Wilfred Court’s slide collection now digitised

Over 2,200 colour slides documenting the work and travels of the architect Wilfred Court in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon in the 1950s and 1960s have now been added to the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) collection on Cambridge Digital Library. Court’s collection of photographs, slides, diaries and cinefilms, now assigned the collection reference RCS/Y302Q, was donated to the University Library in 2022 by his daughters, Sara Reid, Judy Innes and Ruth Court. The digitisation of the slides was kindly funded by the family of Wilfred Court.

Wilfred Court was born in Nottingham in July 1929. He grew up in Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, and was educated at the Perse School. He read Architecture at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. In lieu of National Service, Court was sent to a voluntary camp in Italy in 1953, before going on to continue voluntary service in India and Pakistan. During this time, he was awarded a UNESCO travel grant to report on the educational work done at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram and completed a solo walk in the foothills of the Himalayas (an account of this trip is held in the collection). He returned home to England taking an epic journey through Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Italy.

Accra Independence Day Regatta, 1957 (RCS/Y302Q/JJ/3) and the African Flame of Freedom photographed in 1999 (RCS/Y302Q/X/99-11/24).

As a qualified architect, Court worked firstly in Ghana for a private firm building houses for people displaced as a result of the construction of Tema Harbour. He later worked for the Public Works Department in Tamale, and in 1957 he was involved in the country’s independence celebrations in Accra, with specific responsibilities for ensuring the Flame of African Freedom remained alight. He next worked in Nigeria, primarily at Ahmadu Bello University in Kaduna State. The University was opened in 1962 in the city of Zaria as the University of Northern Nigeria, a significant step in opening up tertiary education in the Northern Region which had historically been neglected under the colonial administration. Court had married his wife, Elisabeth, in 1963, and in 1968 the family returned to England as the Biafran War intensified.

Construction of buildings at Ahmadu Bello University, 1965, and Buckminster-Fuller demonstration, 1966 (RCS/Y302Q/PD/27 and PF/3)

After settling in the village of King’s Cliffe in Northamptonshire, Court worked for various architectural firms in and around Peterborough before setting up his own solo practice. He also worked as Trust Architect for the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust. Wilfred Court died in April 2011. A prodigious photographer, his collection of prints and slides also documents work undertaken in Bangladesh to design and build a Leprosy Centre in Chandraghona, a holiday to Waza Game Reserve in Cameroon, scenes from journeys to Togoland [Togo], Benin, Sierra Leone as well as photographs from return visits to India and Ghana after his retirement.

Wilfred Court in the garden at Zaria (RCS/Y302Q/NK/16) and his much loved Austin Sprite pictured in the Northern Territories, Ghana (RCS/Y302Q/KR/5)

The collection was digitised in 2023 by Raffaella Losito, Chief Photographic Technician at the UL’s Cultural Heritage Imaging Laboratory (CHIL). When digitising film negatives, there are two approaches: flatbed scanners or digital cameras. Raffaella used a portable lightbox specially designed for CHIL, which has a 35mm slide holder on the top, and a Sony Alpha A7r camera paired with a macro lens.

The most challenging aspect of the digitisation process for Raffaella was maintaining colour consistency throughout the entire collection, given the diverse types of film and varying light conditions used by Court. When handling such a wide range of material conditions, post-processing can quickly become the most time-consuming part of a digitisation project. Fortunately, our photographers have access to some of the best software in the cultural heritage industry, such as Capture One CH. This software is designed to streamline the process and is complemented by scientific quality control solutions, including film targets and colour analysis software, to meet industry-standard needs.

Pre- and post-processing: image of Ahmadu Bello University (RCS/Y302Q/PD/20)

Browse Wilfred Court’s collection on Cambridge Digital Library. For queries, please contact the RCS curator: rcs@lib.cam.ac.uk.