The Courtauld Gallery in London is somewhat of a hidden gem: a renowned art collection with masterpieces by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Monet and Gauguin, hidden discreetly in a wing of Somerset House. Its 18th-century neoclassical building was a maze of spaces originally designed to house government offices and specialist societies, including the Royal Academy of Arts.
The gallery reopens to the public on November 19 after the biggest renovation in its history, costing £ 57million and spanning three years of closure (slightly extended by the pandemic). The “real challenge” of the project of architects Witherford Watson Mann was to unify the collection with its historic architecture, explains the director of the Courtauld Gallery, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen. Many of the changes “on their own were not necessarily that drastic, but cumulatively they transformed the enjoyment of building and the ability to sing of the collection,” he says.
This transformation “starts on arrival” with a redesigned entrance that allows for the first time step-free access directly to the entrance hall (wheelchair users previously had to go through a rear entrance, “a very inappropriate way of doing things. to welcome people ” ). The once cramped ticket office has moved to what was once the early Renaissance and Middle Ages gallery. A new staircase leading to the visitor facilities in the enlarged basement replaces the awkwardly steep and narrow “servant staircase”. Before the redesign, Vegelin admits, “many never found their way out there.”
Upstairs, a complete overhaul of around 300 works was guided by quality and variety over quantity. “We were clear that the project was never about showcasing more,” says Vegelin. “We wanted to show things better and in a much more attractive way, to give a richer account of the collection.” Designed as an educational resource for the Courtauld Institute of Art, the smallest university in the UK, the collection spans from the early medieval period to the 20th century and is based on a bequest from Samuel Courtauld, an English textile maker.
“The challenge we set for ourselves in the installation was to provoke fun, inspiration and curiosity,” explains Vegelin. “At every turn, there is something exciting and intriguing to be discovered.” Relevant selections from the decorative arts collections and ‘little episodes’ like an exhibition of Rubens’ oil sketches examining his work processes punctuate the famous paintings – now freed from their old-fashioned hanging chains -.
A largely chronological sequence leads from the medieval and early ‘renaissance’ Renaissance gallery on the first floor to the Fine Arts Halls of Blavatnik, six galleries on the second floor including a ‘sensational’ main showcase for Renaissance works with a Botticelli altarpiece recently restored in its heart. A project space at the same level will “open a window for the public” to the research activities of the Courtauld Institute, with the possibility of future initiatives to be developed by students, faculty members or the curatorial service. Another novelty is a gallery on the third floor dedicated to the Bloomsbury group, showing important materials that have been widely on loan but rarely exhibited in the gallery itself.
The “highlight of the entire visitor experience,” says Vegelin, is the LVMH-sponsored great hall on the top floor, which has been restored to its original proportions as the first purpose-built gallery space in London. , which housed the Royal Academy’s summer exhibitions until 1837. The removal of old housing estates and false ceilings brought “natural light and volume”. Here, Samuel Courtauld’s famous impressionist images are reinstalled and look “better than I’ve ever known them,” Vegelin says. “Now in this wonderful hovering space, I think people are going to fall in love with them again.”
Starting from the Great Hall, the temporary exhibition galleries have also been redesigned. Carved out of former backroom spaces, they will continue to host the type of ‘high-quality, focused exhibits’ in which the Courtauld specializes, starting with 25 modern and post-war designs recently donated by artist Linda Karshan. In February 2022, follows an exhibition of self-portraits of Van Gogh, starting from those of Courtauld with a bandaged ear and bringing together loans from stars from around the world. The program dovetails with the permanent collection approach, says Vegelin: “It’s not about scale, it’s about looking up close and appreciating the details.