Looking for Lawrence Alloway: the pleasures and pains of archival research

Last month, I and my co-editors Courtney Martin (Brown University) and Rebecca Peabody (Getty Research Institute) finally submitted the full manuscript of our forthcoming collected volume of essays about the critic and curator Lawrence Alloway (1926-1990) to our publishers. There is quite a way to go before it’s published – the essays need to be copy edited, image permissions must be secured and there will be a couple of rounds of proofs to check. But nonetheless, this felt like a milestone.

The book is the result of a good deal of primary research by a number of scholars, who spent a considerable amount of time looking through the archive of Alloway’s papers and those of his wife, the painter Sylvia Sleigh (1916-2010) – both collections are now housed at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. The papers include personal and professional correspondence, notes and lists, diaries, notebooks, ephemera, and other treasures. They give a rich insight into the life and work of Alloway, who is widely credited with coining the term Pop Art, but whose eclectic interests included architecture, design, earthworks, feminism, film, science fiction, museum politics and public sculpture.

Sylvia Sleigh, At the Café, 1951. Scan of slide from the Sylvia Sleigh papers. The Getty Research Institute, 2004.M.4. Gift of Sylvia Sleigh and The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh Alloway. Artwork © Estate of Sylvia Sleigh.

Sylvia Sleigh, At the Café, 1951. Scan of slide from the Sylvia Sleigh papers. The Getty Research Institute, 2004.M.4. Gift of Sylvia Sleigh and The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh Alloway. Artwork © Estate of Sylvia Sleigh.

Speculative archival research – delving into the boxes of papers without any preconceived research agenda – is a rare treat. And it’s exciting: you never know what you’re going to find. Unexpected discoveries can provide fruitful avenues for research and writing: in my own case, a chapter outline for a book on Hollywood movies, included in a letter written to Sleigh in 1951, revealed that Alloway’s serious engagement with the subject of film started much earlier than I had realised (and well before his well known book on the topic, Violent America, was published in 1971). The role of Alloway’s writing on film in the early formation of his critical position became the topic of my essay, which is called “Criticism at the Frontier: Lawrence Alloway at the Movies”. In it, I argue that, far from being separate endeavours, Alloway’s film criticism and his art criticism were intrinsically linked; his thinking about film and its social context was critical to his early intellectual formation in the 1950s.

There is an element of nosiness involved in this kind of research in personal archives. Many of Alloway’s letters to Sleigh contain quotidian details of train timetables, darned socks, and the labour of trying to forge a career in a competitive field. I know which cinemas Alloway frequented, how much he spent on his heating bills, and how frustrated he felt when job applications were unsuccessful (we can all empathise with that). There are also declarations of love intermingled with important statements about artists, exhibitions. In trying to piece together his intellectual formation I found myself inadvertently intruding on more private passions.

Letter from Lawrence Alloway to Sylvia Sleigh, November 9, 1949. The Getty Research Institute, 2004.M.4. Gift of Sylvia Sleigh and The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh Alloway

Letter from Lawrence Alloway to Sylvia Sleigh, November 9, 1949. The Getty Research Institute, 2004.M.4. Gift of Sylvia Sleigh and The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh Alloway

Archival research poses a unique set of challenges. For a start, no archive is ever comprehensive. It can only offer a fragmentary version of events, and anyone expecting to gain a complete or “true” picture will be frustrated. Nor is the archive neutral. It is often shaped by its subject and by personal concerns that are not always immediately apparent. Letters in particular can be tricky. Sometimes, their writers are driven by the impulse to share ideas in the spirit of artistic endeavour and excitement; but they can also be strategic, motivated by ambition, gratitude, or the desire to elicit sympathy or borrow money. It is perhaps human nature to write more assertively when we feel wronged, and more frequently when we have little else to occupy our time. A little pinch of salt is helpful when reading letters several decades later.

If we have to bear in mind all that is inevitably missing from an archive, we also have to remember that not everything that remains bears equal weight. When dealing with professional writers such as Alloway, we have to consider the status of the texts we encounter with particular care. How are we to treat unpublished accounts of artworks or films that Alloway described in his early letters to friends, for example? Whilst some missives seem to have been dashed off at speed, it’s tempting to read others as critical declaration. Is it too much of a stretch to approach these as art criticism? Could Alloway have been writing with an eye to posterity? Even as a fledgling young critic, he had big ambitions, and I wonder whether he ever thought of the historians of the future leafing through the pages he wrote.

So how do we deal with these challenges? Lots of scholars have written extensively about the nature of the archive and its relation to artistic practice. But it also impacts on our own research practices. One of the most helpful voices that I’ve come across is Jo Melvin’s. In 2008, I heard her speaking about the “phenomenal archive”, a term that draws out the fragmentary and often anecdotal nature of personal archives, and takes these qualities into account in the construction of a historical narrative. Her paper was part of a session at the Association of Art Historians conference at Tate Britain called “Archival Impulse: Location and No-Place”.

Is the archive a utopia (a “no-place”)? Certainly it is the site of contradictions, one that offers both marvellous serendipity and complex challenges to the researcher. I hope that our book – when it finally comes out – will be sensitive to these issues as well as benefitting from all those hours delving into Alloway’s life and work.

Lucy Bradnock (Lecturer in modern and contemporary art history, University of Nottingham)

@lucyellenb

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