How Samuel Courtauld helped the British fall in love with French art

How Samuel Courtauld helped the British fall in love with French art

It’s 10.03am at the National Gallery, and visitors are striding purposefully through the building. With barely a glance, they march past Titian, Veronese and Turner, before gathering in front of a still life of sunflowers against a yellow background, painted, of course, by Vincent van Gogh. They stare in wonder, basking in its radiance, listening solemnly to audio guides. 

How did this painting, created in Arles in 1888, end up in London? That it did is thanks to the generosity of one of the greatest philanthropists in British history – the sort of far-sighted figure who deserves to be honoured with a lavish monument. Yet, Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), chairman of the immensely profitable textile multinational Courtaulds Ltd, is hardly a household name. Until recently, his modest grave in Margate cemetery lay crooked and forgotten. 

Perhaps he wouldn’t have minded. He was, by all accounts, a reserved and serious man, who shunned the limelight, and, in 1937, turned down the offer of a barony. Despite this, an outstanding new exhibition, opening next week at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, is about to trumpet his achievements as the collector, who, arguably more than anyone else, fostered the British love of modern French art. 

Of course, Courtauld’s name is not entirely unfamiliar. At the Courtauld Gallery, in Somerset House, visitors marvel at the masterpieces by Manet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne, which he amassed during the Twenties. The gallery, having closed last year for a £50 million “transformation project”, decided to send out its stellar holdings on loan. A remarkable set, including Renoir’s La Loge (1874), Manet’s last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), and Cézanne’s The Card Players (c1892-96), went on display at the National Gallery last autumn. 

The Paris show, though, will be something different. Rather than simply showcasing significant works, it will consider the man responsible for bringing them together. “Of course, you can present this as a collection of A1 masterpieces,” says Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, head of the Courtauld Gallery. “But it’s such a selective collection that to do so strips it of all character, integrity, and heart.” 

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