William the Conqueror

Here is the first ‘history’ post to give you some idea of the Tower’s origins.

After William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, thereby becoming William the Conqueror, he knew that to rule England he had to rule London.  After an initial stronghold was built on the south-east corner of the Roman city walls, work began on a great stone tower, the White Tower, which would dominate the landscape and proclaim William’s power as monarch.

Stone for the tower was brought from as far as France, while most of the physical building work was undertaken by English labour.  When this stone tower was completed by 1100 its impact was as much pyschological as well as physical.  Certainly, it was like nothing England had ever seen before.  The Tower was never meant as a royal residence, though it would serve as one on numerous occasions, nor was it meant as the first line of defence following an invasion, but was intended as a fortress-stronghold, a role it would reprise repeatedly until the 19th century when its growth as a visitor attraction began to accelerate.

You can read more about the Tower’s origins here.


The long sustained gaze

Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight, Interior of the Artist's Home, 1900

Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight, Interior of the Artists Home (1900) by Vilhelm Hammershoi


 In his 1991 essay ‘Shadow-Catchers’ Pavel Buchler describes snap-shot photographs as ‘records of sudden glances rather than residues of long, sustained gazes’, this came to mind recently when I visited the Royal Academy’s exhibition of the Danish Painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916). Obviously the physical act of applying paint to canvas is a more sustained process than even the most archaic of photographic techniques, but the way that Hammershoi seems to have returned again and again to paint the same scene for several paintings emphasises the almost oppressive sensation of concentrated observation that fills this exhibition. Hammershoi made many paintings of the interior of his apartment at Strandgade 30, Copenhagen over the course of 11 years – a continuous, repeated study of a relatively small, constructed space. It is this repeated observation and depiction that I realise I began to identify with while looking around the exhibition, in some ways this is how I see my role at the Tower of London.

I have a copy of the catalogue from the Musee d’Orsay 1997 Hammershoi Exhibition and have become familiar with his paintings through this book, but in the exhibition at the RA I was fascinated by the painting ‘Veiw of the old Asiatic Company (1902)’  – a large painting (approx 6ft sq) of a company building opposite where Hammershoi lived, the colours are muted by a wash of dark grey creating an almost monochrome finish, its an incredible image that really had an effect on me. I came home and searched for the picture in my book, how had this painting escaped me in the past? I found the image on page 87 – it looked dead, it held none of the power of the original, no wonder I had flipped past it when looking at the book. So I urge you, if you havn’t already, please go and see these paintings as they are meant to be seen.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy ends on the 7th September.

A little bit of a history lesson

As Chris is discovering, understanding the history of the Tower is not easy, so I thought it would be a good idea to provide a few tidbits of history to contextualise Chris’s work.  As with everything we do in the Tower Education Service, I’ll try and make it more interesting than the average history lesson I had at school.  (No offence intended Mr Parks!)

One of the greatest challenges in working at the Tower of London is the history.  Sounds odd I know, but there’s almost too much of it.  Successive monarchs have utilised the convenience and security of the Tower for their own ends, thus ensuring that the Tower quickly became (and remained) the epicentre of political events, or became the host for the fallout of tragic events which we now discuss as defining points in English history.  After all, it’s not every day you behead the Queen of England.  As a result, the Tower has evolved an incredible sense of place which in turn directly contributed to its early development as a (macabre?) visitor attraction.

At the same time, the Tower has remained and still is a working fortress.  The sentries here are serving soldiers, the medals pinned to their chests are from recent campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan, and their presence provides an interesting continuity and tension between the idea of the Tower as both a fortress and a visitor site.

And because the Tower has always been a living place, with its own community with singular needs, the Tower landscape has changed significantly as buildings have come and gone across the centuries.  The addition of the inner and outer curtain walls reflected the changes in medieval military techniques, the White Tower had an extra floor added and its windows were enlarged in order to allow more light into the building as its use changed.  The Public Record Office started here, had its own building which dominated the south of the Tower, but was removed and replaced by Victorian buildings in the medieval stylee as the Tower evolved into a visitor site.  Talk about postmodern.

Over the next few weeks I’ll update the blog and provide you with some of the complex history the Tower has experienced since its 11th century inception, which in turn will help you appreciate Chris’s work as photographer in residence.

