The subtle and radical renovation of the Courtauld Gallery


The renovated Great Hall, left, and pictured in Thomas Rowlandson’s “Showroom, Somerset House” (1808) © Hufton + Crow

It is one of the most famous images of people looking at art in a gallery. Thomas Rowlandson’s “Showroom, Somerset House” portrays a crowd of connoisseurs and loiterers, dandies and officers, wise ladies and fat shepherds, all surrounded by a barrage of paintings, hung high and tilted towards crowd to make them more visible. The paintings, with their elaborate golden frames, appear to be architecture in themselves, structure within structure; the melee of humanity is completed by the mass of images.

Painted in 1808, it shows the summer exhibition, almost 40 years after the Royal Academy became the first tenant of the newly built Somerset House. It was the first purpose-built public art gallery in Britain, and the Great Hall that Rowlandson depicts, with its arched lantern windows, was one of the city’s finest public interiors (accessible for one shilling).

The Courtauld, who moved here in 1989, was part of a long succession of inhabitants, each adapting and changing the accommodation over the centuries, subdividing rooms, blocking windows and lanterns, inserting false ceilings and juggling walls. . Now, after a £ 50million renovation, this gallery described by Rowlandson is back as the culmination of the gallery’s new incarnation. And it is grandiose.

A room with paintings hanging on the orange walls

Bloomsbury Room © Hufton + Crow

‘Self-portrait with a bandaged ear’ (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Jim Winslet

Like most of the best work in historic buildings, this is one of those projects where a tremendous amount of intellectual engagement, design, physical labor, and skilled craftsmanship created an overall impression that few things have changed. But it is. Witherford Watson Mann Architects worked on an intricate weave of new and historic fabric, technology, time and space to radically reform an institution that may have been designed as an art gallery but was far from be perfect for display and public access.

When William Chambers began designing Somerset House in 1776, it was intended as a new type of urban palace, a space for public offices, learned societies, tax collectors, civil servants and naval administrators. It has an interesting counterpart in Paris, the building that has become the Hôtel de la Marine, which itself has just reopened to the public.

Somerset House was a symbol of London’s status as the City of Lights and the capital of the empire, a strange mix of bureaucracy, warfare and learning, a reinvention of the palace as an imposing office building with an impending presence on the Thames. Its land had to be acquired piecemeal, so the building is a compromise, an eccentric arrangement carefully crafted to look symmetrical and grandiose but full of anomalies and odd junctions with neighboring houses.

Look past some neoclassical pillars and a metal railing to a mural
Cecily Brown’s specially commissioned work, “Unmoored from her Reflection” (2021), is located at the foot of the stairs © David Levene

The North Wing, on the Strand, was designed almost like a row of houses to contain a bizarre mix of societies and offices for emerging institutions including the Royal Academy, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, but also the Hawkers and Pedlars Office, the Hackney Coach Office and the Lottery Office, making it Britain’s premier office building.

The Royal Academy (which was housed here until 1837) was housed in an intricate section of interlocking spaces and a mix of nationally and towering urban halls above the grand arch leading to the Strand. Over the years, layers of accretions, changes and adaptations had led to a complex and incredibly dense interior. The architects intervened cautiously but broadly.

The key movements have been to connect the spaces at the bottom and at the top. The vaults now cross the width of the building and the galleries on the top floor interconnect. The rooms have been relined, refined, from the floors to the frescoes to the fireplaces, with the added complication of concealing enormous new services and air handling systems.

There is a new entrance and hall, a beautiful cantilevered staircase (very much in the original engineering tradition but which cannot be confused with anything from the 18th century) and a dramatically restored vault which will serve now in store. The sequence of the two staircases also underlines their purely and wonderfully theatrical character, appearing almost like stage sets.

View through several levels of a circular staircase, painted in blue

The project focuses on the stairs of the theater © Jim Winslet

The zenith, however, is the restored Great Hall (now LVMH), the original noble space of the Royal Academy depicted by Rowlandson with its restored lantern (it had been covered with a false ceiling, the hall oddly subdivided). Situated directly above the Arch of the Strand, it is a superb space, a simple and light cube in which the natural light coming from the arched openings of the lantern is perfectly suited – cool and calm. This is part of a suite of domestic pieces, but is museum-wide.

There are some of the most famous paintings in the collection, “Un bar aux Folies-Bergère” by Manet, “Self-portrait with a bandaged ear” by Van Gogh, “Never again” by Gauguin, etc. If there is one gripe, it’s that two new temporary walls were built (part of the exhibition design by Nissen Richards Studio) that breaks the space simple and unique. Surely, at least for the opening hookup, we could have been allowed to enjoy this rekindled piece in its entirety?

Beyond this space (which looks entirely like a new gallery, so transformed) are the Blavatnik Fine Rooms, a suite of six elegant Georgian rooms (the works of Courtauld Rubens are here) and new galleries dedicated to the works. medieval, modern works on paper and the Bloomsbury group. A specially commissioned work by Cecily Brown at the top of the stairs speaks through space and time with Oskar Kokoschka’s epic triptych (“The Myth of Prometheus”) now on display in the Katja and Nicolai Tangen galleries.

The Karshan Gift exhibition (featuring works by Twombly, Guston, Richter and others) has shifted the balance of the collection a bit more to the present and it now appears much more contemporary. Nissen Richards color palettes and showcases are clear, faded, and stylish throughout.

‘The Myth of Prometheus’ (1950) by Oskar Kokoschka © David Levene

Exterior view of the imposing neoclassical building

The Courtauld moved to Somerset House in 1989 © Benedict Johnson

There are no architectural acrobatics here, at least not visible, although there are plenty of them under the skin, from the poured concrete of the vaults to the engineering of the roofs and machines. Instead, Witherford Watson Mann (who won the Stirling Prize in 2013 for his restoration of the ruins of Astley Castle) carefully stitched the different parts together to create something cohesive, although it varies tremendously in scale. , the decoration and the atmosphere of the galleries. .

In its details, most of which will probably go unnoticed, this care shines through. Look, for example, at the floors and you might see that the screw holes trace the eerie paths of historic beams and joists extending in all directions, marking diagonals across the space. Next, look at the planks and you might notice thicker planks in the middle of the room with increasingly thinner timbers towards the walls, reflecting the original practice of cutting a floor out of a single tree and leveling them out. planks from the center of the room.

These things make a difference. One gets the impression here that the building has been treated with sensitivity, which masks some of the great movements needed to make it cohesive, accessible and rewarding. It’s like the return of a beautiful old suit, mended, stitched up and with a new comfortable and silky lining. Familiar but cool.


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