Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)


The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one:13th to 15th century

30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’

Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe

19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque

18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment

As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism

And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism

Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight:

An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting

12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905 to 1920

12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting

8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century

Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists

A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting

Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15

Devoted to temporary exhibitions, earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.


If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion.
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh.
  • I like works which contain deep black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which illuminates the object is wider, and so makes the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

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Soaring flight: Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings @ the Courtauld Gallery

I’d never heard of him before but apparently Peter Lanyon (born 1918) was one of Britain’s most important post-war artists, forging a name in the 1950s as a painter of large abstracts which are, in fact, based on the landscape of his native Cornwall. A good example is Silent Coast from 1957.

In the late 1950s he took up gliding, partly for the fun of it but partly to see the landscape he loved in a new way. The experience turned out to be a liberation, not only in how he viewed the landscape below, but how he experienced the ‘airscape’, a medium he described as being as full of life and variation as the sea.

Between his taking up of the sport in 1959 and his tragically young death in 1964, Lanyon painted a series of works (and made some sculptures) based on his experience gliding through the skies. This exhibition is the first one anywhere devoted to these gliding paintings.

It is in two rooms. The first one contains seven abstracts from just before the gliding phase. Room two contains 11 paintings and 3 constructions. The change is tangible: the glider paintings are bigger and brighter and bluer.

Thermal by Peter Lanyon (1960) courtesy of the Tate Gallery

There are lots of blues, lots of shades of blue as, I imagine, you experience them high in the sky, from dark navy to airy azure. The wall panels quote liberally from Lanyon’s own descriptions of flying and the titles themselves indicate the underlying figurative basis of each work. Thermal (above) is, apparently, one of the most famous glider paintings and was bought by Tate at its first showing. The wall label explains what a thermal is and describes the process of warm air rising, creating turbulence and the lift needed to support the motorless glider, and sees it enacted in this painting. Maybe. But it is also a pleasing and imaginative arrangement of colours.

Similarly, Near Cloud from a few years later, may be an attempt to convey what it feels like to be thousands of feet in the air and near cloud. But it may also be that the pleasure comes from the abstract arrangement of colours and patterns: I just like the red squiggle; and I like the way there are some red droplets in the V it makes and off up in the top left hand corner.

Having seen abstract paintings by Malevich, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern recently, they made me realise how many approaches there can be to abstract painting. In these works Lanyon seems to have created a formula which is distinctive, but results in strikingly different paintings. Or, despite their apparent variety, there is still a recognisable style at work.

Near Cloud by Peter Lanyon (1964) Private Collection

The commentary situates Lanyon’s work in the great tradition of English landscape painting and references Turner, who he particularly liked apparently. He saw himself as ‘extending the landscape traditions of earlier artists’. Maybe.

But he was also painting in the Pop Art era, as we’re reminded by Glide Path. The two black lines are in fact strips of rubber nailed onto the canvas and represent, well, glide paths. They enact the way the man-made vehicle cuts its way in straight or gently curving lines above a landscape characterised by much more jagged and abrupt demarcations – fields, roads, hedges, walls, cliffs, sea patterned by waves, clouds and fragments of clouds strewn across the sky.

Peter Lanyon Glide Path (1964) Oil and plastic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches Courtesy of The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Glide Path by Peter Lanyon (1964) courtesy of The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

Although many of the paintings play with blue, and get lighter and airier as they evolve between 1960 and 1964, when I analysed the ones I liked I realised it was because they all had touches of red in them. Drama. Colour. Pop.

The three constructions on display are interesting, but don’t capture the sense of exuberance, colour and freedom that the paintings do.

What a great body of work it is! And how bitterly ironic that his life was cut short prematurely, aged 46, by complications in hospital while recovering from a gliding accident, killed by the thing he loved. Maybe the slashes of red which I like in several of the paintings spookily anticipate his fate. Maybe, in light of his biography, they can be reread as slender threads of human existence which can be snuffed out so casually and so finally.

