By Michele Leight
LONDON, October 2, 2000 - In the midst of Britain’s
numerous wonderful Millennium projects, it is heartening to witness
London’s own commitment to the re-instatement and refurbishment
of a building rich in the nation's history and steeped in service
to its countrymen for hundreds of years.
Somerset House, designed by Sir William Chambers
in 1776, with grand entrances on the Embankment and the Strand,
has risen out of the ashes of decay to be re-invented as a vital
cultural complex with a spectacular 18th Century Courtyard and
a memorable River Terrace on the Thames, not far from the much
mentioned power-station conversion – Tate Modern – on
the opposite bank. (See The City Review article.)
Somerset House is immense, and it helps to
visualize it as a giant square around a central courtyard, with
The Gilbert Collection, the Nelson Stairs, restaurants and River
Terrace in the South building on the river, and the world-renowned
Courtauld Gallery and the Courtauld Institute of Art to the North,
which can be entered separately at the Strand entrance.
This gorgeous Palladian building, which is
Chambers salute to the great architect Inigo Jones, was once occupied
by the Royal Academy of Art, the Royal Society and the Society
of Antiquaries – the first "societies" of their
kind anywhere in the world.
As a reminder of Somerset House’s services
to the public in the past, when it housed (among several other
government offices) the administrative offices of the Navy Board
and Excise Office (taxes), the Headquarters of the Inland Revenue
still occupy the East and West wings (which form the rest of the
giant "square"). This combination of beauty and practicality
make Somerset House utterly fascinating to the visitor. Looking
out upon Chambers Courtyard on a flawless August afternoon, clouds
sculpted against a piercing cerulean sky, it was unthinkable that
this glorious hidden courtyard was till recently the car park
for the Inland Revenue! Thank heaven someone saw the light.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward
VI, by his third wife Jane Seymour (he had eight wives), was still
under-age. Edward VI’s ambitious uncle, Edward Seymour, took
charge of the situation, including possession of Henry VIII’s
will. He had himself created Lord Protector (of the boy-king and
the Realm) and Duke of Somerset. In addition, he desired a palace
more fitting to his new position, and chose to build one on a
site given to him by Henry VIII in 1539 as a reward for successfully
fortifying the French towns of Calais and Guisnes. The impressive
site lay between the River Thames and the Strand – an important
road linking the Tower of London to the East, and the Palace of
Whitehall and Westminster to the West.
Although the identity of the architect is not
known, a manuscript at Caius College, (pronounced Keys), Cambridge,
refers to a portrait of John of Padua "who built the college
(Caius) and Somerset House, on the old front of which next the
Strand were some Doric columns like those at Caius College."
It is also possible that John Thynne, employed by Somerset, designed
Whoever designed it, contemporary renderings
of the old palace, built between 1547 and 1552, confirm that it
was an innovative departure from the old Gothic style of architecture,
and possibly the first building of the English Renaissance (as
the 1750 rendering of an anonymous artist shows in the Somerset
House Catalog, page 29, price five pounds). Influential architectural
ideas at the time lay in the classical style of Rome and Greece,
using a combination of Doric and Ionic pillars, and illustrations
of the building show the influence of contemporary French and
Italian ideas on decoration.
The past of Edward the Protector past caught
up with him, and by 1549 there was dissension amongst members
of the ruling Privy Council, led by the Earl of Warwick, eventually
leading to Somerset’s arrest and imprisonment in the Tower
of London. Public opinion had turned against him for many reasons,
including his "demolition activities" on the site of
his new palace, which had brought an untimely end to a number
of churches, chapels and cloisters. The indictment included seizing
church lands and stated that the Duke had "caused a church
near Strand Bridge and two Bishops houses to be pulled down to
make a seat for his new building called Somerset House, in digging
the foundations whereof the bones of many who had been buried
there were dug up and carried into the fields… the Duke would
have a hard time getting away with that in our day, let alone
on land belonging to powerful bishops in an age when the Church
and State were on an equal footing and a strong influence on the
England had recently been transformed by Act
of Parliament and Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir to
a Protestant nation, with bitter rivalries still evident between
Protestants and the ousted Catholics. The "politicking,"
violence and intrigue surrounding the Duke of Somerset was a sign
of the times, with the nobility of both religions seeking to "plant"
their man or woman on the throne. The Duke of Somerset was lucky
enough to be released the first time, to regain his seat on the
Privy Council and reclaim his estates, but two years later he
was not so fortunate when his enemies arrested him and tried him
for treason. His nephew Edward VI’s diary entry for January
22nd, 1552, cryptically states "…the Duke of Somerset
had his head cut off on Tower Hill between 8 and 9 o’clock
in the morning." That famous mound on Tower Hill now populated
by pigeons and regal Beefeaters saw many heads roll through the
centuries, never more so than in Henry VIII’s reign –
the most famous being that of Sir Thomas More, who refused to
support his divorce of Katherine of Aragon, a Catholic.
The palace was appropriated by the Crown, and
given to Princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I (Anne Boelyn,
wife to Henry VIII and beheaded by him, was her mother). From
then on Somerset House served as the dower house of successive
queens for most of the 17th Century. During the 18th Century it
was by turns a temporary residence for royals, a "grace and
favor" residence for those who served the Crown, a hotel
for visiting ambassadors – and in the reign of Anne of Denmark,
the scene of many extravagant masquerades.
