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The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House: A Brief History

The Courtauld Gallery is home to an intimate collection of art from antiquity to the 20th century



The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House


A brief history of the Courtauld Gallery


Founded in 1932, the Courtauld is a world-renowned gallery of paintings and sculpture, with a collection that ranges from antiquity to the 20th century. Most impressively, it has an unrivalled collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including the largest collection of works by Cézanne in the UK. In the intimate and elegant gallery space, you will encounter Manet’s wonderfully dour barmaid, tiredly staring out of the artist’s last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Van Gogh will present his injuries to you in his Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, painted after that infamous incident. Degas’ ballet dancers cast in bronze, now a signature trope for the artist, are interspersed through the gallery. Alongside these 19th-century masterpieces, you will also be greeted by highlights of the Italian and Northern Renaissance, including paintings by Botticelli, Tintoretto, Fra Angelico and Rubens, and devotional sculptures of the 15th and 16th centuries.


Treasures of the Courtauld’s ‘Works on Paper’ are shown at the heart of the display, in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery. This collection is one of the most significant in Britain, comprising approximately 7,000 drawings and watercolours and 26,000 prints ranging from the late Middle Ages to the 20th century avant-garde. It includes a number of internationally renowned masterpieces by artists such as Dürer, Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Turner.


The Courtauld Gallery is located in the north wing of Somerset House, an imposing palace overlooking the River Thames. The palace was originally built in the 16th century by Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, as his London residence. Unfortunately, he only had five years to enjoy it, as he was executed for ‘felony’ (meaning, in this context, the attempted replacement of government) in the Tower of London in 1552. The property was forfeited to the crown. A year later, the young Princess Elizabeth moved in, living here until 1558, when she was crowned Queen Elizabeth I. After 200 years of various uses, including as the headquarters for the Parliamentary Army during the Civil War, the palace was in a dilapidated state. The decision was made in 1775 to demolish the building completely and rebuild it in the popular Neoclassical style of the time. Today’s grand 18th-century building is the masterpiece of the architect William Chambers. Something not so grand about it is the recent discovery that it sits on the site of a medieval cesspit.


The Courtauld Gallery is just one reason that Somerset House is one of Europe’s most dynamic cultural venues. In 2000, the complex was converted into a public art centre, and continues to accommodate contemporary art exhibitions, cultural events and major fashion shows. In the last few years, the centre has hosted shows and installations of artists and creatives including Ai Weiwei, Mark Quinn, PJ Harvey and Björk. If you happen to be visiting over winter, you might be lucky enough to visit the ice rink, set up every year in the beautiful inner courtyard.


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