Bloomsbury Art & Design

Our special display Bloomsbury Art & Design opened last month. It brings together a wide-ranging selection of work by the remarkable Bloomsbury Group. We asked exhibition curator Dr Rosamund Garrett to tell us about curating the display. 

Bloomsbury Art & Design installation.

In November I was appointed the new Bridget Riley Art Foundation Curatorial Assistant at The Courtauld Gallery, a unique role that allows me to work across the entire collection. With Dr Barnaby Wright, the Daniel Katz Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, I was charged with curating our current Special Display: Bloomsbury Art & Design.

This display brings together the highlights of the Courtauld’s collection of paintings, design drawings, ceramics and furniture by the artists from the Bloomsbury Group to look at the movement that shaped early twentieth-century modernism in Britain. It was my first project after having been completely immersed in my doctoral research in a rather different field – Renaissance tapestry – so I was eager to take up the challenge.

Given my specialisation in tapestry, I was keen to display the large rug designed by Duncan Grant, with its bold colours and eye-catching geometric design. Rugs are usually displayed on the floor, but with several large pieces of furniture featuring in the display, floor space was at a premium.  To ensure the rug could be shown I asked our Head Conservator, Graeme Barraclough, if we could do things a bit differently.

Tapestries are often displayed on slant boards: a board at a slight angle that allows the tapestry to be viewed vertically whilst its weight is gently supported across the entire surface. I thought that Grant’s rug would look striking displayed vertically on one of the short walls, and would complement the series of abstract rug designs that we intended to display beside it.

We started drawing up the plans for the slant board, but, after a thorough examination by conservation, the rug was found to be too fragile to be displayed in this way. Graeme, however, is never deterred. He and our technician, Matthew Thompson, devised a new method of display that combined a slant board with a roller, allowing us to display a section of the rug vertically whilst the roller holds most of the weight. Exhibitions always rely on the expertise, creativity and skills of many individuals, not to mention their physical presence – lifting the roller with the heavy rug onto our adapted slant board was no mean feat!

We are fortunate at The Courtauld to have such an extensive collection of Bloomsbury objects, many of which were given to us directly by one of the leaders of the Group, the artist and art critic Roger Fry. Why not pop in to Bloomsbury Art & Design to see the rug on our new display method as well as other works by the group of artists whose radical and experimental art introduced bold colours and dynamic abstract designs to the domestic interiors of Edwardian Britain.

Book Now: Bloomsbury Art & Design
Until 21 September 2017

Dancing our way to Coventry!

We have been working in partnership with the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum to bring to Coventry the world famous Edgar Degas masterpiece Two Dancers on a stage. In this exclusive display, see Edgar Degas’ painting Two dancers on a stage alongside three of his related works.


Two Dancers on a Stage 1874 Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas, Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Coinciding with the display of artworks, the History Center in Coventry is showcasing a selection of items from the Herbert’s collection relating to the Courtaulds company and their links with Coventry.

Coventry played a key role in the success of the Courtauld company. In 1905 the company built its first viscose plant in Coventry, employing thousands of people. The wealth generated enabled Samuel Courtauld to develop his magnificent collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which form the basis of The Courtauld Gallery collection.

The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum have taken the industrial heritage of the Courtauld textile factories as a starting point and celebrated Samuel Courtauld’s belief that great art should be made as widely available as possible.

See this iconic representation for yourself and discover world class art in Coventry at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

Free Admission

Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy

Our Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection exhibition is currently under way and the Prints and Drawings Study Room is also celebrating Dante’s Divine Comedy. We asked Alexander J. Noelle, Print Room Assistant, to tell us more:

As a doctoral student whose research focuses on the Italian Renaissance, I was thrilled when I heard that the Gallery was planning an exhibition of Botticelli’s exceptional drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, now on view. I thought that the arrival of these masterworks would provide an excellent opportunity to showcase related prints from the Courtauld’s collection of works on paper. In my role as a Print Room Assistant, I began searching through the 26,000 prints to select a small group for a temporary display in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. What I found was the first full set of widely distributed illustrations for Dante’s epic poem.

In 1792, British sculptor John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) designed 111 plates depicting the complete narrative of Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Although other artists had responded to the visually evocative text before Flaxman, he was the first to draw an illustration for every canto (an Italian term for the sections of a long poem) and, through print, disseminate his work to a wide audience. Flaxman was praised for his ability to reduce Dante’s complex language to simple symbolic icons that still managed to capture the spiritual essence of the story.

