What links a grand house on the Strand, a textile town in Essex and a mansion in south east London? Answer: the Courtauld family. The weaving dynasty has left its mark on Somerset House, Halstead and Eltham Palace.
In the 1820s Samuel Courtauld established Townsford Mill on the river Colne in Halstead, in north Essex, for the manufacture of silk crepe. Throughout the C19 and much of the C20, further textile factories were built in the town, but with manufacturing costs soaring, production moved abroad and those buildings have been re-purposed to accommodate, for example, the Co-op supermarket. When a friend and I visited Beth Chatto’s Garden and Hyde Hall last October, we stayed at a pub in Halstead. The names displayed on the front of the 1920s houses opposite the pub piqued our interest: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park. Spotting a pattern, we soon found Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Emma. Each house also bore the initials, SAC. A spot of googling revealed that these were built by Samuel Augustine Courtauld as homes for his workforce. Apparently, elsewhere in the town there are houses bearing the names of novels by Fanny Burney. I can find nothing to explain why the Arts and Crafts style houses were named after novels in this way. Unlike the Cadburys who built an entire community (Bournville) to accommodate their workers, the Courtaulds seem to have preferred building such homes throughout the town.
The Courtauld name reminded me of a of visit three years ago to Eltham Palace, the unique property now run by English Heritage. In 1933 Stephen Courtauld (1883 – 1967), younger brother of SAC, took out a 99 year lease of the site of the childhood home of Henry VIII. All that remained of the palace was the huge Great Hall built by Edward IV. Stephen and his wife Virginia built a luxurious home in the then fashionable Art Deco style, incorporating the hall into the design. The palace is surrounded by a moat which is an integral part of the garden. The moat is partly dry but this aerial view illustrates the extent of the water-filled section of the moat.
Much of this garden on two levels was laid out by Stephen and Virginia in the 1930s, and more recently English Heritage has developed it further. For example in 2000 they commissioned garden designer Isabelle van Groeningen to re-design the planting in the monumental herbaceous borders. When I was there in late August, these deep borders between brick buttresses were billowing with drifts of golden Achillea, bronze grasses, succulent Sedum (now Telephium) with their burgundy stems and leaves and pink flowers. Elsewhere a mass planting of creamy petalled roses made an impact. Irish yews fashioned into columns stood sentinel at each corner of a rectangular pond in the centre of the rose garden. A charming carving on the wall of the palace depicts Virginia ‘Ginny’ Courtauld in her wide-brimmed gardening hat, surrounded with a garland of flowers and leaves, a basket of fruit, the handle of a border fork and a long-spouted watering can completing the picture.
The Courtauld Gallery
When I began work in a small law practice in the City of London in 1980, there was a weekly run to the Stamp Office at Somerset House on the Strand, where, upon payment of the duty (with a banker’s draft: remember them?) the relevant deed was stamped using an archaic looking machine where the clerk operated a lever to press down on the document to emboss the stamp. I loved this weekly ritual which was a great opportunity to get out of the office for an hour or so and exchange the traffic on the Strand for the C18 elegance of Somerset House*. Now that stamp duty is paid electronically the practice of stamping a document with evidence of payment is no longer necessary. The Revenue (now HM Revenue & Customs) moved out of Somerset House in 2013. Gone are the black and gold stamp machines, to be replaced by a number of organisations associated with the arts including the Courtauld Gallery. This houses the world-famous art collection of Samuel Courtauld (1876 – 1947). The collection has recently been re-hung and I went to see it a week ago, my last visit having been about ten years ago. I concentrated on the top floor of the gallery where the Impressionist and Post-Impressionists are located.
Many of these paintings feel like old friends, the images are so familiar from reproductions. I’d forgotten how many of the paintings depict gardens and plants.
If the artworks are impressive, so is the room in which most of them are displayed. The Great Room as it is called hosted the annual Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy from 1780 to 1837.
It’s quite an arc isn’t it, from a silk mill on a riverbank in Essex, via a medieval palace meets Art Deco mansion to a priceless art collection in one of the grandest buildings in London? I’ve enjoyed my visits to all three of these places associated with the formidable Courtaulds.
*There’s a connection here with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: the principal architect of Somerset House, from 1775, was Sir William Chambers, designer of the Pagoda in the southern section of the Gardens.