Numerous engravings, prints, drawings and paintings
of Old, and new, Somerset House exist, giving an accurate idea
of how it metamorphosed over the centuries, always taking along
with it something architecturally or decoratively that went before.
Antonio Canaletto’s atmospheric "Old Somerset House
seen from the Thames," (Private Collection), painted around
1750, portrays the noble house fronted by a lawn leading to the
river, with a fountain, gardens and trees. The arcaded river gallery
of the south front, believed to have been designed by Inigo Jones,
was to inspire the design for the façade of Chambers new
Strand entrance, which leads to the gorgeous Vestibule, or entrance
to the Courtauld Gallery to the right and the Courtauld Institute,
world famous for its art history courses, to the left. The Courtauld
- a major museum with a world-class collection is an absolute
"must-see" for any devotee of art - has occupied the
Somerset House premises since 1990.
If only paintings relevant to a site, such
as this one by Canaletto, the great Venetian "waterscapist,"
could be loaned to the institutions they depict - The Gilbert
Collection, located by the Great Arch of Chambers new Somerset
House at the Embankment entrance, would be the obvious choice.
(Hint, hint…) A hand-colored engraving by Robert Havell (from
the Thomas Ross Collection), now in the Gilbert Collection, shows
the 18th Century Somerset House with the waters of the Thames
lapping at its southern façade and the Great Arch –
with no land or greenery or "potted plants" in sight,
as was Chambers intention. Edward Daye's "Somerset House
from the river," fittingly in the Courtauld Institute Galleries,
shows the new building rising like a neo-classical colossus directly
out of the water, boats pitted against a choppy Thames, with St.
Paul’s smudged on the horizon (illustrated).
By the 1770s, old Somerset House had begun
to fall apart, and in 1774 the Board of Works reported that large
parts of the palace were in a state of collapse. King George III
agreed to its complete demolition, with plans for a new building
to house a number of government offices and learned societies.
The decision to concentrate several government offices in the
proposed new Somerset House (interesting that no one sought to
change the name, considering the circumstances) was a noticeable
departure from the established British convention at that time
of using separate buildings for different departments of state.
The new thinking encompassed the growing realization that the
concentration of public offices in a single building would promote
Sir William Chambers was a leading architect
of his day and Comptroller of the "Office of Works."
He was ambitious, wanted to make his mark, and eagerly hoped for
the commission to design the new Somerset House. There had been
a desire to build a new classical palace in London ever since
the destruction of Whitehall Palace by fire in 1698. The legendary
Inigo Jones had published his ideas for a palace for Charles I
in 1727, which had spurred on public enthusiasm. Sadly, Charles
I was beheaded and neither of the succeeding King Georges had
shown any interest in a metropolitan seat of power.
More tangible was the idea of re-building the
medieval Palace of Westminster (honestly, these builders), leading
William Kent to prepare a series of designs in the 1730s in the
grand Palladian style of the times. This scheme was to receive
approval in 1739, but Sir Robert Walpole's administration fell,
so it was left to two government buildings in Whitehall to set
the new standard for public architecture in mid-Georgian London.
Though only a small fragment of William Kent’s
full scheme was built, it remains, to this day, a mecca for enraptured
tourists garlanded with cameras and lovers of architecture; the
Treasury Building, facing Horse Guards Parade (scene of the Queens
birthday extravaganzas and the daily Changing of the Guard)) established
rusticated Portland stonework as the proper "dress"
for such buildings. Fifteen years later, the Horse Guards Building
followed suit and was rebuilt by Kent, forming the new War Office.
Britain’s emergence as a formidable maritime
power peaked in the 18th Century, pointing in the direction of
establishing a new government department that would reflect its
importance – the Navy Office. The new Somerset House would
be given the same treatment as the other prestigious "offices,"
and was built primarily as accommodation for the navy office and
the various support services it provided for seamen and their
families – hence names like "Sick and Hurt Office,"
"Victualling Office," "Seamen’s Waiting Hall"
and so on. It was optimistically envisaged as a "plain building"
and estimated at half the cost of the Horse Guards – thirty
William Robinson, Chambers subordinate and
Secretary of the "Board of Works" initially received
the commission, causing Chambers to write bitterly that it was
"strange that such an undertaking should be trusted to a
Clerk in our office; ill-qualified as it appears by what he has
done at the Excise and the Fleet (referring to the Excise Office
and Horse Guards); while the King has six architects in his service
ready and able to obey his commands. Methinks it should be otherwise
in the reign of a Vertuoso Prince…"
Fate determined it would be "otherwise"
with the sudden death of Robinson in October 1775. Within the
month, at George III’s express desire, Sir William Chambers
was appointed architect of the new Somerset House. They were not
strangers to one another; Chambers had been employed to teach
architectural drawing to George III when he was the young Prince
of Wales, and had obviously made a favorable impression.
William Chambers was born in Sweden in 1726
of British parents, and was educated in England. When he was 16
he visited China, the local architecture stimulating his interest
enough to devote himself to architecture full time. He traveled
and studied in France and Italy and sufficiently impressed Augusta,
Princess Dowager of Wales that she engaged him to decorate her
villa at Kew. For those who have seen the wonderful Chinese Pagoda
at Kew Gardens, it might come as a surprise to learn that it was
designed by Chambers, along with the famous Orangerie in this
great horticultural paradise; many British adventurers, explorers
and botanists have brought their exotic finds and specimens to
Kew Gardens, where they have flourished ever since. If there is
one thing the British love as much as animals, it is their flora
Chambers brief was twofold: the new Somerset
House was to accommodate the three principal learned societies
of the day – the Royal Academy of Art, the Royal Society
(for Science) and the Society of Antiquaries – "intended
for the reception of useful learning and the polite arts."
