The early years of the BSR were dominated by two great figures. The contribution of Thomas Ashby, the BSR’s third Director, to the study of photography and topography has been well documented – see Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar Janet Wade’s post about her research following in the footsteps of Thomas Ashby on the via Flaminia, and my own recent blog on the many faces of Ashby.
However, the collections built up by his contemporaneous Assistant Director, Eugénie Strong, remain largely unexplored.
Three cupboards in the Photographic Archive hold the Eugénie Strong Collection. When you turn the key to open these cupboards you are suddenly grabbed by her personality which is reflected by the kind of material – photographs and postcards – she was to collect and assemble throughout her life.
Most of the photographs are testimony to her interest in Art History, ranging from Roman and Greek sculpture to medieval, Renaissance and Baroque painting. The photographic collection, bequeathed to the BSR after her death, includes many examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs (all in perfect condition) taken by notable European photographers and needs careful examination before being re-arranged and made available for consultation and research.
The same applies to her impressive collection of European postcards, mainly relating to Italy and many with written comments on the back. Some of these are loose and arranged by country or continents (Africa, Asia), while the rest is neatly organised into nineteen albums.
Eugénie Strong (1860-1943, née Sellers) had long been regarded as one of the most brilliant academics in the field of Roman sculpture, even before taking on the post of BSR Assistant Director and Librarian in 1909. Former Librarian at Chatsworth and Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, she worked closely with Thomas Ashby when he was BSR Director from 1906 to 1925.
The astonishing number of images they gathered – Ashby taking photographs himself, with Strong collecting them from various sources – shows a keen interest in the value of visual culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their intention was not limited to pursuing their own research, but was concerned with developing a reference collection for the benefit of current and future BSR award-holders.
In addition to her image collection, there is also correspondence with Evelyn Shaw, BSR Honorary General Secretary, and various members of the Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters (FAHL) in the course of her administration of the institution alongside Ashby. Remarkable was her role in coordinating the move of the BSR from Palazzo Odescalchi to the new building in Valle Giulia in 1916, while Ashby was engaged on the Italian front driving the British Red Cross ambulance. Not to mention all the responsibilities involved in the running of a Library!
It is no surprise therefore that she played an important role in supporting and encouraging all BSR award-holders, both in the Humanities and in the Fine Arts. The more we read about her through our past records, the more intelligible the picture of a resilient personality that made the pair with Ashby and contributed so much to raising and consolidating the BSR’s profile, until they both left in 1925.
This year’s Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellow Renée Tobe has been delving into some of these Archive collections from the BSR’s early years, and in the next blog post she will reveal some of the treasures she has found in our collections.
Alessandra Giovenco (BSR Archivist)
Images courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archives