Samuel Courtauld was a big fan of the work of the artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), in fact the Courtauld Gallery is one of the best places in the UK to see a range of work by the artist, so to celebrate the connections between Courtauld and his home in Essex, a selection of prints from Gauguin’s Noa Noa series are included in Braintree Museum’s Courtaulds: Origins, Innovation and Family exhibition. This week we take a closer look at some interesting facts about the artist and these unusual prints.
1. Gauguin was mostly self-taught and didn’t become a full-time artist until the age of 35 – before then, he worked as a stockbroker.
2. Gauguin moved around several times trying to find a more authentic and timeless place away from modern civilization. He worked at Pont-Aven, an artists’ colony in Brittany, and with Van Gogh in Arles in the south of France, as well as further afield in Martinique, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.
3. The Noa Noa prints, four of which are currently on loan to the Braintree Museum, represent Gauguin’s first foray into woodblock printmaking, and only his second attempt at any kind of printmaking.
4. The prints were created as illustrations for Gauguin’s memoir of his time in Tahiti, but rather than depicting daily life or actual Tahitian stories they were products of the artist’s imagination.
5. The prints on loan to the Braintree Museum weren’t printed by Gauguin himself, but by his son Pola (also an artist) more than fifteen years after Gauguin’s death. The blocks’ surfaces are so complex that it took Pola two years to figure out how to print from them!
Find out more:
The Courtaulds: Origins, Innovation and Family exhibition, including the four prints from the Noa Noa series and a selection of resources about them, is available on the Braintree Museum website.
The Courtauld Gallery has a lot of information about Gauguin online, including an in focus feature on one of his most famous paintings and a short film with Curator Karen Serres about his work. You can also watch a recent talk by Dr Rachel Sloan that explores these works as illustrations on YouTube.
As part of our ongoing series to celebrate the collections of our partners and the Courtauld Gallery, this week Anna Liesching, Curator of Art at Ulster Museum, chooses works by two outstanding female artists working in male-dominated movements in the early 20th century.
As part of the Courtauld Connects project I was lucky to visit the Courtauld works on paper store to spend the morning with Dr Ketty Gottardo, Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings. The main purpose of my visit was to select work for our upcoming loan, but like any curator visiting another collection’s store, I could not miss the opportunity to see the range of work held and hear from Ketty about the collection and her work.
My main take away from the day was the sheer range within the Courtauld collection. Like many, I associate the collection with the Impressionists, so it was wonderful to see the breadth demonstrated through works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Dürer. I have returned to my photographs of the visit many times. The significance of that day has also grown, it was three weeks before lockdown (what feels like a lifetime ago) and was actually the last time I was in any kind of collection store!
I keep returning to this work by Helen Saunders, and my delight to know that Courtauld still actively collected. This was something of which I was not aware, that I see now should not have been surprising. So when asked to take part in this blog series I wanted to select a piece to highlight this contemporary collecting.
I was vaguely aware of Saunders existence, mainly that she was a member of the Vorticists and that was only through my particular research interest in the work of women artists.
Helen Saunders was born in 1885 in London. She studied at the Slade, something recognisable in her figurative work. I always think you can spot a Slade student from that time because so much attention was put on study in the life room. She then went on to the Central School of Art and Crafts. She exhibited widely in her early career and was one of only two women who signed the Vorticist manifesto, Blast 1, in 1914, along with Jessica Dismor.
I have always been drawn to the Vorticists, and the fact that they were such a brief movement. Only really flourishing between 1912 and 1915, it still had an impact on the artists involved and many since. I’m particularly captured by art movements that have reacted to wider moments of change in society, and that set out to agitate and rail against the structure of the art system. Vortisicm reflected the energy of the modernist era, working in abstraction, often taking inspiration from machinery. It could also be considered that Vortisicm foreshadowed the impending violence of the First World War in the violence of some of some of the work produced.
However this work is not from that time. It is, in fact, a portrait of Blanche Caudwell. Though it is a figurative work, it still reflects her use of shape from her Vorticist days. Following her involvement in the movement, Saunders’ style moved towards the figure and landscapes. Saunders met Blanche Caudwell in 1933 and they shared a flat from the mid-1930s until Caudwell’s death in 1950. Caudwell frequently sat for Saunders during this time.