One wonders what those "polite" academicians would make
of modern art’s "enfant terrible," Damien Hirst,
or the cloning activities of our contemporary scientists. Less
esoteric but equally important were the various government offices
serving the Navy and the public.
As an aside, the King’s Bargemaster was
to be housed at Somerset House, with access for state barges at
all times. Who can forget Robert Shaw as Henry VIII in "A
Man For All Seasons?" His famous visit to his friend, Thomas
More, had to be made by Royal barge, for Thomas lived up-river,
in what would now be Chelsea. It was barges almost as magnificent
as that one - oars raised high as Henry (Robert Shaw) made an
impromptu landing in the mud – with a demonic grin - before
his long-suffering attendants could lay the red carpet down. Chambers
had to accommodate royal and government barges, and access had
to be swift and direct for the officers of the Navy Board. The
Navy Commissioners Barge, on loan from the National Maritime Museum,
is displayed at Somerset House in the King's Barge House (Embankment
To complicate matters further, the new building
had to contain both the offices and the living quarters of the
heads of the different departments; these were the days when "households"
entailed cooks quarters, housekeepers and secretaries, porters
and "bag bearers"(officers did not carry their own briefcases)
and storage for coal and candles. Chambers solved this by creating,
in essence, a series of linked, six story town houses – or
"slices"- per department, arranged around a central
courtyard. The two basement floors and one camouflaged in the
roof, gave the terraces the outward appearance of only three stories.
Pretty ingenious without a TI83+ calculator – just fairly
primitive T squares, compasses and protractors.
The new building extended across the entire
"old" Somerset House site and its gardens – six
acres. Towards the river, the building was constructed beyond
the line of the Tudor wall out into the Thames. Chambers influences
were many and varied: Greece and its ancient columns, the Farnese
Palace in Rome, The Mint in Paris (Hotel de la Monnaie) by J.
D. Antoine, and the local Horse Guards building by Kent to name
a few. To add to his problems, the ground sloped steeply to the
Thames (a twelve-meter drop) which Chambers deftly used for vaults
providing storage, with an open terrace above.
Watergates led under and into the building
(see photo of main entry arch), giving access to boats at any
state of the tide, a real engineering feat back then. With the
requirements of the brief fulfilled impeccably, Chambers gave
vent to his true genius in the staircases, the most dramatic being
the navy Staircase, renamed the Nelson Staircase after one of
England’s greatest Naval Commanders. Its situation at the
junction of the west courtyard and the riverside building allowed
Chambers more space to express himself, with awesome results.
It soars dramatically in dizzy curves to the skylight above, a
visual departure from the buildings restrained and ordered classicism.
It was severely damaged during WWI in 1940, and carefully restored
by Sir Albert Richardson.
The foundations of the Strand block were laid
in 1776; by 1779 the learned societies were ready for occupation.
In a report to the House of Commons in May 1780 Chambers states:
"…the building now erecting on the site of Somerset
House is of a very uncommon kind, unusually extensive, intricately
complicated, and attended with many difficulties in the execution…"
His estimate of 250,000 pounds had doubled to 500,000 pounds at
the time of his death in 1796. It was no where near completed.
Chambers evidently had a "thing"
for splendor, captured to perfection in the Strand buildings Palladian
façade and Vestibule - a testimonial to Inigo Jones, whom
he greatly admired. The grand gesture of the overall design, however,
is the linking of the Vestibule with the Courtyard, magnificent
to behold through the arches, with the vaulted ceilings above;
it gives the sensation of being inside a glorious cathedral, but
with a panoramic outdoor view.
Chambers’s architectural inspiration came
from a fine layering of visual experiences, beginning with his
boyhood trip to China, which whetted his appetite for unusual
buildings. Travels throughout his life in Italy and France were
extremely influential; the Palladianism of Inigo Jones, Kent and
Gibbs were local reminders of the architectural wonders abroad,
and he sought to keep that flame alight in his commissions. Chambers
had trained at the academy of J.F Blondel in Paris, and years
of study in Italy inspired him with the Renaissance marvels of
Bramante, Raphael and Peruzzi, then onward to the Baroque of Bernini
and Cortona. The Vestibule pays homage to the Farnese Palace in
Rome by Antonio Sangallo, with the proportions and decorations
completely altered. The sheer scale and ambiance of Somerset House
recalls grand Italian palazzos and plazas, with fountains secreted
in private courtyards – surprise, mystery, hidden treasures.
For Chambers to have achieved this with so exacting and complex
a brief for a "public office" is staggering.
Chambers’s Parisian experiences imbued
him with more than a passing fancy for the "rocaille"
fantasies of architects like Meissonier and the "gout grec,"
(Grecian) proportions of Legaeay and Petitot. The façade
of the Embankment building is a close sister to the Mint, or "Hotel
des Monnaies, Paris," (1768-75) by J. D. Antoine, which,
together with the Louvre and the Ecole Militaire by Gabriel, were
his source for coupled columns and vaulting. To set the tone of
the Strand block, busts of Michelangelo and Sir Isaac Newton gaze
down from the entrances of the relevant societies – another
nod to the Classicism of Rome and Greece, and very much the "in
thing" in fashionable Paris, which he visited in 1774.
