Resident in the North Wing of Somerset House since the 1990s, this collection boasts some excellent art as well as an excellent setting. If you are in London, it is well worth a visit.
The Courtauld Institute moved to Somerset House as early as 1989, but the Gallery arrived rather later. I was working just over the road in Bush House when it moved in and there was much speculation about free entry for the civil servants who regularly worked elsewhere in Somerset House. For a few years, this wonderful collection was my lunch-time panacea.
The collection of paintings takes in works from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including by Botticelli, Tintoretto and northern masters, like Lucas Cranach. His ‘Adam and Eve‘ and paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder feature. Another Brueghel and painter, Jan, the Elder, is depicted, with his family, by Rubens. Not usually one of my favourite artists Rubens captures here the tenderness and protectiveness of a husband with his second wife and their family. He and his friend often worked together, with Peter Paul painting the people and Jan painting the animals.
The paintings in the collection I would visit most frequently were the impressionist canvases – ‘Autumn Effect at Argenteuil’ by Monet and Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies- Bergere’. I could stand, or sit, in front of the latter for hours, tying to work out the reflections and perspectives. It really does capture the bustle and surface glitter of the theatre. But there is also a sense of mystery or unease. Who is the young woman? Is she just tending the bar, selling drinks? Or is she also selling herself – the Folies-Bergere being notorious for the availability of prostitutes. Not far away from this is another uneasy painting of a woman, ‘Nevermore‘ by Paul Gauguin. Who are the clothed pair standing in the middle distance beyond the naked girl?
The Courtauld also has an important collection of drawings, water colours and prints. From chalk and ink sketches by Durer, Rembrandt and Bernini, to pastels and line drawings by Degas, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as a collection from the golden age of British water-colour, with works by Gainsborough, Turner, Cozens and others.
What surprised me, however, was the extent to which I liked the things. The truly exquisite Islamic metalwork objects, a fourteenth century handbag from Iraq, a Mamluk incense burner or a metal box. Also the fifteenth century gilded and painted wedding chests, probably the finest things which a bride took with her to her new home (decorated with scenes from Livy’s History of Rome, not, perhaps the most obvious choice for newly-weds, but certainly ones which might not pall as time passed). There are also pieces of furniture, ceramics and other decorative art from Omega Workshops founded by the Bloomsbury group artist Roger Fry.
The Gallery rooms are themselves beautiful, their classical proportions, fine fireplaces and door surrounds set off by elaborate plaster ceilings (sometimes painted). The high windows to The Strand and the Courtyard admit lots of light. To think that this building was constructed as an office block!
Opening hours are from 10.00 until 18.00 daily. The gallery entrance is in the Strand Entrance to Somerset House. Temple ( District & Circle lines) and Charing Cross (Bakerloo & Northern lines) are the nearest tube stations. Prices for entry vary, depending on what special exhibitions are on show, but range from £7 to £10 per person.