As I primarily look after works of art on paper, and fine art by local artists, I wanted to choose something from the Ulster Museum collection that I do not often get the opportunity to write about. I have selected this piece by Mary Martin, another woman who was a member of a male dominated group that innovated artistic practice- the British Constructivists.
Born Mary Balmford in 1907, she studied at Goldsmiths’ College and then at the Royal College of Art. She exhibited with the Artists International Association, whose membership was 40% women, from 1934, mainly as a still-life and landscape painter. It is interesting to note that because the gallery and academy system was so closed, many women artists exhibited as part of groups as this was often they only way they could get their work seen. You will often find that exhibition groups had large proportions of women members.
Mary Martin was one of the most influential Constructivist artists of her generation. The British Constructivist Group often created work that centred on the ‘act of assembling’ and saw an importance in the form and aesthetic of mathematical principals and geometric composition. Similar to the Vorticists, the British Constructivists were concerned with new principles of design and environment, but possibly in a more conceptual and reimagined way and less reactive to their current environment. Also similar in how the Vorticists were reacting to European Cubism and Futurism, the British Constructivists were creating their own vision and revival of a movement that derived elsewhere (though 30 years before) Russian Constructivism.
Martin often used natural elements as inspiration and developed from that, specifically the idea of natural elements moving away from a central force – dispersal. For example, Dispersal on Black uses half cubes arranged to combine reflections and open planes. The mirrored shapes are not clustered together in the centre, but disperse towards the edges. She often described this as a ‘super-pattern’. She used drawings to create ‘workings out’ in order to decide on the final construction for a relief piece, these drawings were often displayed alongside the works.
Mary Martin is often associated with her husband Kenneth Martin, also a member of the British Constructivists. They often worked together collaboratively, most notably on the Environment section of the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition the Whitechapel gallery in 1956.
I am also drawn to this piece knowing of Martin’s link to Belfast. The screen she was commissioned to design for Musgrave Park Hospital in 1957 placed her vision of a new era within my own built environment.
Find out more:
An example of Saunder’s Vorticist work from the Courtauld Collection is currently on show in the Artful Line virtual tour, curated by the Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library.
The collections of Ulster Museum, including other works by Mary Martin, can be explored through their website.
In the latest instalment of our National Highlights blog, featuring works selected by staff and volunteers at our partner organisations, Roma Piotrowska, Curatorial Officer at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, chooses two very different works that both have a personal connection.
It is very difficult for an art professional to have a favourite work of art. There are pieces that I am proud we have in the collection because they are by artists whose practice I follow and admire, for example works by Richard Billingham, Siobhan Hapaska, Lubaina Himid, Keith Piper, Larissa Sansour, Yinka Shonibare and Gillian Wearing.
Sometimes items that may seem to be less interesting, become fascinating in the right context. We have for example a collection of memorabilia connected to Royal Weddings, which normally wouldn’t be of my interest. We wanted to represent different stages of family life in relation to our Wolverhampton and Me exhibition, so we chose objects connected to Royal Weddings, such as stickers, commemorative beer bottles and ‘Charles & Diana’ brick. It was fascinating to learn more about those quirky objects and display them in a completely new context of an exhibition about family ties.
I’ve joined the team quite recently and still don’t know many of the objects in our collection, which I am hoping to learn about in the near future! These two works by Keith Piper are close to my heart as they were exhibited in the first show I curated at the Gallery. The black male and female figures are presented naked and with only part of their heads visible, suggesting an incomplete identity. The text around each of the figures describes notions of fear and desire. The portraits explore power relationships and the objectification of the black body – themes that were to recur in Piper’s work over the following decades.
It was also very difficult to pick just one work from The Courtauld Gallery’s collection since you have so many amazing pieces. I love your Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection, for which you are of course the best known. It gives me this wonderful feeling of nostalgia, taking me back to my teenage years when I started being fascinated by art. Paintings by Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh were my starting points for further exploration of art history, which subsequently led me to study it at a University. I was not only captivated by paintings themselves but also by bohemian lives lived by the artists, often reflected in their art.
