Courtauld Gallery to close for two years for £50m revamp

Redevelopment aims to improve access and open up Great Room at Institute renowned for impressionist paintings

The Courtauld Gallery in central London, home to such masterpieces as Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, will be closed for at least two years during a £50m redevelopment.

The gallery confirmed the length of its closure on Thursday, calling it a “transformation project which will see the Courtauld improve accessibility ... and improve the experience for its visitors, staff and students”.

The project represents the biggest redevelopment of the Courtauld Institute of Art and its gallery since it moved in 1989 to the magnificent 18th century, grade 1 listed Somerset House in the Strand.

Ernst Vegelin Van Claerbergen, head of the Courtauld Gallery, told the Art Newspaper that the project was about quality rather than expansion, with the intention being to upgrade public facilities and create a new learning centre. It expects visitor numbers to increase from the 2016 figure of 188,000, to between 300,000 and 350,000 when it reopens in 2020.

Somerset House, in the Strand, London.
Somerset House, in the Strand, London. Photograph: Michael Crabtree/PA

Planning permission was granted by Westminster city council in September. The council’s planning report says 143 sq metres of floorspace is to be created through reconfiguration and rationalisation of existing areas. Planning officers said the current layout had “many problems” including difficult disabled access. “There are significant changes of level throughout and an extraordinary number of staircases for what is now a building in single use.”

One big aspiration is to open up the main Great Room, which hosted the summer exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts until 1837. The second floor room has had temporary walls splitting up the room since 2002, a feature that hides the volume of the space. Vegelin wants to create here a “climactic moment” for visitors as they reach the end of the displays.

The Courtauld Gallery is one of the UK’s true art gems with a magnificent collection started by Samuel Courtauld. It is particularly strong on impressionist and post-impressionist paintings and includes one of Paul Cezanne’s Card Players series as well as the UK’s most important collection of works by Paul Gauguin.

Other treasures include Rubens’ magnificent Landscape by Moonlight (1635-40) and a striking portrait by Thomas Gainsborough of his wife, Margaret, possibly to mark her 50th birthday.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has given £9.4m to the gallery towards the £30m first phase of its redevelopment programme, which is named Courtauld Connects. The second phase, costing £20m, is to provide better facilities for research, learning and teaching.

While the gallery will close for at least two years from autumn 2018, the institute “will remain open and a thriving centre for the study of art history, conservation and curating”, a statement said.

• This article was edited on 24 November 2017. In an earlier version, we said Ernst Vegelin Van Claerbergen was the Courtauld’s director. This has been corrected.

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Mark Brown Arts correspondent

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