I’ve been to the Courtauld Gallery a number of times while I’ve been living in London, sometimes to attend special exhibitions, sometimes just to view the permanent collection. It is small compared to the likes of Tate Britain and the National Gallery, but that just makes it more manageable.
The Gallery, located in the North Wing of Somerset House, was founded by Samuel Courtauld, and initially included mainly Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. It now has a wide range of art including religious Renaissance paintings, Old Masters and twentieth-century art. There are around 7,000 drawings as well as prints, decorative arts and a sculpture collection.
Although the gallery is best known for its 19th- and early 20th-century works, the Courtauld’s galleries extend back to the early Renaissance, featuring some 7,000 drawings as well as prints, decorative arts and a fine collection of sculpture.
The most recent exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery was Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings. Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) was a Spiritualist medium who, in the 1860s and 70s, produced a series of abstract watercolours. She claimed that her hand had been guided by various spirits and angelic beings, including some Renaissance artists such as Titian. The abstract works are highly unusual, but have not been shown in the UK for nearly 50 years. Many are held by Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia, with whom the exhibition is organised in collaboration.
Houghton’s works are watercolours, bold and complex, technically accomplished and surely unlike anything else produced in the Victorian art world. Perhaps a nineteenth century audience just wasn’t ready, for the 1871 exhibition she held in Bond Street was a commercial failure and nearly bankrupted her.
I’m no art expert, but I loved these works: whether Houghton’s hand was guided or they were produced by her own consciousness, they are extraordinary.
The beautiful and ornate bag has been ranked as “one of the finest pieces of Islamic metalwork in existence”. Decorated in gold and silver, and covered with a complex design of a courtly scene, it is believed to have been made for a lady connected with the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty.
The bag has been placed in context with an exhibition of manuscripts, artworks and other items exploring the society of that place and time. I particularly loved the beautiful illustrated manuscripts.
After visiting the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House, I headed to the other side of the building and the Courtauld Gallery, where a new exhibition had just opened. A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany focused on aspects of Romantic landscape drawing in both Britain and Germany, covering the period 1760-1840. This kind of art is a favourite of mine, and I enjoyed looking at the beautiful and majestic landscapes of J.M.W. Turner, Samuel Palmer, Caspar David Friedrich and more.
Somerset House, the magnificent 18th century building on the banks of the Thames, is home to a variety of art exhibitions and other interesting facilities. I paid a visit to check out some of the exhibitions they had going on.
I began in the Terrace Rooms in the South Wing, with Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War. Spencer experienced the First World War and painted from his experience, both as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front. This exhibition displays canvas panels on loan from the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel, as well as a projection of the altarpiece which was too fragile to remove. The Chapel was designed specifically for the panels, and was built by Spencer’s friends, John Louis and Mary Behrend. Here, they have been arranged in a way that echoes their original layout, and gives a good impression of how they look within the Chapel.
The paintings took six years to complete, and were finally finished in 1932. Unusually for images of war, they represent the domestic side of wartime life – scrubbing floors, washing clothes, making tea and inspecting kit. Spencer wanted to show how these ordinary chores became miraculous in the face of wartime danger – creating “a heaven in a hell of war”. It’s an intriguing idea, and I like it – seeking something positive in the face of such horror is a kind of defiance.
Next I ventured into the intriguingly-named Lightwells & Deadhouse, reached via the South Wing and taking me below the Somerset House courtyard, to explore Julian Stair: Quietus – The Vessel, Death and the Human Body. This unusual exhibition was made up of ceramic works in the form of coffins, jars and funerary urns. The strangest exhibit was a white urn containing the ashes of Stair’s uncle, shown alongside video and audio snippets from his life.
Finally, I went to the Courtauld Gallery to see the exhibition The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure. This was an interesting take on the artist’s journeyman years, when he honed and developed his style.