Soaring Flight by Peter Lanyon (1960) courtesy of Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

The video

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Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album @ The Courtauld Gallery


In my opinion Goya is not a great artist in terms of technique: his portraits of the Spanish royal family or our own sainted Duke of Wellington are pretty flawed, are not figurative painting of the first order. His large body of work is very uneven.

What he does undoubtedly have is an extraordinary intensity of vision. This is why he is more remembered for the famous Disasters of War series than any of his ‘official’ works – they have an intensity and inwardness, a sympathy with the grotesque and horrifying, an obsession with experiences at the border and over the edge of what it means to be human, which have echoed down the ages to our own violent times.

Regozijo (Mirth) byFrancisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 4 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink with traces of red chalk and scraping. New York, The Hispanic Society of America, A 3308

Regozijo (Mirth) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 4 c. 1819 to 1823. New York, The Hispanic Society of America, A 3308

Potted biography

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes lived from 1746 to 1828 i.e. a long life, dying aged 82. Professionally, he was a great success, rising to become official Painter to the Spanish Court in 1790, aged 43.

In 1793 he suffered an unknown illness from which he recovered but which left him profoundly deaf. In his convalesence he began to paint small pictures for himself, exercises of the fantasy and invention which could find no outlet in the formal portraits he was commissioned to make. He also began to create albums of drawings, small intensely-felt images of people, which he was to keep up for the rest of his life. We know about eight of them. Rather than conventional sketchbooks which might contain quick sketches of things observed for later use, angles and aspects of the world, the albums explore thoughts, ideas, feelings and fantasies in fully-finished images.

The Witches and Old Women album was the last one he made, between 1819 and 1823, when he was aged 73 to 77. An old man. After his death, the albums were cut up and the images filed into larger books, before being sold off in job lots by his descendants and scattered to the winds.

This is the first time all known 23 images from the Witches and Old Women album have been gathered in one place; in fact, it’s the first time the complete contents of any of the eight albums have been reunited for 150 years. It is a triumph for the patience and scholarliness of the curators involved.

There are just two rooms in this small exhibition.

Room one sets the scene, using 20 or so images from other albums and sources, images of nightmare and fantasy including Goya’s greatest hit, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from the album Los Caprichos, to give context to the Witches.

The second room contains the 22 images from the Witches album, complete with page numbers and titles written in by Goya himself – alongside another dozen or so images from other albums, and lithographs from other sources, to give ongoing context.

The Witches and Old Women album

For a start they aren’t all witches or old women, there are a number of old men too and a number of figures who could be either sex. The title was given to the images well after Goya’s death and, I think, restricts ways of responding to works which are much more varied and strange than it suggests.

A large amount of scholarship has gone into analysing the album and the individual images, evident in the notes to each image and in the exhaustive book of the exhibition. As an amateur trying to make sense of what I saw in front of me, I divided the 23 images into four groups:

  • Visionary (people flying)
  • Humane (the pity of old age)
  • Types (stereotypical types eg the miser, the crone, the madman)
  • Horror (eating babies)

My view

For me the dynamic flying figures are best. They convey a ballet of grotesques, visions of dynamically interlinked flying human forms. Goya is great at depicting the human figure in movement and your eye is drawn to the attractive patterns and shapes of moving bodies (as in number 4, above, or number 1, below) – to their energy and strange grotesque enthusiasm.

Bajan riñendo, (They descend quarrelling) by Francisco de Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 1 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Private Collection

Bajan riñendo (‘They descend quarrelling’) by Francisco de Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 1 (1819 to 1823) Private Collection

Conversely, the more static the image is, the more it reveals Goya’s shortcomings as a draughtsman, especially as a depicter of human faces. I’d rank number 15, below, as one of the three or four ‘Horror’ images, in which babies are being taken away to be sacrificed, tortured or eaten (we know this because other images show an old woman preparing to eat a baby).

Obviously the image is gruesome and macabre – my point is that it’s also a bit cack-handed. Look at the woman(?)’s face, typical of a range of badly drawn faces throughout the exhibition.

