Samuel Courtauld, Champion of Impressionism - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Samuel Courtauld, Champion of Impressionism

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Samuel Courtauld, Champion of Impressionism

Karen Serres (Curator of Painting)

Find more Masters of Impressionism essays here
This essay was originally written for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition The Courtauld Collection: A Vision for Impressionismheld at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (February-June 2019).

Samuel Courtauld's collection contained some of the most iconic works of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, without which the story of these key artistic movements cannot be told.


The industrialist and philanthropist Samuel Courtauld (1876–1947; fig. 1) played a unique role in shaping the taste for Impressionism in the United Kingdom, forever changing the way it was perceived and collected. His natural discretion and reserved personality mean that he is not a household name today, although the collection he assembled in the 1920s contained some of the most iconic works of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, paintings without which the story of these key artistic movements cannot be told.

Photographic portrait of Samuel Courtauld standing

Fig.1. Samuel Courtauld 1920s, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London

This exhibition celebrates the assured taste of an enlightened art lover. Reuniting the greater part of Samuel Courtauld’s collection of modern French art in Paris, where many of these works were created, highlights the superlative quality of his acquisitions – an even greater achievement when one considers that most of his holdings were assembled in a few short years, from 1923 to 1929. During that period, Courtauld acquired seminal works by all of the major Impressionists, from Renoir’s early masterpiece La Loge to Manet’s last great work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. His collection grew to include such iconic works as Gauguin’s emblematic Tahitian nude Nevermore and one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Courtauld was particularly devoted to Cézanne and put together the largest collection of his work in the United Kingdom, including the epic Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine and one of the celebrated Card Players. All in all, Courtauld acquired over 60 paintings and 30 drawings by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, in addition to prints and four pieces of sculpture.

In 1932, less than a decade after he began collecting, Courtauld donated the bulk of his collection for the benefit of the newly founded Courtauld Institute of Art, created to promote art education in the United Kingdom and to teach art history at university level in that country for the very first time.


This gift today forms the core of the holdings of The Courtauld Gallery, which remains an integral part of the Institute. This exhibition reunites the works in the Gallery’s collection with those bequeathed by Courtauld to friends and family, now dispersed in private and public collections internationally. In so doing, it aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the French modern paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints Courtauld pursued and cherished, and aims to reinstate him in the pantheon of the greatest collectors and most generous philanthropists of the twentieth century.

Another important feature of the exhibition and of this publication is to highlight the other remarkable aspect of Courtauld’s championing of Impressionism, which was the generous fund he set up to acquire major examples of French modern art for the national collection, at the same moment as he started buying for himself. This major act of philanthropy established a foundational collection of Impressionism in Britain and the two dozen works purchased through the Courtauld Fund, including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, are some of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery today.

Courtauld descended from a family of Huguenots who fled religious persecution in France and settled in London in the late seventeenth century. As Alexandra Gerstein has detailed in her essay on the history of the Courtauld family in this volume, they became prominent silversmiths before turning, in the late eighteenth century, to silk weaving. The family prospered but their fortunes rose dramatically in the early twentieth century with the development of viscose, a revolutionary synthetic fibre also called ‘artificial silk’, which turned the business into one of the largest textile manufacturers in the world. Samuel Courtauld’s appointment as chairman of Courtaulds Ltd in 1921 coincided with both the period of greatest expansion for the company and the beginning of his collecting activity, made possible by the financial rewards of his professional position.

Born in Bocking Place in Essex on 7 May 1876, Courtauld was the third of six children and grew up in a home, as his sister recalled, ‘much like that of other comfortably-off country families in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with certain distinctive strains. One came from our non-conformity, being Unitarians by family inheritance and by conviction.[1] Another was the artistic background from our mother’s side; a great-uncle there was Samuel Rogers, the collector and poet, and we were familiar with artistic treasures inherited from him – classical furniture in our grandmother’s house, some good pictures, Greek vases and busts, etc.’[2] Courtauld inherited a strong sense of public service from the family’s religious background and from his parents, Sydney and Sarah, who were active in local politics and sat on school and hospital boards. As his sister noted, however, ‘his independent taste was his own’ and his love of modern art stemmed from personal inclination. Upon leaving Rugby School, one of the oldest and most prestigious boarding schools at the time, Courtauld did not attend university but joined the family business (fig. 2). He embarked on a series of apprenticeships in Germany and France to learn the textile business, steadily rising through the ranks as manager of the firm’s various mills.


Portrait of Samuel Courtauld at age 17

Fig.2. Samuel Courtauld aged 17, reproduced in the appendix of Stephen Courtauld, The Huguenot Family of Courtauld, privately printed, 1957-67 (Image: The Courtauld Institute of Art London)

Courtauld left no account of his life and most of his papers and correspondence are unfortunately untraced. We must therefore reconstruct his approach to art and his influences through the few notes he left,[3] letters sent to friends and family, and their recollections of him. Courtauld’s first contacts with art seem to have been mixed. Early, slightly reluctant visits to the National Gallery were not transformative and ‘there is a tale of his objecting to “all these brown old things”’.[4] His enthusiasm for the Old Masters arose thanks to travels in Italy following his wedding in 1901. In the great galleries of Florence and Rome, ‘the Old Masters had come alive to me, and British academic art had died. In the former I now perceived a wonderful mastery allied with strong emotion and with life itself’.[5] It was these very qualities that later caught his attention in the work of the Impressionists and convinced him that French modern art was not a subversion of tradition but a renewal of ‘the strong and exciting currents still flowing beneath the surface of the paint’ in the best works of the Old Masters.[6]

Through his travels, Courtauld must have been familiar with Impressionist displays in museums and exhibitions on the Continent but the two visits that sparked his lifelong taste for French modern painting both took place in London.


