Edouard Manet, A bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882, The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © The Courtauld

The Courtauld: a collection unmasked

The gallery has long been famous for its impressionist collection, but the reopening sheds light on other works of art

Artillery Row On Art

Medieval art famously gets a bit of a bad rap. Perspective hadn’t caught on, humans all too often look like bobble-head figures, and there tends to only be one subject: Jesus. And, all too often, it is one of the least-visited areas of any art gallery: the magical, mesmerising, seminally-important Wilton Diptych (1395) did not even make it into the top twenty most-visited online works of the National Gallery. 

And, prior to its £50 million overhaul and reopening, a similar charge of medieval-exclusion could be levelled at the Courtauld Gallery: it was all too easy for visitors to skip straight from the entrance to the High Renaissance without setting eyes on a single gold-leafed devotional work first. 

The old gallery gave off a vibe that was less “cross-historical influence”, and more “mildly chaotic antiques sale”

Now, I am unabashedly a medieval fan — google the manuscript illustrations to Gawain and the Green Knight and tell me how much better they are than the Dev Patel-Hollywood equivalents. But even if I wasn’t, the sensitive new layout of the Strand-based gallery might have convinced me. The new first-floor rooms — converted from store cupboards — house the Triptych with the Crucifixion (c. 1350-1400). This brilliant work is displayed so as to reveal both front and back. Alongside the predictably brilliant scene of Jesus’s death,  there is a brilliant panel featuring a gaggle of saints and St Francis preaching to the birds. Just look at the golden stars and halos and tell me again that medieval art is dull.

The gallery has just reopened to the public after three years of expensive restoration and alteration. Outside Somerset House is currently a wintry wonderland complete with ice-skating tourists, hot chocolate, and a vague air of enforced festive fun — but the real excitement is surely inside, in the revamped exhibition rooms. 

The Strand-based gallery is home to a magnificent permanent collection: it houses the famous colours and bold brush-strokes of Vincent Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) alongside the 16th century delights of Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve (1526). To say that its range is staggering is an understatement: aside from the National Gallery, there is perhaps nowhere in London — or England — which holds such a variety of masterpieces from across the whole sweep of western art history.

But the old configuration of The Courtauld did not show these works in their best light: the paintings were undeniably brilliant, but the 18th century jostled up against the 20th in a way that gave off a vibe that was less “cross-historical influence”, and more “mildly chaotic antiques sale”. The “Great Room” — formerly the home of the Royal Academy’s expansive Summer Exhibition — had been subdivided into poky corners, and the display of the Medieval and early Renaissance works was sadly neglected.

Bloomsbury has been transported to the south side of The Strand

Thankfully the overhaul has fixed many of these issues. The Great Room is restored to its architectural drama and curatorial possibilities: the Courtauld is famed for its collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, and here they are hung together. The famously disconcerting gaze of Manet’s barmaid in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) dominates one side of the room, but the brilliances of Gaugin, Seurat, and Cézanne are not dimmed in comparison. The scale of the room affords all of the canvases — even the tiny pointillist productions of Seurat — space to breathe and be seen.

At the top of the gallery is currently a room which hosts paintings and interior decorations by members of the Bloomsbury group. In the months and years to come, this room will also showcase lesser-known areas of the collection through rotating displays. As it stands, the Bloomsbury Room is a highlight. In contrast to the grand, institutional feel of the rest of the gallery, the small room has been painted and decorated as if it were a room at Charleston itself. Roger Fry’s Portrait of Nina Hamnett (1917) appears strikingly modern and contemporary in these surroundings; as does Vanessa Bell’s A Conversation (1913-16). The work is shown in its original frame painted by the artist — Bloomsbury has been transported to the south side of The Strand.

The Bloomsbury room does not exist in splendid isolation: when walking through the gallery, the legacies of one period reflect and reverberate in the art of another. The Courtauld holds a number of plates and bowls created by the Omega workshop: they are frequently described as modern and radical in their design. The breadth of the gallery’s collection means it is possible to see links with the 16th-century Italian earthenware that is one floor below.

Cecily Brown, Unmoored from her reflection, 2021. Oil on linen, 149 x 539 cm. © Cecily Brown. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery. Photo © Hufton+Crow

There is one part of the reopening that has attracted considerable argument. Cecily Brown was commissioned to paint a mural for the curved panel at the top of the stairs. Unmoored from her Reflection (2021) sits in pride of place, and its colourful strokes echo the great works of impressionism the gallery is framed for. Some critics and journalists have been dismissive of the work. It is 17.5 feet wide, stretches across three canvases, and features two male nudes. But, regardless of whether you appreciate it aesthetically, it is hard to deny its drama and confidence: it sits near to Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862) — a painting that famously features two nude women relaxing next to two fully dressed men.

The overhaul could not avoid some more annoying aspects. The shop in the basement now has the overwhelming air of an expensive homeware store, and I hope that the students of the Courtauld Institute benefit as much from the revamp as much as the paying guests have. But, luxury incense, lampshades, and designer tote bags aside, the reopening is a triumph.

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