Flaxman Dante Title

Title Page: Compositions from the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, of Dante Alighieri, by John Flaxman, Sculptor. Tommaso Piroli (ca.1752-1824) after John Flaxman (1755-1826), 1793 (1807 edition), engraving.

The prints certainly look modern when compared to Botticelli’s depictions, yet when they were first published they were celebrated as belonging stylistically to the age of Dante himself. Flaxman was living in Rome when he drew the illustrations, actively studying artworks made by ‘primitive’ Medieval and Renaissance artists, and sometimes copying exact motifs into his illustrations. This influence, combined with the simple outline design, led Flaxman’s contemporaries to associate his drawings with Dante’s own era.

The sixteen prints on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room correspond to specific drawings of the same canti by Botticelli in the Gallery. While it is unlikely that Flaxman saw Botticelli’s own illustrations, the comparisons query whether the viewer today can see the Renaissance influence in Flaxman’s prints.

Installation Shot


‘Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy’ is on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room until 15 May. See opening times here.

There is also the opportunity to hear Alexander do a lunchtime talk in the Gallery on this exhibition at 1:15pm on Thursday 10 March. 

Crazy in Love

According to the shop displays and florists since New Year’s Day, the celebration of love and chocolate is around the corner. To celebrate Valentine’s Day here at the Gallery, we took a look at our collection’s best depictions of love.


The Nerli Chest, Biagio d’Antonio, 1472

Chest and spalliera with the arms of Vaggia Nerli and Lorenzo Morelli (The Nerli Chest)

One of a pair of chests made to celebrate the marriage of Vaggia Nerli and Lorenzo Morelli, the Nerli chest was intended for the bride.

Though made in celebration of matrimony, the chest itself seems more a celebration of maternal love than marital affection. It shows the story of the punishment of schoolmaster in ancient Falerii who wanted to offer his pupils to the Romans, betraying them. The Roman officer Camillus saved the children from this fate and gave them rods with which to beat the schoolmaster, a reminder for Vaggia Nerli to protect her children.

Perhaps the moral is that to love your children is to teach them how to protect themselves… with a big stick.


Peter Paul Rubens, Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1613-15

Peter Paul Rubens, Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1613-15

This one is so sweet it hurts, rendering me unable to make a joke. Rubens and Jan Brueghel were close friends and Rubens created a tender portrait of his friend and his family. 

Catharina Brueghel sweetly draws her two children closer, gently touching her son Pieter’s shoulder as he plays with her bracelet. She clasps hands with her young daughter Elisabeth as the little girl stares adoringly up at her mother.


Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs. Gainsborough, Circa 1778

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs. Gainsborough, Circa 1778

Family legend holds that Mr. Gainsborough painted a portrait of his Mrs. every year on their wedding anniversary.

Sadly we only know of 5 portraits of Mrs. Gainsborough by her husband, but this portrait is a beautiful testament to their (sometimes fraught) relationship. When painting family, someone the artist knows well, the experience is vastly different from a commissioned portrait or working with a professional model.

This painting is more informal, the technique looser than in other Gainsborough portraits.


Georges Seurat, Young Woman Powdering Herself, ca 1888-90

To finish, a secret love. The woman in the was Seurat’s mistress Madeleine Knobloch. It was only after Seurat’s death that his family learned of her relationship with Seurat and the two children she bore him.

As can be seen in this infra-red photograph, which shows the paint layers underneath the surface, Seurat originally represented himself in the small mirror, painting Madeleine as she applied her makeup.

A friend, unaware of the romantic relationship between painter and model, made fun of Seurat’s inclusion of himself and Seurat angrily painted himself out, replacing his face with flowers in a vase on the corner of a table.

In 1890, Madeleine lost both Seurat and their eldest son to an infectious disease, probably diphtheria.

Contemporary Greats: Finding Inspiration in The Courtauld's Collection

Pierre-Albéric Coulouma, Marketing and Communications

Regrets is a haunting series of painting and drawings by Jasper Johns, inspired by a photograph of Lucian Freud posing in Francis Bacon’s studio.

This display at The Courtauld Gallery has prompted me to look at other works within the collection which have inspired contemporary artists. The artworks I discuss below are drawn at random, but have a common thread of using female characters to convey different stories.

Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is one of the Courtauld’s most famous paintings, and continues to intrigue.

This masterpiece helped define modern painting at the dawn of the 19th century with its unorthodox composition of figures in space, and with the barmaid’s notorious look conveying mystery and melancholy to the viewer.