The first was to the display of paintings from the collection of Sir Hugh Lane held at the National Gallery in January 1917. An Irish collector and dealer, Lane had perished two years earlier in the sinking of the Lusitania, leaving his fine collection of nineteenth-century French art, including eight important Impressionist paintings such as Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens and Renoir’s The Umbrellas, to the National Gallery (although his will would be strongly contested). Lane had previously offered to lend his pictures to the National Gallery on several occasions but, when his offer was accepted in 1913, less than half of the works were put on display. When the whole collection finally went on view posthumously, they constituted a ‘real “eye-opener”’ for Courtauld.[7] The second visit was to an exhibition, a few years later, of Pictures, Drawings, and Sculpture of the French School of the Last 100 Years in May 1922 at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, a private club on Savile Row that regularly organised influential exhibitions of works borrowed from dealers or private collections. Courtauld recalled walking around the exhibition with a friend and stopping in front of a Cézanne (fig. 3) owned by the Welsh collector Gwendoline Davies: ‘a young friend who was a painter of conventional portraits … led me up to Cézanne’s Provençal Landscape …. Though genuinely moved he was not very lucid, and he finished by saying … “It makes you go this way, and that way, and then off the deep-end altogether!” At that moment, I felt the magic, and I have felt it in Cézanne’s work ever since.’[8] In addition to igniting Courtauld’s love of Impressionism, both exhibitions must also have impressed upon him the pleasures to be had in collecting and the role private individuals could play in shaping wider artistic taste.

Painting of a road passing through a landscape filled with trees. there is also a mountain in the background and a hutch towards the left

Fig.3. Paul Cézanne, The François Zola Dam, c. 1877-78. Oil on canvas, 54.2 x 74.2 cm National Museum Wales, Cardiff (© National Museum of Wales/Heritage-Images)

Of key importance to the formation of the collection was the fact that Courtauld’s wife, Elizabeth née Kelsey (1875–1931), shared this passion. A patron of music and progressive benefactor of social causes in her own right, ‘Lil’ is the one who initiated their purchases of French modern art. 


With the acquisition of two paintings in September 1922 following a visit to the recently opened Independent Gallery on Grafton Street in Mayfair: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Woman Tying her Shoe and Saint-Paul, Côte d’Azur by a young artist in the Cubist vein, Jean Marchand (fig. 4).[9] The gallery’s founder, Percy Moore Turner, had spent several decades in Paris and forged deep ties with French dealers, enabling him to import paintings or house them on consignment in his London gallery. Mrs Courtauld’s visit, and Turner’s later importance as agent and advisor for the Courtaulds, are described in Dimitri Salmon’s essay in this volume. Despite the presence of Renoir, however, the paintings were not Impressionist works per se but rather contemporary art, having been painted only a few years earlier (around 1918 for Renoir and 1921 for Marchand). Both are slight outliers in the collection and undoubtedly reflected Elizabeth’s personal taste; Samuel later confessed that he was less keen on Renoir’s late period, defending ‘the early Renoir against those who preferred the later’[10] and admitting that, ‘for my part, I feel that before 1880 [Renoir] reached his highest summit’.[11]

painting of a coastal town with a bright blue sky, from a balcony

Fig.4. Jean Marchand Saint-Paul, Côte d’Azur, 1921 Oil on canvas, 61 x 74 cm The Courtauld Gallery, London (© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London)

These initial acquisitions were followed a few months later by another, more significant, double purchase, this time directly from a French dealer. During a visit to Paris in late December 1922, Courtauld acquired from Jos Hessel two paintings by Gauguin, one from the artist’s Breton period, The Haystacks and a Tahitian composition, Bathers at Tahiti (fig. 5). The Courtaulds’ dedication to collecting Impressionism and Post-Impressionism was now fully established and the following months saw the acquisition of five further works: Courtauld’s first Cézanne, a large painting by Daumier, Monet’s Vase of Flowers and two Degas bronzes.

painting of two nude females amongst trees

Fig.5. Paul Gauguin, Bathers at Tahiti, 1897 Oil on sacking, 73.3 x 91.8 cm The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham (© Bridgeman Images)


It is, however, striking to realise that the collection was still in its infancy when Courtauld shifted his focus from private to public collecting: in June 1923, he wrote to the Director of the Tate Gallery stating that he felt ‘the Modern Continental Art movement deserves to be better represented in the National Collection’ and offering the large sum of £50,000 to further this cause.


He proposed that an acquisition committee, chaired by Courtauld himself, be set up tasked with the purchase of paintings ‘representing the modern movement’. This remarkable initiative, and Courtauld’s later service to the national collections as a benefactor and trustee of the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery, are examined in detail by Anne Robbins in this volume. Suffice it to say that such a high-profile and generous donation, widely reported in the press (against Courtauld’s wishes), was a conspicuous declaration of advocacy for the importance of Impressionism within the artistic tradition and of support for the mandate of the new independent board of trustees of the Tate Gallery to collect the work of living foreign artists.

It should be said that, as Barnaby Wright describes in his essay, Courtauld was far from the first patron of Impressionism in the United Kingdom, nor did he recognize the importance of the movement before anyone else. Impressionist paintings had been crossing the Channel for as long as the painters themselves, when London became a safe haven from the Franco-Prussian war. Key dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel, influential critics such as Roger Fry and pioneering private collectors such as Henry Hill, Michael Sadler and Gwendoline and Margaret Davies had long championed Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the United Kingdom. A number of important commercial gallery exhibitions had provided general audiences with direct access to these works. However, the artistic establishment remained highly sceptical and Impressionist paintings had hesitantly trickled into the national collections. For example, the Cézanne that had so moved Courtauld at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1922 had been offered for loan and turned down by the National Gallery just the year before. In contrast, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works were highly sought after on the Continent, in Russia and in the United States, fetching ever-increasing prices on the international art market. Courtauld’s key contribution was therefore to provide the financial means and the decisiveness to secure the best examples for the British national collections while it was still possible. By forcing the spotlight on this movement, Courtauld in effect sought to overcome the reticence and conservatism of the British art establishment.

