After a £57 million redevelopment, the Courtauld Gallery’s artistic gems are returning for the grand reopening in November. Its rooms in the north wing of Somerset House have been significantly expanded and the permanent collection completely redisplayed.
Works by Paul Cézannes (1839-1906), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Georges Seurat (1859-1891) – the gallery’s giants of impressionism – were amongst the many on loan for the past three years, travelling across Europe and Japan.
The Courtauld Connects programme also sent artworks around the UK to places such as Preston and Hull. These cities generated income for the textile industrialist Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), which he used to buy his collection and found The Courtauld institute of Art.
“It is so thrilling. We’ve missed them,” said Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, the head of the Courtauld Gallery. “It is wonderful that other people have enjoyed them, but it is time for them to come home.”
The impressionist artworks will reunite in the new Great Room, dubbed the showstopper of the whole renovation project. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was originally the Great Room of the Royal Academy, but it had been subsequently subdivided into four rooms.
Chandeliers lit the paintings, hung up high on chains, which is now considered a somewhat outdated method of displaying collections. By removing the subdivisions, installing new lighting and lowering the paintings, the grandeur of the Great Room has been restored.
“The experience of them was so conditioned by the architecture and the decorative setting, they felt old in a way, they felt like old masters,” explained Vegelin. “Here I think people are going to get a real charge from them.”
Public restrooms and storage spaces have been converted into new Medieval and Early Renaissance galleries. Increasing the accessibility of the collection played a major role in the renovation too, with more diverse interpretation of artworks and step-free access added.
Originally intended to span only two years, the renovation project encountered several delays, including a worldwide pandemic and the discovery of a medieval cesspit in the basement. In January 2020, up to 100 objects dating from the 14th and 15th centuries were found buried in a four-metre-deep pit underneath the gallery.
At the time of the discovery, senior archaeologist Antonietta Lerz said “we just kept going deeper and deeper. To find something of that size – and all the finds that came out of it as well – is very unusual. Almost every time we put our mattocks in the ground, something else came up. That was great.”
The Courtauld Gallery will reopen in November 2021 alongside three temporary exhibitions; Modern Drawings: The Karshan Gift (Nov 21 – Jan 22), Pen to Brush: British Drawings and Watercolours (Nov 21 – Jan 22), and Kurdistan in the 1940s (Nov 21 – May 22).