Chambers disapproved of Robert Adam, his great
rival, whose riverside development "Adelphi," (a few
hundred yards upstream), and Register House in Edinburgh (1774),
were the source of much discussion in architectural circles. Competition
often produces genius, and both architects kept a keen eye on
the others "doings,"egging each other on to greater
heights of perfection. Ultimately the two men diverged on the
"reductive rationalism" of Greece – as espoused
in Abbé Langier's "Essai sur l’architecture"
– which Chambers saw as a threat to the rich traditions and
craftsmanship of the past 250 years.
The labor of bricklayers, masons, carpenters,
slaters, glaziers, joiners, smiths and plumbers was smoothed out
and "fine tuned" by the master-craftsmen – the
plasterers, carvers, painters and sculptors, many of whom were
Royal Academy members and students. The President of the Royal
Academy himself, Sir Joshua Reynolds, contributed his work, now
removed to the new premises in Burlington House.
Chambers expressed immense satisfaction at
the work he helped engender for these craftsmen: "Whenever
I see, as I do often, five or six hundred industrious fellows
supporting themselves and their families, many of them growing
rich, under my command; I feel such a pleasure as no General ever
felt in war, be the victory what it might…" He concluded
that his purpose was to "enrich, to beautify it (the world),
and to supply its inhabitants with every comfort." What an
epitaph for the age of the craftsman, especially now in a world
so devoid of that kind of richness in "making."
Public opinion of the final result was mixed;
Chambers had in the opinion of many "managed to reconcile
the multifarious purposes of his brief with felicity and general
satisfaction," with only one complaint – from a cook
in the Victualling Office who thought herself limited in the larder
room! Pasquin, on the other hand, had few good things to say about
the "…vast pile…a monument of our nations ignorance
in the noble science of architecture…" How noble can
one be having to house such a mish-mash of government facilities
and learned societies. His sentiments are well-phrased, nevertheless…vast
While it is impossible to give a detailed account
of all the important and remarkable people who have frequented
Somerset House, or the events which have shared its halls and
offices, to gloss over the impact the Royal Academy of Arts has
had on British art would be negligent; this great institution
was the first of its kind in Britain and its founders were Sir
Joshua Reynolds (also its first President) and Sir William Chambers
(architect), with the backing of King George III who Chambers
had skillfully obtained permission from to use seven of the large
state apartments in old Somerset House.
With the advent of the spacious new Somerset
House, the Royal Academy of Art was founded in 1768; its "Great
Exhibition Room" was the showplace for current noteworthy
artists to exhibit their work, a meeting place for the curious
and the social, "…undoubtedly at that date the finest
gallery for displaying pictures so far built," and a teaching
school for aspiring artists and sculptors. Patronized by a King
described as an enthusiastic if undiscriminating collector and
patron of the arts:" George III’s support was extended
to all three venerable "societies" – the Royal
Academy of Arts, the Royal Society (Science) and the Society of
Antiquaries (no, not ancient men), which basically dealt with
great and interesting anthropological finds.
All three societies shared the same entrance,
and it is amusing to note busts of Sir Isaac Newton and Michelangelo
prominently displayed above the relevant entrances lest a member
should become confused and find themselves in with a bunch of
anthropologists when they were anticipating hob-nobbing with their
cronies at an art exhibit. Chambers had a sly sense of humor –
he left out a bust of a noteworthy representative for the Society
of Antiquaries, possibly to irritate them.
Notable artists and Academicians of the day
included Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, and one of the
most famous students of the Royal Academy School was J.M.W. Turner,
who was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 –
and, at age 27, a Royal Academician (1802). He was Professor of
Perspective at the Royal Academy Schools by 1803. Did the great
Turner teach his pupils about swirling mists and raging storms
as well?…One can only imagine his classes! Before deciding
on the current format of Institutions/agencies/galleries at Somerset
House, it was under consideration to house the Turner Bequest
in its entirety (see Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites) at
this venerable and spacious location. To see the collection as
a whole would be a momentous experience, and hopefully some other
facility will be found before long amidst London’s grand
old buildings for Turners generous bequest to the nation.
Well, folks may have smirked back then in the
1800s at the Royal Society and their strange ideas, and dismissed
the interests of the Society of Antiquaries as less than useless
– but they soon stopped sniggering. One of the first discoveries
to be announced to the Royal Society in its new premises was a
new planet – Uranus – first observed by William Herschel
in 1781. Benjamin Franklin, a loyal Society member since 1756,
did not let war between Britain and America interfere with the
progress of scientific discoveries. He arranged that Captain Cook
should not be attacked by American warships as he set out on his
final voyage. The famous "Rosetta Stone" was placed
in the Society of Antiquaries at Somerset House, when it was surrendered
to the British by the Egyptian Institute in Cairo in 1801. It
is now in the British Museum. (See The City Review Millennium
Across the courtyard from these noble institutions,
the "Hawkers and Peddlars Office" conducted the grittier
business of raking in taxes from street vendors and pushcarts,
bringing to mind the London of Charles Dickens and small, hungry
working boys stealing from them – before Child Labor Laws
were enforced. The headquarters of the Inland Revenue still occupy
the East and West Wings of Somerset House and it is striking that
the Government Offices are notably less ornate than the aesthetic
quarters occupied by the "societies" in the Strand building.