From August 1923 to March 1927 – when the funds had been largely spent – 22 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings were acquired for the nation thanks to the Courtauld Fund, from Manet’s Corner of a Café-Concert (cat. 8) to Van Gogh’s Wheatfield, with Cypresses, Chair and Sunflowers; from Renoir’s At the Theatre (La Première Sortie) to Seurat’s monumental Bathers at Asnières. The pace of acquisitions had been partly set by the pending inauguration of the Modern Foreign Galleries at the Tate Gallery, opened by King George V with great fanfare in June 1926.

Those years were a period of education and discovery for Courtauld. He travelled extensively; traced Cézanne’s steps around his beloved Aix-en-Provence; met dealers, artists and collectors; visited the Barnes Foundation in Merion (Pennsylvania) in 1924, a few months before its official inauguration,[13] and seems to have had endless energy for exhibitions. Writing from Paris, one of his friends noted, ‘Sam and Lil lunched with us before going to London: pictures excite Sam so much that he spends sleepless nights, he visited … Degas, Braque and Constantin Guys’ exhibitions’.[14] Courtauld’s reputation grew rapidly, to the point that he was soon approached by dealers and collectors throughout Europe and presented with a steady stream of available paintings.

He remained, however, very thoughtful and deliberate in his acquisitions. During that time, Courtauld was in effect building two collections side by side, one for the nation and one for himself, most often from the same sources. One productive visit to the dealer M. Knoedler & Co. in London on 3 August 1923 saw the purchase of Manet’s Corner of a Café-Concert and Renoir’s At the Theatre for the National Gallery, Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil for ‘Mr Courtauld’ and Monet’s Antibes for ‘Mrs Courtauld’.[15] Such an overlap was extremely rare, however, and, despite their parallel growth and Courtauld’s dual commitment, his approach to the two collections was very different. Representative examples were sought for the national collection and decisions were debated and made collectively amongst the trustees. There was an important sense of stewardship and some artists, such as Manet and Gauguin, were either avoided all together or acquired sparingly. This is probably because they were already represented in the collection and because, as they were already expensive, their purchase would have depleted the Fund. Courtauld’s personal collection comprised the same artists, ‘the great Frenchmen of the latter half of the nineteenth century’, [16] but purchases seem to have had no overarching guiding principle save for the desire to secure beautiful works that would reward repeated viewing and provide new pleasures and insights over time. During the same period as he was administering the Courtauld Fund, Courtauld bought two dozen paintings for himself – a comparable figure to the 22 purchased for the nation – but spent almost triple the sum allotted to the Fund. This is a measure of his ambition and personal commitment to this field of painting but also partly due to the acquisition, in 1925 and 1926 respectively, of the two most expensive paintings he ever bought: Renoir’s La Loge and Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, each purchased for $110,000 (equivalent to £22,600, with an additional £1,500 paid to Percy Moore Turner as commission). These two paintings alone would have depleted the entire sum set aside for the Courtauld Fund and epitomize the high sums fetched at that period by the best examples of Impressionism. Courtauld was competing in an international market and it is only because the American collector Albert Barnes had deemed A Bar at the Folies-Bergère too expensive a few months earlier that Courtauld was able to secure it.[17]

These prominent acquisitions whetted his appetite rather than satisfied it: the pace picked up in the following years, which saw a steady rhythm of key additions, from Degas’s Two Dancers on a Stage to the acclaimed Te Rerioa by Gauguin, an artist whose ‘sensuous colours… steal a march on Sam’, as a friend commented teasingly.[18]


However, Courtauld’s favourite artist was undoubtedly Cézanne and he came to own eleven major paintings and four watercolours by the painter, significantly more than any other artist in his collection.[19] In many ways, Cézanne was the most controversial artist to champion in those years: while Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were gaining acceptance among the British art establishment, Cézanne’s work was still viewed with great scepticism and no examples were on permanent display in London.


Even an advocate of Impressionism like the painter and critic D.S. MacColl (who also served as Keeper of both the Tate Gallery and the Wallace Collection) considered Cézanne as ‘very imperfectly qualified’ and ‘nervously impotent’ in front of his subject matter. [20] Courtauld’s passionate commitment ensure that the artist’s importance was progressively recognised, albeit chiefly thanks to Courtauld’s stellar private purchases rather than through the Courtauld Fund: the reluctance of the other trustees meant that only two modest works by the artist were acquired for the nation. The first, a Self-Portrait (fig.6), became the earliest Cézanne purchased by a British public collection; the second, Hillside in Provence, was only bought at Courtauld’s insistence and thanks to the additional funds he provided.

self portrait of cezanne, a bearded man with balding on his head, he is presented in a suit

Fig.6. Paul Cézanne, Self-Portrait, c. 1880–81 Oil on canvas, 34.7 x 27 cm The National Gallery, London (© 2019. Copyright The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence)

