When the Courtauld Gallery’s impressionist pictures were shown at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2019, the Parisian public was so bowled over by the exhibition that some were inclined to claim Samuel Courtauld as an honorary Frenchman. This was not completely unreasonable; after all Courtauld (1876–1947) was a Francophile from an old Huguenot family. But it was even more of a compliment to the magnificent array of French art he had put together.
In this city of impressionism, home to the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie, half a million visitors came to see it. I went round that show with an eminent art dealer, and as we did so she confided that she had never seen Courtauld’s Cézannes, Gauguins and Van Goghs look as splendid as they did there. She was right, but now they are hung and lit with equal magnificence at Somerset House.
Getting them so satisfactorily settled into this Georgian pile has taken more than 30 years. The gallery first moved there in 1990, but since then there have been a multitude of rearrangements and adjustments. It’s easy to understand why. Somerset House is an imposingly dignified structure located on a prominent site in central London, the masterpiece of the architect William Chambers.
The trouble was Chambers had never intended for most of its grand rooms to be used as picture galleries. Furthermore the one that was — the Great Room, which was the central point of the annual Royal Academy exhibition in the 18th and 19th centuries — was intended for a completely different kind of exhibition from any modern display. In those days it was crammed with a tilted cliff face of paintings leaning out at an angle from each wall, hanging in rows from near the floor to ceiling, Gainsboroughs attempting to attract attention away from pictures by Reynolds.
It has taken a long time to work out how to adapt these venerable spaces to a new role.