITEM 30   The Babraham Window


Chapter Six – Church Crawling and Cathedral trips


Throughout his life John Piper loved visiting churches. Levinson referred to the expeditions to Surrey churches made by the teenage Piper as ‘pilgrimages’. We know from scribbled marginalia in Allen’s County Churches that by the age of twelve he had visited 66 of the churches in this multi-volume guide-book series.  During his 30s more eighteenth and early nineteenth-century guide-books were collected and these were packed into the family car for church-crawling trips.

We get the itinerary for a full day of church-crawling in Piper’s Places by Richard Ingrams and John Piper, 1983. One Sunday in early May, 1980, after an overnight stay at the White Lion in Wisbech Richard Ingram, Myfanwy and John set off in the Piper’s beloved Citroën. Follow their journey with Item 33.

Similarly, Reyntiens enjoyed taking trips through France, bringing along 6 or 7 students in the family Volkswagen camper van. The itinerary for these trips included the great medieval cathedrals at Rouen, Poitiers, Chartres, Albi and Matisse’s chapel at Vence, the Leger Museum at Biot and the Chagall Museum at Nice. One of his students, Danny Lane, said “He might have been one of the greatest scholars of historical stained glass in Europe.”


ITEM 31   Piper’s Places: John Piper in England and Wales by Richard Ingrams and John Piper

ITEM 32   ‘Quality and Experiment’: the Prints of John Piper, A Catalogue Raisonné 1923-91 by Orde Levinson

ITEM 33   Miles covered during a day


Chapter Seven – Dante and other influences


With such a large personal library books were obviously an important source of inspiration for Patrick.

There is a scene in the documentary film From Coventry to Cochem: the art of Patrick Reyntiens when Reyntiens pulls out Dante’s Paradiso from a shelf in his library and reads a passage in Italian to the visiting author Charlie Higson. What he reads is a description of the Holy Trinity, portrayed as three great eyes of yellow, red and blue, communicating to each other by winking.

Reyntiens suggested these last stanzas, of the final part of The Divine Comedy, to Piper for the design of the great lantern window at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (1963-1967). Reyntiens recalls that Piper went silent, pondering the suggestion for five minutes before agreeing.

Another literary influence, Libby Horner states that After Virtue a study in moral theory - a book where Alasdair Macintyre examines the idea of virtue -had a profound effect on Reyntien’s thinking when it was published in 1981.


ITEM 34   La Divina Commedia/ The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (various editions)

ITEM 35   After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

ITEM 36   Patrick Reyntiens Visions in Light: glass painted and stained

ITEM 37   Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso prints



Chapter Eight – Piper’s Jackets


John Piper’s artistic practice was wide-ranging and included design for print publications with many book dust jacket produced throughout his career. His style incorporated ornate letterforms, architectural motifs and interesting textual qualities, such as the resemblance of brass or stone rubbings.

Alan Powers in the introduction to Piper in Print, ed. Hugh Fowler-Wright, credits Charing Cross Road bookshops such as Zwemmers and Cyril Beaumont’s Bookshop, which specialised in books on theatre and ballet, for honing Piper’s visual style through exposure to the ‘School of Paris’ art scene. With Picasso as the figurehead, this scene was characterised by a creative and diverse cross-fertilization of styles.

On display here, along with his dust jackets, are some of the books that contain his drawings, illustrations and lithographs. The origin of our collection of Piper books was a donation from the former Bishop of Ely, The Right Reverend Peter Knight Walker (1919 - 2010), who was a good friend and supporter of John Piper. Despite being a Fellow at Corpus Christi he gifted his collection to Robinson College in 2005.


