Thursday 5 June 2014
On a beautiful sunny day, Linda, Mary and I met at the Strand Entrance of Somerset House at 10.00 to visit the Courtauld Gallery.
We spared a moment to remember that 70 years ago, the weather was much less favourable, with seasick soldiers in the landing craft using their helmets for want of any more porcelain receptacles.
The Courtauld Collection is a wonderful one, and we are glad that we didn't turn away Huguenot refugee families in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Courtaulds arrived. Initially they were gold and silver smiths, as we saw when we reached the first floor and could admire some of the work of early Courtaulds, both male and female. But at the end of the 18th century, they moved into textiles, and the rest of their history is made up of viscose and also some chemical developments. But the main thing they did was collect, as well as transforming Eltham Palace in the first half of the 20th century. Still, this is not about family history but about the art collection, open to the public for a very reasonable sum.
Linda prefers to do things chronologically, so we started on the ground floor, where there are medieval and Renaissance works of remarkable beauty. We could see why ivory was such a sought after medium, enabling amazingly detailed and moving carving, but we also admired the various diptych and triptyches, a reminder that the rich liked to carry their devotional art works with them as they travelled. There were several versions of the Virgin and Child and Nativities. I liked one with St John the Baptist already in camel skin though he was still very young. A couple had midwives in attendance, which we thought was a bit improbable in a stable in Bethlehem, but good publicity for the 14th and 15th century profession. Several Flemish paintings were among the collection, both secular and religious.
We headed upstairs to the first floor, admiring the staircase and the striking decoration of the rooms. Each room has signage explaining its use when this was the Royal Academy of Art, which was interesting.
A range of Maiolica ware filled one cabinet, to balance the silver at the other end, and there was a lovely Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach, one of those pictures where the vine has tactfully preserved their modesty even though, with one bite into the apple, they did not yet know that they were naked....
At this stage the Gallery was amazingly empty and quiet, so we had time to wander and look. A room full of Rubens showed the range of his work, including a very interesting portrait of the Breughel family, with no bulging pink flesh at all.
The Courtaulds also collected English works, and we saw, Romney, Ramsay and Gainsborough represented. There was a fine portrait of Mrs Gainsborough, for example.
It seemed to us that the Courtauld Gallery is rather like one of those tasting menus you get in up-market restaurants: a taste of many different styles and many wonderful things, but not too much of anything. This is especially true when you get to the substantial collection of Impressionists and Post- Impressionists. Pissaro's picture of Lordship Lane Station in Dulwich was fun for the south Londoners in the party; and pretty well every artist you can think of is there: an early Picasso of some daffodils, as well as Renoir, Degas, Monet, Manet, Gaugin, Seurat, van Gogh - you get the picture. There were also a small Rodin sculpture and a couple of Toulouse-Lautrecs. Even Berthe Morisot is represented (she was Manet's sister-in-law which must have helped break into the male artistic world)
Some of the paintings here are very frequently reproduced, so it is a bit of a shock to see them in real life: Dejeuner sur l' herbe is here, as is the lady in the black and white stripes in the opera box, and Seurat's young person with the powder puff.
Upstairs again, and you come to a roomful of Cezannes. At this stage the place was filling up, and someone was lecturing to a group of attentive students, which slightly reduced our pleasure: but not much as we had Dufy, Braque, Modigliani and Bonnard to enjoy. The Bonnards were a lovely surprise as we tend to think of him as an indoor person, but there were three outdoor scenes, including a wonderful pair of oxen heading off from some warm red brick barns.
I won't go on any more, since the place is conveniently central and open daily, so you can easily visit it yourselves. Oh yes, and the loos are in the basement and perfectly adequate, and the shop is full of lovely things.