Although Courtauld did not collect in a systematic way – never aiming to give a full account of an artist’s development or achievements – his holdings of Cézanne provide a sweeping overview of the artist’s oeuvre, represented by still lifes, figure paintings and landscapes, from the early years spent painting alongside Pissarro on the outskirts of Paris to the quintessential Provençal themes of the 1880s and, finally, to his move towards more formal patterns of mark-making with Lac d’Annecy. It is also perhaps in his commitment to Cézanne that Courtauld’s approach to art can be best encapsulated – his pursuit of ‘the magic’ he felt from his first encounter with the artist’s work at the Burlington Fine Arts Club exhibition in 1922. For Courtauld, one’s emotional response to a work of art was much more meaningful, fulfilling and enduring than any intellectual or learnt approach. As his close friend the novelist and playwright Charles Morgan remarked, ‘to talk to Sam Courtauld about painting was to talk to him of much more than painting’.[21] Courtauld saw art as genuinely democratic as the great rewards it bestowed were available to all, necessitating no extensive scholarship but purely human and universal – albeit exacting – qualities: ‘unfettered imagination, human emotion and spiritual aspiration go to the creation of all great works, and a share of the same qualities is needed for the reading of them’.[22] While no extensive writings by Courtauld himself survive, Morgan summarised it thus:

To think, in a vaguely philanthropic way, that it is useful to make great pictures available to the public is one thing, but Sam Courtauld’s thought on this subject was another … he is by no means to be thought of as a rich man disembarrassing himself of great possessions. His idea was clear, positive and passionate. It was this: That human imagination … has a tendency to stagnate; that this stagnation, or freezing up, is a kind of spiritual death in men, in classes, and in nations; that art in all its forms has a power to renew our imaginative life, but that this power is effective in us only if we are capable of yielding to it, and do not, in ignorance or fashion or prejudice, harden our hearts …. Therefore he established the Courtauld Institute, enabled opera and chamber music, and gave his pictures – I will not say ‘to the Nation’ but rather to each man or woman or child who, coming upon one of those pictures by chance, might be prompted, not only to admire or praise or enjoy it as a thing observed, but to receive it inwardly, to be pierced by its arrow, to discover in its life a renewal or unfreezing of life’s imaginative stream. His desire was not to make connoisseurs of the general public but that each of us should transmute Cézanne or Manet or Renoir into the poetry of his or her private life.[23]

Art could thus play a powerful role in the personal fulfilment of each individual but also in the well-being of society as a whole, as ‘the most uniformly civilizing influence which mankind has ever known.’[24] This echoes Courtauld’s socially progressive views on labour and industry, laid out in Ernst Vegelin’s contribution to this catalogue.

The consideration with which Courtauld built his collection, one work at a time, means that he mostly bought from London dealers and commercial galleries on the Continent, rather than from private collectors or at auction. Dealers could accommodate his request that, before finalising a purchase, paintings be sent to his home and placed on consignment for a while so he could live with them and see if their emotional appeal endured. He was keen to understand this appeal and dissect his feelings, writing poetry on paintings (his and others’) as well as private typescript essays on ‘The Origin of Beauty’ or how to judge ‘The Best Pictures’ (using a grading system with categories such as Tension, Emotion, Peace, Grace, Dignity and Skill).[25] This thoughtfulness and the assuredness of Courtauld’s taste meant that, once in his collection, very few works were ever sold or returned; only a handful of paintings and drawings suffered this fate in his decade of collecting. The four major paintings he sold all left the collection in or around 1929, which may indicate a moment of reassessment. These include one of Courtauld’s earliest purchases, Bathers at Tahiti by Gauguin (fig. 5), which, he may have felt, was superseded by the acquisition of Te Rerioa at that same moment, and the beautiful Martinique Landscape, temporarily reunited with the other Gauguins in Courtauld’s collection for the duration of this exhibition.[26]

Equally interesting are the numerous works that Courtauld was offered but didn’t buy. In 1928, for example, he was presented with the opportunity to purchase Gauguin’s monumental canvas Where Do We Come From / What Are We / Where Are We Going (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which, as Barnaby Wright notes, had been offered to the National Gallery a decade earlier but not acquired. Its owner, the Norwegian shipping magnet Jørgen Breder Stang, had decided to sell part of his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection and approached Courtauld through the Berlin-based dealer Alfred Gold.[27] It may be found surprising that Courtauld, who was so mindful about gathering prominent examples of Post-Impressionist art, did not seize this opportunity. By 1928 however, the Courtauld Fund had been spent and Samuel Courtauld was purchasing solely for himself. In addition to financial concerns over what must have been an astronomical price tag, the consideration of living with the work every day was at the forefront of Courtauld’s mind. It was Stang’s great Cézanne The Card Players rather than his epic Gauguin that entered Courtauld’s collection that year.

While his private collection was very much the result of a personal vision and approach, Courtauld did correspond with critics, dealers, artists and other collectors, and valued their discussions. The critic and artist Roger Fry is often cited as a key influence on Courtauld’s purchases of works by Cézanne, Seurat and Gauguin.


However, their correspondence reveals that, in fact, Courtauld did not slavishly follow Fry’s recommendations. In one instance, he declined to purchase a painting by Cézanne initially praised by Fry as ‘one of the most immediately arresting pictures that he ever did’, prompting the critic to revise his view and concede that it was ‘not one of his supreme trouvailles’.[29] Courtauld also rejected Fry’s suggestion to sell Nevermore in order to secure the expensive Te Rerioa, which Fry considered a better work by Gauguin.[30] The dealer Percy Moore Turner was also an important presence, acting as agent and facilitator. He procured not only paintings but also frames, conservators and introductions, including to Barnes in 1924. In the end, however, Courtauld relied on his own judgement and on the emotions a work procured. A postscript in a letter from Courtauld’s daughter, Sydney, to Anthony Blunt, then director of The Courtauld Institute of Art and curator of the memorial exhibition at the Tate Gallery devoted to Courtauld’s collection shortly after his death, is telling: Sydney was keen to emphasize that the works being shown ‘were his pictures and no one else except my mother had any part in bringing them into his collection’.[31] As his son-in- law, the politician Richard Austen Butler, noted, ‘it can truly be said that Mr Courtauld never bought a picture unless he loved it, and few collections conveyed so strongly the impression of being stamped with personal taste. He was never influenced by fashion, and although he sought the advice of others it was on his own judgement that he ultimately relied: and having bought a picture he studied it and came to know it almost as a personal friend, always finding in it new features and new qualities’.[32]