For this blog, I’ve decided to choose A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet as my favourite work of art in your collection. It is one of your highlights, but I also have a personal connection to it, as I remember studying it carefully as a teenager. Manet’s representation of a bustling café bar influenced my teenage imagination and transferred me to 19th century Paris. It was the time when people’s lives shifted from home life to a more social environment of cafes, restaurants, art galleries, theatres and cabarets. It was the start of cultural life as we know it today. The cultural life I miss in the current unusual Covid-19 circumstances.
Find out more:
The Courtauld Gallery website has a page dedicated to A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, including talks, films and the latest research.
The Wolverhampton Arts and Culture website has more information about Keith Piper’s Body Type 1 & 2, including the recent exhibition, as well as opportunities to explore their collections virtually.
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’.
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.
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
For those of you missing the Courtauld’s excellent event programme – or those of you that are keen to get involved from the comfort of your own home – Open Courtauld has put together a brilliant package of talks, discussions and performances as part of their Open Courtauld Hour series. This weekly event will take place from wherever you are from Thursday the 30th of April, 20.05 – 21.00. Visit the website to see the full programme and reserve your free tickets: https://courtauld.ac.uk/research/research-forum/events
Week 1 – Art in Isolation: Lockdown has been transformational in how artists, galleries and museums are adapting to an online world to continue showcasing and making art. Join Alixe Bovey (Head of Research at The Courtauld Institute of Art) on Thursday 30th of April, 20.05 – 21.00, in exploring the importance of creative practice and artistic consumption in a time of isolation.Alixe will examine this issue through discussions with Courtauld’s own Barnaby Wright (Deputy Head of The Courtauld Gallery), the National Gallery’s Caroline Campbell (Curator of Italian Paintings) and Underpinning’s Lorraine Smith (Co-founder). The hour will include a one-off poetic reinterpretation of Paul Cezanne’s ‘Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine’ by award winning poet Shagufta K Iqbal.
Week 2 – Art and Wellbeing: Over recent years, there has been a growing understanding of the power that taking part in the arts can have on health and wellbeing. In our second session on Thursday 7th of May, 20.05 – 21.00, we will investigate the supplementation of arts alongside medicine and care to foster an environment that improves the health of people — within and without a healthcare setting. Join Rebecca Chamberlain (Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths University), Sir Leszek Borysiewicz (Chair of Cancer Research UK and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge), Michaela Ross (Curator, Bethlem Gallery) and Jasmine Cooray (poet and counsellor) in discussions and performances exploring access to the arts in healthcare environments, the power of ‘Slow Art’ within galleries and museums and to be engaged in learning and debate on the subject of mental and physical health and artistic practice.
Week 3 – The Future of Art: In this session on Thursday 14th of May, 20.05 – 21.00, our experts discuss the Courtauld’s ever-changing approach to the online publication of its extensive photographic collection (via the development of an ambitious digitisation project encompassing 3.3 million prints and negatives), the implementation of scientific techniques of conservation and the challenges/opportunities this pandemic may provide those working in the field. In light of the changing landscape of art history, we will be joined by Aviva Burnstock (Professor and Head of the Department of Conservation and Technology at the Courtauld Institute of Art), Theo Gordon (Sackler Postdoctoral Fellow 2019-20 at the Courtauld Institute of Art), Tom Bilson (Head of Digital Media at the Courtauld Institute of Art) and artist and poet Muneera Pilgrim.
Week 4 – Women Artists: Our fourth Open Courtauld Hour will focus on Women Artists, addressing gender imbalance in the art world, expanding on notions of public and private and reinserting women of all backgrounds back into the canon of art history. Hosting the evening will be Katy Hessel of @thegreatwomenartists — an account and podcast series which celebrates women on a daily basis. She will be joined by Jo Applin (The Courtauld Institute of Art) who will chat with Katy more about their podcast episode on Louise Bourgeois, Ketty Gottardo (Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings at the Courtauld Institute of Art) who will be virtually opening up our object study room and allowing the audience to see, close-up, a number of works by Helen Saunders and other academics and curators focusing on women artists. Stuart Hall Foundation Scholarship Jade Montserrat. Jade will be reclaiming women’s narrative through a one-off poetic take on Paul Gauguin’s Te Rerioa.
