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The Courtauld Institute is a small college in the centre of London devoted to the study of the history of Art. There are about 500 students at any one time, and the bias is heavily weighted in favour of postgraduate study.


The Courtauld was founded by three collectors, Viscount Lee of Fareham, Samuel Courtauld, and Sir Robert Witt in 1930 as an institution devoted to the study of art. They faced opposition from the generally held conviction at that time that the study of Art was merely a hobby of the rich, and not a suitable subject for a university education.

On the advice of Roger Fry, Samuel Courtauld purchased French Impressionist and Cezanne pictures, and acquired the lease of Home House, 20 Portman Square as a place to display them. When his wife died in 1931, Samuel Courtauld made over the house for the use of the new-found Institute, until permanent accomodation could be sought. Sir Robert Witt's collection of Old Master drawings and, more importantly, reproductions of famous pictures, was also donated to the Institute.

The aim of the Institute was to provide academic training to those who intended to enter the art world, but there was much disagreement over whether the courses offered would be purely postgraduate or included undergraduate courses as well. The first director, William Constable, resigned over this issue, as Samuel Courtauld favoured the teaching of Art History on the widest possible scale. At present, the Institute teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, as well as being a doctorate research centre.

In December 1933 a group of scholars from the Warburg Library in Hamburg fled Germany and were offered teaching positions at the Courtauld, and they began to change the whole method of Art History teaching in England. Instead of the connoisseurship of collectors focusing on individual paintings and artists, the Warburg approach was to combine Art History with the history of the period in which the works were created.

During the Second World War, the Institute was temporarily disbanded, its pictures going to the countryside for safe keeping and the remaining students were taught in Guildford. When the Institute came back to London, Anthony Blunt was appointed Director, and took office in October 1947. Blunt tried to distance the Institute from the insular attitudes of it's founders and took up the Warburg approach to the study of the subject. He appointed various figures from European schools, notably Johannes Wilde, teaching the Renaissance, and Christopher Hohler, teaching the medieval period. Under Blunt, the Institute became geared towards postgraduate study, where the undergraduate courses became a route to producing a doctorate. The atmosphere became highly competitive, and the Institute became the powerhouse of study which it continues to be.

By 1981, the buildings at 20 Portman Square were completely full, and the Institute had taken over no. 19 as well. Relocation was needed, and many schemes were considered, including moving to Woburn Square, or a whole new building. Then the Strand side of Somerset House came up, and the Institute applied to move there. The move allowed the collection to be reunited with the Institute, and allowed the gallery to become one of London's major tourist attractions. £12m was needed for the move and outfitting of the Somerset House buildings, fundraising and building works took most of the decade, but by 1989 Somerset House was ready, and the Institute moved in.

No sooner than the accomodation problems had been sorted out, then another problem had to be faced. As a result of many larger colleges pressing for independence, the University of London was faced with restructuring. Many small institutions like the Courtauld ended up as part of the School of Advanced Study, or merged with the large colleges. The Courtauld decided to become independent, and with the assistance of the private sector, remains so.

Excerpt from Prof. Peter Kidson


The Courtauld has a number of collections which are open to the public:

  • The Courtauld Gallery is one of the most important art collections in Britain, consisting of Old Master, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and an outstanding prints and drawings collection
  • The Hermitage Rooms recreate the decor of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and provide a backdrop for rotating exhibitions from the State Hermitage Museum
  • Photographic Collections. The Witt Library is the Courtaulds collection of photographic reproductions of artworks, while the Conway Library is a collection of photographs of architecture, sculpture, glass, ceramics, wall-paintings and textiles. The Photographic Survey Department has photographed more the 500 private collections in Britain
  • The East Wing Collection is a biennial curated by students at the Courtauld and exhibitions remain on display for two years.

Degrees Offered

The only undergraduate course offered is a BA (Hons) in the History of Art, but there are many more postgraduate courses available. This information is from the 2004 postgraduate prospectus:

  • MPhil and PhD Research Degrees
  • MA in the History of Art
  • Courtauld Graduate Diploma in the History of Art
  • MA in Painting Conservation (Wall Painting)
  • Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings


Courtauld Institute of Art
Somerset House
London WC2R 0QN

020 7848 2777


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