Historical and Royal associations with Somerset House
are endless and even the briefest visit to this great British
institution will be an inspiration for further historical and
literary investigation – few places these days inspire that
much! A dignified portrait, shown at the left, of Lord Nelson
- who brought his country great glory at the Battle of Trafalgar
– graces the Seamen’s Waiting Hall in the Embankment
building, whose windows look out upon the Thames beyond. As a
young midshipman, Nelson may well have walked the halls of Somerset
House, seeking passage or perhaps a doctor in the "Sick and
Hurt Office," encountering seamen who had succumbed to a
grueling shipboard life, and living conditions below deck which
gave them typhoid, rickets or severe nutritional deficiencies.
Undaunted, he remained loyal to the Navy, dying a national hero
who had won one of the greatest naval battles of all time. For
all lovers of the sea, this is a special place.
Two major collections, one old and one new,
are impressively housed at Somerset House: the legendary Courtauld
Gallery and Courtauld Institute and the smaller, exquisite Gilbert
Collection are both generous gifts bequeathed to the nation by
remarkably generous individuals. Visitors be warned, the sheer
quality and depth of the Courtauld produces gasps of wonder –
mainly because it is not as well known as the National Gallery
or the Tate, but for lovers of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist
art, it is a superb collection of "modern" art, or the
art of Sir Samuel Courtauld’s time (1876-1947)
Representing the art of his time was extremely
important to Samuel Courtauld, and began with a commitment from
him to donate 50 thousand pounds towards "modern" masters
which would reflect the Old Master tradition of painting, also
well-represented in the work of Rubens, Verrocchio and Michelangelo.
The uniqueness of the Courtauld Gallery is
that it is entirely a creation of the Twentieth Century. Art was
a "religion" to Courtauld, who originally established
the collection at his house in 20, Portman Square – as a
memorial to his wife Elisabeth, who died in 1931. It is remembered
fondly as the Courtauld with the slowest lift in London –
now that waiting is no longer an issue.
Descended from Huguenots involved in silversmithing
in the 18th Century, the Courtauld’s moved on to the manufacturing
of silk crepe for "mourning," this trade rendering them
extremely prosperous. When the fashion for silk crepe waned, the
family were ready to break new ground and became hugely successful
financially as the leading world producer of a man-made textile
known as rayon – a cutting-edge material at that time. Samuel
Courtauld rode in on this wave of good fortune, becoming the Chairman
of the Company in 1921, inheriting in the process the enormous
cash reserves accumulated in the WWI years, with good prospects
ahead in clothing and car tires.
Fortunately for the human race, Sir Samuel
was not only hugely rich but also a man of high spiritual and
moral consciousness. He wished the world to be a better –
and a more "modern" – place, and his means of expressing
this belief was through the medium of art. His influences and
inspirations were gleaned from a memorable honeymoon in Florence
with his wife Elisabeth in 1901, where he saw magnificent Italian
Renaissance art and the Hugh Lane show at the Tate in 1917, where
he learned that the Old Master tradition was alive and kicking
in the painting of Manet, Degas and Renoir. It was his heartfelt
wish to acquire works by these "modern" French Masters
for the British nation that prompted him to give 50,000 pounds
(a great deal of money then), to be spent on paintings chosen
by himself and the Directors of the Tate and National Galleries
– among them Seurat’s "Bathing Party," Van
Gogh's "Sunflowers" and Renoir’s "Premier
Sortie"- all on view at the Gallery today.
The paintings in the Courtauld collection are
staggering both in number and in quality, and is one of the highlights
of any art lovers trip to London. While Courtauld's original collection
was primarily 19th and early 20th Century masters, the gallery
has benefitted from several signficant bequests of Old Masters
and the entire collection now ranks as one of the greatest small
museums in the world.
A sublime Veronese (1528-88), "The Baptism
of Christ," (1588), captures the richness of color which
has made Venetian Painting synonymous with all that is luscious
and sumptuous in art; Rubens (1577-1648) is well-represented on
the Flemish side, including the magnificent "The Descent
from the Cross," (circa 1611), the emotionally charged "Cain
Slaying Abel," circa 1608-9 It is this type of work which
defines the Courtauld collection; not only are they beautiful
examples of an artists work, they are also historically important
in the context of their contribution to the greater significance
of art as a whole – "Landscape by Moonlight" is
believed to have greatly influenced the English School of landscape
artists – notably Constable and Gainsborough – and was
cited by critics as different as Reynolds and Roger Fry. The latter
had a special rapport with Samuel Courtauld, who shared his views
on the spiritual significance of art.
How the Courtauld came to be both a world-renowned
gallery and an institution for the teaching of art history is
a wonderful and fascinating story; the teaching school was the
brainchild of Arthur Lee, Viscount Lee of Farnham (1868-1947)
– soldier, diplomat, politician and administrator serving
in Canada and the USA. Lee married the daughter of a New York
banker, and became a great admirer of East Coast "Brahmin"
culture – epitomized by Harvard with its newly founded Fogg
Art Museum. Personally Lee had acquired a large collection of
furniture and art at Checquers, his house in Buckinghamshire;
in 1917 he turned the residence into a Trust to be used as an
official residence for successive Prime Ministers – who can
forget the images of Sir Winston Churchill, puffing away on his
cigar, as he sought refuge in paint and canvas on the quiet lawns
of his retreat at Checquers at the height of the horrors of World
War II. In those grounds monumental decisions were made, not the
least of which was to continue to fight Hitler at whatever cost
to the British nation.
