Collection Spotlight: Courtauld Institute of Art

The Courtauld Institute of Art is an internationally renowned centre for the teaching and research of art history. The institute has a major public gallery which holds one of the world’s finest art collections. The Courtauld's collection is renowned for its remarkable group of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Masterpieces dating back to the middle ages to 20th-century works are all housed within the gallery walls. 

The gallery is located in Somerset House, on the Strand in London and has recently undergone a series of refurbishments to restore its grandeur and to create 'state-of-the-art' facilities. The Courtauld Gallery is reopening on Friday 19th November 2021.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881-82 (oil on canvas), Edouard Manet (1832-83)
/ The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images

The Courtauld Institute of Art is also a world class, self governing college, part of the University of London. The institute specialises in the study of the history of art and conservation of art. The Courtauld was founded in 1932 through the efforts of art collector Samuel Courtauld, the diplomat and collector Lord Lee of Fareham and the art historian Sir Robert Witt. Samuel Courtauld's original collection has been enhanced by further gifts; 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints make up the magnificent Courtauld Collection. Since the temporary closure of Somerset house, degree programmes have been taught at Vernon Square in Kings Cross. The institute was once based in a Robert Adam designed townhouse in London’s Portman square. The Strand block of Somerset house was originally designed by Swedish-Scottish architect William Chambers between 1775-1780 and has housed the Courtauld since 1989. 

Peach Trees in Blossom, 1889 (oil on canvas), Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)
/ The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images

As part of our coverage of this exciting reopening, we're pleased to share the interview Scarlett Thompson did with Professor Deborah Swallow, Märit Rausing Director of The Courtauld and its Gallery: 

Who drove the new Courtauld design project? Whose initial idea was it? And who formed this team effort?

It was undoubtedly a whole team effort. Gallery directors have been supported by exhibition designers Nissen Richards Studio, architects Witherford Watson Mann and Robert McAlpine who has been appointed as construction manager. 

Has the Courtauld Gallery focused on a more traditional or modern approach in regards to the new lighting?

A modern approach to lighting has been formed.

Study for 'Le Chahut', c.1889 (oil on panel), Georges Pierre Seurat (1859-91)
/ The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Does the Courtauld recognise that the new lighting offers a modern view of works as they would not have been traditionally viewed? 

The works would have originally been viewed under the highlight of huge candles. The new lighting now offers maximum viewer comfort. 

I know the Courtauld has loaned a series of paintings for a long period of time. How did the gallery select which museums were going to house individual paintings? 

The Courtauld sent a series of artworks on an international tour. Many paintings were featured in Paris exhibitions. Paintings were also transferred over on loan to Japan. A huge amount of trust was placed with the National Gallery to house Courtauld paintings during the gallery's refurbishment period. 

Are there any paintings that we should particularly be excited about returning to the Courtauld gallery? 

The return of the Impressionist paintings will lead to their placement in the spectacularly restored LVMH Great Room - their return is particularly special. In addition, material that has not been displayed for a long time will be presented to the public. This includes The Prometheus Triptych by Oscar Kokoschka. A fabulous, major figurative work that displays a scene of the apocalypse and an idea of regeneration.

Triptych - Hades and Persephone, 1950 (mixed media on canvas), Oskar Kokoschka
(1886-1980) / The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Does the recent gallery renovation enhance the physical presence of its surrounding architecture?

The recent architectural additions do indeed enhance the physical presence of Somerset House. The aim of the new renovation is to make it more accessible, enjoyable and fit for the 21st century. The renovation was designed by Stirling Prize winning architects - Witherford Watson Mann. These specific architects were chosen as they found impressive/beautiful solutions to dealing with the complex logistics of the building structure. Witherford Watson Mann has stated that ‘Proposed interventions respond to the forms and materials of the existing building, but are clearly modern in detail’.

Their plans have impressively included: 
- The opening of the basement vaults which allows for a new central cafe. 
- Existing ground floor spaces have been cleared out to make new groups for school groups and symposia. 
- The new staircase has been positioned at the centre of the East Wing. 

Trinity with Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint John the Baptist, Archangel Raphael and Tobias, 1491-94 (tempera on panel), Sandro Botticelli (1444/5-1510) (and workshop) / The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Have you kept the same number of artworks on the walls?

There is not a huge increase in the number of artworks on the walls. The works in the gallery are placed in a chronological sequence. This allows a viewer to look at these artworks as they evolve over time. 

Have you arranged them in a different way?

The rooms have been significantly adapted. The first room is filled with artworks relating to religious themes. The second room houses spectacular religious and secular art, featuring two huge cassone artworks from Florence which have always been a unique part of the Courtauld collection. A wonderful large Botticelli painting ‘The Holy Trinity’  is also displayed on the second floor. The painting has undergone a four-year restoration/conservation project - including its reframing.

The second room will look dramatically different and contain a marvellous selection of artworks across different centuries. There is a gallery room specifically dedicated to the works of Peter Paul Rubens. In the fifth gallery on the second floor, you will find a wide selection of 17th-century work. The last gallery presents 18th-century British works of art. In all, this is a very coherent sequence.

Cain Slaying Abel, 1608-9 (oil on panel), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
/ The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Who selects the artworks on the walls - do these alternate over periods of time?

There is some rotation of change which is usually conducted by the Courtauld Gallery Team. 20th century works of art are most likely to be repositioned. The overall presentation of the artworks on display are discussed with various teaching colleagues. For example, the layout of the Renaissance gallery was discussed with those who teach the early renaissance period at the institute. Actual decisions however ultimately rest with the gallery team. 

An exciting new commissioned work by Cecily Brown is due to be unveiled when the Gallery reopens - her paintings often display abstract and figurative modes, they are vivid in colour and bold.

Self-portrait, 1911 (graphite and watercolour on paper), Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957)
/ The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © The Courtauld / Bridgeman Images

What were the reasons for choosing a contemporary style painting to be hung in the gallery staircase?

Every painting has once been considered an old contemporary! Currently, there is a huge, demanding increase and interest in contemporary art. The new unveiled piece has been chosen very consciously to correspond with the Courtauld's permanent collection on display. The painting belongs to Cecily Brown and is on loan to the Courtauld. A contemporary painting in the Courtauld stairway conjures up new ideas of profound creativity. 

Mountain Landscape with Bridge, c. 1910 (oil on canvas), Dora Carrington (1893-1932) (attr. to)
/ The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © Courtauld Gallery / The Samuel Courtauld Trust / Bridgeman Images

The website highlights three temporary exhibitions - Modern Drawings: The Karshan GiftPen to Brush: British Drawings and Watercolours and Kurdistan in the 1940s. All three are extremely interesting and a must-seeIs there one that you are particularly looking forward to? 

All three exhibitions are exciting in their own right. Superb works from various major different artists are featured in the Modern Drawings and Pen to Brush exhibitions. The Kurdistan exhibition highlights photographs from the 1940s era and is politically relevant to our time. 

Villefranche-sur-Mer, 19th century (graphite, pen and brown ink, brown wash, watercolour and white bodycolour on wove paper, inlaid into a wash border mount), Edward Lear (1812-88) / The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) / © Courtauld Gallery / The Samuel Courtauld Trust / Bridgeman Images

Want to use any of the images on this page or from this collection? Get in touch with us today - we always love to help with your projects.

Discover our full collection of Courtauld Institute of Art images here.

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