What a pleasure to welcome back a much-missed old friend as the Courtauld Gallery in the Strand reopens after a major three-year refurbishment. The result is so good that it is hard to remember what it was like before, which, as Director Professor Deborah Swallow tells me, was exactly the brief the architects were given.
The Courtauld is a special London gallery: a collection of collections bequeathed by a series of donors, each with their own passion, and this theme has been given particular resonance with the cleverly-reworked gallery space.
The first striking thing is the spectacular spiral staircase, designed in the 18th century by Sir William Chambers, as the first home of the Royal Academy of Arts. The vibrant blue bannisters have been given extra punch with the natural light that now floods into the building. The staircase leads up to a series of decorated landings or ‘stations of repose’ as Chambers described them, each level revealing a different section of the collection, from Medieval to Renaissance to Modern galleries.
On the first floor, storerooms have been transformed into a magnificent Medieval Gallery. Gold-ground masterpieces hang alongside exquisite examples of Islamic metalwork, most from the Victorian collector Thomas Gambier Parry. One of the earliest is Bernardo Daddi’s moving devotional triptych Crucifixion with Saints, painted in 1348 when Europe was in the grip of the Black Death. Next door is The Courtauld Bag, fashioned from hammered brass inlaid with silver and gold, from early 14th century Mosul. This gallery clearly illustrates that art in the medieval world was all about expensive materials: gold leaf; precious metals; rare colour pigments.
Another great donor was the art historian Count Seilern, who inherited a large fortune from his grandmother in 1931. His passion was Rubens, and two galleries on the second floor are dedicated to the artist. In pride of place is Rubens’ Landscape by Moonlight once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds and considered of sufficient national importance to be sent into hiding during World War II alongside paintings from the Royal Collection and the National Gallery.
The Rubens galleries form part of the Blavatnik Fine Rooms, a suite of elegant galleries on the second floor. Two highlight the Italian Renaissance, Palma Vecchio’s Venus in a Landscape hanging over the mantlepiece just as it might have done in a 16th century Venetian bedchamber; and Botticelli’s Trinity Altarpiece resplendent after a three-year conservation programme in its new hand-carved frame, designed from drawings found on the back of the panels. A third is dedicated to the Northern Renaissance, where Lucas Cranach’s famous Adam and Eve hangs alongside The Flight into Egypt, a rare panel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, once owned by Rubens.
The crowning glory of this project is the LVMH Great Room on the top floor. A mezzanine level has been removed to create a soaring space full of natural light – home to the collection of Samuel and Elizabeth Courtauld, pioneer collectors who built, in just nine years before Elizabeth’s death in 1931, arguably the finest collection of Impressionist art in Britain today. The family business revolutionised the textile industry in the 1920s with the introduction of rayon, a practical new fabric made from wood pulp. Their resulting fortune has furnished this gallery with an astonishing wall of world-class Cézannes; Tahitian paintings by Gauguin; Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with bandaged Ear; all under the watchful eye of the artworld’s most famous barmaid, Suzon of Manet’s Bar au Folies-Bergère.
At the top of the staircase hangs a bold new canvas, commissioned from contemporary artist Cecily Brown, drawing together elements from paintings seen throughout the gallery. It echoes the colours of another commission, a 1950s triptych by Oscar Kokschka, painted for the ceiling of Count Seilern’s house in Prince’s Gate, on view here for the first time in 15 years.
This is a collection to visit again and again, floor by floor, immersing oneself in a different period of art history each time. The Courtaulds believed that art was vital for a person’s well-being and should be made accessible to everyone. How pleased they would be to see their collection in such a spectacular new home.