The Courtauld, housed in the north wing of Somerset House in London, is made up of both a gallery and an institute. The former houses Britain’s standout collection of Post-Impressionist art and the latter is a leading academic centre where undergraduate and postgraduate students can study the history, curation and conservation of art.
The gallery reopened to the public at the end of November, following a much publicised £57 million revamp which began in 2018. This aimed to restore the elegant space to its heyday incarnation as the Royal Academy of Art – a tenure that began in 1779. Since then, false ceilings and numerous dividing walls have covered ornate fireplaces, cornices and frescoes and generally choked up what is now a beautifully airy yet intimate environment.
The Stirling Prize-winning architects Witherford Watson Mann (WWM) have been behind the project. Although subtle and barely discernible to many, the renovation has required many structural changes to the Grade I listed building. Doorways have been put in, windows uncovered, and floors raised – as if it had always been this way, such is the quality of workmanship. Stephen Witherford of WWM has described the project as the most challenging thing he’s ever done, which gives some idea of the constraints of working in such a historic and delicate space. He also described the building as a “Battenberg cake”, referencing its unexpectedly intricate interior given the harmonious façade.
The new curation fosters intimate scrutiny alongside the occasional moment of high drama. The former is more present in the medieval and Renaissance rooms, which are on the lower floors and have less natural light, evoking the contemplative spaces these devotional and religious works would have been originally commissioned for. The effect of these peaceful galleries is heightened by the inclusion of art historical objects alongside paintings, ranging from Renaissance cassoni (marriage chests) and maiolica (pottery) to precious medieval metal work. The new, characterful Bloomsbury room – ingeniously crafted out of a cupboard and thin air – encourages the same domestic and thoughtful encounters with both paintings and objects, and is sure to be a big hit with visitors (image 1).
Flashes of drama appear as you climb the cantilevered stairs with their bold, Prussian blue railings to the penultimate floor – now known as the Blavatnik Fine Rooms – where choice Rubens, Brueghels and Gainsboroughs hang proudly in the unwrapped interiors. Although easy to overlook, the shift from picture rails and clunky lighting to on-wall hanging and minimalist spotlighting also allows for more dramatic encounters between architecture and art.
The real spectacle is the Great Room, which is undoubtedly the focal point of the entire project. Occupying the lion’s share of the top floor, for decades it has been unnecessarily spliced and covered over, thus erasing any memory of its use as the home of the annual Royal Academy Exhibition, now the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, which it began hosting in 1780. The room’s importance to the history of public engagement in contemporary art is huge: the annual (summer) exhibition is well-known to be the longest continuously staged exhibition of contemporary art, and it’s still exciting imagining its walls hung floor-to-ceiling with some of the artists now populating the gallery.
The Great Room’s strength also comes in its vistas: although the ceiling is open, allowing for an even distribution of natural light, there are two walls which carefully bisect the space. This means that the crown jewel of the Courtauld’s collection, Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, is not immediately visible when entering the room but appears suddenly on your left as you emerge into the middle of the gallery. Upon closer inspection, the painting is also mounted on its own protruding wall, helping it to pop into the viewer’s space.
Outside the Great Room, occupying an awkward curved wall at the top of the stairs, is a new commission by the fashionable painter Cecily Brown: a Gagosian stalwart well-known for her swirly Baroque visions that sit somewhere between the abstract and the figurative. The work supposedly references the entire Courtauld collection and, as the only contemporary work in the whole space, its presence is strongly felt. This commission is a good look for the Courtauld: it shows the space is an “artist’s space”, whilst also engaging with the new.
Although the Courtauld has understandably been keen to stress its “transformation”, this doesn’t feel the right term. Instead, what’s taking place is a refinement: the Courtauld is a jewel of a gallery, now polished and brighter than ever but not fundamentally different. It’s the tasting menu of museums: small morsels of brilliance perfectly presented in one manageable sitting.
Despite the raging debates on the post-pandemic “future of the museum”, the Courtauld appears unperturbed and quietly confident in its highly traditional, rarefied approach to the viewing and interpretation of art. That it doesn’t engage in these debates is not an issue: the Courtauld isn’t beset by funding gaps – a legacy of slavery – or stuffed with looted items like many of the museums promising change. Nor is it big enough, or active enough in collating contemporary art, to owe a public duty beyond that of sharing its collection. The most productive discussion would probably revolve around working conditions in the Courtauld’s family mills, to figure out whether the gallery was built on the back of worker exploitation or not. But since the Courtaulds were reformers, this might be a somewhat pointless exercise.
The only major disappointment is the lack of any meaningful connection between the gallery and the institute. When I was a student at the Courtauld, we were endlessly told about “Courtauld Connects” (the original name of the renovation) and how this project would unite the actually quite separate entities. The students and paintings are farther apart than ever, however, since the renovation pushed the university out to temporary quarters near King’s Cross, with no sign of its return. It’s tempting to say it doesn’t matter, but this misses the potential of what could have transformed the Courtauld from a beautiful but inherently inert space to one where the conservation studio, library, seminar rooms and gallery all fed into each other. The Courtauld Institute’s contribution to the interpretation and curation of art is staggering, but nowhere is this evident. We can only hope that one day the Courtauld really does connect.
Max Lunn is a journalist based in London