ITEM 38   Lithographs and cover by John Piper for English, Scottish and Welsh Landscape 1700 – c. 1860

ITEM 39   Dust Jacket: An Innocent Grows Up by Norman Hancock

ITEM 40   Buildings and Prospects by John Piper

ITEM 41   The Rape of Lucretia: a symposium

ITEM 42   Romney Marsh, illustrated and described by John Piper

ITEM 43   The Jesse Tree by Anne Ridler with drawings by John Piper

ITEM 44   The Castles on the Ground: The Anatomy of Suburbia by J.M. Richards

ITEM 45   Jacket Illustration: Places An Anthology of Britain chosen by Ronald Blythe

ITEM 46   Art and Print: The Curwen Story by Alan Powers

ITEM 47   Paintings from Woburn Abbey lent by the Duke of Bedford



Chapter Nine – The Robinson College Windows


It was important to David Robinson, our College benefactor, that the imagery used for the large window would be something that would have meaning for Christians and non-Christians alike. Both the artists were religious men, Reyntiens was a life-long Roman Catholic and Piper had joined the Church of England shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. Piper on the window: "The subject of the stained glass, which I designed, is a modern 'Light of the World’, with a great circular light penetrating and dominating all Nature". He added that this was not necessarily a ‘theistic’ interpretation but open to each viewer to take their ‘own meaning from it.

We know that Piper gave Reyntiens a lot of freedom in his interpretation of the original design. We must acknowledge Joe Nuttgens, David Wasley, Phil Kenchatt and David Williams for their work in the production of the large window. It was John Reyntiens, Patrick’s son, whom we have to thank for some expert repair work following an unfortunate accident:

“a student threw a set of keys to another student from the first level walkway to Front Court; the receiving student didn’t catch the keys but instead aimed a kick at them – successfully.  The student then stood by horrified as the keys arced upwards hitting the large yellow pane in the “sun” and shattering it. I contacted John Reyntiens (having searched for Patrick) and he came and measured up and sourced some appropriate glass from Germany.  I cannot remember the year but I’d guess 2010.  It cost about £1000.”

Wing Commander Peter Milloy, Fellow Archivist

When Kettle’s Yard Gallery curated an exhibition on Piper in 1982, John Piper: Painting in Coloured Light, Martin Harrison described the small window - known as The Beginning and the End or The Epiphany or The Adoration of the Kings:

“This window has a quite specific source for the overall design – the Romanesque tympanum at Neuilly-en-Donjon. This seemingly idiosyncratic starting point is firstly justified by its suitability for the rectangular shape of the window. What Piper has done is transform this monochrome sculpture pattern into a vibrantly coloured and animated window. The drawing in the window, especially the figures of Adam and Eve and the disciples at the Last Supper along the bottom has a nervy sort of linearity reminiscent of Fuseli; whilst the colours Piper has chosen: gold and emerald, deep red and blue, resemble those of the early Victorian pictorialists such as Clutterbuck or Hedgeland.”

ITEM 48   Architectural Stained Glass edited by Brian Clarke

ITEM 49   Robinson College Chapel Guide by Professor Morna Hooker and Dr Steve Trudgill



Epilogue: Opinions and a sermon


 “The complexity of the work in the Robinson windows is unrivalled even in their oeuvre.”   

John Reyntiens, artist, son of Patrick Reyntiens.


“…The chapel is much odder: long and thin, it bulges to the west to reduce formal axiality and to accommodate the curving stained-glass wall by John Piper. But the architects have put a lump of brickwork propped up by a column in front of the window so that in half the space, you can’t see the sun, the chief glory of Piper’s design. The relationship between solid and stained glass is perverse but not unhappy. The window is not Piper’s best work; it lacks the resonance of deep colour that made him a major twentieth-century stained-glass artist….Particularly enjoyable will be sitting at the south end in a summer evensong with the golden light from Piper’s obscured sun shooting down behind the brickwork to shine on the lectern and the altar.” 

Peter Davey writing in The Architectural Review, August 1981. Note he does not acknowledged Reyntiens’ contribution.