When paintings went out on loan (a frequent occurrence), Courtauld felt their loss keenly: as he wrote to a friend in 1937, ‘I didn’t break the sad news to you that “La Loge” went away from here on Tuesday [to a temporary display at the National Gallery]. I thought it would make you sad, and at moments I felt like weeping myself. However, it fulfils a scheme which I have been working for from the beginning, so I must not repine’.[33] Indeed, the depth of Courtauld’s personal relationship with the works in his collection was matched by an equally profound commitment to sharing them with a wide audience. This commitment was manifest in his generous lending policy, the Courtaulds’ desire to make their home as open and accessible as possible and, ultimately, in the gift of the collection for the benefit of The Courtauld Institute of Art (discussed below). After living for several years at 35 Berkeley Square in Mayfair, the Courtaulds moved a few streets north and took up, in 1926, the lease of Home House, a stunning Neoclassical building designed by Robert Adam in the mid 1770s and located at 20 Portman Square. As Courtauld’s niece recalled, ‘when Samuel Courtauld hung his Impressionist pictures in his Adam house many of his friends and relations were genuinely shocked’ (photographs of the interiors of the house in the Courtaulds’ time are reproduced throughout this volume).[34] The Courtaulds entertained generously, hosting concerts and parties attended by the whole of London society. In a 1929 letter recounting one of these soirées, Virginia Woolf complained at having to compete with the Cézannes on the wall, which were distracting the companion with whom she was flirting.[35] The Courtaulds also welcomed art lovers from all parts: a friend recalled that Elizabeth Courtauld once jokingly complained that one of the downsides of ‘living in a museum [was that it] brought a daily train of sightseers’.[36]

Elizabeth’s role in assembling the collection and her increasingly poor health at the end of the decade may explain why Courtauld stopped purchasing Impressionist paintings in late 1929.[37] Courtauld had previously indicated to friends and dealers that he was ‘nearing the end of [his] tether’ (1926) and that ‘he has now really no more room left in his house for any new pictures’ (1927),[38] and yet had continued to acquire superlative examples of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in the following years. Elizabeth clearly shared her husband’s passion, and her support was critical. One indication of her close involvement is the fact that she is specifically stated as the owner of certain pictures. Although they visited exhibitions and dealers together, Samuel and Elizabeth sometimes made a distinction between the works each had chosen; dealers’ invoices were addressed either to ‘Mr Courtauld’ or ‘Mrs Courtauld’ and, at the Exhibition of French Art 1200–1900 held at the Royal Academy of Art in 1932, Les Paveurs de la Rue de Berne by Manet, Montagne Sainte-Victoire by Cézanne (Fig.7.), In a Private Dining Room by Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat’s Young Woman Powdering Herself are specifically listed as lent by ‘Mrs Courtauld’. Samuel, who sat on the organising committee, lent a further twelve paintings and seven drawings. Elizabeth died a week before the opening of the exhibition, which saw the consecration of the French modern art she and Samuel had so steadfastly championed for a decade, with the Impressionists now firmly installed within the continuity of the French artistic tradition.

Cezanne's painting with mountain and pine tree

Fig.7. Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, c.1887, oil on canvas, 66.8cm x 92.3cm. © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Elizabeth’s death in December 1931 forced Samuel Courtauld to consider the future of the collection. From the first, he had felt that ‘those who are financially more fortunate than their fellow-citizens must regard themselves as trustees of their possessions, and think less about the personal enjoyment of them than of spreading their benefits to others’.[39] The National Gallery understandably assumed that the Courtaulds’ private collection might one day join the Courtauld Fund purchases on its walls.[40] Instead, Courtauld announced a few months after his wife’s death that the core of the collection they had assembled would be given to a trust, the Home House Society (now called the Samuel Courtauld Trust), for the benefit of the newly founded Courtauld Institute of Art.

The project of an institute of higher education devoted to teaching the history of art, long established on the Continent and in the United States but still unavailable to students in Britain, had been developed a few years earlier by the politician and collector Arthur Hamilton Lee, Viscount Lee of Fareham.[41] He had recruited a number of high-profile supporters for his scheme, including the lawyer Robert Witt, the dealer and National Gallery trustee Joseph Duveen and Courtauld, who donated £100,000. Courtauld worried, however, that the scheme would produce only ‘experts and highbrows’ and it was modified to ensure that the new institute promoted ‘the dissemination amongst the people at large (through the agency of teachers trained at University) of a knowledge and love of Art’.[42] The foundation of the institute was announced in October 1930 but its implementation, under the aegis of the University of London, was delayed when suitable accommodation could not be found. Courtauld decided to transfer the lease of Home House to the University as temporary accommodation for the institute, which welcomed its first students in October 1932.[43]

The Courtauld Institute of Art offered academic degrees in the history of art to undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as public lectures for general audiences. Two years later there was added a ‘Scientific and Research Department’ ‘of vital importance for the physical study of works of art and of the conditions necessary for their well-being, preservation and restoration’.


