A MISSION TO OPEN UP AND RENOVATE. Deborah Swallow has been Märit Rausing Director of The Courtauld Institute of Art and its Gallery since 2004. A British educator, museum curator and academic, she previously worked at the University of Cambridge and the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Deborah Swallow, you became a specialist of Indian arts, working for some years in senior management at the V&A. Why did you come to The Courtauld?   

I was approached. I hadn’t thought of it, and didn’t know it well. I did a lot of very rapid research and meeting people, and found the faculty here was so, so good, so bright, so intelligent. The intention which The Courtauld was set up with in 1932 was to cover the arts of the world. It’s taken me longer to open it up than the five years I’d hoped, which is why I’m still around. There’s much more to do and I love The Courtauld but sadly much as I would love to, I can’t stay forever!

Professor, please can you tell us about The Courtauld?

The Courtauld was conceived in the late 1920s as a higher education institution to educate young people in the discipline of the history of art. A number of significant people, including Samuel Courtauld, were involved with art and visual arts in many ways in this country, either through being representatives on the boards of galleries, being in the trade, being scholars, or being collectors. They had strong connections with both Europe and North America, and saw that in Hamburg and at Harvard higher education art history and material study centres had been set up. They brought that concept to the University of London, which agreed to set up an institute as part of the Central University.

Is The Courtauld Institute of Art therefore a faculty of London University?

We were originally. In 2002 we changed our status and became an independent, self-governing college of the University of London. That means we are totally responsible for both our own finances and our own strategy and plans for the future. We do still give University of London degrees.

Are you a foundation?

We are a charitable company with a governing board and governance structure that follows guidelines for universities in this country. The Directors include myself as Director of The Courtauld, the Student Union President, the chair of the Samuel Courtauld Trust, and the CEO and President of the Getty. Then there are six staff members who are elected by their own communities: the academic body, the gallery group and other staff.

You are not only a teaching organisation, but also a museum with a gallery and curators of the collection that belonged to Samuel Courtauld?

After Samuel Courtauld’s wife Elizabeth died in 1931, he decided to give the remainder of the lease of the family house in Portman Square, along with some of his art collection, to this new institute, and the core beginnings of our collection started in 1932. That attracted two other founder donors: Sir Robert Witt and Arthur, Lord Lee of Fareham, and in due course their collections also came to The Courtauld.

“The intention which The Courtauld was set up with in 1932 was to cover the arts of the world.”

Deborah Swallow

Exterior of The Courtauld Gallery, whose interior is the subject of extensive renovation.

Photo: Benedict Johnson

Deborah Swallow, how many pieces are in the collection and which are your icons?

About 550 paintings, over 7,000 drawings, over 26,000 prints and other works on paper, and about 500 works of sculpture, decorative arts and furniture. The icons are from Samuel Courtauld’s own collection: a great Renoir, La Loge; our version of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe and his Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Tremendously well-known is the Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Courtauld was a very personal collector. There are many other works and all of great quality. He was an enthusiast who responded to paintings in a very particular way. He came to love Cézanne, and we have the largest group of Cézannes in this country, but the one that he bought early on is quite a difficult painting (Still Life with Plaster Cupid) with its strange dynamic, influencing Cubist development subsequently because it has a set of different planes.

Did collections also come to The Courtauld from other people?

In the late ‘40s we acquired the collections of the other two founders – Robert Witt’s big collection of works on paper and photographs of works of art, and Lord Lee of Fareham’s collection which included Renaissance works. Arthur Lee was a very scholarly collector. I cite his two Cassoni, dowry chests from Florence. It’s unique to have a pair of that period, and there is full documentation of the commission to make them for a wedding between the Morelli and the Nerli families, an exemplary provenance. Then in the 1960s we acquired an early Renaissance collection from Thomas Gambier-Parry: gold-ground works, mediaeval ivories, and also Veneto-Saracenic and Islamic metalwork.

Three extraordinary collections. Were there others?

An even greater collection came in the 1970s, the so-called Princes Gate Collection from Count Antoine Seilern. A superb collection of Rubens sketches, some finished works and some studies, also a very high quality collection of works on paper, including work by Leonardo and Michelangelo, but right through to the 20th century as well. After the British Museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford we have perhaps the third most important collection of European drawings in this country. We haven’t had the resources to buy, but a series of collections has come to us.

How has the Courtauld developed its locations?

The Courtauld expanded up to the beginning of the Second World War, struggled on during the war outside London, and then reinvigorated itself. Anthony Blunt became the director in 1947 and it really started to take off as a very active proponent of art history. By the mid-50s all the gifts that had come to The Courtauld moved into a gallery which had been created on top of the Warburg Institute building in Woburn Square. For a long time the gallery was in Woburn Square and our teaching in Portman Square. In the late 1980s the lease on the Portman Square house came to an end and we had nowhere to go. The concept of moving into this then-derelict building came and we moved here to Somerset House after a substantial fundraising campaign and the initial renovation of the building.

At Somerset House were the university and the collection in the same building?

Courtauld’s original concept was that students at The Courtauld would have the collection at the heart of the institution. The irony is that at the moment, because we are in another redevelopment phase, the university has shifted temporarily to another site near Kings Cross. It’s functional and it’s working well, but will come back here when we have renovated the teaching part of the building.

“We do all we can to ensure that we attract a diverse community of applicants.”