Lee's persistence in founding a teaching school
finally paid off. With the help of Sir Gregory Foster, Vice-Chancellor
of the University of London, and major contributions from major
investors including Lord Duveen, Sir Robert Witt, Sir Martin Conway
– and Samuel Courtauld, who gave not money but the much needed
facility for the new institution – his house at 20, Portman
Square as a temporary measure until the economy improved. The
Courtauld Institute of Art opened in the fall of 1932, with its
first cadre of students. Lee declined having the institute named
after him and suggested, with characteristic modesty, that it
should be named after Samuel Courtauld for the vital role he had
played in bringing the project to reality.
The Courtauld Gallery Guidebook offers insights
into the many generous and impressive characters who bequeathed
their collections, time and talents to the Courtauld, creating
in the process one of the finest teaching institutions for the
rising generations of critics, scholars and museum curators. The
Lee Collection itself was always intended to provide examples
for teaching – beauty, fame and immaculate condition were
less important to Lee than the relationship of a particular painting
to the historical development of art as a whole. Lee was a Trustee
of both the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection (see The City Review article), and therefore
perfectly aware that the greatest masterpieces were available
for public viewing at these museums, but for him stylistic and
technical "background" was as important for academic
Martin Conway (1856-1937) and Robert Witt bequeathed
their libraries to the Courtauld Institute, and are a vital resource
for research by scholars and art dealers in Britain. Among the
most public supporters of Lees initiative in founding the Courtauld
Institute was the legendary Roger Fry (1866-1934), whose background
as a curator of Old Master Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York and subsequently a key advocate of "modern
art" in Britain, led him on to critical writings on the subject
which brought him attention and fame. Fry's belief in the spiritual
significance of art – which for many readers substituted
for religion – struck a chord in Samuel Courtauld. More so
than with Lee, Roger Fry recognized in Courtauld a kindred spirit,
one who possessed a willingness to support the living arts, and
to find aesthetic excellence outside the traditional confines
of academic art history.
Fry bequeathed to the Courtauld Home House
Society unique examples of his own paintings, important designs
by artists of the Omega Workshops (like Duncan Grant and Vanessa
Bell), which he founded in 1913, and sculptures such as an African
"Head," which, within his own aesthetic were accorded
equal status with the greatest works of European art.
The Courtauld’s elite collection was then
London’s best kept secret – and a very successful gallery
– which drew further bequests, notably from Mark Gambier-Parry,
the grandson of Thomas Gambier Perry (1816-88), whose collection
was principally famous for the gold-mounted Italian paintings
of the 14th and 15th Centuries – such as the Crucifixion
polytyptych by Bernardo Daddi and "The Coronation of the
Virgin" by Lorenzo Monaco.
The next major bequest to the University was
the collection of watercolors formed by Dr. William Wycliffe Spooner
(1882-1967) and his wife Mercie in 1967. In combination with English
18th Century drawings in the Witt Collection and the Spooner Collection
(second only to Paul Mellon's amongst contemporary post-war collections)
the Gallery established itself as one of the major centers for
the study of English draughtsmanship. To top this off, Sir Stephen
Courtauld, Samuel's younger brother, bequeathed a group of drawings
by J.M.W. Turner – essentially private sketches – including
"Storm Over Margate Sands," which are now always available
for viewing by appointment in the Gallery Print Room.
The 1970s brought the Courtauld one of the
greatest single benefactions ever received by a British gallery
– the collection of Count Antoine Seilern (1901-78), shown
above, who was born in England, the son of Count Carl Seilern
and his American-born wife, the newspaper heiress Antoinette Woerischoffer
(1875-1901), who died at his birth. With characteristic modesty
he refused to have the bequest named after himself, settling for
the "Princes Gate Collection"- named after the location
of his London house.
Many of Seilern’s acquisitions were made
through James Byam Shaw of Colnaghi’s, and reflect both Seilern’s
essentially scholarly approach to collecting and also a flagrant
and brilliant opportunism in securing great finished works of
art from all schools and periods. His bequest includes such masterpieces
as a triptych, shown above,
by the Master of Flémalle (circa 1375-1444), "Two
Thieves with the Empty Cross and a Donor, The Entombment, The
Standing With The Child And Angels" by Quinten Massys, shown
below; Michelangelo’s drawing the "Dream of Human
Life"; and the monumental "Prometheus," a 20th
Century triptych (1950) by his good friend Oskar Kokoshka.
Another major work in the Princes
Gate Collection at the Courtauld is "The Virgin and Child"
by Parmigianino (1503-40), shown below.
The Princes Gate Collection,
which has three major works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and "The
Adoration of the Shepherds" by Jacopo and/or Domenico Tintoretto,
is extremely rich in the work of Peter Paul Rubens: "The
Descent from The Cross," shown below, "The Family of
Jan Brughel the Elder," "Cain Slaying Abel," "The
Death of Achilles," and the magical
"Landscape by Moonlight," (1637-8), once owned by Sir
Joshua Reynolds, who used it as a teaching aid at the Royal Academy.