 “Robinson College is a megastructural melange of 1.4 million handmade red bricks, out of which the chapel rises like a jagged iceberg, crystallised from the same ever present bricks. Robinson is simultaneously a robust and radically modernist statement, but is also within an essentially medieval tradition of combining spaces for protection, learning, sleeping, eating and worship. The benefactor, David Robinson, had wanted something more traditionally neo-Gothic for the chapel, but was won round by the inclusion of John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens’s huge stained-glass window. The stone-lined interior is centred on this window, depicting the sun as Glory to God, with light depicted bursting dazzlingly through foliage. It is framed by a window in the shape of an inverted stepped ziggurat, one of many playful patterns reminiscent of interwar Amsterdam School architecture. The chapel is daringly inventive, while also evoking older forms infused with an intense spirituality.”   

Otto Saumarez Smith writing in 100 Churches 100 Years, 2019


 “Artists have their own vocation: to help us see what otherwise we would not see and, failing to see, could miss what life was given us to be about.

If your way has been of late along Grange Road a step further than the Rugger Ground and particularly about 4 of an afternoon with the sun behind the new Robinson College, your eye might have been caught by something as you passed its windows: a sudden and exciting glimpse of colour: the greens, in fact, and blues and oranges of the new John Piper window as the sun shone right through to the windows on this side. Here is a new glory to Cambridge: to stand before this massive piece of glass in that Chapel was for me itself a religious experience: though one of its subtleties is that literally you cannot take it all in in one glance: you have to move, you have to work on it. There is that vast shining sun, and below it, shimmering in its light, is…what? A new creation? Yes, or this creation as we were meant to see it – a thing beautiful, shining, precious. How do you see your world, this earth that God has given you? A poignant and a searching and a loaded question for us all today, and my eyes are opened to it by the artist who has surely seen it so.

Piper’s window, here, now, in Cambridge – How will you see this world, this precious gift of God?”

Rt. Revd. Peter Walker, part of the Window Sermon, given at Queen’s College Chapel in 1981. (RCAR 11.2.2a)


ITEM 50   100 Churches 100 Years edited by Susannah Charlton, Elain Harwood and Clare Price

ITEM 51   The Window Sermon

ITEM 52   “Shining Through”

ITEM 53   A difference of opinion on the question of design

ITEM 54   Scotney Castle, Kent by John Piper

ITEM 55   Bethesda Baptist Chapel, Swansea

ITEM 56   Fawley Bottom

ITEM 57   In the Making

ITEM 58   Fragments of broken glass from the large Robinson College window

ITEM 59   Another collaboration

ITEM 60   Piper’s Pots

ITEM 61   From the Horse’s Mouth

ITEM 62   Andy MacMillan Chapel sketches


Curated by Judith A. Brown as part of Open Cambridge 2022, Friday 16th and Saturday 17th September.



What the Archive Can Be

A Short Series of Excavations by Judith A. Brown, College Librarian


The exhibition Patrick Reyntiens and John Piper: interconnections between artist, archive and book places our archive in the limelight and invites us to question “what is an archive” and “what it can be”. In this short series of excavations I explore the concept of the “archival moment”- that surprising and random point in time, when an archival item comes into view as an idea or direction to pursue. After touching upon the development of archives and their connection to psychoanalysis, I focus on three artists who have used the archive in her work, before returning to this exhibition and considering what it might mean for the future of the Robinson College Archive.


Excavation 1:

“as they enter the archive, the papers of which offices rid themselves are resurrected as sources that historians consult in their efforts to write history”

Archives have been around much longer than the archival profession, which first began as a discipline in the nineteenth century. From 3000 BC we have clay tablets in the Near East, during the Early Middle Ages there were European monastic libraries, then the first University libraries and following that the royal and national archive repositories. What started out as stores for records for legal purposes became stores for records of use in historic research.

Jump to the 1960s when there was a considerable change in the meaning of archives. They were now seen as a cultural construction, complete with a threshold which either allowed or disallowed inclusion. Archival material underwent a change in status, from material for storage and long-term preservation to material for current use. Sven Spieker in The Big Archive : art from bureaucracy intuits the delicate work of the archivist in contributing to cultural memory when he states:

“as they enter the archive, the papers of which offices rid themselves are resurrected as sources that historians consult in their efforts to write history.” p.xii

With no more than nod to Foucault and Derrida, the philosophers whose work on archives made such an imprint on academic thought with their positioning of archives as a source and product of power and memory, I move on to Achille Mbembe’s views of the archive.