Deborah Swallow, what did the current process of renovation consist of?

It’s a little more than half the overall restoration project and cost over 50 million pounds – the whole of the gallery and our west wing, which also houses our conservation departments. These are both areas where we look after our own collection and where we teach conservation of paintings. The gallery is opening to the public on 19 November. A café will be open to everybody and it is next to the street, so with a local pedestrianisation project we hope that we will have a street cafe as well. We will also have a much enhanced shop. We’ve been working hard to make it all as accessible as possible, to improve the conditions of the collection, to improve the quality of the display. The accommodation for the teaching of art history and all the library spaces will be renovated as a second project for which we will need to do another fundraising campaign.

How many visitors will you have when the gallery is open?

Our target is 350,000. Our targets for the first year are a little lower than that because of Covid. We were running at about 180 to 200,000 because the spaces are not big. Our exhibition prices will be on a par with prices in London. The national museums and galleries are directly government supported and they have free entry. We don’t – we can’t afford it. However, there is free entry for members.

What does it mean to be a member of The Courtauld?

Having paid your membership you go in free to everything; and then we offer special lectures, special events and so on. We also have a number of categories of higher level membership where members make a substantial contribution as well as enjoying more privileges and more special events.

This institution is not very old compared to Oxford or Harvard or Bologna or to other universities that teach art history?

Art history was not even taught in Oxford till relatively recently. The undergraduate degree was taught in Cambridge earlier than Oxford (initially as part of a degree only), but a lot of Oxbridge graduates from other disciplines moved on to The Courtauld for postgraduate study. Our long history would include people such as Nick Serota, Neil MacGregor and Blunt himself, for example, who also did some study at the Warburg.

What is The Courtauld’s connection with the Warburg?

It was a parallel institute, set up in 1933 within the University of London. Samuel Courtauld and others who had supported the creation of The Courtauld in 1932 helped fund the Warburg library being rescued from Hamburg and brought over to the UK. There’s been support and interest right the way through, and the plan was that the building that the Warburg occupies in Woburn Square would be expanded to twice its size to house The Courtauld, but due to planning constraints that never happened. They are more of a research institute, with very few students. We are much more into teaching. 

Is it difficult to be admitted as a student at The Courtauld?

We have high standards, but also do all we can to ensure that we attract a diverse community of applicants. We do a lot of outreach work with schools as well. 

How many students do you have?

We’re one of the biggest centres in the world teaching art history, and now heading towards 300 undergraduates, 100 in each year. Then we have about 250 taught master’s degree students, and 60 to 70 PhD students at any one time. 25 to 30 per cent are non-British, particularly at MA and PhD level.

Deborah Swallow

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © The Courtauld

Deborah Swallow

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, (1841-1919), La Loge, 1874, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © The Courtauld

Deborah Swallow

Paul Cézanne, (1839-1906), Still Life with Plaster Cupid, c.1894, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © TheCourtauld

Deborah Swallow

Pair of Marriage Chests The Nerli Chest, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © The Courtauld

Deborah Swallow

The elegantly restored Blavatnik Fine Rooms comprises a suite of six galleries spanning the entire second floor of the building.

Photo: Hufton+Crow Photography

Deborah Swallow

An artist’s impression of the new Art Café at The Courtauld Gallery.

“We want an international community here.”

Deborah Swallow, does your faculty mostly come from the UK or abroad?

We want an international community here. We have people from Yale and Harvard, people from European universities, people who have come up through The Courtauld’s own education system, people who’ve come out of other universities in the UK. We have people who have been in teaching roles that have gone into museums and then come back into teaching roles. It’s quite a mixture.

Do you have a link with the Royal Academy of Arts?

Our Gallery was built as the Royal Academy’s original home in 1779; its original Great Room, where its first exhibitions were held, is the architectural jewel of the Gallery’s crown When we reopen it will be the space in which we display our great Impressionist pieces. And of course lots of Courtauld graduates have worked at the Royal Academy, our colleagues curate exhibitions there. We are very close.

The president of the Getty is on your board. Is there a special relationship between you and the Getty Museum?  

When the University of London said in 2003 that we were too expensive and they weren’t going to support us anymore we had a crisis, and the Getty Trust and other wonderful donors came in, including the Rausings – which is why my Märit Rausing Director title is there – and the Garfield Weston Foundation. The Getty Trust made a very large grant both for initial running costs and for the endowment so they had representation on the board. There was a whole initial programme of collaborative activity with the Getty, and we have retained a good relationship. They’ve just made another endowment gift to us for our wall painting conservation programme.

Is Brexit helping or hindering?

I wouldn’t say helping! The biggest hit is the disincentive for students from the EU, who up to now could come in on the same fee rates as UK students. Now they have to pay overseas student fees, which are significantly higher. It’s hit research interaction as well. The best we can do is to try and build up our scholarship funding. Also it is very likely there’ll be a disincentive if we are advertising faculty roles or new curator roles, and we will see as we go forward whether it’s almost a no-go area for European applicants.

Nowadays to be a museum director you also need to be a manager, a fundraiser, and many other things. Do you teach those skills? 

We have formal courses on curating and we’re looking to expand those further. Having personally had to do quite a lot of management, I am really keen that we add those elements into both the formal and informal education we give our students. If you become a manager of a major institution, you have to understand the larger world. Museums don’t exist in an isolated setting.


Images courtesy of The Courtauld