The multifaceted nature of the Institute’s mission gave rise to tensions in its early years between the founders and its first director, W.G. Constable. He wanted to secure the Institute’s academic standing by enrolling only postgraduate students who had already earned a first degree in another field. Courtauld, however, remained passionate that ‘the original objects of the Institute should not be departed from, especially the first one which is to spread an appreciation of Art throughout the Nation as widely as possible … it seemed to me that the Institute would be a kind of missionary centre from which the idea of the value of Art would spread through many diverse channels’.[45] His vision extended beyond the strict academic discipline: ‘what we endeavour to teach there [at the Institute] is art appreciation, and the scope is much wider than history alone. Art appreciation can be approached from many angles, and certainly the training of experts in art criticism is not what we are concerned with here.’[46] In Courtauld’s view, the Institute was to make art education accessible to the widest possible audience, either by direct enrolment or indirectly, by teaching the future ‘teachers and leaders for the great host of laymen whose interest in art might be awakened, or further stimulated’.[47]

Giving way to the newly established Institute, Samuel Courtauld moved out of Home House in 1932, leaving behind the 47 paintings, 22 drawings, one print and two pieces of sculpture he had donated to the Home House Society. Now adorning the walls of the lecture rooms, offices and the slide library (fig. 8), the paintings at Home House were accessible to the general public on Saturdays or by appointment, and a small booklet was produced.[48] The most valuable works were placed on long- term loan to the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, or sent to regional museums. The generous loans from the collection authorised by the Home House Society (with Courtauld as its chairman) stemmed from the same impulse that had spurred the creation of the Courtauld Fund and the foundation of the Institute: to ensure the widest possible dissemination of art appreciation through a direct relationship with the work of art itself. Paintings such as Van Gogh’s Peach Trees in Blossom, Monet’s Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, Pissarro’s Place Lafayette, Rouen and Renoir’s Woman Tying her Shoe travelled widely throughout the 1930s, to towns like Silver End in Essex or Accrington and Blackburn in Lancashire, as part of the ‘Art for the People’ scheme run by the British Institute for Adult Education to provide access to works of art in towns without art galleries.

photograph of room with fireplace showing those who work in the slide library

Fig.8. Slide library of The Courtauld Institute of Art at Portman Square (formerly the front parlour) in the 1950s Courtesy of the Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London Hanging on the wall behind the cataloguers are Cézanne’s Still Life with Plaster Cupid, Van Gogh’s Peach Trees in Blossom and Degas’s pastel After the Bath (© Courtauld Institute of Art, London )

For his new residence at 12 North Audley Street, located a few streets away, Courtauld retained 51 paintings, drawings and prints, and his two Degas bronzes. The collection he had assembled with Elizabeth was now broken up but a lavish volume, privately published in 1934, forever captured their endeavour. The monumental volume, published in French, illustrated 55 of the superlative examples of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings they had assembled and included a full scholarly apparatus written by the dealer Percy Moore Turner and Paul Jamot, a French curator and specialist in nineteenth-century art.

The volume shows that, in the importance and quality of the works, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism constituted the core of Courtauld’s holdings and the focus of his collecting efforts. The movement reigned supreme in his mind and Courtauld seldom ventured into the twentieth century. He never acquired examples of Fauvism, to which he seemingly took an early aversion, or Cubism.[49] Matisse is represented only through drawings (a small painting of a Dancer was exchanged for an early Renoir merely a year after its purchase) and Picasso by his early masterpiece Child with a Dove (fig. 9), placed in Elizabeth’s bedroom at Home House as a birthday present.[50] Indeed, with her inaugural Renoir and Marchand purchases, Elizabeth’s taste may have been more avant-garde than Samuel’s. As he once noted, ‘“pure”, or abstract, art does not really appeal to me either …. This is true for me about painting, literature, and even, I think, music; even in music I feel that there must be something more than the most perfect “pattern-making”.’[51]

painting of a small child holding a dove, there is a ball on the floor to the childs right

Fig.9. Pablo Picasso Child with a Dove, 1901 Oil on canvas, 73 x 54 cm Private collection (Image: Courtauld Gallery, London © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2019)

Although French modern art constituted the core of his interest, Courtauld also collected a few works by Old Masters and, in larger numbers, by young British contemporary artists.[52] He was one of the most generous contributors of the Contemporary Art Society, created by Roger Fry and others in 1910, and a committed supporter of the London Artists’ Association, set up by his close friend the economist John Maynard Keynes in 1925 to provide British artists with a small guaranteed income and to organise exhibitions of their work. Courtauld’s purchases of works by William Roberts and Paul Nash (who designed Courtauld’s bookplate; fig. 10) seem to have stemmed both from personal taste and from a desire to provide financial assistance to deserving artists. Encouraging a friend to see a show of their work in New York, he noted that she would find some of it ‘interesting. It is certainly sincere, and the artists are the most un-mercenary lot I ever came across – and I think the most progressive group in England. And if you can interest any of your friends, I shall be awfully grateful.’[53]

illustration of abstract forms

Fig.10. Paul Nash Bookplate for Samuel Courtauld, c. 1930 Wood engraving, 10.2 x 8.3 cm The Courtauld Institute of Art library, London (Image: The Courtauld Institute of Art London)

The intense collecting of the 1920s came to a temporary halt in the first half of the 1930s. Courtauld, however, remained active in the arts, serving as a trustee of the Tate Gallery (1927–34, 1935–38 and briefly in 1945–46) and the National Gallery (1931–37 and 1939–46, serving as chairman of the board in 1936–37 and 1940–42), as well as a member of the management committee of the new Courtauld Institute of Art and chairman of the trustees of the Home House Society. In January 1933, he was made Officier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French state for services to the arts but turned down the offer of a barony in England four years later. Preserving his wife’s legacy, Courtauld assumed responsibility for the Courtauld-Sargent concerts at the Queen’s Hall in London, founded by Elizabeth to provide access to classical music to those who could not afford it.

