Category Archives: History

Call-out to former employees of Courtaulds Ltd in Northern Ireland

Volunteers at Renoir display

National Museums NI has released a Northern Ireland-wide call-out to former employees of Courtaulds Ltd. factories once based in Carrickfergus, Markethill, Irvinestown, Limavady, Cookstown and Plumbridge, to get in touch. It plans to collect memories and memorabilia as well as first-hand accounts from past employees of the textiles manufacturer.

As part of the Courtauld National Partners Programme, National Museums NI is working with a network of volunteers to encourage the public to come forward and share their accounts. The plan is to collect and record the available information and create a celebration of Courtaulds Ltd. and the impact it had here in Northern Ireland.

Former employees can share their experiences and stories by emailing courtaulds@nmni.com to get involved.

Celebrating Courtauld Women

Portrait of Katherine Mina Courtauld

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021 Braintree Museum have put together a series of films exploring the lives of, often overlooked, female members of the Courtauld family. Curator Claire Willets, in conversation with George Courtauld and museum volunteers, takes a look at some inspirational stories, including pioneering business-women, suffragettes, globe-trotting doctors and women taking on vital roles in both world wars.

All of the films are available on the Braintree Museum YouTube channel and at the links below. More information about the Courtauld family and the women discussed in these conversations is available in the online exhibition Courtaulds: Origins, Innovation, Family.

 

 

5 interesting things about…Samuel Courtauld

The Courtaulds crest in a display cabinet

Samuel Courtauld was a man of many talents, as chairman of Courtaulds Ltd he was an important industrialist and government advisor, and as a philanthropist and art collector he helped to establish the Courtauld Institute as well as contributing to the collections at the National Gallery. His devotion to sharing art was also a significant inspiration in developing the Courtauld National Partners Programme. To celebrate his birthday on 7th May, Karen Serres, Curator of Paintings at the Courtauld Gallery, shares some insights into the character of this fascinating and influential man.

1. Despite his wealth, he considered himself a bit of a maverick and an outsider.
Although Samuel Courtauld was, thanks to his family business, part of the wealthy middle class, he was proud of his independent spirit. This applied to his taste in art of course: his niece recalled how shocked his friends were when he started buying Impressionist paintings and hanging them in his elegant 18th-century townhouse. However, it is also evident in the way that he viewed his role in the Courtaulds company. Unusually amongst industrialists at the time, he wanted workers to have large shares in the company so they could reap the profits of their labour. He also promoted education, childcare, sick leave and pension benefits among his employees, and lobbied the government to extend them to other businesses.

2. He never went to university.
Born in prosperous family, Samuel went to a prestigious boarding school. He did not go on to university, unlike his siblings (including his sisters, a rare occurrence at the time). Instead, he became an apprentice in textile factories in Germany and France, which enabled him to learn the family business. He then joined one of the Courtaulds textile mills in Essex and rose through the ranks. He became chairman of the company in 1921.

3. His wife, Elizabeth, bought their first works of modern art.
In 1901, Samuel married Elizabeth Kelsey, who shared his passion for art. A patron of music and progressive benefactor of social causes in her own right, Elizabeth is the one who initiated their purchases of French modern art. In 1922, she bought two recently painted works, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Woman Tying her Shoe and Saint-Paul, Côte d’Azur by a young artist in the Cubist vein, Jean Marchand. Her taste seems to have been more avant-garde than Samuel’s. For example, she loved Picasso, which he didn’t.

4. He exhausted his friends going to exhibitions.
Samuel and his wife Elizabeth were avid travellers: they went to Aix-en-Provence to trace Paul Cézanne’s footsteps, met dealers, artists and collectors all over Europe and America, and visited many exhibitions. One of their friends commented on Samuel’s endless energy for looking at art: ‘pictures excite Sam so much that he spends sleepless nights, he visited … Degas, Braque and Constantin Guys’ exhibitions [in one day]’.

5. He wrote poetry about works of art.
Poetry had always been an important part of Courtauld’s life but it was only after he retired that he was able to fulfil his long-standing desire to publish his own poetry. Entitled Pictures into Verse, the book of poems showcased Courtauld’s responses to old master and Impressionist paintings that he loved. Two paintings in his own collection were included, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Loge (The Theatre Box) and Spring, Chatou. Courtauld was proud of the volume and sent it to friends and correspondents in the art world. He died a few weeks after its publication. One of his friends said that Courtauld had been ‘a businessman with the soul of a poet’.

