Wednesday 3 December 2008

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, The Strand, London

A small, but world-class, art gallery housed in a wing of the charismatic, neo-classical bulk of Somerset House, the Courtauld Gallery is home to a clutch of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Degas, Renoir, Pissario, Cezanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet and van Gogh. After paying the modest five pound entrance fee, you should climb to the top of the gallery via the elegant, stone spiral staircase with its ornate banister. On the second floor is a temporary display of fairly insipid and washed-out watercolours by Turner. Much better are the permanent exhibits, such as a handful of works by Seurat painted in his distinctive style using thousands of tiny dots of colour to create a sense of motion and life. Other highlights include a beautiful study of ballet dancers by Degas, the strange, but absorbing, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Manet and the endearing Pipe Smoker by Cezanne.

Miniature ivory carvings
But the Courtauld Gallery's treasures are not limited to priceless paintings. The centrepiece of one of the 15 distinguished rooms is a glittering collection of Eighteenth Century household silver featuring an array of charming objects such as an elaborate inkwell with a little sand shaker use for blotting. Elsewhere, you will find venerable old chests and delicate harpsichords painted with dramatic Christian frescoes. Among the eye catching exhibits in the ground floor room, which is largely devoted to religious artifacts, are some extraordinarily detailed miniature ivory carvings from the Middle Ages and a handsome pair of Venetian gold candlesticks from the Sixteenth Century. Complete your visit by taking the quirky spiral staircase down to the warren-like basement which houses the toilets and a small cafe selling drinks, cakes and other fare. 9/10