Contact & Feeling

Its been 6 days since my last visit to the Tower and I’m feeling strangely frustrated. Almost as if I have been interupted just as the converstion was getting interesting. I keep returning to my first 2 contact sheets like a sentence I think I could have said better.

Seeing the first contact sheets from a project I have just started is always a strange thing, it is always unsettling and slightly dissapointing, it makes me question my approach and often my ability. Luckily, through experience, I know that this is a similar feeling to ‘stage fright’ and that I only need to work through it for the process to bare fruit. In an odd way it think it lets me know that the project means something to me, that its having an effect on me – so I hope this means I’m on the beggining of the right track.

First Images

As promised, here are a couple of images from the digital scans of my first few sketch shots taken 12th Aug 2008.




In future I plan to scan and upload whole contact sheets so that its possible to see the way I edit images from a roll of film and also it maybe possible to see my train of thought as the frames of the film progress. This roll of film was a bit more sporadic as i was really just begining to look at the landscape of the tower through the lens.

First Thoughts

I think its worthwhile stating what I plan to do with this blog during the residency at the Tower of London. Alex is quite right to label this as a type of online sketch book for my work, I am keen to make my process as transparent as possible and I think I will learn as much from this as I hope some of you will. Any creative person is probably uncomfatable about over-analysing their practice, its easier to let others examine your work, mainly due to their position outside the inextricably personal mechanics of the whole thing. So I hope that this ‘laying bare’ of my photographic exploration of the Tower and its history is a worthwhile experience for us all.

There are so many things that influence my photography while I am exploring a project : the books I’m reading, the exhibitions I visit and even the music I have been listening to, that I think it will be useful to share some of these things with you so that it may add an extra layer to the experience of the final body of work.

I will be prodded and cajouled by the other contibutors of this blog (Alex Drago and Zinta Juanitis) and I also ask that you please send us your comments so that we can turn this into a dialogue rather than a monologue.

I have been to the Tower of London three times since accepting the residency, mostly I have been working with the Education Department planning the education projects, but on each visit I have begun to explore the public areas of this incredible national monument. These intitial visits have been mostly without my camera, but on the last visit I began to take some preliminary ‘sketch’ shots – I will post some of these on the blog in future.

I must explain that I work with a film, rather than a digital camera, I must also point out that this is not due to some luddite fear of the new, just that I prefer the process of working with film, contact sheets and prints, for me film creates a more physical experience, and I think there is something to be said for waiting a few days before you see the images that you have made – it creates a distance between the ‘real’ location and the new, two dimensional photographic ‘place’.

In case you are wondering where the title of this blog comes from it is infact taken from the inscription on the Tower of Londons execution site memorial created by Brian Catling:

Gentle visitor pause awhile – where you stand death cut away the light of many days – here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life – may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage – under these restless skies’

A message from our sponsor

Sometimes it seems that writing about the Tower of London is like writing about The Beatles. What can you say that’s not already been said before?   There’s too much on the White Album, Revolver is far superior to Sgt Peppers and the Abbey Road medley is a work of genius. It’s all been said before.

And that’s the problem with photography and the Tower of London.  So strong is the visual culture of the Tower and so powerful is that visual culture in symbolising Englishness (whatever that means), you’d be forgiven for asking whether any new photographs of the Tower could ever be taken. But what if you took away the Beefeaters and the military tradition, the Crown Jewels and ravens, White Tower, Traitor’s Gate and the execution site, what would be left to photograph? Would the (almost) one thousand years of incredible history have something to say for itself?

Well, that’s precisely the question I decided to pose when the Tower Education Service decided to recruit a photographer in residence. Could we get a photographer that could see things differently, to get beneath the very thick surface of the Tower and photograph it? Is there anything else except the surface worth photographing?  All of a sudden the residency became very exciting.

After an exhaustive selection process we selected Christopher King and over the next six months Chris will have (almost) unrestricted access to photograph what he wants at this UNESCO World Heritage site.  As well as developing his own body of work, Chris will be completing a series of projects with education audiences, helping them see the Tower and its history in their own way, because that’s what we do at Historic Royal Palaces, we help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, and then let them make their own mind up about it. And that’s precisely what we’re allowing Chris to do during his time at the Tower.

The Light of Many Days Blog is his online sketchbook – the record of his residency at the Tower of London.  Bookmark it cos it’s going to be a valuable insight into his work.

Alex Drago – Education Manager, Tower of London