Samuel Courtauld would have been especially
pleased when the collections of Dr. Alistair Hunter (1909-83)
and Lillian Browse were bequeathed to the University; the art
of the present century is well represented in works by Ivon Hitchens,
Ben Nicholson’s "Painting 1937," the study for
the Tate Gallery’s "Origins of the Land" (1950)
by Graham Sutherland, a group of paintings by Walter Sickert,
drawings by Henry Moore and bronzes by Degas and Rodin –
in short a treasure-trove of modern art and sculpture. "Studies"
and sketches often convey the most spontaneous impressions of
the artist, and therefore offer deeper insights into the "finished"
work. What next, one wonders, will find its way to this Aladdin’s
Cave on the Strand, named after a true connoisseur and lover of
modern art, who wanted more than anything to secure its place
in the world for future generations of like-minded souls?
The Courtauld Collection has
many world-famous paintings such as "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,"
by Edouard Manet, shown above, the artist's last completed painting.
Another Manet in the Courtauld
Collection is a smaller version, shown above, of Manet's famous
"Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" at the Musée
d'Orsay in Paris.
The Courtauld collection has several works
by Georges Seurat (1859-91), the most famous of which is "Young
Woman Powdering Herself," shown above.
The Courtauld Collection has a fine self-portrait
by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) as well as a very bright and excellent
landscape, shown above, "The Crau at Arles: Peach Treess
in Flower," executed in 1889.
Paul Cézanne painted
many versions of Montaigne St. Victoire, but the Courtlaud Collection's
version, shown, above is one of the strongest.
The Gilbert Collection is the result of one
mans passion for great craftsmanship, and was formed over four
decades many miles away from England in Los Angeles. Arthur Gilbert
was born in London in 1913, but moved to California with his late
wife Rosalinde in 1949. A successful career in real estate enabled
him to collect works of art, primarily English and European gold
and silver and Italian micromosaics, which developed further into
gold snuffboxes, portrait miniatures and Italian Florentine "pietre
During the 1990s, after a long association
with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Arthur Gilbert began
looking for a permanent home for his collection; to his great
excitement, Somerset House was proposed, as part of Britain’s
commitment to return this great institution to its former glory.
In 1996, inspired by the scale of this vision, Arthur Gilbert
gave his unique collection to the nation, and was rewarded for
his generosity with a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday
Honors – hence, Sir Arthur Gilbert.
The Gilbert Collection is gloriously housed
in the Embankment building, on either side of Chambers Great Arch,
the original watergate to Somerset House. At the base of the watergate
is displayed the eighteenth century Navy Commissioners’ barge,
which would have once plied the Thames between Somerset House
and Greenwich. The barge has been loaned by the National Maritime
Museum at Greenwich; many of the more important works in the Gilbert
Collection have historic associations with Great Britain, and
their return to their "home" country may therefore be
called "heritage regained," all the more so for being
housed in a historically rich institution – and one of England’s
greatest 18th century buildings.
An outstanding "Partridge" (Nuremberg,
Germany circa 1600), fashioned from mother of pearl, would have
been created entirely as a work of art, with pride of place in
a princely treasury. The magnificent silver-gilt "Lafayette
vase" by Jacques Henri Fauconnier, (Paris, France, 1830-35)
was commissioned by the French national guards to commemorate
the life of Marie-Joseph, marquis de Lafayette, a hero of both
the French and the American revolutions - the figures at each
corner of the base are emblematic of Liberty, Equality, Strength
A grand and opulent "howdah," or
chair for riding on an elephant draws gasps of delight and awe
("Howdah," Rajasthan, India, late 19th Century). It
is made of silver, silver-gilt, which looks like gold, wood and
velvet, and was created for an Indian Maharaja; it is typical
of the sumptuousness of the princely courts of India after Queen
Victoria was proclaimed Empress in 1877.
A powdered, scented tobacco called snuff, which
was pinched daintily between thumb and forefinger and inhaled
through the nostrils, became a craze throughout eighteenth-century
Europe. "Taking snuff" developed into an elaborate social
ritual, and their containers, often encrusted with precious gems
and rare stones, were made of gold.
Demand for these exquisitely wrought objects
was enormous and London, Geneva and Berlin – with Paris being
the most important – became thriving centers of gold box
production. They were given as intimate personal gifts, played
a role in diplomacy as official gifts to ambassadors and heads
of state. They had an aesthetic importance way beyond the cost
of their materials, and a virtuosity of craftsmanship that is
awesome – these were, in essence, miniature versions of contemporary
designs and paintings. They emerge, especially in the Gilbert
Collection that contains 220 examples, as some of the most remarkable
works of art of the 18th century.
The collection contains six magnificent boxes
made for Frederick II of Prussia (known as Frederick the Great),
who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, turning his country into
an 18th century super-power. They include "Snuffbox made
for Frederick the Great of Prussia, (Berlin, Germany circa 1765)
wrought with gold, mother of pearl, precious stones (including
several large diamonds) and colored hardstones, shown above. Twenty-six
of the 300 boxes commissioned by him survive, of which eight are
in the Gilbert Collection.
Purely by chance, Arthur Gilbert found a micromosaic
picture at a Los Angeles auction house – the roman micromosaic
was not a painting, as he first assumed, but a mosaic made from
tiny pieces of opaque glass called "tesserae." His fascination
with this extraordinary medium caused him to investigate the techniques,
craftsmen and patrons of micromosaics.
