Love affair with art

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Frances Farreron an opportunity to study masterpieces close up

When the Courtauld Institute and Gallery moved to Somerset House in 1990 the combination of the fine art collection and academic establishment with the exceptional Georgian building created an extraordinary resource for art lovers at all levels. But august as it is, and containing possibly the finest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world, the Courtauld is still able to cater for all school age groups.

Students at the Institute are mostly postgraduates, so serious sixth-formers with an artistic vocation are most obviously targeted. But the gallery also offers three sessions a week for primary children, and practical, one-hour drop-in sessions on Saturday mornings for young children accompanied by parents. All this is free.

Eleven private collections were donated to form the major part of the gallery but the best-known pictures are those given by Samuel Courtauld, who was chairman of the textile company from 1921-45. They include works from his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections by Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Seurat, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The building is considered the masterpiece of Sir William Chambers, architect to King George III, and it is one of the most important l8th century buildings in Europe. It was recently re-opened after a year's closure and can be viewed with its authentic ochres and blues restored. As they go from gallery to gallery, visitors might notice the unusual stone staircases, the scale of the doors, and the ceiling heights.

The concern to make the works accessible to a general audience is evidenced by practical sessions. The recent Tools and Techniques of Old Master Drawings workshop allowed visitors to experiment with quills, crayons and pencils like the ones used in the accompanying Material Evidence exhibition by artists including Michelangelo, Cezanne and Picasso. It was much praised. Similarly, etching tools and plates will be available during Etchings from the Courtauld Collection, February 11-May 3.

Sixth-form study days are different again, academic and intense. They start with a welcome from the director, Professor Eric Fernie, and move swiftly to the business of the day. The summary of Impressionism and its Contexts given recently by Professor John House flew through: the contentious succession of modernist movements; why the paint techniques of the 1870s were regarded as controversial social and political influences; the artists' concern for the marketplace; the rise of the art dealer and the commercial art gallery and their effect on the scale and style of paintings; and finally the row between Van Gogh and Gauguin on the matter of art and nature. Sixth-formers from three London schools took copious notes.

Next they split into groups and spent an hour each on Women and the City: Images of Entertainment, The Impressionist Landscape, and Works on Paper.

Within these lectures the fund of specialist information was well-targeted and the opportunity to deconstruct the pictures was one most students found engrossing. Under the first heading they considered Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Berg re", working first on the social clues in the picture: English beer on the counter; the barmaid's dress, decorated at the front with lace but, reflected in the bar mirror, plain at the back, her hair, curled at the front and unkempt at the back, and the customer with his hat on in the presence of a (lower order) woman.

They understood the social history: women working in public places was as new as the depiction of everyday cafe life, which phenomenon also meant that women could paint, since such subjects were not considered high art. There was talk of new, artificial light sources from gas and electricity, and of the slower painting techniques made possible by keeping paint in metal tubes which could be closed. Speakers gave as much detail on several pictures and it was necessary to concentrate hard.

Kate Bullevant brought 16 pupils from St Michael's Catholic Grammar School in Finchley, north London. "It's so good for this group to see the works first hand, and reinforce and expand what they see in school. All these experts, making it exciting, putting it into context, relating the paintings to the real world! The students see that they can apply their own knowledge in different ways. It's important that they're being treated like students, not school kids, it makes them approach it differently." A student agreed: "Here, they're pointing out different things, and you understand it better looking at real paintings. I'm coming back at the weekend."

The print room was another revelation as they were allowed to handle real prints. The topics were print-making, craft, and book illustration, and the link between illustration, contemporary literature and art maintained one of the themes of the day: context.

At the concluding session the question that had started the morning was posed again: what is Impressionism? A discussion followed on which of the works truly qualified.


Education officer Julia Weiner asks teachers not to bring primary age groups independently. Booking is generally about a term in advance, talks and education days can be tailored to individual needs (post-Impressionists, Rubens, the Renaissance), and there is the chance to do practical art work. A full-length study day costs pound;7.50 per pupil.

The next Saturday session is the Printmaking Demonstration for 7 to 12-year-olds on March 6, when printmaking tools will be handled and a print will be made.

At Techniques of the Impressionists on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 30 and 31, paint effects can be tried.

On Wednesday and Thursday, June 4 and 5, the Reflections on Water workshop is offered.

Half-term and holiday workshops are long, the gallery invites younger visitors on the first day, older ones on the second, and the charge of pound;10 each includes materials.

The education department also offers in-service training days, and out-reach workshops in special schools.

Further information from Julia Weiner, Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R ORN. Tel: 0171 873 2922.

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