Mbembe, writing in Refiguring the Archive, notices the secular rituals that are involved in the situating of content into an archive, as a way of order-making. We have the coding and classifying, the chronological, thematic or geographical organisation, as well as the enforced closure of documents to years of secrecy. He goes further, taking the judgement involved in the giving of status to material that is included as a way of making the archive into a talisman, a transformation that removes any subversive elements from memory.  

“A montage of fragments thus creates an illusion of totality and continuity.” p.21

In this way the archive can be seen to have both power and limitation, acting as a distorting lens through which our view of the past is filtered.

Verne Harris, also in Refiguring the Archive, talks about the archival sliver and I am reminded that Patrick Reyntiens cut small slivers from John Piper’s painted cartoon to perfect a colour match in his design. Harris unpacks the complex connections Derrida made between archives and psychotherapy, between the conscious and the unconscious, in both the individual and the collective.

“There is no remembering without forgetting. There is no remembering that cannot become forgetting. Forgetting can become a deferred remembering. Forgetting can become a way of remembering.” p.75


Excavation 2:

180 degree turn

Over the last decade there has been a further shift in our view of archives, which has brought their incompleteness into clear focus. Sara Callahan, in Art + Archive: understanding the archival turn in contemporary art, identifies this shift as “the use of archive in research, to researching archives in their own right…”p.14

This 180 degree turn has been eagerly adopted by visual artists. For many artists their creative approach is ideally attuned to the non-linear and serendipitous exploration of the archive and its materials. Those who have explored and used the library and archival trope include Susan Hiller (From the Freud Museum 1991–6), Gerhard Richter (Atlas), Andy Warhol (610 Time Capsules), Mark Dion (Memory Box) and Yinke Shonibare (The British Library). I return to this in Excavation 5.

A robust example of this “archival turn” is the monograph by Michael Bird, Studio Voices: art and life in 20th century Britain, which was the output of a Goodison Fellowship at the British Library. Exploring the National Life Stories audio archive, Michael encountered new and unexpected turns in his research on the development of twentieth century British art.  Cathy Courtney, the Director of Artists’ Lives Project, was particularly struck by the dissonant or unexpected moments.

“When he excavated the summaries of the recordings and chose likely sections to listen to, looking for the thread he expected to find, the thread kept snapping and sheering off in other directions.”p.11

His book is an enticement to return to the archival source.


Excavation 3:

Trances and traces

Maria Tamboulou, in Archives, Genealogies and Narratives in Women Workers’ Education, calls the moments when something of fascination jumps out archival moments. A precursor to such moments is engagement by the archive visitor in what has been called ‘trance reading’. This is when close reading results in an absorption so complete that the reader enters a kind of liminal space, where their perception of time is altered. Tamboukou goes on to unpick the practices that can lead to such a moment – the line by line readings, the turning of pages backwards and forwards in the quest for understanding and interpretation, the gradual realisation of the absences. She describes archival research as an ongoing excavation which gradually “reveal discontinuities, contingencies and ruptures.”

Susan Howe talks of “archival moments” as mystic telepathy in her lecture Spontaneous Particulars: the telepathy of archives. Coming from “an opposite direction” “at the surface of the visible” she notices that a seeming hodgepodge of traces can reveal links and discoveries not seen beforehand. Recognising the English word “text” from the Medieval Latin textus – literally thing woven – Howe shows us how words can be stitched together into pictures/stories. Echoing the metaphor used by Courtney, she talks of words and quotations as skeins and twisted threads.

