Robin Simon

Masters of the artistic universe

On The Courtauld’s 75th anniversary, Robin Simon looks back at its colourful and distinguished history

Masters of the artistic universe
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On The Courtauld’s 75th anniversary, Robin Simon looks back at its colourful and distinguished history

The Tate Gallery ...sorry, I’ll start again. ‘Tate’ spent £100,000 a few years back just to lose its ‘the’. Staff are strictly instructed by the gallery’s Oberkommando to refer to it according to the brand name, as in ‘I’m at Tate’. It sounds as if they come from Mars — or Yorkshire. It doesn’t work, and I enjoy the announcement on the Victoria Line at Pimlico which gets it all wrong: ‘Alight here for the Tate Britain.’ The Courtauld Institute of Art turns 75 on 6 October this year and has also undergone a rather expensive ‘brand refreshment’. There is the usual accretion of ‘logos’ and the like, but the advisers involved have resisted dropping the definite article (‘Courtauld’, tout court) as threatened at one point, although they may have gone too far the other way. We shall now have ‘The Courtauld’, as in ‘Her Majesty The Queen’ (the brand favoured by The Queen Herself). In such ways The Courtauld (sic) tries to move with the times.

It has been an independent college of the University of London since 2002, and retains its place as the pre-eminent centre for the study of art history in the world, larger and even more international in its intake than it used to be, but just as demanding in its scholarship. It did not start out like that. The institute emerged out of one of those amateur but serendipitous schemes at which the British excel. In 1932 it began in Samuel Courtauld’s own house in Portman Square, where his astonishing Impressionist collection was on view. Not any old townhouse, of course, but Robert Adam’s finest, complete with such unusual academic features as a gilded Ballroom (full of books), Music Room (more books), Etruscan Room (staff common room) and Marble Bathroom (secretary). The lectures took place in the Morning Room, the view to the garden obscured by a screen for showing lantern slides, and the slides were filed in the pillared Front Parlour. What could be more appropriate than to be lectured on the Impressionists while their masterpieces hung on the walls? Or more fitting than to study the history of architecture within a supreme 18th-century example? This great good fortune is maintained at The Courtauld’s present home (since 1989) in the North Block of William Chambers’s Somerset House, where the world-famous collections are displayed in rooms that once housed the Royal Academy.

By the 1950s the rigour of the Courtauld’s scholarship was established, and the resources required of its students were formidable, among them: a working know-ledge of two foreign languages (three or more were usual) and Latin, perhaps Greek (I once found a member of staff in the pub contentedly browsing through Thucydides); a capacity to decipher manuscripts or medieval stone coursing; a scientific knowledge of artistic materials and techniques; and a keen and unforgiving eye. Yet the institute was initially conceived as providing a polite training for connoisseurs who might advise the art trade, because its founders — Courtauld, Sir Robert Witt and Lord Lee of Fareham — were all collectors. They were a formidable combination. Courtauld supplied the house, lashings of money and Impressionists; from Lee came Old Master paintings, political nous and influence; from Witt, Old Master drawings together with, more quirkily, an obsessively acquired archive of reproductions of works of art. It became one of the distinctive resources of the Courtauld, and the Witt Library today holds some two million images by 70,000 artists.

The very notion of formally studying the history of art was, in 1932, preposterous. It wasn’t a serious academic discipline. But that is precisely what the Courtauld turned it into. It had already become one in Germany, and as a result of Nazi persecution the Warburg Institute in Hamburg moved to London in 1933, actively assisted by Courtauld and Lee. With the advent of the Warburg’s alarming Teutonic scholars, it no longer seemed possible or proper for the Courtauld to pursue the stylistic analysis of paintings in comfortable isolation from history and wider learning. None the less, what became known as ‘the Courtauld method’ continued to insist upon the physical study of works of art as a first essential in the business of art history, which was just as well as the art collection itself continued to grow. Another refugee from Mitteleuropa, Count Antoine Seilern, bequeathed a feast of Old Masters (some 29 paintings by Rubens alone) to the Courtauld in 1978, joining those given by Roger Fry (1934), who taught at the infant Courtauld, and the Gambier Parry family (1966).

The institute’s worldwide reputation was effectively established under the direction of Anthony Blunt, with whom the Courtauld is for ever associated in the popular mind. And rightly so, even if for the wrong reasons, since he ruled the roost in this often fractious coop for nearly three decades after his appointment in 1947. Blunt’s direction was unobtrusive but decisive, and the standards he set were uncompromisingly high. The graduates who were turned out during his time seemed to, and often did, occupy most of the seats of power in the art world, and became known as the ‘Courtauld mafia’. The shadowy and generally benevolent presence of Blunt, capo di tutti capi, was something of which every student at the institute was aware. When I was even more broke than usual, the registrar sidled up to me one day to hand over a cheque for £25 which, he assured me, the director had discovered in a hitherto unknown fund. It was just enough, as Anthony Blunt knew, to get me to Florence for a couple of weeks in advance of my final exams. On the larger stage, he was just as attentive, as an infinitely resourceful fixer, and in the recent past all the national museums, and most art history departments in the universities, were run by Courtauld mafiosi. Blunt’s own position as Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures is currently occupied by a Courtauld graduate, while other capi still command, to take only a few other examples, the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, National Galleries of Scotland, Ashmolean Museum, Detroit Institute of Art and (the) Tate.

The Courtauld was indeed a kind of family, whose members took an active interest in looking after each other, and under Blunt’s direction the place was marked by an enthralling mixture of passionate seriousness and fun, of the amateur (in the best old-fashioned sense) and intense professionalism. It was exemplified by the annual charabanc tours to private art collections and remote churches, a kind of Whitsun Treat: Anthony Blunt was, after all, the son of a clergyman. As the charas were loaded up in Portman Square with boxes of wine, Blunt would be sloping about looking amiable, lending ‘presence’ and ton, but doing nothing in particular except to let it all happen, which was one of his greatest gifts. Happy times, although not always for our hosts: Kenneth Clark was not amused when, after the usual extended lunch, someone (not Lady C, although she was famously fond of a drop) was sick on the carpet at Saltwood Castle. And then there was that unfortunate incident with the vase....

A new twist saw a Courtauld graduate win the Turner Prize a couple of years ago. Courtauld historians have not been famous for their creativity (Anita Brookner is a conspicuous exception), although an interest in contemporary art goes back some way. Ambitious future directors of modern art museums cut their teeth with dire installations on the small lawn at the back of 20 Portman Square. The shape of the tiny square of grubby grass, overlooked by Blunt’s top-floor flat, exercised a hypnotic hold: panes of glass ran from one diagonal to another; or leaky plastic tubes of water, or planks of wood, all were installed, with a deeply conservative love of symmetry, from one diagonal to another. Plus