Lasting inspiration at the Courtauld, 1968 – 2017

A couple of weeks ago I had a great moment. I went to the Courtauld Gallery to have a look at the Soutine exhibition, and while I was there I was consumed by nostalgia for the countless visits I made to the Courtauld Institute while I was doing my A-levels. At that time it was located in Woburn Square, in the same building as something mysterious called the Warburg Institute. The visit always began with a smiling nod from the doorman who recognised me because I went there almost every weekend. The whole place had a very specific smell of furniture polish, and the atmosphere was very calm, timeless,  like landing on a planet called Peace and Beauty.  I heaved back the metal gate of the lift and stepped out first of all into a collection of pre-Renaissance art which I used to hurry through to get to my favourite boys, Vincent, Paul, André and Henri. Funnily enough though, on my way through, I did develop a fondness for Adam and Eve, and for poor St Sebastian… he is, painful arrows everywhere. I felt the least I could do was pause and offer sympathy.



Here’s Cranach’s gorgeous portrayal of the temptation in Eden. How I love those rosy apples, and the strategic fig leaves.



Leaving the ancients behind me, I would enter what to me was hallowed ground. Where else in the world could you see such a collection! Gauguin’s girl, watching me from her couch, her lock of black hair curling on the yellow pillow; her two friends in a nearby canvas knelt together mournfully, still bored by the passing visitors. From behind the bar  in the Folies Bergère, Manet’s young lady eyeballed me with a less than animated expression. In what is generally taken to be her reflection, she looks rather plumper and is leaning forward; I was never convinced it was supposed to be her, the blobby-faced chap in the top hat chatting her up looks so unattractive, no wonder she’s bored. I never took to her as a person but I was mesmerised by the painting – the sparkling atmosphere doesn’t impress her at all, marooned behind the bar, prey to pillocks like him, her feet probably killing her after her day’s work……




Moving on, I greeted more old friends, often at the theatre or the circus. I still love this gloriously glamorous lady  – seeing and being seen from a  box at the theatre. I always thought that chap with her was the same man who’s chatting up the girl at the Folies Bergère. I recognise the moustache!

I was always puzzled by this one and I’m not surprised at its notoriety….annoying gentlemen, supercool lady:


And here’s Jane Avril entering the Folies Bèrgere. I always took her for a crabby  old lady, but now I realise she was one of the most fêted Parisians of the day –  a star, singer and  dancer at the Folies and the Moulin Rouge,  Toulouse Lautrec’s friend and muse, and  the subject of many of his posters and paintings. Richard Dorment’s 2011 commentary on her many portrayals byToulouse Lautrec explains why I never clocked her as an alluring celeb:

‘In too many of his drawings and watercolours he ( Toulouse Lautrec) depicts a sad and lonely human being, not a glamorous star. Though ostensibly colluding with the fiction of Gay Paree, in his portraits of Jane, Lautrec exposes the cold, mirthless reality of a dancer’s life’…


Because a painting  is over a century old, doesn’t mean it can’t be startlingly modern….for me, Seurat’s sense of design was more interesting than his experiments with pointillism. I love this row  of high kicks reaching way back into the canvas, placed well beyond the foreground over the musician’s back  –  but bringing him into the painting too, as his cello echoes the kicking legs…..and is just off-parallel to them, not too slick:



Modigliani’s sublime placing of this figure on the canvas still  holds me rapt. I’m fascinated by the difference in the skin tone as between her  face and her body, and by the position of her head and left shoulder. With a different facial expression she could be flirtatious and provocative  – and I believe the up-front pose the artist chose was viewed that way at the time –  but to me, now,  it gives a hint of detachment and weariness. I feel a sad contrast between the sensuality a viewer can impart to it and the girl’s  introspective, dreamy inner world. I was bewitched by this piece  all over again; I still feel the same contradiction and it fascinates me as much as it always did:

I was very attached to Picasso’s  little darling cuddling a dove…I still have no idea whether it’s a boy or a girl….