During that time, Courtauld continued travelling widely, including regular trips to the United States (where, in April 1939, he was given access to the collection of the late Andrew W. Mellon a couple of years before it went on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington), and visiting exhibitions. In 1937, he wrote to a friend that, during a recent visit to Paris, he had seen ‘three shows & two dealers. Rosenberg had two outstanding Cézannes – one is the “Château Noir’’’.[54] Courtauld had resumed collecting a year earlier but, despite his enthusiasm, did not purchase Château Noir. Instead, between 1936 and 1938, he acquired a further three works by Cézanne – View of L’Estaque and the Château d’If, Farm in Normandy and the large late watercolour Apples, Bottle and Chairback; two masterpieces by Monet – Gare Saint- Lazare and Argenteuil, The Bridge Under Repair; as well as works by Boudin, Seurat and Pissarro. This second burst of collecting, which ceased with the outbreak of the Second World War, may have been of a more private nature, as the paintings, with the exception of the Pissarro, were eventually bequeathed to family members and close friends.[55]

Nevertheless, his support of the Courtauld Institute of Art remained steadfast and Courtauld’s will added a further 62 paintings, drawings and prints, alongside two pieces of sculpture, to his initial generous gift. These included, among other masterpieces, Renoir’s La Loge and Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Courtauld died on 1 December 1947, a year and a half after stepping down as chairman of Courtaulds Ltd, which he had so ably steered through the vicissitudes of the war.

Although Courtauld was generous in sharing his collection throughout his life, it was perhaps at the memorial exhibition held in his honour at the Tate Gallery from May to September 1948 that art lovers were able to grasp the full extent of his contribution to the promotion of Impressionism in Britain.


His vision and tireless efforts had added at least 65 major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings to public collections, whether through the Courtauld Fund for the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery or his gift to the Home House Society and the Courtauld Institute of Art. He had taken decisive action at a key moment in the global demand for Impressionist painting and had changed the way the movement was perceived. The staunch commitment of such a prominent figure to public service and his passionate belief in the power of art to move those who engage with it and to better society as a whole were unparalleled at the time and remain exceptional today.


[1] Unitarianism is a Christian movement that rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and believes God is a single being.

[2] Sydney Renée Courtauld, ‘Life at Bocking Place When We Were Young’, manuscript, November 1951. The Courtauld Gallery archives, London, transcribed in the Appendix of this volume.

[3] For his 1954 essay on ‘Samuel Courtauld as Collector and Benefactor’, Anthony Blunt relied on ‘a series of essays which Courtauld wrote in the last years of his life … but [which] were left unfinished at his death’. Blunt noted that the essays were being prepared for publication by Courtauld’s daughter, Sydney, but they were never published and most are now untraced: Blunt 1954, p. 3, note 1.

[4] Blunt 1954, p.2, and Sydney Renée Courtauld, ‘Life at Bocking Place When We Were Young’ (see note 2)

[5] Blunt 1954, p.3.

[6] Blunt 1954, p.3.

[7] Blunt 1954, p.3.

[8] Blunt 1954, p.4.

[9] According to Cooper 1954a, p.147. Toulouse-Lautrec’s drawing In Bed (cat.77) was Courtauld’s first purchase of French modern art. Cooper dates its acquisition from the Leicester Galleries in London to February 1922, although his source is unknown and no receipt of the work exists.

[10] Charles Morgan, ‘Preface’, in Courtauld 1949, p.x.

[11] Courtauld, 1947, p.62.

[12] Tate Archives, London tg 17/3/4.

[13] Samuel and Elizabeth Courtauld, whom her husband described to Barnes as ‘equally interested in the French modern school’ in a letter dated 24 October 1924, were repeat visitors to the Barnes Foundation a letter from Percy Moore Turner dated 26 November 1929 thanks Barnes for his recent hospitality and reports that Courtauld too told me it was one of the most enjoyable days of his trip’. A few months later, Turner forwarded Courtauld’s request that Barnes ‘let him know when you come over as he would like to show you his collection’ (letter dated 21 February 1930). Whether the visit took place is unknown. All documents from Albert C. Barnes Correspondence, The Barnes Foundation Archives, Philadelphia. My sincere thanks go to Amanda McKnight for her research.

[14] Letter from Lydia Lopokova to John Maynard Keynes, 7 May 1924, quoted in Hill and Keynes eds. 1989, p.185.

[15] M Knoedler & Co. Records, Series II, Sales Books, London Sales Books, box 90, n.p., Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles: digitised, accessed 15 July 2018, and letter from Charles Carstairs to Charles Aitken, early August 1923, Courtauld Fund Papers, Tate Archives, tg 17/3/4. My sincere thanks to Anne Robbins for bringing this letter to my attention. The only instance of paintings destined for the public and private collections appearing on the same invoice is recorded by The Independent Gallery on 14 June 1926, noting the sale for £700 of Degas’s ‘Les Danseuses’ destined to the Tate Gallery and, for the private collection, that of Sisley’s ‘Louveciennes – Snow’ for £1,350, Courtauld receipts, The Courtauld Gallery archives, London.

[16] See the announcement of the Courtauld Fund in, among others, The Times, London, 10 August 1923: Modern Foreign Pictures £50,000 for the Tate Gallery. A Purchase Fund Gift.

[17] Letter from Albert Barnes to Paul Guillaume, 18 January 1926, Albert C Barnes Correspondence, The Barnes Foundation Archives, Philadelphia. I am very grateful to Sylvie Patry for drawing this letter to my attention.

[18] Letter from Lydia Lopokova to John Maynard Keynes, 1 November 1923, quoted in Hill and Keynes eds. 1989, p.119. See also Serres 2013.

[19] He subsequently sold one painting, Madame Cézanne in Blue, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and one unidentified watercolour (see also note 26).

[20] D.S. MacColl, quoted in House ed. 1994, p.235.

[21] Charles Morgan, ‘Preface’, in Courtauld 1949, pp.x.

[22] Unpublished essay by Samuel Courtauld quoted by Blunt 1954, p.7.

[23] Charles Morgan, ‘Preface’, in Courtauld 1949, p.xii-xiii.