Sueno de buena echizera (Dream of a good witch) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 15 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer, Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, kdz 4396

Sueno de buena echizera (‘Dream of a good witch’) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 15 (1819 to 1823) Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer, Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, kdz 4396

Look at all the faces in the half dozen images in this review: they are very hit and miss, but I think they miss most often in the static images where the poses are simpler, boring almost, and therefore you look for human expression and human meaning in them, which they often don’t provide.


In one or two places the commentary on the wall labels by each image seemed to me to incongruously and inappropriately raise the issue of sex.

In one image two figures are shaking tambourines, one of them with a dark blotch in the middle, maybe string or dirt or simple damage. The commentary says: ‘The hole in the tambourine may allude to sexual penetration.’ Really?

In image 20 an old woman seems to be carrying two skinny old men entangled on her shoulders. It strikes me as another variation of Goya’s obsessive theme of poor, decrepit humanity contorted into bizarre shapes of suffering or torture. Images which are deeply personal expressions of his unknowable but obviously bleak and comfortless thoughts and feelings. The commentary surprised me with another sexual interpretation: ‘This unwieldy tower evokes a circus act but the figures’ energy may also suggest lasting sexual vitality.’ Hmm.

Pesadilla (‘Nightmare’) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 20 (1819 to 1823) New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 19.27

Similarly, number 3 is a strange image of an ugly middle-aged-looking woman playing a guitar and howling while levitating over another figure, an old woman. Strange, grotesque and – in my opinion – badly done, not one of the ‘good’ images. Anyway, the old lady on the ground is looking up and holding her nose. I would have thought this is because of the awful smell emanating from under the levitating woman’s skirts – a rare outbreak of human reality in a ‘work of art’ and quite a comic image in a Chaucerian vein.

The commentary says: ‘The object on the ground might be a bowl with a spoon, implying that the woman’s levitation is caused by magic. It could also refer to a mortar and pestle, underlining the sexual dimension of the upward gaze.’ Is that the main thing going on here?

Cantar y Bailar (Singing and dancing) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women Album' (D), page 3. c. 1819-23. Brush and black and grey ink with scraping. London, The Courtauld Gallery, Samuel Courtauld Trust, D. 1978, PG256

Cantar y Bailar (‘Singing and dancing’) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women Album’ (D), page 3 (1819 to 1823) London, The Courtauld Gallery, Samuel Courtauld Trust, D. 1978, PG256

Unless you’ve spent time caring for elderly relatives or working among the very old it is maybe difficult to grasp the misery and shame of being doubly incontinent, impotent, paralysed – the horror of being trapped in an utterly derelict, malfunctioning body.

Literary theory, certainly, and art theory, maybe, are saturated with psychological or psychoanalytical interpretations which dwell on sex, images of sex, wishes about sex, denials of sex, unconscious revelations of sex, as well as plenty of biographical scandal about the artist’s sex lives, all of which are immediate and present issues to the people in their prime who are the leading academics in these fields.

But being 70 years old in the 1820s must have meant something a lot different and a lot worse than being 70 in 2015, and Goya knew it and felt it and depicts it in these images.

No doubt there is much interesting interpretation to be written about the stereotyping of old women or about the long lineage of the way the figure of ‘the witch’ was used to define, control and demonise old women – and, from another angle, the album certainly also includes images of horror which are direct descendants of the famous Disasters of War and speak to us about man’s inhumanity to man.

But this time round, on this viewing, I was:

  • delighted by the half dozen images of figures flying, falling, twisting and dancing through the air (as in Regozijo and Bajan riñendo, above), which I found uplifting
  • and moved by the stoic images of poor suffering humanity, which I found humbling

Does the final plate, number 23, depict an old woman or a man? Surely it doesn’t matter. Surely the point is that it’s a deeply sympathetic image of old, old age and the burden and weight and frailty and pathos of suffering humanity. A burden more people in my generation are going to experience than any previous generation in history…

No puede ya con los 98 anos (Just can't go on at the age of 98) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 23. c. 1819-23 Brush, black and grey ink. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GA.646

No puede ya con los 98 anos (‘Just can’t go on at the age of 98’) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 23 (1819 to 1823) Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GA.646

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