The courtyard at Somerset House

One of the great gallery spaces of Georgian London, where Constable and Turner vied for public acclaim, is to be restored and reopened as part of a £50m transformation of the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House.

The Great Room, once home to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, brought the social and artistic elite of the early 19th century flocking to see the foremost paintings of the day, which curators packed on to its walls with scarcely an inch to spare.

But since 2002, the room — the oldest space for public exhibitions in London — has been closed off to natural light and subdivided into four galleries to allow the Courtauld to display more paintings.

Under the plans, the partitions will go and the room will be remodelled, reinstating its imposing scale and creating a showcase for the gallery’s Renaissance, Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces. It will also become a venue for lectures and debate, echoing its original use by artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, co-founder and first president of the RA.

Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, director-general of the Courtauld, which moved into the building in 1989, said: “The greatest improvements will be about the presentation of the permanent collection, culminating in the transformation of the Great Room. This should be the climactic experience of the gallery.”

An independent college of the University of London, the Courtauld holds a unique position in British cultural life. Set up with funding from the textile baron and art collector Samuel Courtauld in 1932, it was the first UK institution to take seriously the study of art history — an activity that remains at its core — but it also possesses a world-class collection of fine art, including works such as Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear”.

Its influence is firmly embedded in our national art institutions: members of the “Courtauld mafia” inhabit the top slots in museums and galleries, including Tate directors Frances Morris and Sir Nicholas Serota; Gabriele Finaldi, director-general of the National Gallery; Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery; Neil MacGregor, former director-general of the British Museum; Fitzwilliam director Tim Knox; and Ashmolean boss Alexander Sturgis.


Overall cost of transforming the Courtauld Gallery

But the design of its home — the north wing of a neoclassical building on the Strand, constructed between 1776 and 1801 by Sir William Chambers — no longer meets its needs.

While the palatial façade appears as a single conception from the Strand, it conceals a jumble of half-a-dozen buildings cluttered with small rooms, suites and back staircases. Witherford Watson Mann, architects on the project, said they had identified at least 42 different floor levels, complicating the task of streamlining a path for visitors and ensuring disabled access throughout the Grade I listed building.

The project aims to improve its public spaces, create educational facilities and give visitors greater freedom to explore the building by connecting its disjointed spaces. But its historical importance demands a style of intervention that Stephen Witherford, director of Witherford Watson Mann, likens to acupuncture. “You don’t go and blast anything out. It’s a way of making 1,000 small adjustments, which goes against the grain but transforms what the institution can do for itself as well as what it can do with different audiences.”

The changes to the Great Room will not mean fewer paintings on display: in fact the Courtauld will free even more display space by digitising its vast photographic archives of art and architecture, a task it is just beginning. Mr Witherford also intends to open the length of the vaults running below ground along the north wing, allowing visitors for the first time to complete a vertical circuit around the building.

For the directors, raising funds for the scheme is a challenge. The Courtauld needs to bring in donations and grants at a time of pervasive Brexit uncertainty, and when the £260m Tate extension and a £50m revamp of the Royal Academy have recently explored the limits of philanthropists’ generosity.

Deborah Swallow, Courtauld director, argues that the timing is “always bad” for big capital-raising projects, arguing that Tate’s and RA’s fundraising campaigns, which are now tailing off, would have hit the Courtauld square-on if it had decided to go earlier. The £9.4m recently secured from the Heritage Lottery Foundation — achieved against rival bids — provides solid evidence of the project’s merit, she adds.


Sum secured from the Heritage Lottery Foundation towards the project

Unlike nationally funded museums and galleries, the Courtauld charges for entry, and while directors would like to scrap the fees, which leave an impression of elitism they say is undeserved, the money they bring in remains essential. Mr Vegelin said: “What we’d love most of all is for a great benefactor to walk through the door and say I want to transform your lives by ensuring this will be free to everyone.”

If the plans to impose a new vision on its 18th-century home succeed as he hopes, the Courtauld may find itself a step closer to eliciting such an offer.

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