20 Portman Square, Somerset House: The Buildings of The Courtauld. An Interview with Anthony Robins
Illustration by Tessa Carr
Walking into Somerset House for each visit to the library, for each lecture or class, I am constantly grateful for the beautiful surroundings in which I get to study. Amid news of our move to Vernon Square next year, and the ongoing changes anticipated through Courtauld Connects, the importance of buildings to the Courtauld experience seems to be evermore significant. But as you will well know, Somerset House has not always been the home of the Courtauld Institute. To try and understand the role of place in the Courtauld’s heritage, I spoke to alumnus Anthony W. Robins (author, lecturer and tour leader http://anthonywrobins.com) about his time at the Courtauld; and what role the buildings hold in his memories.
TESSA: To start, could you tell me when you were at the Courtauld, and what you studied?
ANTHONY ROBINS: I did my MA degree at the Courtauld from 1973 to 1976 (with a year off in the middle), when the Institute was still in Home House at 20 Portman Square.
The Courtauld was certainly an odd place in the ‘70s - blocks of metal shelving bumping up against Robert Adam’s delicate plasterwork, elevenses in the basement refectory (past a room full of ancient volumes including a complete set of a German-language “History of the Papacy”), nasty graffiti in the bathroom stalls, football in the student common room, students parading up and down the elegant central double staircase. That staircase led to a warren of rooms on several floors which functioned either as administrative offices, professors’ quarters, or classrooms. The latest technology available to students was a copying machine that made bad copies on oily paper. The library was open only on weekdays, till 7:00 p.m. (at US universities some students spend 24 hours a day in the libraries).
I was back in London in 2008 for a general reunion of Courtauld alumni from all years, and one of the events was a guided tour through Home House, courtesy of the fancy private club that had taken over the building. It looked much better as a private club, but it’s scrubbed appearance was difficult to connect to memories of my time there.
Timetable of Classes on the 15th Century for Spring 1974, Anthony Robins
You say it was hard to connect your memories from your time at the Courtauld to Home House as it is now (well, in 2008!), why do you think this is? In other words, when you think back to your time at the Courtauld how much prominence does the building itself have in your memories? Is the building of such importance, or is it the surrounding people and resources?
Because Home House in the 1970s reflected its use and, I suppose, the then UK economy. It was not terribly well kept up; shabby carpeting; grumpy administrative staff; basement refectory offering ghastly “scotch eggs”; professors (some, certainly not all) who often gave off an air suggesting that they’d really rather be somewhere else doing their scholarly work; students combining inflated egos (I’m now a Courtauld product!) with niggling insecurity (will I ever find work?). In short: an underfunded graduate school during a recession. And now (all right, 2008), restored, refurbished, polished, expensive, full of postThatcher-privatization-boom well-to-do adults sipping Champagne in the garden. Not really the same place - with, I suppose, one exception: a suffocating sense of exclusivity. Despite all that (1970s conditions), the building exuded a sense of, wait, oh yes, suffocating exclusivity.
I still remember a visiting scholar giving a special lecture, and qualifying something or other with the phrase, “of course, the people in this building” (italics in the original, so to speak - accompanied by a knowing look and a furrowed brow), suggesting that 20 Portman Square (which is what it seemed generally to be called - not Home House, not the Courtauld Institute) was a rarified oasis of art-historical knowledge and understanding, sitting uneasily in a rough and ignorant world.
And yet, I felt honored and privileged to be there (oops, there’s that inflated ego). You have to take into consideration that I was (and still am, of course) an American, or more precisely a New Yorker, who had lived in Italy for a couple of years, and imagined that London would be much more like home - just another enormous English-speaking metropolis after all. Uh-uh. Maybe they have more in common today, but back then two more different cities and social climates would be hard to imagine, and I felt quite lost (aha! niggling insecurity!).
What was more important, the building or the people? I have a collection of letters I wrote while at the Courtauld, and have been looking through them. There’s very little about the building - it’s mostly about the people.
When you visit the Courtauld in Somerset House do you have a nostalgia for your time at the Courtauld, or does it feel foreign?
I’m afraid it feels quite foreign. At 20 Portman Square, it felt like a unique collection - of books, of photographs, of professors - squished into a handsome if dilapidated 18th -century townhouse. It was ethereal, surreal, if also shabby and somewhat depressing. The Strand is an impressive complex, the library (which is pretty much all I remember of my visit) very professional looking (rather than the dozens of bookshelves scattered around 20 Portman Square, and the Witt Library shoved into a couple of odd rooms), and the whole seems more professional, more part of a University, less scattered -- but also less intense, with less personality, less eccentricity. At 20 Portman Square, the Courtauld was an Institute all on its own, even if technically part of the University of London. At the Strand, the Courtauld feels like part of a modern University campus. Add to that the very existence of a publication like The Courtauldian, an active alumni organization, major fundraising campaigns - none of these existed in the 1970s, and I’m quite sure nobody then could imagine such things.
Clearly, I have very mixed feelings about 20 Portman Square.
It seems unusual for an entire university to move building, and perhaps could only happen the way it did because of the size and nature of our university; how much importance would you assign to the buildings in which the Courtauld has been housed to the heritage of the Courtauld?
That depends on what you mean by “the heritage of the Courtauld.” But also, I’m quite sure nobody spoke of 20 Portman Square as a “university.” Or as a college. It was, strictly, “The Institute.” Not unlike, say, the Kunsthistorisches Institut on Via Giusti in Florence, or the Herziana near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Not so much an institution, part of the surrounding city and country, as an island in an archipelago of similar institutes scattered around the civilized world. Where only people in the know about the intricacies and profound secrets of art history would be welcome - or would want to be there at all - the “people in this building."
Architecture is many things, and buildings have many functions. But a major one is to provide the stage set in which we live our lives. There is no question that the building at 20 Portman Square - an elegant Adam townhouse fallen on hard times, into which an eccentric academic institute had been temporarily squished - reflected the character of the Courtauld at that time. Or vice versa. I’ve spent almost no time at the Institute in its new home, but imagine that it must feel completely different - and therefore it must *be* completely different. But you’d have a better idea of that than I would.
Many thanks must go to Anthony Robins for his insightful responses.