 “In research libraries and collections, we may capture the portrait of history in so-called insignificant visual and verbal textualities and textiles. In material details…in quotations. One historical-existential trace has been hunted, captured, guarded and preserved in aversion to waste by an avid collector, then shut carefully away, outside an economy of use, inaccessible to touch. Now it is re-animated, re-collected (recollected) through an encounter with the mind of a curious reader, a researcher, an antiquarian, a bibliomaniac, a sub librarian, a poet.” p.24


Excavation 4:

From text to exhibit

Liberty Stanavage, in Textual Cultures: Cultural Texts, discusses the visual text and “bookish-looking” features of medieval archival manuscripts in relation to meanings of readership. For her the initial capital decorations and illuminations, such as marginal faces apparently disconnected from content, signal a text designed for silent reading by an individual solitary reader rather than a text to be read aloud. So what are the possibilities for other “readings” that are enabled by placing archival items and books on display in an exhibition? The reading that will occur in the public exhibition space will inevitably involve the reading of snippets and fragments. What will the books and archival documents become if they are to be viewed for pleasure (entertainment), rather than read for engagement and meaning?

“By taking a book from the shelf and putting it into a case rather than into the hands of a reader, the curator is essentially preventing the work from performing its normal function, which is to be read.” Exhibiting the Written Word Report, p.4


Excavation 5:

“Each collected object or manuscript is a pre-articulate empty theatre where a thought may surprise itself at the instant of seeing” Susan Howe p.24

Cambridge artist Elena Cologni worked with the traces of an archive for the exhibition, A Modernity Which Forgets, held at Impington Village College, Cambridgeshire, for their 75th Gropius anniversary. She produced ‘lo scato’ or offcuts using the Reciprocal Maieutic Approach (Dolci 1996), as a way of sharing experience and shaping “communicative memory”. During her artists’ residency at Impington Village College she had an archival moment when she found the missing element of the archive. The missing piece was the children who were evacuated from London, during the war, to the rural village of Impington.

Susan Hiller’s created archive was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and his collection of antiquities. Her work, From the Freud Museum, went through several manifestations from 1994 to 2000. It consisted of fifty archival boxes, each containing small objects, images and text which were displayed in a vitrine installation, and later came the book After the Freud Museum.  The items she displayed signified cultural and historical ‘points of slippage’.

“Sigmund Freud’s impressive collection of classical art and artefacts inspired me to formalise and focus my project. But if Freud’s collection is a kind of index to the version of Western civilisation’s heritage he was claiming, then my collection taken as a whole, is an archive of misunderstandings, crises, and ambivalences that complicate any such notion of heritage.” Hiller in the catalogue The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, p.93

Tacita Dean’s Monet Hates Me is an interesting conversation piece about archives and the role of objective chance as a tool of research. Her work grew from a year as artist-in-residence at the Getty Research Institute and her “archival moment” came when she pointed to a box, from the Malvina Hoffman Papers, which contained the key to Rodin’s studio in Paris. She describes finding this key as the entry point to her (random) research into the overwhelming contents of The Getty Collection. Her research produced 100 boxes, each filled with 50 objects, some of which were unique to each box - with a key being used to order the documents.


Excavation 6:

We end with the start

The visitor to the exhibition will enter into the space of the library, which becomes a space of exhibition.  The space of exhibition invites the reading of a story, not one reading but many readings. There are textual traces and visual cues. For a while the reader enters a world within a world. There is a negotiation with the past. The juxtaposition of archive, library and artwork might move us on from a place of stasis to one of connection and transformation. The archive is becoming.

“The archival record, I have argued, is best understood as a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of a window into process. It is a fragile thing, an enchanted thing, defined not by its connections to ‘reality’ but by its open-ended layering of construction and reconstruction.”  Verne Harris in Refiguring the Archive, p. 151.

Robinson College, Cambridge has a history of dedicated individuals who have developed both its archive and its library, since the foundation of the College in 1974. In 1981, a report by the Archive Committee stated “The chief purpose of the archives is to preserve as complete a record as possible of the formal and informal activities of the College.” In 2022, with a new Archive opened at the rear of 5 Adams Road, we are exploring exciting new ways of telling our stories.