It’s 10.03am at the National Gallery, and visitors are striding purposefully through the building. With barely a glance, they march past Titian, Veronese and Turner, before gathering in front of a still life of sunflowers against a yellow background, painted, of course, by Vincent van Gogh. They stare in wonder, basking in its radiance, listening solemnly to audio guides.
How did this painting, created in Arles in 1888, end up in London? That it did is thanks to the generosity of one of the greatest philanthropists in British history – the sort of far-sighted figure who deserves to be honoured with a lavish monument. Yet, Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), chairman of the immensely profitable textile multinational Courtaulds Ltd, is hardly a household name. Until recently, his modest grave in Margate cemetery lay crooked and forgotten.
Perhaps he wouldn’t have minded. He was, by all accounts, a reserved and serious man, who shunned the limelight, and, in 1937, turned down the offer of a barony. Despite this, an outstanding new exhibition, opening next week at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, is about to trumpet his achievements as the collector, who, arguably more than anyone else, fostered the British love of modern French art.
Of course, Courtauld’s name is not entirely unfamiliar. At the Courtauld Gallery, in Somerset House, visitors marvel at the masterpieces by Manet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne, which he amassed during the Twenties. The gallery, having closed last year for a £50 million “transformation project”, decided to send out its stellar holdings on loan. A remarkable set, including Renoir’s La Loge (1874), Manet’s last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), and Cézanne’s The Card Players (c1892-96), went on display at the National Gallery last autumn.
The Paris show, though, will be something different. Rather than simply showcasing significant works, it will consider the man responsible for bringing them together. “Of course, you can present this as a collection of A1 masterpieces,” says Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, head of the Courtauld Gallery. “But it’s such a selective collection that to do so strips it of all character, integrity, and heart.”
The third of six children, Courtauld was born in Essex in 1876, to a nonconformist Unitarian family of Huguenot descent. At the time, the family’s textile business manufactured black silk crepe for mourning. After boarding at Rugby School, Courtauld joined the firm instead of attending university.
There is no record of any early enthusiasm for art – reluctantly, as a boy, he visited the National Gallery, where, according to his sister, he railed against “all these brown old things” on the walls. His aesthetic awakening came in 1901, when he visited Italy with his new wife, Elizabeth (“Lil”) née Kelsey. “The Old Masters had come alive to me,” he wrote. “I now perceived a wonderful mastery allied with strong emotion and with life itself.”
In 1908, Courtauld was made general manager of the company’s mills. The timing was propitious: a few years earlier, Courtaulds Ltd had bought the patents for viscose, known as “artificial silk”, which would generate untold wealth. Eventually, in 1921, Courtauld – who, by then, divided his time between Mayfair and a 16th-century manor in Essex – was made chairman. Shortly after that, he started collecting with gusto.
Modern French art had already been exhibited in Britain – more than a decade earlier, a scandalous exhibition of post-impressionism at London’s Grafton Galleries had prompted Virginia Woolf to write that “on or about December 1910 human character changed”. But Courtauld was inspired by two later shows. The first occurred in 1917, when the National Gallery displayed the collection of the art dealer Hugh Lane, who had drowned two years earlier in the sinking of the Lusitania. Here, Courtauld encountered canvases, such as Manet’s Music in the Tuileries (1862), which were, he said, “a real eye-opener”.
The second came in 1922, at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London. Courtauld’s companion led him to a landscape by Cézanne, who – unlike impressionists such as Monet and Degas – was still, in Britain, considered shocking. “At that moment, I felt the magic,” Courtauld recalled, “and I have felt it in Cézanne’s work ever since.”
It proved a powerful spell. Within months, Lil – presumably with Samuel’s blessing – had bought two modern pictures, including a recent Renoir, from the newly opened Independent Gallery in Mayfair, founded by Percy Moore Turner, who would become Courtauld’s most trusted agent and adviser. The following summer, Courtauld wrote to the director of the Tate Gallery, offering £50,000 to acquire works from, as he put it, “the Modern Continental Art movement [which] deserves to be better represented in the National Collection”.
