A fresh look at art history

When I was studying art at school – for GCSEs that I took in 1991 and A-levels in 1993 – I was lucky enough to be able to go on plenty of study trips into London to visit galleries. These trips were usually to look at the permanent collections of large public institutions and, as a result, much of the work didn’t really grab me because I was utterly obsessed with Impressionism, Futurism and Expressionism. Very little else held my attention for long as my teachers were far better on practice than theory, so couldn’t really explain why I should care. (Or perhaps they tried, but teenage-me just ignored them!) Aside from a mind-blowingly good exhibition of Munch’s work at the National Gallery – the feeling of seeing multiple versions of Love and Pain in person has stuck with me ever since – pretty much every other museum visit from those years has now faded away in my memory.

When I was studying textiles at university in the mid-1990s, art history popped up on my timetable once more. However, this time I paid much more attention to those older paintings because we were specifically looking at the clothes. As long as there were beautifully depicted garments in the paintings, I would now pay much more attention in museums… not that I went to Manchester Art Gallery nearly as much as I should have! Once I moved to London in 2006, I started to return to many of the places I had visited as a school kid, and saw them through fresh eyes. Although most of my museum and gallery visits were only for temporary exhibitions (the Hayward Gallery became one of my favourite places following Antony Gormley: Blind Light in 2007), art started to play a much more important role in my life once more.

Fast forward to 2019 when I start doing research on The Courtauld, ahead of applying for a job there. This was an institution with a university and an art gallery; a place which I was only aware of due to having attended a couple of dress history conferences there while I was doing my Master’s course at London College of Fashion, but I had never visited the gallery. I knew about the Courtauld family and their textile business, but I didn’t know that Samuel Courtauld collected art. I didn’t know that the part of Somerset House that houses the Courtauld Gallery used to be home to the Royal Academy and their summer exhibition from 1780-1837. But, most surprisingly, I didn’t know that The Courtauld was home to famous works by some of my favourite artists: Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Degas and Van Gogh. So, when I was invited to a staff preview of the re-vamped Courtauld Gallery at the beginning of the month, I jumped at the chance!

I headed straight for the Great Room on the top floor so that teenage-me could enjoy those works she’d looked at in books so often, but there is so much to explore in all of the beautifully restored gallery spaces. My personal highlights include The Myth of Prometheus by Oskar Kokoschka (see the image at the top of this post for the scale of this impressive triptych!), a cosy room dedicated to the work of members of the Bloomsbury Group, and the temporary display Modern Drawings: The Karshan Gift (you have until 9th January to catch that one!). The gallery is now open to the public again so, if you’re looking for something beautiful to do in London, I can definitely recommend a visit as there is something for all types of art lovers. There’s more information on the Courtauld Gallery website, and you might even end up as much of a Munch fangirl as me because there is an exhibition of his work coming up next year.

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