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-82

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-82

Jeff Wall pioneered conceptual and post conceptual photography while establishing The Vancouver School with fellow artists Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, and others. Hey may have initially encountered A Bar at the Folies-Bergères when researching his PhD at The Courtauld Institute of Art between 1970 and 1973. 

Like Manet’s painting, Jeff Wall has challenged tradition with his groundbreaking work A Picture for Women. Also writer, lecturer and art theorist, Wall is known for making references to art history in his practice and A Picture for Women is directly inspired by A Bar at the Folies-Bergères.

View of Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979, transparency in lightbox, 142.5 x 204.5 cm, Courtesy of the artist

Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979, transparency in lightbox, 142.5 x 204.5 cm, Courtesy of the artist.

Both Manet’s and Wall’s works make use of a mirror image, where lights in the background provide spatial depth.

Manet depicts a myriad of distracting elements providing some clues on the context and narrative of this original work, while Wall’s work is more minimalistic, and gives priority to the interplay between the two main figures and the camera standing in the middle.

Both works seem to internalise a connection between two characters and the viewer. Whereas the barmaid in A Bar at the Folies-Bergères strikes the viewer with her look; A Picture for Women engages the viewer both through the female character’s expression and through the central camera.

The women in the two pieces have the same posture, and most strikingly, look out of the frame in the same way. In both cases a male figure stares at them from a shadowy background; emphasising their evading gaze.

The identity of the man in A Bar at the Folies-Bergères is not confirmed, though most agree that Manet himself is the most likely candidate. Jeff Wall echoes this theory by portraying himself in his photograph.

The relationship between the model, the artist, and the viewer produces a tension by turning the viewer into a sort of witness on the scene. This mise-en-scene is said to depict the ‘power relationship between male artist and female model’ (1) and author David Campany also takes a gender themed approach and comments on the patriarchal contemporary visual culture where ‘women’ connotates ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (2).

Other contemporary artists have found inspiration in Impressionist masterpieces. A recent exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called The Human Factor presented two works derived from Edgard Degas’s Dancer.

View of Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on the Stage, 1874

Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on the Stage, 1874

Ryan Gander has produced a series of bronze sculptures based on Degas’ Dancers. With playfulness, Gander creates a new life for Degas’s subject.

View of Ryan Gander, Out of sight (all on my own), 2011, 2 Bronze sculptures, two blue cubes and two empty plinths, est size 45(h) x 35(w) x 40(d) each (sculptures) © the artist; Courtesy, Lisson Gallery, London

Ryan Gander, Out of sight (all on my own), 2011, 2 Bronze sculptures, two blue cubes and two empty plinths, est size 45(h) x 35(w) x 40(d) each (sculptures) © the artist; Courtesy, Lisson Gallery, London

As in a fantasy the model comes back to life and starts to wander off the gallery space. Off her plinth for a cigarette break, or seemingly crying in a corner, the ballerina becomes an individual leading us to believe in new narratives. Gander points out this is not about replicating Degas’ sculpture, ‘it’s about reproducing the character of the ballerina who posed for him.’

Yinka Shonibare is often known as the artist who put « Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle » for its occupancy of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. His work explores cultural identity, colonialism and post-colonialism and a hallmark of his art is the brightly coloured fabric he uses.

View of Yinka Shonibare MBE. “Girl Ballerina,” 2007 Courtesy of the artist

Yinka Shonibare MBE. “Girl Ballerina,” 2007, Courtesy of the artist.

Shonibare reinterprets a masterpiece by dressing up Degas’ dancer with his signature African-inspired costume, adding an 18th century pistol to her hand. The outcome is a juxtaposition of three strong signifiers: Degas’s dancers, the African inspired costume and an 18th century pistol.

Consequently, this work strongly suggests issues around colonialism and/or post-colonialism as it draws parallels between the occident, Africa and colonialism.

In sharp contrast to Jeff Wall who focuses on art history to challenge photographic tradition and Ryan Gander’s concept of introspection in the Dancer, Shonibare uses art history as a platform and a tool to express this thinking on colonialism and/or post-colonialism.


See The Courtauld Gallery’s collection for yourself – open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.

Images provided courtesy of Jeff Wall, Ryan Gander and Yinka Shonibare.



(1) From the gallery guide for the exhibition ‘Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978-2004’, Tate Modern, London, 21 October 2005 – 8 January 2066; and quoted in D. Campany, ‘Jeff Wall, Picture for Women’, Afterall, 2011.
(2) D. Campany, ‘Jeff Wall, Picture for Women’, Part of One Work Series, Afterall Books, 2011.