Samuel Courtauld and Courtaulds Ltd

The Courtaulds crest in a display cabinet

In 1932, Samuel Courtauld formed The Courtauld Institute of Art with Sir Robert Witt and Viscount Lee of Fareham. As one of the first art history institutions it paved the way for art history entering the academic world.

Courtauld loved pictures and wrote poems about them. On the advice of Roger Fry and others he bought French Impressionists and Cézannes and took out a lease on the best Adam house in London, Home House, 20 Portman Square, in which to display them – a novel and stunning combination. When his wife died in 1931, he made over the house in Portman Square, together with the pictures, for the use of the new institute until such time as permanent accommodation could be found for them. The Portman Square house was to be the institute’s home for almost sixty years.

Samuel Courtauld’s fortune was founded on the nationwide textile firm of Courtaulds Ltd, a major manufacturer of fabric, clothing and artificial fibres in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was established in 1794 by George Courtauld and his cousin Peter Taylor as a silk, crepe and textile business in north Essex. It later passed to his son Samuel Courtauld (great-uncle of art collector Samuel Courtauld), who acquired a mill in Bocking in 1816 and later in Halstead in 1825. It was under Samuel Courtauld that the company developed from a family silk weaving firm into one of the UK’s leading textile businesses, chiefly through the production of black ‘mourning’ crepe, which, following the death of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, gained popularity in Britain.

The company continued its success following the decline in popularity of crepe by positioning itself at the forefront of technological development within the textile industry, firstly by its relatively early adoption of steam powered technology in its mills in the 1800s which enabled longer and more reliable productions runs, and later through the manufacturing of “synthetic silk” rayon in the early 1900s, through which the company found its greatest success. Samuel Courtauld & Company brought the British rights to a patent for the process for producing and spinning artificial fibre in 1904 and set up the first factory to produce it in Coventry UK in 1905. This proved to be a shrewd decision as the man-made fibre industry developed rapidly in the first half of the 20th century as technological innovation improved the strength of the fibres, and new uses for the product were discovered due to wartime shortages of natural fibres. Under the leadership of the second Samuel Courtauld from 1921, the company became a highly respected international company and by the 1930s owned factories in Flint, Nuneaton, Leigh, Halifax, Droylesden, Trafford Park and Wolverhampton. In 1930s and 40s, responding to the proliferation in other new synthetic fibres in the market, Courtaulds Ltd innovated once again and began the production of nylon yarn and by the 1940s was one of the world’s largest textile producers.

The company’s success in the early half of the 20th century enabled expansion and product diversification in the latter half, which saw a number of significant acquisitions across the cotton and hosiery industries, and led to Courtaulds Ltd becoming Britain’s largest producer of lingerie and underwear. By 1968 Courtaulds controlled about 30 percent of UK cotton-type spinning capacity as well as 35 percent of warp-knitting production and smaller but significant shares in weaving and finishing. As recently as 1988, the firm still employed 5,500 people in more than 30 mills in the UK before a decline in the British textile industry in the face of inexpensive imported fabrics saw the company being broken up in 1990 into Courtaulds plc (responsible for chemicals and artificial fibres) and Courtaulds Textiles Ltd (textiles and clothing). In 1998, Akzo-Nobel proposed a merger with Courtauld plc and in 2001 Courtaulds Textiles was acquired by American consumer-goods company Sara Lee.