5 interesting things about…..The Courtauld Gallery

Exterior of Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld Gallery is currently undergoing major refurbishment and is due to reopen in 2021. With this exciting future in mind, we decided to share some of the fascinating history of the gallery building and its home at Somerset House.

1. It sits above a medieval cesspit
Archaeological investigations undertaken as part of the current redevelopment of the galleries revealed that underneath our floors lies a 15ft chalk-lined cesspit. It is believed to have been part of the 15th century residence called Chester Inn. You can find out more and explore a 3D model here: https://courtauld.ac.uk/fascinating-archaeological-finds-discovered-beneath-the-courtauld

2. It has been a home to royalty
There has been a Somerset House on the site since 1547, this older version of the building was built by the Duke of Somerset and was even home to Elizabeth I when she was still a princess from 1553 to 1558. The current building was begun in 1775 and took 26 years to complete.

3. It has held exhibitions for 200 years
The first institution to move into the new Somerset House in 1779 was the Royal Academy of Arts, they were quickly followed by the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Antiquaries. Until they moved to new premises in 1837, the RA held their annual exhibition in the Great Room, including works by the most famous artists of the day and presided over by Joshua Reynolds.

4. Somerset House brought the Courtauld together
In 1989 the Courtauld Gallery and Courtauld Institute moved into the North Wing of Somerset House. Prior to this expansion had left them been spread across several building at Portman Square with some of the collection on display at the Warburg, things were so cramped a temporary hut was built in a garden for students. This was a huge move for the Courtauld, opening up the collection to a much wider public and bringing together the teaching, research, collection and gallery into one space.

5. Courtauld Connects will transform the gallery spaces
The current refurbishment project, Courtauld Connects, will bring a new chapter to the long history of this important site. Honouring the past, the great room that once housed the RA exhibitions will be reopened into one large display space, but looking to the future the project will also increase accessibility, create a new learning centre, and provide state of the art studios for conservation. Find out more on the project website: Courtauld Connects

5 interesting things about … Rayon

Dresses by Courtaulds

Over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing some of the fantastic research and expertise at the heart of the National Partners Programme with short articles introducing fun facts about key elements of the history we share with our partners – this week we take a look at rayon.

During the 1920s and 1930s, rayon was a wonder product that allowed Samuel Courtauld, chairman of Courtaulds Ltd, to amass the fortune he would later spend on the Courtauld art collection. The story of Rayon production is also a key part of the history of many communities across the UK and throughout of the programme we have been working with volunteers to capture the memories of those who made rayon and other cellulose fibres for Courtaulds Ltd.

1. It’s made of wood!

Although lots of chemicals are used to make rayon it isn’t a synthetic fibre because the core ingredient is natural cellulose which comes from wood pulp. Cellulose is harvested from the wood before being chemically converted and processed into a viscose liquid (which is why rayon is also called viscose), and spun into different solid fibres.

2. It used to be explosive!

In 1832 Henri Braconnot first discovered a process to break down cellulose using nitric acid but this created an unstable explosive chemical. The viscose process used to make rayon was refined by English chemist Charles Edward Cross in 1894 and Courtaulds Ltd bought the patents and licenses to this process for £25,000 in 1904.

3. It is the sister of cellophane!

Clear plastic wrapping and colourful textile rayon might not seem to have much in common but they both start life as viscose produced from wood pulp. So, it is unsurprising that Courtaulds Ltd also had a stake in British Cellophane Ltd which had plants at Bridgwater and Barrow-in-Furness.

4. It contributed to the war effort!

Viscose fibres are very versatile and can be made into a wide range of very useful products. In WW1 Courtaulds ‘artificial silk’ rayon was used in the production of parachutes and their research lab was involved in developing new fabrics that were better than the German ones. By WW2 industrial strength high-tenacity rayon was being used in the production of tyres and strong utility fabric was being used for everything from clothing to wrapping for heavy gun charges.

5. It hails from Coventry!

Courtaulds Ltd opened the first purpose built rayon factory in Coventry in 1905 soon after they had purchased the patents to the viscose process. This was the first of many factories in the UK and abroad, and viscose fibres continued to be the primary product of the company until the mid-20th Century.