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January 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1426

The Courtauld Gallery

Without question the refurbishment and redisplay of the Courtauld Gallery, London, unveiled on 19th November last year, has resulted in a much more enjoyable experience for visitors. Carried out by the architects Witherford Watson Mann over the past three years at a cost of £57 million, the project has been funded by £11 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund together with grants from a number of private foundations, whose names – Blavatnik, LVMH, Garfield Weston – are now emblazoned in gold on the Gallery’s walls. The services have been thoroughly overhauled, bringing to a definitive conclusion (one hopes) the issues of environmental control that bedevilled the gallery when it opened in William Chambers’s Grade I listed Somerset House in 1989.(1) Issues of access and circulation in this intricate set of spaces have been addressed. The lighting has been transformed for the better, notably on the narrow and precipitously steep stairs that link the four floors. The former shop opposite the entrance is now a café and the brick-vaulted cellars, built as coal stores, have been converted from offices and other uses into a vast new shop – in 2020 building work here revealed a well-preserved medieval cesspit, a reminder that Somerset House is only the latest palace on this site. An admirable detail in the redisplay of the collections is the inclusion throughout of wall panels that give details of the original purposes of the rooms now given over to the display of works of art – largely paintings and works on paper, but also silver, ceramics, furniture and outstanding Islamic metalwork.

This collection has taken a long time to settle into Somerset House, for reasons succinctly summarised in an Editorial in this Magazine in 1994, reviewing the results of the first major overhaul of the displays: ‘The problems at the Courtauld Galleries are to some extent endemic in any attempt to reconcile the needs of a public art collection with the constraints of an important historic building’.(2) The Gallery occupies the part of Somerset House originally allocated to the Royal Academy and the learned societies: these include a sequence of spacious, finely decorated rooms on the second floor and the lofty top-lit purpose-built gallery for the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions on the floor above, together with humble ancillary spaces (including rooms formerly used as offices by the Courtauld Institute’s teaching staff). Although the gain in additional wall space for pictures as result of the refurbishment is relatively modest, the rehang gives an impression of new clarity and spaciousness.

The difficulties the curators faced in fitting into these spaces a collection organised by period on conventional museum lines soon become obvious. In his excellent introduction to the Gallery’s new guidebook, the Head of the Gallery, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, illustrates three of the settings in which these works were displayed by the collectors who donated them to the Courtauld: Home House in Portman Square, where Samuel and Elizabeth Courtauld hung their Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; Lord and Lady Lee’s old masters in their purpose-built gallery at Old Quarries, Avening, Gloucestershire; and Thomas Gambier-Parry’s gold-ground paintings in the library at Highnam Court, Gloucestershire. The photographs emphasise that the collections were formed for domestic settings and in every case the comparison is not to the present Gallery’s advantage. The problem is one of scale. The medieval and early Renaissance works of art are now shown in a small, elegantly arranged and beautifully lit room on the mezzanine between the ground and first floors (with no natural light), next to a gallery for displaying drawings. The visitor then ascends to the ‘fine rooms’, the first two of which (Rooms 3 and 4) are dedicated to the Italian Renaissance. In Room 3 the mostly small-scale works look by comparison with those in the Medieval and Early Renaissance Gallery somewhat overwhelmed, none more so than Spinello Aretino’s Nativity (c.1380), which introduces a particularly unhappy aspect of the hang, the perching of paintings above very high chimneypieces. Might it have been better to have used these spaces for contemporary works of art, following the successful way that Cecily Brown’s large painting Unmoored from her reflection was commissioned to fill the empty niche at the top of the staircase?

Room 4 works better simply because the works displayed there, which include a pair of cassoni and Botticelli’s monumental Trinity with Sts Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist, are bigger. In the other rooms the larger paintings – such as Goya’s full-length Francisco Saavedra or the study by Rubens for the Descent from the Cross – look well, in contrast to cabinet-sized pictures: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Christ and the woman taken in adultery sits at the bottom of a wall panel like a postage stamp on an empty folio page. Although a rethink in which periods were mixed to allow for varieties in size would for visual reasons be desirable, it would probably hamper the didactic quality of what was always intended to be a teaching collection for the Institute.

The climax of the displays is the Great Room on the top floor, now painted white and with all subdivisions removed, apart from two unattractive low screen walls on which mostly small paintings are hung. Ever since 1994, when the room was given over to the Gallery’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings for an exhibition on Samuel Courtauld’s collection, it was evident that the display of these works might be an appropriate use for the room and so it has proved. The fact that the room was so patently not designed for this sort of art or this sort of installation is outweighed by the need to provide the maximum space for the most popular paintings in the collection.

The Gallery’s refurbishment will be succeeded by the opening of its Learning Centre this month and we look forward to the announcement of the date when the Institute itself will return from King’s Cross, to which it was exiled for the duration of the building works. At present the Gallery makes its relationship with the Institute explicit only in modest ways, notably the invitation to current and former students to write interpretative labels for a selection of works. So, for example, the label for Palma Vecchio’s Reclining woman in a landscape is accompanied by one written by Jill Burke, a Courtauld graduate and now Professor of Visual and Material Cultures at Edinburgh College of Art, which discusses how the painting exemplifies ways women at the time understood their bodies. This tentative start to making visitors to the Gallery aware of the Courtauld’s academic life might be developed – for a start, why not use that enormous shop to sell books by the Institute’s distinguished scholars?

1. See Editorial: ‘The Courtauld Institute Galleries’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 136 (1994), p.737, and the response by a former Director, Dennis Farr, ‘Letter: The Courtauld Institute Galleries’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 137 (1995), pp.183–84.

2. Editorial, op. cit. (note 1). For the Magazine’s initial response to the Gallery (then known as the Courtauld Galleries), see Editorial: ‘The Warburg and Courtauld Institutes’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 132 (1990), p.459.