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Seurat’s “Bridge at Courbevoie”, 1886-87, from the Courtauld, will hang alongside the National’s “Bathers at Asnières” (© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London )

In 1910, the painter and art theorist Roger Fry put on an exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London. Entitled Manet and the Post-Impressionists, it introduced a slew of hitherto largely unknown French painters to the British public, among them Manet, Matisse, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh. The reception was not favourable: “Kind people called him mad, and reminded others that his wife was in an asylum,” said the exhibition’s secretary, the literary critic Desmond MacCarthy. “The majority declared him to be a subverter of morals and art, and a blatant self-advertiser.”

This general antagonism towards modern and contemporary French painting was slow to shift. Neither the Tate Gallery, created in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art, nor the National Gallery had any obligation to collect modern foreign paintings, and so they didn’t. Indeed in 1905 the gift of a landscape by Claude Monet to the National Gallery, paid for by public subscription, was declined.

Fry is generally regarded as the man who opened British eyes to what was happening on the other side of the Channel, but just as important was Samuel Courtauld. Born in 1876 into a textile manufacturing family with Huguenot and Unitarian roots, Samuel became chairman of the firm in 1921 and, thanks in part to its development of rayon, oversaw a period of unprecedented prosperity. His religious background had imbued in him a belief in the moral improvement of mankind and he believed that art could play a role in this. Art was, he said with ringing idealism, “universal and eternal, it ties race to race, and epoch to epoch. It overleaps divisions and unites men in one all-embracing and disinterested and living pursuit.”

Courtauld himself was not initially drawn to art, recalling how the National Gallery had about it a “rarefied atmosphere of education and sanctity which damped [his] spirits as [he] approached its portals”. His attitude changed with a trip to Florence, and then an exhibition at the Tate in 1917 of the Impressionist works belonging to the Irish dealer and collector Hugh Lane. The result was that in the early 1920s Courtauld determined to build two collections, one for his own pleasure, the other for the edification of the public.

His first act was the gift of a £50,000 acquisition fund for the Tate and National Galleries, specifically to buy modern French art. Aware of the lack of enthusiasm in those establishments, he ensured the fund was run independently by his own trustees. The paintings they acquired in the 1920s remain the core works of the National’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections.
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