Lasting legacy of an English idealist

Samuel Courtauld’s Impressionist paintings can now be seen beside those he bought for the nation

Michael Prodger

In 1910, the painter and art theorist Roger Fry put on an exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London. Entitled Manet and the Post-Impressionists, it introduced a slew of hitherto largely unknown French painters to the British public, among them Manet, Matisse, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh. The reception was not favourable: “Kind people called him mad, and reminded others that his wife was in an asylum,” said the exhibition’s secretary, the literary critic Desmond MacCarthy. “The majority declared him to be a subverter of morals and art, and a blatant self-advertiser.”

This general antagonism towards modern and contemporary French painting was slow to shift. Neither the Tate Gallery, created in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art, nor the National Gallery had any obligation to collect modern foreign paintings, and so they didn’t. Indeed in 1905 the gift of a landscape by Claude Monet to the National Gallery, paid for by public subscription, was declined.

Fry is generally regarded as the man who opened British eyes to what was happening on the other side of the Channel, but just as important was Samuel Courtauld. Born in 1876 into a textile manufacturing family with Huguenot and Unitarian roots, Samuel became chairman of the firm in 1921 and, thanks in part to its development of rayon, oversaw a period of unprecedented prosperity. His religious background had imbued in him a belief in the moral improvement of mankind and he believed that art could play a role in this. Art was, he said with ringing idealism, “universal and eternal, it ties race to race, and epoch to epoch. It overleaps divisions and unites men in one all-embracing and disinterested and living pursuit.”

Courtauld himself was not initially drawn to art, recalling how the National Gallery had about it a “rarefied atmosphere of education and sanctity which damped [his] spirits as [he] approached its portals”. His attitude changed with a trip to Florence, and then an exhibition at the Tate in 1917 of the Impressionist works belonging to the Irish dealer and collector Hugh Lane. The result was that in the early 1920s Courtauld determined to build two collections, one for his own pleasure, the other for the edification of the public.

His first act was the gift of a £50,000 acquisition fund for the Tate and National Galleries, specifically to buy modern French art. Aware of the lack of enthusiasm in those establishments, he ensured the fund was run independently by his own trustees. The paintings they acquired in the 1920s remain the core works of the National’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections.

If this was the public side of his collecting, the private side saw him purchase complementary works for himself. His appetite was whetted in 1926 when he and his wife Elizabeth took the lease of Home House in Portman Square, the finest Robert Adam residence in London, and needed paintings for its walls. “Unfettered imagination, human emotion and spiritual aspiration go into the creation of all great works,” he believed, “and a share of the same qualities is needed for the reading of them.” This he could best give in the privacy of his own exquisite home.

With the death of his wife in 1931 his collecting stopped and he made a gift of both his collection and Home House to the Courtauld Institute, Britain’s sole specialist college for the study of art history and conservation, of which he was a founder in 1932. The Institute remained at Home House until 1989, when it moved to Somerset House where it was reunited with its paintings which had previously been shown in an unprepossessing gallery above Woburn Square in London’s university district.

The Courtauld is currently undergoing a major refurbishment and as a result many of its pictures are going on tour: its Impressionist-circle paintings are, however, travelling only as far as the National Gallery at the opposite end of the Strand where the pictures Samuel Courtauld bought for himself will join the pictures he bought for the nation. It is a poetic gathering: during the Second World War, when the National’s paintings were evacuated for safe keeping to caverns in the Manod slate mines in Snowdonia, Courtauld’s own paintings went with them.

Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne (September 17-January 20) contains 40 works, 26 of them from the Institute, that trace the history of French painting from 1860 to the first years of the 20th century. The artists, who each get their own section, include not just the expected names but the likes of Honoré Daumier and Pierre Bonnard too.

So Degas’s Two Dancers on a Stage of 1874 from Somerset House will hang alongside his Young Spartans Exercising, c.1860, purchased for the National from the Courtauld fund. The National’s grand Seurat Bathers at Asnières, 1884, can be compared with Courtauld’s own, smaller river scene Bridge at Courbevoie, 1886-1887, while two Renoirs of women at the theatre, the National’s La Première Sortie, 1876-7, and the Courtauld’s The Theatre Box, 1874, will hang side by side. The most celebrated painting in the Institute’s collection, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, will also be on show — though no Manet was bought for the National from the Courtauld fund. The fund did though pay for Cézanne’s Self Portrait, c.1880-1 (on seeing his first Cézanne, Courtauld recalled: “At that moment I felt the magic, and I have felt it in Cézanne’s work ever since”), and Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889, the first paintings by either artist to enter a British public collection.

The exhibition may be a choice one but it is too small to serve as a revealing overview of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist circle. Rather, it stands as a study in taste and how Samuel Courtauld’s determination forced into existence a widespread public affection for his own favourite artists that had previously been the preserve of a few deluded souls.

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