Category Archives: History

Sights and Sounds of the Courtauld Factory

Display of fashion in Wolverhampton archives

Developed by Courtauld National Partner volunteers, this new exhibition, Sights and Sounds, includes documents, photographs, oral histories and objects that evoke lives and experiences of workers at the Courtauld Factory, demolished in 1972 but historically situated in Whitmore Reans from 1925 until it’s closure in 1970. Visitors can experience a soundscape created by young artists, using artificial intelligence to create new sounds and images that bring the factory and worker’s memories to life.

The exhibition is open until 30th April at Wolverhampton Archives.

Voices of Courtaulds events in Flintshire

Talk in Holywell Library

To complement the Voices of Courtaulds exhibition at Greenfield Valley, which captures local residents’ memories of the Courtaulds Ltd factories, several related events have taken place in recent weeks.

Last week, John Miners, textile expert and former Courtaulds Ltd employee, traveled from Essex to present a lively history of the beginnings of the company and it’s impact on communities. The well-attended talk at Holywell Library prompted lots of discussion and included the chance to handle samples of wool, silk and rayon.

It is now possible to view an earlier online event on The Courtauld’s YouTube channel. Samuel Courtauld: From Rayon to Impressionism, had more than 60 viewers, and explored how the success of Courtaulds Ltd contributed to to founding of The Courtauld Gallery.

Voices of Courtaulds is open at Greenfield Valley Heritage Park over the Easter holidays, find out more on their website.

Volunteering Experiences – Courtaulds Carrickfergus

Courtauld factory, Carrickfergus

We are sharing the experiences of some of our volunteers in a series of blogs by the team behind the Memories from Carrickfergus exhibition and film. This week Joanne White tells us her story; 

The opportunity to become involved as a volunteer for this project came out of the blue and at a strange time, in the middle of a global pandemic. I received an unexpected email from National Museums NI in November 2020 seeking volunteers for ‘an exciting project’ to carry out research into Courtaulds Ltd, a UK based manufacturer of fabric and clothing, who had a site in Carrickfergus. I was vaguely aware of the factory building having worked in the local area, but I knew very little of its history or that of Courtaulds, other than it had an art gallery in London.

My first task as a volunteer was researching the history of the Courtaulds factory at Carrickfergus. This included locating local news stories, film archive footage and the products made at the factory. For the newspaper stories, I was asked to concentrate on the 1970s-1980s. It became apparent that I was reading about the steady decline of a factory and industry during this period. The confidence that the Carrickfergus factory had when it first opened in 1950 was gradually overtaken by job losses, competition from overseas markets and ongoing trading difficulties.

Once our research was completed, we decided to focus on producing a film about the factory at Carrickfergus consisting of interviews with former workers and their relatives. This was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the project. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Bill, Dot, Robert and Brendan. Although the factory had been closed for forty years, I was struck by the affection they retained in working for Courtaulds. A repeated phrase during the interviews was ‘factory family’ and former employees highlighted the opportunities which they had been given such as to live locally, earn a decent salary, gain qualifications or apply for promotions.

To accompany the film, I participated with the other volunteers in writing a booklet entitled ‘We are Courtaulds’. The title was inspired by the people we had interviewed for the purposes of making the film. We decided early on that we wanted the design of the booklet to have a 1950s style to it which was inspired by the adverts for Courtaulds’ clothing from the period. These adverts were distinctive in their use of bold primary colours. I was also interested in their use of contrasting images set alongside each other such as the evening dress and car tyre (both produced from Courtaulds’ factory materials). On content, we all agreed that the booklet would concentrate on three main themes: place, people and product.

For me, listening to the stories of the people who made Courtaulds’ products, getting a glimpse into their lives at the factory and the friendships they made, was the most interesting part of the project. Whilst the remnants of the factory might not be around forever, I hope that the film, booklet and online exhibition all contribute towards telling the history of Courtaulds Ltd at Carrickfergus.

Volunteering Experiences – Courtaulds Carrickfergus

a group of Female Courtauld employeeses

Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing the experiences of some of our volunteers in a series of blogs by the team behind the Memories from Carrickfergus exhibition and film. This week’s story comes from Rachel Sayers;

Throughout 2021, I have found volunteering for the Courtaulds project at National Museums NI immensely enjoyable, as not only have I met some wonderful people through the project, I have also enhanced my knowledge of textile and fashion production in Northern Ireland. Researching, finding, and discussing our research has been incredibly exciting as we delved further into the people, place, and products that made Courtaulds Carrickfergus. Learning from one another every week during our digital meet-ups has afforded me new skills in using newspapers, advertisements, and other first-hand sources in historical research whilst also gleaming invaluable skills in team work and volunteering, albeit digitally!
A particular highlight was interviewing the oral history participants and hearing their wonderful stories and insights into their working lives at Courtaulds. One of my interviewees, June, lives in British Columbia but through the power of Zoom, we were able to record an interview with her – one of the benefits of the 2021 lockdown! June regaled me with her experiences of working at Courtaulds, particularly how she met her husband and trained to work in the accounting office.

June had an excellent time working for Courtaulds and made life-long friends, with one friend being her bridesmaid at her wedding in the early 1960s and regularly visiting one another in both Canada and Northern Ireland. The emphasis from all my interviewees was the comradery between workers, particularly the people you worked closely with, and a happy balance between work and play – especially the famous Christmas party held every year for staff and residents of Carrickfergus!
As someone who is interested in local dress and textile history, the stories of textile production from the interviewees and from our research greatly enhanced my own knowledge of textile production across Northern Ireland. I read with interest how rayon, nylon, polyester etc. produced at the Courtaulds factory at Carrickfergus was used in 1950s Dior inspired dress, 1960s Mary Quant style miniskirts, and the famous flares of the 1970s and worn by people from across the world. From local to global, Courtaulds-produced material was utilised by designers, dressmakers and shops across the world to produce high-quality products that started life in Carrickfergus.

Volunteering has been a wonderful highlight of my year, which has been difficult for many. Even though meetings have been conducted online, we have managed to collate interesting information into a wonderful booklet, film, and an online exhibition. The emphasis has always been on the place, people and product, which I feel is reflected in all our outcomes and I look forward to hearing feedback from our participants. I hope in the future to volunteer again with National Museums NI as the experience has been brilliant.

(Image of Courtaulds employees in their own wonderful fashions, courtesy of Frances O’Brien)

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.