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Making an impression | The Courtauld Gallery, London

Édouard Manet’s 1882 artwork A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is among the Courtauld Gallery’s best known paintings. After a three-year transformation of the London venue, the piece now hangs on the third floor in the renamed LVMH Great Room (after the luxury goods multinational LVMH / Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which has supported the overhaul).

Previously subdivided, the room has been restored to its original grandeur. Manet’s gripping composition of an enigmatic, sombre barmaid in a crowded Parisian music hall is not immediately visible to viewers when they enter, bringing an aura of suspense.

Before visitors experience the big reveal of Manet’s bar scene, they see a freestanding wall on the left that displays two Paul Gauguin paintings of Tahitian women. These transport the viewer to an exoticised natural paradise on the other side of the world where there are no bustling crowds. To the right, visitors are pulled into Paul Cézanne’s darkly lit French interiors.

In one of the paintings, The Card Game (1892-96), there is a sense of stillness, similar to the tranquility evoked by Gauguin but in contrast to the commotion in Manet’s bar. The use of space in the LVMH Great Room cleverly shows off the Courtauld’s world-renowned impressionist collection as a whole while creating groupings and sightlines that highlight fresh connections and divergences in individual works.

A bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882, by Edouard Manet © The Courtauld
Winged victory

The Courtauld Gallery reopened in November 2021 after a £ 57m refurbishment to the North Wing of the Grade I-listed Somerset House. Conceived by architect William Chambers and built in the 1770s, this wing was home to Britain’s first independent fine arts organization, the Royal Academy of Arts, until 1837, and other learned societies until 1867.

Offices for the General Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths occupied the wing until 1970, followed by the Courtauld’s two current tenants from 1989: the college for the study and conservation of art and a public gallery. Its collection, initially assembled by textile industrialist and philanthropist Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), comprises more than 34,000 paintings, sculpture, works on paper and decorative arts spanning the medieval period to the 20th century.

Stirling Prize-winning architect Witherford Watson Mann has re-energized Chambers’ complex and convoluted rooms. A new visitor entrance enables step-free access to the front hall for the first time and there are standardized floor levels between all rooms. The first floor is now taken up by medieval and renaissance art.

Witherford Watson Mann, gallery designer Nissen Richards Studio and the Courtauld’s curators have successfully married art and architecture. Exquisite Islamic metalwork and biblical scenes carved in ivory or depicted through precious pigments and thin sheets of pure gold now live in a gallery created out of rooms once used by the Royal Academy’s head housekeeper and lateras collection stores. The mezzanine’s lower ceiling, soft gallery lighting and muted taupe walls evoke the intimacy of age-old traditions of private devotion and prayer.

Focus on | Lighting

The most engaging architectural challenges require us to reimagine something that already exists for a different future. You might think that reimagining a listed building of great significance would restrict that imagination, but it does not. It’s essential to work with the underlying DNA of the building and grow radical transformation from this – the art of combining skilful restoration with intervention.

The 18th-century architect William Chambers’ design for the northern side of London’s Somerset House (it faces onto The Strand and houses the Courtauld Gallery) is complex and employs daylight to articulate it. From the two-storey vaults side-lit from deep lightwells, through the ground and first-floor fine rhythms of windows, up to the primary staircases and Great Room, held high in the sky, bathed in the light from glazed lanterns, Chambers uses natural light to great effect.

The display of artworks today requires precise and highly controlled lighting. The challenge at the Courtauld was to find a balance between the curatorial demands for display, the different decorative characteristics of rooms and the need to maintain the presence of natural light. This was a negotiation informed by digital modeling, physical mock-ups with card in the rooms and then technical mock-ups with actual fittings.

In the Fine Rooms, we used thin tracks suspended on wires below ornate plaster and painted ceilings. The Great Room (left) had a combination of discretely recessed lighting tracks and a suspended track that followed the geometry of the huge lantern. New galleries balance natural light with integrated tracks following the clean openings over the rooms.

Determining the resonance between the old and the new in terms of the lighting is representative of all our work at the Courtauld Gallery. The measure of success is that anyone visiting should not even notice these judgments.

Stephen Witherford is a director at the architect firm Witherford Watson Mann

The adjacent Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery deviates from the timeline with the temporary exhibition Pen to Brush (ended 27 February). Helen Saunders ‘black and white abstract work from 1915 sits by Edward Dayes’ 1778 pencil and watercolor of Somerset House from the river and the painter JMW Turner’s 1820-21 view of Rome.

Visitors then enter the Blavatnik Fine Rooms on the second floor. The suite of six galleries have been named after the businessman and philanthropist Leonard Blavatnik and his wife Emily Appelson Blavatnik and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, whose donation of £ 10m nearly matches the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s support of £ 11m. The changes are subtle but effective. Individual lights, previously attached to the frames of artworks have been replaced by ones integrated into the ceilings. Views of Chambers’ sumptuous ceilings, the intricate plasterwork and the paintwork color scheme inspired by the artworks are now unobstructed.

Reframing the past

The collection has also been reinterpreted. Exhibition panels are split in two: the first half introduces the themes explored while the second highlights the history of the room. Where one panel examines the visualization of Europe’s prosperity in the 18th century in relation to imperialism, exploitation and slavery, another explains the role of one of the two female founders of the Royal Academy, Angelica Kauffman, in designing and painting Chambers’ ceiling.

A final walk up the cantilevered stone staircase leads to a commission to celebrate the reopening by contemporary artist Cecily Brown. Spanning five meters and employing blues, greens and yellows, Unmoored from her Reflection (2021) is the first painting to occupy that space since the 18th century and references the early impressionist works in adjacent galleries. A number of these masterpieces hang in the Weston Gallery, a sort of antechamber before the stunning LVMH Great Room.

Unmoored from her Reflection, 2021, by Cecily Brown, in situ at the Courtauld © Cecily Brown. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery. Photo © David Levene

The majesty of the room’s original proportions has been re-established through diagonal sightlines and the removal of false ceilings, which allows natural light back through. The simple intervention of two free-standing walls creates a sense of encounter and discovery.

There are no rope barriers in any of the galleries, which invites the viewer to get up close and personal with the art. The vivid colors and lively brushwork in Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889) appear in the approach to the final galleries, aiming to whet visitors’ appetites for its spring exhibition, Van Gogh Self-Portraits (until 8 May) .

This exploration of the full span of Van Gogh’s self-portraiture is presented in a new temporary exhibition space, the Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries, carved out of former office, conservation and circulation spaces and leading off the LVMH Great Room. Loans from around the world see the reunion of several works that were last together in Van Gogh’s studio.

The transformation of this wing of Somerset House points to an exciting future for the Courtauld Gallery, where neither architecture nor art stifle each other, but instead work together to provoke curiosity and delight.

Project data

National Lottery Heritage Fund; Blavatnik Family Foundation; AKO Foundation; Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation; John Browne Charitable Trust; Denise Coates; Crankstart; Garcia Family Foundation; Garfield Weston Foundation; Dr. Martin and Susanne Halusa; Linbury Trust; LVMH Meet Hennessy – Louis Vuitton; Oak Foundation

Witherford Watson Mann Architects

Mechanical, electrical, acoustics and lighting design

Sir Robert McAlpine Special Projects

Studio ZNA; Arup Lighting

David Bonnett Associates (build); Jane Samuels (fit out and interpretation)

Historic building assessment

Ralph Appelbaum Associates and Narrative Threads

Approved Inspector Services

Van Gogh Self-Portraits, until 8 May

Free entry to all exhibitions for MA members

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