A quick tour of the Courtauld Gallery

A home to a fantastic collection of art, the Courtauld Gallery is located at the Somerset House in central London. I finally managed to visit it for the first time. It was fun to walk around spotting famous artworks and thinking to myself – wow, this one is here, and this one is here too! 

The permanent collection galleries take you on a tour of the history of art (mostly in Western tradition) from the Middle Ages to the art of the 20th century. It begins at the first floor with the Medieval and Early Renaissance Gallery. Among the highlights there are the ‘Courtauld Bag’, an intricately decorated brass bag made in Iraq dating to the early 1300s, and three predella panels, once a part of an altarpiece, painted around 1420s by Fra Angelico. 

A decorative silver metal bag in a display cabinet in a museum. In the background are a golden altarpiece with Crucifixion theme and a small painting of a saint.
The Courtauld Bag
A gold rectangular panel with three round paintings. From the left is a picture a woman with long golden hair in a red dress, most likely Mary Magdalene, she is gesturing questioningly towards the central image of visibly suffering Christ with a wound in his side. On the right image of sad and crying John the Evangelist with his arms in a praying gesture looking towards the central image.
Panel from an altarpiece by Fra Angelico. Panel depicts Mary Magdalene, Christ and John the Evangelist.

On the second floor, the galleries are set in chronological order, starting with the works of the Renaissance and Baroque. Two rooms are dedicated to Rubens and his contemporaries. Moving along, the tour continues through the art of the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the exhibits are dominated by paintings, there are also decorative arts, furniture and an occasional sculpture. 

Three highly decorative ceramic jugs on display in a museum. On the left a jug with an image of a woman in classical ancient Roman or Greek dress, in the centre a smaller blue jug with a picture of a yellow cat with blue dots, possibly a stylised leopard, on the right a jug with geometric decoration.
Tin-glazed earthenware, Italian Renaissance display
Portrait of a family consisting of a man and a woman, a girl and a boy. The man is wearing a large ruff around his neck and a tall black hat. The woman is wearing a dark dress with golden decoration in the front and a large white ruff around her neck. Both children are wearing large decorative collars. The woman is holding the girl's hand with one hand and the other hand is resting on the boy's shoulder.
The family of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1613-1615) by Peter Paul Rubens

Most renowned for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection, the Courtauld is packed with art treasures. Works by Monet, Manet, Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Van Gogh and Gaugin are in the top floor galleries, which is, understandably, one of the busiest spaces in the building. 

A portrait of a woman in a greyish beige jacket with decorative collar and a light brown dress. The woman is sitting, her hands are resting on her lap. She is looking to the side and looks engaged in her own thoughts.
Portrait of a Woman (1872-1875) by Berthe Morisot
Portrait of a tall woman in a blue coat with fur collar. The woman has short wavy hair and wears a green hat with pink flowers attached. She is holding a yellow handbag. Her gaze is lowered as she stands waiting for something. In the background there are two people standing behind the woman on the street.
Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (c.1892), by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

My favourite discovery was the Bloomsbury Room, a small space tucked away from the busy Impressionism and Post-Impressionism galleries. It is decorated with works made and designed by the members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. From paintings on the walls down to the carpet on the floor, this room has a distinct cosy and domestic feel, which makes it very different from the rest of the Neoclassical building. 

Room with orange walls, geometric design carpet. At the back by the window there is a wooden easel with a still-life painting and a decorative chair in the left corner.  In the right corner there is a painted decorative paravan. There are two paintings on the walls, one is a man in a hat, another is a still life hanging above a fireplace.
View of the Bloomsbury Room at the Courtauld Gallery
Two paintings hanging on a orange wall. Left one is a portrait of a sitting woman wearing a dark blue blouse and green dress with black hair in bob haircut. Right one is a painting of three women very close to each other having a conversation in an interior.
Left: Portrait of Nina Hamnett (1917) by Roger Fry, right: Conversation (1917) by Vanessa Bell

One of the recent acquisitions is the monumental curved panel at the top of the staircase by Cecily Brown titled Unmoored from Her Reflection (2021). The painting was installed in November 2021 when the Courtauld reopened to the public after a lengthy period of renovation. In my opinion, the staircase is among the most eye-catching architectural features of the building. 

A view of a spiral staircase with dark blue decorative railing. At the top of the white staircase wall is a curved long colourful painting of two nude men standing next to each other in a fantastical semi-abstract landscape. Above the staircase is partially visible round skylight.
The Courtauld staircase and painting Unmoored from Her Reflection (2021) by Cecily Brown.

New displays include panels explaining the history of the building. It used to host the Royal Academy of Arts and other institutions throughout the years. ‘Courtauld Insights’ also deserve a mention. Scattered throughout the galleries they offer little nuggets of information from the Courtauld’s recent research about the artworks, artists and society. 

The Courtauld is now among my London favourites. Comprehensive, yet not overloaded displays are easy to look at. Unlike some of the larger galleries and museums in the city, this one is totally doable in a day. It will not leave you tired and overwhelmed. I focused on the permanent collection here, but there is also a programme of temporary exhibitions. A virtual tour of the gallery is available on the website (link at the bottom), which is worth checking out.

Abstract painting consisting of wide strokes of paint on white canvas. The composition is a pleasing combination of lines of muted colours, mostly greys, blues and greens.
I almost missed the 20th century gallery on the top floor where this painting was displayed. This abstract landscape is Halsetown (1961) by Peter Lanyon. I love the colours!

Read more: 

Link to Courtauld Gallery website here: https://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/

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