Home to one of the world’s great art collections, The Courtauld Gallery in central London is also one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Hidden away at magnificent Somerset House, it tends to go under the radar, even with locals. That’s about to change though, with a major three-year renovation ensuring this dynamic gallery now looks better than ever, with jaw-dropping touches such as cobalt-blue banisters on the grand 18th-century spiral staircase. Here’s a glimpse inside The Courtauld Gallery and why it should be on your must-see list the next time you’re in London.
Dazzling Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings are the stars of the show in The Courtauld Gallery’s permanent collection, including iconic European works such as Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Expect gorgeous pieces by Renoir, Cézanne, Monet, Gauguin and Degas too.
You’ll also find paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints, sculptures and decorative arts from the Medieval era to the present day. Few art galleries in London can boast as many outstanding paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with ornate biblical themes and enchanting landscapes spanning the 15th and 16th centuries by Italian, Dutch and German masters including Botticelli, Bruegel and Cranach. Fast-forward to the 17th and 18th centuries and the gallery features celebrated artists Rubens, Gainsborough and Goya. More modern talents include Modigliani, Oskar Kokoschka and English artists from the Bloomsbury Group such as Vanessa Bell.
Founded by collectors and philanthropists in 1932, The Courtauld has long been a big influencer in the UK art scene, involved in historical research, conservation and curating. Following an ambitious three-year project to transform the gallery, it reopened in November 2021 with bigger, brighter, re-imagined interiors. Architects Witherford Watson Mann have revitalised and opened up the original Grade I-listed 1770s building by Sir William Chambers, with Nissen Richards Studio collaborating on gallery design.
Highlights of the elegant multi-level space include a new, first-floor gallery for the Medieval and early Renaissance collection; The Blavatnik Fine Rooms, which offer a stunning setting for works from the Renaissance to the 18th century on the second floor; and additional galleries for changing exhibitions. For the first time the Bloomsbury Group now has a dedicated area, showcasing their radical furniture, ceramic and textile designs alongside their art.
The crowning glory is the freshly restored top-floor LVMH Great Room, London’s oldest purpose-built exhibition space, with a soaring ceiling now flooding its Impressionist paintings with natural light. At the top of the staircase, a striking new large-scale canvas commissioned from artist Cecily Brown takes its cue from the gallery’s paintings.
Book in advance online to check out the permanent collection or exciting temporary exhibitions, such as this year’s headline show Van Gogh. Self-Portraits (3 February–8 May 2022). It’s the first time so many of the Dutch artist’s self-portraits have been explored together, with more than 16 tracing the evolution of his career. Later in the spring, look out for Edvard Munch. Masterpieces from Bergen (27 May–5 September 2022), sharing moody works by the famed Norwegian artist.
Entry to The Courtauld is ticketed, with prices slightly higher for flagship exhibitions and at weekends; those 18 and under can visit for free. The gallery also hosts talks, tours, courses and special events. Don’t miss The Courtauld Shop, now located in an atmospheric vaulted space beneath the building. It sells stylish art-inspired cards, posters and accessories, from stationery to books, toys, fashion and homewares, sourced from UK makers and available online.
Feeling peckish? Head for the gallery’s inviting new Art Café, an all-day restaurant and bar on the ground floor. Its warm, vibrant interiors take inspiration from the bohemian Bloomsbury Group. Enjoy pastries, snacks, meals and hot drinks, with the bar extending into the evening. A pop-up café The Vaults, on the lower ground floor, changes with the seasons and shows.
For a glamorous dining experience nearby book a table at Spring restaurant in the New Wing of Somerset House, where Australian chef Skye Gyngell serves produce-driven lunches and dinners in chic surrounds. Somerset House is just a stroll from Waterloo Bridge, Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square, with easy connections to more impressive art galleries in London.
The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, WC2 (open daily, 10am to 6pm)