“When the Courtauld Gallery closed in 2018 for renovation, I was concerned it would lose the atmosphere that made it one of London’s most unique museums,” Ben Luke said in the London Evening Standard. “But it’s more beautiful than ever, with a renovation perfectly judged.”
This remarkable collection, established by textile mogul Samuel Courtauld and his wife Elizabeth in 1932 and exhibited at Somerset House, groans with masterpieces – paintings by Bruegel, Botticelli and Rubens, as well as one of the most treasured treasures spectacular views of Impressionism and Post-Impressionist art around the world.
Yet for all his charms, the Courtauld did not always show his art “in the best way”: the paintings hung awkwardly, the gallery layout was awkward, and it was a “nightmare” for the disabled.
Now, thanks to a £ 57million renovation everything has changed. The renovations have opened up what were once cluttered spaces into a cohesive whole, while the lighting and decor has been made considerably more paint-friendly. And what paintings they are: from magnificent medieval and primitive Islamic works to those of van Gogh Self-portrait with bandaged ear (1889) and “superb” pieces by modern masters including Cy Twombly and Philip Guston, it offers “one breathtaking moment after another”.
Familiarizing yourself with the treasures of the Courtauld is almost “too much,” Adrian Searle said in The Guardian. “Surprises at every turn keep you alert and keep you looking,” whether in front of a “slightly crazy” 1550 portrait of an English naval officer or at Cézanne’s house. Card players (1892-1896); at the “room of mirrors and reflections” at the time of Manetl A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) or at Cranach Adam and eve (1526). You constantly remember the impressive “historical breadth and variety” of the collection.
The renovation itself was done with the utmost subtlety, Rowan Moore said in The observer. Indeed, it’s so subtle that sometimes it’s hard to see what all those millions have actually bought. There are, however, occasional slips: the stairs have been fitted with “raw white rectangular light fixtures” of the kind you might find in “a cheap hotel,” while the gallery’s glorious medieval artwork is ” consigned in a “capped room”.
Much of the old Courtauld’s idiosyncratic charm has been sacrificed, making it look a lot more like a regular museum, Waldemar Januszczak said in Sunday Times. But the new move, largely chronological, is easier to follow: certain masterpieces hitherto hidden are “in the spotlight”, such as the “great altarpiece” by Botticelli. The Trinity with Saints Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist.
Elsewhere, two dozen paintings by Rubens once scattered piecemeal in the galleries are offered a well-deserved piece. Better still, the new Impressionist and Post-Impressionist gallery, where we obtain “a wall full of superb Cézannes”; a selection of some fine Gauguins, including the “haunting” Never again (1897); “Exceptional” Seurats; and “heartbreaking” van Goghs.
It may not be perfect, but the Courtauld’s makeover is “unquestionably a success.” This well-kept secret is now likely to become a major tourist attraction. “So, yes, a lot has been won. But a little has also been lost.
Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London WC2 (020-3947 7777, courtauld.ac.uk). Now open to the public