…and Cezanne’s blocky construction taught me so much about tone, and painting the illusion of 3-D on a flat 2D surface:


Monet’s  Antibes – a familiar landscape since my French exchange took me there, and so boldly composed with the diagonal slash of the tree:

Cezanne’s Card Players were still playing when I saw them a fortnight ago.  I always feel that the man on the left puffs away at his pipe very calmly because he’s the cleverer of the two, and he knows he’s going to win. Hs companion, altogether shabbier looks more wary:


Derain’s mysterious forest still drew me in –  I used to stand in front of it for ages. The deserted, lonely feeling of the monumental trees was intensified by the painting’s position in a rather isolated spot, on a nib of wall in the last-but-one room. I could feel the cool shadowy viridians, turquoises, emeralds, but I was also drawn to the optimistically bright sky up in the distance:



So – are you still wondering why I am posting about the Courtauld collection?   My visit a fortnight ago was in fact to see the Soutine Exhibition ( Soutine being one of my Art Gods); I had got the opening day wrong but the extremely kind curator, Barnaby Wright, allowed me in nevertheless for a quick peek. Then I turned back  to the permanent display,  feeling the same old affection and  gratitude for a collection which played a huge role in my education. As an artist for some decades, I remember so clearly the overwhelming impression it made on my 18-year old self, and I’m wondering why I’ve waited so long to revisit it. The intervening years, with the alternate joys and struggles of making my own work, and of occasional teaching, give me the unexpected gift of seeing all these works afresh, and renewed respect for the artists.

What a privilege it was to be able to hop on the Northern Line to Goodge Street on a Saturday afternoon in the late 60s, sometimes with a friend, sometimes alone,  and mooch around Heals (our favourite shop, inspirational apogee of 60s design and a education in itself) and Dillons University Bookshop (on the site which is now Waterstones),  to treat oneself to a cuppa and a teacake in the student café in Torrington Place,  and then –  highlight of the afternoon – walk on, past Senate House. to the unobtrusive building that housed the Courtauld Institute and Gallery. So many iconic images in one place, far more than I can include in a short survey; Utrillo’s quiet day on an unremarkable Montmartre Street where he lived with his mother, Suzanne Valadon, who locked him inside the house in a vain effort to keep him away from alcohol. ….Berthe Morisot’s sister, so dignified in her grand costume…..Degas’ little dancers, one centre stage,  the other frozen for eternity, watching her friend’s solo from her position at the side….Cezanne’s ravishing view of Mont Victoire, a misty blue mountain landscape pushed far into the distance through a pine tree waving at us right in the foreground  – and how can I resist a final image of poor Vincent, bandaged and inscrutable, his hectic brushwork the only clue to his  turmoil. I hope this has inspired you and that next time you go to Somerset House skating rink, or to a pop concert in the courtyard, you’ll take some time to enjoy the Courtauld’s world-class collection as well as the stunning exhibition currently showing until January 21, 2018 –  Soutine’s ‘Coooks, Waiters and Bellboys’.












  • Harold Davis
    Posted at 10:33h, 22 November Reply

    Thank you Polly …. a true delight 😘

    • polly
      Posted at 10:50h, 22 November Reply

      Thankyou Harold – it’s a great collection and I was quite overcome with nostalgia and joy to see it again – well worth a visit if you haven’t been lately – lots of lovely buttery crusty Auerbachs too.

  • Elaine Whybro
    Posted at 00:38h, 03 December Reply

    Lovely to read about your response to these paintings Polly! Reminds me of how ‘star struck’ I felt seeing paintings in the Louvre that I’d only ever seen in books!

    • polly
      Posted at 12:14h, 03 December Reply

      Thankyou for visiting and for your kind comment Elaine

  • Joan
    Posted at 23:32h, 16 February Reply

    Wonderful, Polly. Thank you for such a fresh and personal take on this indeed gorgeous collection. I love the way you imagine the characters addressing you. I’ve been very comfortable with that with books, relating easily to characters….but it’s never occurred to me with paintings. Of course, I see that: painting artists are communicating with us viewers just like writing artists are with readers. So, a big thank you for that. It’ll change the way I look now.

    • polly
      Posted at 10:09h, 17 February Reply

      Thank you for your very positive comment Joan. I believe that once your creative output is launched into the world, be it a painting, a book, a song, a poem, it enters the domain of the person who it views it, reads it, sings it. They respond according to their own experience and emotion – however painful that may be for the artist if they don’t ‘get’ the original intention of the work. No one can say their response is invalid or wrong and that’s why I venture to post my personal response to this epic collection. If it’s added to your enjoyment of it, I’m delighted!

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