Collectors and Philanthropists: Who Were the Courtauld Brothers? | History Hit

Collectors and Philanthropists: Who Were the Courtauld Brothers?

The top of the staircase in the Courtauld's current home at Somerset House.
Image Credit: Sarah Roller

Samuel and Stephen Courtauld, brothers and philanthropists, were 2 of the brightest figures of the early 20th century. Born into the wealthy Courtauld family, they inherited a textiles empire forged in the 19th century. Samuel and Stephen would go on to channel their money and enthusiasm into philanthropy, art collecting and an assortment of other projects.

Between them, the pair established one of the best art history centres in the world, London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, and endowed it with a remarkable Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art collection. They also restored the medieval Eltham Palace into an art deco masterpiece, oversaw a continued boom in their family business and donated heavily to racial justice causes in southern Africa.

Here is the story of the remarkable Courtauld brothers.

Textile heirs

Courtaulds, a silk, crepe and textile business, was founded in 1794, and the running of the business was passed down between father and son. The firm benefitted from the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution and owned three silk mills by the mid-19th century.

The firm enjoyed a boom on the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when the entire country was plunged into mourning and found themselves in need of black crepe in which to dress. By the time Samuel Courtauld inherited his first factory in 1901, Courtaulds was a major international firm, and during Samuel’s tenure, the firm made millions from the successful development and marketing of rayon, an inexpensive silk substitute.

Unsurprisingly, over a century of good business had allowed the Courtauld family to build up significant wealth, and both Samuel and his brother Stephen had a privileged upbringing as a result.

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Samuel the collector

Samuel became CEO of Courtaulds in 1908, having joined the firm as an apprentice as a teenager in order to understand how it worked at all levels. He developed an interest in art around 1917 after seeing an exhibition of Hugh Lane’s collection at the Tate. He began collecting French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings around 1922 after falling in love with them at an exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club.

At the time, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were seen as too avant-garde, dismissed by many in the art world as worthless. Courtauld disagreed, and bought an extensive selection of works by leading Impressionist painters like Van Gogh, Manet, Cezanne and Renoir. His wife, Elizabeth, was also a keen collector, with a more avant-garde taste than her husband.

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In 1930, Samuel decided to found an institute which would be a centre for learning and a place to display his collections. Along with Viscount Lee of Fareham and Sir Robert Witt, he founded the Courtauld Institute of Art, providing the majority of the financial backing. The Courtauld Insititute’s first home was Home House, at 20 Portman Square in London: it would stay there for nearly 60 years.

As well as his own gallery, Samuel donated significant sums to the Tate and National Gallery in order to help them establish their own collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Unlike many of his wealthy contemporaries, Courtauld was also keen to improve the lot of his workers, encouraging them to buy shares in the company, and advocating for sick leave, childcare and pension benefits.

Stephen the philanthropist

Stephen, Samuel’s younger brother, studied at Cambridge University and travelled extensively as a young man before joining up to serve in World War One. He was mentioned twice in despatches for his valour and awarded the Military Cross in 1918 for his actions. A keen mountaineer, he scaled the Innominata face of Mont Blanc in the Alps in 1919 and became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1920.

In 1923, Stephen married Virginia Peirano, from Romania, and the pair embarked on a life of glamour and philanthropy. The pair funded a variety of projects, including the construction and development of Ealing Studios, the Fitzwilliam Museum and a scholarship for the British School at Rome.

However, they are most famous for their role in the redevelopment of Eltham Palace, a former royal residence dating back to the Medieval period. Under the Courtaulds, Eltham was transformed from something of a crumbling ruin into a fashionable art deco abode with all of the mod-cons of the 1930s including a private telephone, vacuum cleaners, a sound system and underfloor heating. They left Eltham in 1944, reportedly saying the proximity of bombing had become ‘too much’ for them.

Rhodesia and racial justice

In 1951, the Courtaulds moved to Southern Rhodesia (now part of Zimbabwe), building a somewhat eccentric and extremely beautiful country home named La Rochelle, which was complete with a botanic garden designed by an Italian landscape architect.

Stephen and Virginia Courtauld outside their house in Rhodesia, La Rochelle.

Image Credit: Allan Cash Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

The pair loathed the racial segregation that was the norm in Rhodesia at the time, donating to charities which promoted multi-racial, democratic development in East and Central Africa, as well as establishing various educational establishments there. Their liberal outlook ostracised them from other white settlers and expats.

Stephen also provided a large endowment for the Rhodes National Gallery (now the National Gallery of Zimbabwe) and acted as chairman of the board of trustees for many years. Although he did not collect art as extensively as his brother, he still amassed an impressive collection and bequeathed 93 works of art to the gallery, although their location is currently unknown.

An impressive legacy

Between them, the Courtaulds created an artistic legacy that proved to be a major contribution to London’s art and architecture, and that would be enjoyed for decades after their deaths.

Samuel Courtauld died in 1947, and Stephen in 1967. Both left significant bequests to the artistic world. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, established in the 1930s, helped fund the establishment of the Courtauld’s higher education programmes, which continue to be world-renowned today.

Eltham Palace was taken back into public ownership in the 1980s and is managed by English Heritage, whilst the Old Masters given by Stephen to the National Gallery in Harare, Zimbabwe continue to form a key part of their paintings collection today.

Sarah Roller