[24] ‘Art Education’ in Courtauld 1949, p.45.

[25] See The Courtauld Gallery archives, London, and Courtauld 1947, a privately printed book of poems on Courtauld’s responses to Old Master and Impressionist paintings. Published in late 1947, Pictures into Verse was sent by Courtauld and, following his death on 1 December, by his daughter to friends and correspondence in the art world.

[26] The other works sold by Courtauld were Portrait of Madame Cézanne in Blue by Cézanne (purchased 1926?, sold 1929; now Philadelphia Museum of Art), A Dancer by Matisse (purchased 1928, exchanged in 1929 as part of payment for Renoir’s The Skiff, now Hermitage, Saint Petersburg); ); a pastel of

Two Dancers by Degas (now private collection), purchased in 1924 and sold at an unknown date, and an unidentified Cézanne watercolour, returned to the dealer Percy Moore Turner in 1927, a little over a year after its purchase, as part payment for Van Gogh’s Peach Trees in Blossom and Renoir’s Spring, Chatou. Salmon 2017, p. 67 and note 491, suggests this may be Still Life with Blue Pot, now at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Finally, the fate of Renoir’s Nude. Le Repos, purchased from Percy Moore Turner in July 1928, is unknown and may have been sold by him: see Salmon 2017, p. 67 and note 492bis.

[27] Letter from Alfred Gold to Samuel Courtauld, 11 September 1928, The Courtauld Gallery archives, London. The Tate Gallery had been offered the painting in 1917 but was not able to raise sufficient funds.

[28] See, for example, Andrew Stephenson, ‘‘An Anatomy of Taste’: Samuel Courtauld and Debates about Art Patronage and Modernism in Britain in the Inter-War Years‘, in House ed. 1994, pp. 35–46.

[29] Letters from Roger Fry to Samuel Courtauld, 22 March and 31 July 1929, The Courtauld Gallery archives, London.

[30] Letter from Roger Fry to Samuel Courtauld, 22 March 1929, The Courtauld Gallery archives, London.

[31] Letter from Sydney Butler to Anthony Blunt, 13 February 1948, The Courtauld Gallery archives, London. The sentence is added longhand at the end of a typed letter.

[32] R.A. Butler, quoted in ‘Industrialist and Patron of the Arts. Death of Mr Samuel Courtauld (obituary)’, The Guardian, 3 December 1947.

[33] Aberconway Letters, 8 April 1937. The loan, however, did give him the opportunity to rearrange the paintings in his home: ‘I have put the “Gare St Lazare” in the dining room in place of “La Loge”. My large Seurat looked very bad there – even in daylight; the light tone clashed with everything in the room. But now the room looks very good again.’

[34] Jeanne Courtauld, ‘Samuel Courtauld’, in Samuel Courtauld’s Collection 1976, n.p.

[35] Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West,  13 November 1929, reproduced in Trautmann Banks ed. 2008, p. 257. Many thanks are due to Guillaume Olive for this reference.

[36] Anonymous correspondent cited in ‘Mrs Samuel Courtauld (obituary)’, The Times, London, 28 December 1931.

[37] His fortune seems to have emerged relatively unscathed from the Wall Street crash but Courtauld did not take advantage of the buyers’ market that followed.

[38] Letter from Samuel Courtauld to D.S. MacColl,  11 June 1926, University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections, MS MacColl C349, and letter from Cicely Stanhope to the dealer Paul Rosenberg, 4 July 1927, Correspondence, folder I.A.77.a., The Paul Rosenberg Archives, The Museum of Modern Art Archives,  New York.

[39] Courtauld 1949, p. 30.

[40] Clark 1974, p. 265.

[41] ‘Draft Scheme for the Provision of Facilities for the Study of the History of Art in England’ by Viscount Lee of Fareham, 7 June 1928, The Courtauld Institute of Art archives, London, folder 7/1.

[42] Letter from Viscount Lee of Fareham to Samuel Courtauld, 17 August 1929, The Courtauld Institute of Art archives, London, folder 7/1.

[43] As it turned out, the temporary became permanent when the building planned to house the Institute in Bloomsbury was never built. In 1958, the collection was moved to a purpose-built gallery in Woburn Square but the students and teaching staff remained at Home House until 1989, when the Institute and the Gallery moved to Somerset House in The Strand.

[44] Letter to the editor from Viscount Lee of Fareham,  The Times, London, 30 November 1932.

[45] Letter from Samuel Courtauld to Viscount Lee of Fareham, 11 May 1936, The Courtauld Institute of Art archives, London, folder 7/8.

[46] ‘Art Education’, in Courtauld 1949, p. 56.

[47] Samuel Courtauld, ‘The Layman’s Proper Part’, unpublished essay, quoted by Blunt 1954, p. 6.

[48] Whinney 1935.

[49] Blunt 1954, p. 3.

[50] After her death, Samuel moved the painting to his bedroom; letter from Cicely Stanhope to Anthony Blunt, 26 March 1952, The Courtauld Gallery archives, London.

[51] Letter from Samuel Courtauld to Christopher ArnoldForster, 25 November 1941, Butler Papers, folder D32.

[52] These are listed in Cooper 1954a.

[53] Draper Papers, 27 November 1928. The same letter encourages her to visit the exhibition of ‘French XIX century painting’ at the Knoedler Gallery, which featured two of his paintings, Picasso’s Child with a Dove (fig. 9) and Gauguin’s Martinique Landscape (cat. 46). I am grateful to Ernst Vegelin for finding this letter.

[54] Aberconway Letters, 26 July 1937. The painting is probably the one now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York (inv. 137.1957).

[55] The Boudin was also bequeathed to the Home House Society but remained in the possession of Courtauld’s son-in-law, R.A. Butler, until his death in 1982.

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