At the time, the National Gallery only bought work by dead artists – and, when it came to modern art, the National Gallery, Millbank, as the Tate was officially known, focused exclusively on British artists. “None of the national museums had a mandate to collect living foreign artists,” explains Karen Serres, the Courtauld’s curator of paintings. “So, there was a weird gap.” Courtauld believed it ought to be plugged before impressionism became prohibitively expensive.
From the off, his collecting was motivated by philanthropy: “Those whom fortune favours,” he wrote in 1944, “should use their money not only for their own natural enjoyment, but to advance the cause of civilisation.” His gift of £50,000 was twice the cost of a building, earmarked for modern art at the back of the Tate, financed by the dealer Joseph Duveen. Having got wind of Duveen’s new “Modern Foreign Galleries”, Courtauld decided to help fill them.
The pace and quality of the Courtauld Fund’s acquisitions were startling. In fewer than four years, between 1923 and 1927, 22 major impressionist and post-impressionist works were secured for the nation, including Seurat’s monumental Bathers at Asnières (1884) – the first major Seurat to enter a public collection in the world. Courtauld and the fund’s trustees, including the critic Roger Fry, proved tenacious and picky, as the story of the acquisition of van Gogh’s Sunflowers proves.
Having been informed by a descendant of the artist that “the Sunflowers are not for sale, never; they belong in our family, like Vincent’s Bedroom and his House at Arles”, the trustees settled for a portrait of postman Joseph Roulin, now in New York. Two weeks later, though, Courtauld felt “doubtful” about it: “I should welcome the opportunity of exchanging it for a better picture.” As a result, the descendant, Madame van Gogh-Bonger, was persuaded to part with her precious Sunflowers.
Courtauld was also building up his own collection. In 1925 and 1926, for instance, he bought his most expensive pictures: La Loge, about which he later wrote a poem, and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Each cost £22,600, plus Turner’s commission. “Those two pictures alone would have depleted the Courtauld Fund,” notes Vegelin. Courtauld’s first love, though, remained Cézanne, whose work he continued to buy well into the Thirties, long after his initial spending spree had abated. Eventually, he owned 11 paintings and four watercolours by Cézanne – the largest British collection of work by the Master of Aix.
From 1926, when he acquired its lease, Courtauld displayed his art to stunning effect in Home House, a Robert Adam mansion on Portman Square. In 1929, Virginia Woolf complained that, while attending one of the many parties thrown there by Samuel and Lil, her companion was too distracted by the Cézannes to flirt with her. In total, Courtauld acquired more than 60 paintings and 30 drawings by impressionists and post-impressionists. No doubt, the Tate assumed that they would all eventually end up on its walls. (It wasn’t until the Fifties that the Courtauld Fund pictures were transferred to Trafalgar Square.)
However, in 1932 – less than a year after his wife’s death from cancer – Courtauld decided to donate much of his collection to a new institute of higher education, the first of its kind in Britain, devoted to the history of art – a kind of “missionary centre”, he said. He even made way for it, by moving a few streets away to North Audley Street, where, despite “downsizing”, he still found room for 51 paintings and two Degas bronzes. Installed in Home House, the Courtauld Institute of Art opened its doors in October 1932.
Surprisingly, given his support of the Institute, Courtauld was not an intellectual, says Vegelin. Rather, “his response to pictures was emotional and intuitive and, in a sense, untutored – and he felt it was more powerful and authentic for that reason.”
Clearly, he had a superb eye, but he was not infallible: in 1928, he passed up the opportunity to buy Gauguin’s enormous canvas Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98), now in Boston. (“I think he said he had no room for it,” smiles Vegelin.) Courtauld also never embraced later movements such as fauvism or cubism. It is striking that Picasso’s Child with Dove (1901), which he bought as a birthday present for Lil, is an early, pre-cubist masterpiece.
Yet it is hard to think of another 20th-century British figure who amassed artworks of such superlative quality – and who did so, moreover, for the benefit of society. “That’s the outstanding dimension,” says Vegelin. “It wasn’t about personal aggrandisement and accumulation, but to support a social vision. He sensed that industrial capitalism was eroding the value of life, and wanted to contribute to the rebuilding of society. That’s what sets him apart.”
The Courtauld Collection is at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris from Wednesday (fondationlouisvuitton.fr)