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Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld's alter ego?

Part 3: Why did Samuel Courtauld collect?

Samuel Courtauld was a rich businessman who came from an old and distinguished family. His ancestors were Huguenot refugees - silk weavers who had fled France in the late 17th century to escape religious persecution because of their Protestant faith. They settled in Essex and continued their tradition of silk weaving on a relatively modest scale. They were strong in religious faith, non-conformist and endowed with a strong sense of public duty. Samuel Courtauld remained true to this tradition and has been described as ‘an aloof, remote, rather shy but autocratic figure, but with presence, intelligence, and a patient integrity’. On the face of it, therefore, nothing could seem more unlikely than his acquisition of Gauguin’s Nevermore.

The Courtauld family business had grown into prominence as a major international company in the early 20th century. They successfully developed and marketed rayon, an artificial fibre that was an inexpensive silk substitute. Samuel Courtauld had charge of the firm, from 1908 as general manager and chairman from 1921 to 1946. Even by the standards of those days he became a very rich man.

His family had no particular tradition of art collecting or interest in art. His own passion for it developed late in life. As a boy he was taken to the National Gallery but was not excited - he disliked its atmosphere of "education and sanctity". The only works that seem to have caught his attention were the late Turners, but perhaps this is the principal clue: he had an instinctive reaction to colour and the sensual handling of paint. He preferred the late Victorian art that he found at the Royal Academy.

His first notable emotional reaction to painting came with a visit to Italy with his wife, Elizabeth (‘Lil’) early in their marriage (they were married in 1901). He was excited by their technical mastery and emotional vitality of the Italian old masters when seen in situ. From now on the academic art of the Royal Academy was a thing of the past, but even so he did not yet collect.

The first stirrings of an interest in Modern Art of the kind that was to become his passion, occurred in 1917 when he saw the Hugh Lane Collection which was on exhibition at the Tate Gallery. The real catalyst for his career as a collector came in 1922 as a result of the famous exhibition of French Art at the Burlington Fine Art Club. All the major French artists from Corot to Seurat - including Manet, Degas, Renoir and Cézanne were on exhibition principally loaned from English and French private collectors. From then on he started to collect although the real force of his passion, and financial expenditure, occurred between 1926 and 1930.

If his taste was a long time maturing, it nevertheless matured well. His passion for Modern Art was shared with his wife Lil and the acquisitions that he made on their own behalf and for the Nation were decisions that he took jointly with her. The financial crash of 1929 and his wife’s death in 1931 are the main reasons why his collecting dried up.

Many rich men have their collections and tastes shaped by dealers and experts. Courtauld was, however, a man of independent judgement. Among those he listened to were Glyn Philpot the portrait painter, the dealer P M Turner and the celebrated art critic, Roger Fry. But although he listened he decided, and this shines through in the quality, integrity and sheer variety of the works that he bought and later bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute.

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