Over the coming weeks we want to continue to bring our partners together and share some of the brilliant collections across the UK. We have invited our partners to share a highlight from their own collection pick a favourite art work or object from the Courtauld Gallery – we will then bring all of these works together in an online exhibition. This week Joy Corcec, Communications Officer at Culture Coventry, selects two different paintings chosen because they “depict strong-willed women, who brought about significant change for themselves, and others through their courageous actions, and thus became feminist symbols in their own right.”
From the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum: John Collier, Godiva, 1898
I have chosen maybe one of the most famous pieces from the Herbert’s collection as my favourite: John Collier’s Godiva, a symbol of Coventry, protest, and female empowerment. The museum holds a large collection of paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures featuring her story.
Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry has inspired painters, sculptors, film makers and song writers. According to Roger of Wendover, a monk at St Albans Abbey in the late 1100s, Godiva begged her husband Earl Leofric to stop a heavy tax on the people of Coventry. Leofric said he would do this if Godiva travelled naked through the city, and so she covered herself with her long hair and rode through the streets.
Most of the Herbert’s artworks date from the Victorian period, when Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem about Godiva made the story very popular. Victorian painters idealised the story and portrayed Godiva as a romantic heroine. Very few attempted to show how the real Godiva might have looked, or a realistic view of Anglo-Saxon Coventry.
From the Courtauld Gallery: Oskar Kokoschka, Triptych – Hades and Persephone, 1950
I have chosen Hades and Persephone by Oskar Kokoschka as it immediately caught my eye, and it depicts one of my favourite mythological legends. Hades, god of the Underworld, fell in love with beautiful Persephone when he saw her picking flowers and carried her off to live with him in the Underworld. This image however depicts Persephone leaving the Underworld behind, while greeting her mother Demeter with open arms.
While looking into the piece itself, I found out that the amazingly vibrant colours and busy scene is part of a much bigger triptych which Kokoschka painted for a ceiling in a South Kensington house. At the centre of the triptych is an explosive image of the biblical Apocalypse, with the punishment of Prometheus on the right, and Persephone escaping from Hades on the left. Kokoschka abandons perspective and proportion in this painting, which makes it much more impactful than any baroque versions of the same scene.
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.
Our Heritage and Learning Officer, Alice Hellard, brings us up to speed on some of the most recent workshops with schools in Coventry and Braintree.
Coventry workshops with Alexandra Blum
In January and February 2020 artist Alexandra Blum led action packed day-long workshops in Coventry with Year 10 students at Finham Park School and Year 12 & 13 students at Sidney Stringer Academy and Ernesford Grange Community Academy. Finham Park students enjoyed the rare privilege of drawing Coventry cityscapes from the 11th floor of Coventry ArtSpace, while the second workshop enabled students to use Sidney Stringer’s own roof garden to closely observe and record aspects of their panoramic views of the city. The students really impressed us with their willingness and determination to experiment with Alex’s unusual approach to perspective, and they made some fantastic drawings!
Gauguin woodcuts at Braintree Museum
In March 2020 we hosted a group of 30 conscientious Year 10 students from Tabor Academy at Braintree Museum, who were keen to encounter the rare woodcut prints by artist Paul Gauguin on display alongside the Courtaulds: Origins, Innovations and Family exhibition. Taking Gauguin’s Noa Noa suite as their inspiration, students considered mythology and representation, mark making and technique, before designing, cutting and printing their own colourful woodcuts. The day ended with students curating their own mini exhibitions on the theme of feminism in art with artist Nadine Mahoney.
I have never seen the group so focused. We wouldn’t have been able to run the woodcut activity in one day back at school – students wouldn’t have been able to concentrate for such a long period of time!
We are very sorry to announce that due to Covid-19 closures our exhibitions at the Harris (The Artful Line) and Braintree Museum (Courtaulds: Origins, Innovations and Family) are closed until further notice. We have also suspended all events and our volunteers and schools programmes.
We are very disappointed not to be able to share our fantastic exhibitions and projects with the public at our partner venues, but we are currently exploring ways to put even more content to you online and on social media to bring our work directly to you. This should begin next week so do keep an eye on our website and the social media of our partners.
In the meantime, you can find out more about the Courtauld Gallery’s collection by taking an online tour or listen to expert art historians on the Courtauld Institute YouTube channel (please follow the links below). We will bring you news on how to engage with our partners’ collections shortly.