Three hundred micromosaics later, Arthur Gilbert's
pieces include examples from France, Russia and Italy, which are
pre-eminent in their field and span the 16th to the 20th centuries;
the majority were made in Rome in the late 18th and 19th centuries,
and this unique collection of large pictures, tables, jewels,
snuffboxes and small plaques of extremely painstaking detail contain
thousands of tessarae, and is comparable only to the Hermitage
in St. Petersburg and the Vatican Museum in Rome.
The earliest micromosaic is Venetian, created
in 1566, to decorate St. Marks Basilica in Venice – which
was already a famous glass-making center. The Vatican Mosaic Workshop
went on to develop the matte and opaque colored glass-like material
called "smalti" in the early 18th Century, in contrast
to the transparent shiny glass from Venice.
The Gilbert Collection’s micromosaic clock
was a gift from Pope Pius VII, on the advice of Antonio Canova,
the Italian sculptor, who considered it an appropriate gift for
Napoleon’s coronation – these were, in effect, the ultimate
diplomatic gifts or presentation pieces. Tsar Nicholas I was a
passionate collector of micromosaics, and gave numerous commissions
to the foremost mosaicist of the 19th Century, Michelangelo Barbieri
– whose magnificent tables dominate the mid-nineteenth century
mosaics in the Gilbert Collection.
The endearing tigress illustrated below, "Tigress,"
Venice circa 1850, Decio Podio, micromosaic, was based on earlier
paintings like this one after the "Tigress Lying Below Rocks,"
by George Stubbs (1724-1806). The tigress, (the real animal not
a painting) was a gift from Lord Clive, Governor of Bengal, to
the Fourth Duke of Marlborough for his "menagerie" at
Blenheim Palace. This charming mosaic was copied from a painting
commissioned by the Duke of his big cat – and a model for
the Gilbert Collections micromosaic version. It is one of the
most memorable pieces on view at Somerset House.
The Gilbert Collections other "mosaics"
are the Florentine Hardstones, or "pietre dure"- which
date from the 16th to the 19th centuries and were composed of
marbles and minerals quarried and collected from around the world.
They were prized as princely gifts and collected by foreigners
on the "Grand Tour," which was part of every affluent
gentleman’s education in those days. In the 18th Century,
English "grand tourists" collected hardstone cabinets
and tables for their lavish country houses.
Sir Arthur began collecting hardstone mosaics
to complement his Roman micromosaics – the two distinct areas
of the collection allow the opportunity to compare the techniques
and materials of the differing mosaics; the cut and polished hardstones
inlaid in wood and marble make up the colorful surfaces of cabinets,
tables, clocks and pictures in the Gilbert Collection. Looking
closely at these finely inlaid chests and objects, it is easy
to see how Arthur Gilbert became fascinated and enamored of the
incredible designs, the brilliant natural colors and the amazing
capacity for polished stones to appear like the surface of a painting
or even a three-dimensional object. Most of all, it is wonderful
to see such a fulsome representation of a craft which once thrived
in Europe, with only a handful of workshops still surviving in
Italy today, and to come upon these rare objects displayed in
such fine surroundings.
Portrait miniatures were popular from the 17th
to the 19th Century for display in collectors’ cabinets or
as objects for personal adornment. Sir Arthur began collecting
them as an extension of the gold snuffbox collection, many of
which were mounted with portrait miniatures. The Gilbert Collection
contains 80 miniatures, including "The First Duke of Marlborough,"
England, circa 1705-10 by Charles Boit (1662-1727), enamel with
Immigrant artists like Charles Boit and Christian
Zincke worked in England in the 18th Century and trained younger
studio assistants, spawning a tradition of enameling which endured
throughout the 19th Century. Many enamelers came from a background
of jewelry making or goldsmithing, which accounts for the exquisite
and meticulous detailing of these extraordinary pieces. A fine
example by John Heinrich Herter (1734-95) of "Queen Charlotte,"
(London, 1781) of enamel, is set in a gold frame wrought with
pearls and rubies. This portrait miniature is a copy from Gainsborough’s
famous portrait that is still in the Royal Collection. Queen Charlotte
created the Royal appointment of Miniature Painter.
From Manet’s avant-garde "Le Dejeuner
sur l’herbe" (circa 1863/7) and Rubens’s magnificent
"The Descent from the Cross" (1611) at the Courtauld,
through Sir Robert Chambers Courtyard to the Gilbert Collection
with its precious objets d’art and Maharajas "Howdah,"
the common denominator is quality – superb craftsmanship
and artistry unite across the centuries and cultures to leave
the visitor with a sense of awe and wonder. Before bidding farewell
to Somerset House there is the pleasure of a quiet cup of tea
on the River Terrace, while the Thames floats quietly by and sculpted
clouds pass overhead, and images of arts great glories and mankind’s
finest workmanship dance in the minds eye.
Friendly ghosts of the past lurk in the halls,
corridors and rafters of this old building, now elegantly refurbished:
Turner, Sir Joshua Reynolds, a weary peddler, Lord Nelson, a weather-beaten
sailor, a tax collector and old Protector Somerset – rulers,
adventurers and ordinary citizens, have all left their mark. As
I made my exit through Chambers Great Arch, a group of young students
entered, their boundless enthusiasm, laughter and chatter heralding
a fresh new generation of explorers.