Revelations from the archives from Barbara Thompson (BA 1986), Witt and Conway Librarian, and Virginia Morck (MA 2006)







We saw Eye to Eye: Witt’s American Connection

Sir Robert Witt was a regular visitor to America, and had first visited the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University in 1920, accompanied by his friend Miss Frick, a member of the Fogg Art Museum Visiting Committee. Miss Frick’s Art Reference Library, inspired by Sir Robert’s library of photographs, opened in July 1924. Sir Robert also built a relationship with Edward W Forbes and Paul J Sachs, Directors of the Fogg, and was invited by them to give visiting lectures. Witt was especially inspired by the course in museum curatorship, introduced at the Fogg in 1922. Sir Robert made another visit in 1927. Having inspected the facilities, the library resources and Fogg art collections, Sir Robert wrote to Forbes: Who could wish for better? I hope to preach your gospel to better purpose at home with the inspiration I have won from you and Sachs.’

A month later, Samuel and Elizabeth Courtauld, neighbours and friends of Sir Robert, were invited to stay with Sachs. He wrote, ‘They [the Courtaulds] hoped that our philosophy about the place of a museum in education at university level was akin to their own. We saw eye to eye.’

In London, a home for the embryonic History of Art Department of the University of London was established at 4 Adelphi Terrace. By 1928, Lord Lee of Fareham was directing events and forged a ‘Draft Scheme for the Provision of Facilities for the Study of the History of Art in England,’ presumably informed by Sir Robert’s and the Courtaulds’ visits to America as the document makes reference to aims, library resources and galleries‘…on the lines of the Fogg Museum at Harvard’ that Lord Lee visited the following year in 1929.

The visitors’ books reveal Lee to have been a regular visitor to Sir Robert’s house at 32 Portman Square, and it is easy to imagine Lord Lee, the Courtaulds, Sir Robert and another Portman Square neighbour, Lord Martin Conway, resolving to support the project by promising their private art collections and libraries for the benefit of future students and staff.

Elizabeth Courtauld’s death in 1931 transformed events. In 1932, in his professional capacity as a solicitor, Sir Robert drew up the Trust Deed of the ‘Home House Society’ for the promotion of education in art, with Lee as Chairman of the Management Committee, which moved from one Adam brother’s address, Adelphi Terrace, to a Robert Adam house at 20 Portman Square. The Courtauld Institute of Art opened its doors to students in October 1932.


From Lee’s Diary, Good Innings
28 september 1927

‘Sam Courtauld told me in his shy self-effacing way that he would be very glad to become Honorary Treasurer of the scheme and to give £70,000 as soon as needed, to defray the cost of a suitable building to house the Institute. In addition, if further money could not be secured from other sources, he would guarantee an additional £30,000 as the nucleus of an endowment fund.’

For a full account of Lee’s role in the creation of The Courtauld, see Susan Scott, ’The History of the Courtauld Institute of Art: The Founding Fathers’, Courtauld Institute of Art News, no 8, Autumn 1999, p 4. Ed.

W G Constable, Director 1932-6

Rhoda Welsfor, Librarian

Students, including Lilian Gurry (foreground) in the library, 20 Portland Square


Lord Lee’s speech to the press 21 june 1932

‘…What the Courtauld Institute sets out to do is this. Firstly – to give to those who seek an understanding of the Art heritage of the civilised world; to arouse and develop in the rising generation a love and scholarly appreciation of the Arts and to make that knowledge play an integral and vital part in their lives. In this connection it is not intended to limit that boon to University students, but to set it percolating downwards through its graduates – into the curricula and equipment – of our public and even elementary schools.

‘Secondly – to give to a limited number of students and research workers the facilities and training necessary to enable them to qualify as curators or officials of museums, or as connoisseurs, critics, writers and teachers of art history.

‘…Thanks to the splendid generosity of Mr. Courtauld, who has supplied half of our financial needs, as well as placing his beautiful home and the bulk of his pictures at our disposal; ….the munificent support of Sir Joseph Duveen…and notably also to the noble benefactions of Sir Robert Witt and Lord Conway in connection with their libraries of reproductions which will make the Institute easily the best equipped in the world in this respect…. Additional endowment is urgently needed – particularly in connection with the “Scientific Department” which…is of vital consequence for the physical study of works of art and of the conditions necessary for their well-being, preservation and restoration….’

Deputy Director, James G Mann
Director W G Constable appointed James Mann from the Wallace Collection as Reader in History of Art and Deputy Director.

In a draft letter to W G Constable, of July 1931 Mann wrote, ‘…I am not naturally drawn to undergraduates or university life, as I can’t stand the half baked of either sex or a dreary academicism, but I shall enjoy teaching and guiding students who are really keen and willing to learn, provided I don’t get too much of it.’

The Librarian, Rhoda Welsford
Rhoda Welsford worked in Sir Robert Witt’s library from 1921-1930. An Oxford University graduate proficient in French, German and Italian, and with a working knowledge of Spanish and Dutch, she joined the group in early 1931. Her appointment as Librarian was confirmed from 1 October 1932, at a salary of £300-400 a year (Management Committee Minutes of 29 September 1931). According to two papers written by her in mid-1931, she began the planning of the new library and its classifications system according to the Bonn and Vienna systems.

In October 1931 she wrote to James Mann, ‘wondering whether you possibly could and would perhaps come and have tea with me, say once a week, to go through book catalogues with me. I don’t know what to look out for, and have only the vaguest ideas on prices. W G Constable is coming for this purpose about once a fortnight, and if you could help in my education, I should be beyond words grateful.’

From Peter Kidson’s History of the courtauld institute
The view of art which [Witt, Courtauld and Lee] shared was to provide a training for professionals who intended to enter the various branches of the art business. They were anxious that it should be academic in the sense of being high-powered, but what they understood by history had little in common with the concerns of a university history department beyond an interest in chronology. The first director, William Constable, who came from the National Gallery, fully shared their outlook, but he parted company with them, especially Courtauld, over whether or not the courses should be restricted to postgraduates.

An Existential Crisis
On 11 May 1936, the minutes of the Sub-Committee on Academic Policy indicate that a majority of members, including the Director and Deputy Director, recommended that the BA at the Institute become a postgraduate degree. Samuel Courtauld, Robert Witt and Lord Lee were all opposed to this proposal. Courtauld wrote to Lee, Chairman of the Management Committee, ‘... although most schoolboys may not be capable of benefiting by a course at the Institute, it would be a great pity to miss the brilliant exceptions. Art appreciation is largely a matter of flair, intuition, and sensibility; it is not an exact science requiring an extreme knowledge of scientific formulae.’ Courtauld also pointed out ‘the necessity of interesting future benefactors in the undertaking. ... We are more likely to make contact with future donors through a number of “lay” students than through a limited number of professionals; and also the donors themselves are more likely to be interested in the wider humanistic objects than in specialisation.’

Robert Witt wrote in the Report (Minority) on Academic Policy, June 1936 that he supported a tightening of student numbers, more stringent selection procedures and other measures to support both less experienced undergraduate students and overburdened academic staff. However, to eliminate the undergraduate BA degree would, he felt, ‘rob the Institute of the greater part of its special character and of its appeal to the outside non-scholastic world on which, in the last resort, much of its reputation and its popularity depend.’

On the same subject Robert Witt wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of The Burlington Magazine, December 1937, with reference to ‘W G affair’, outlining the two points of view.

William Constable offered his resignation to the Management Committee in the summer of 1936, followed shortly afterwards by James Mann. After some months during which W P Gibson was Acting Director, Thomas Boase was appointed Chair of History of Art and the Institute’s new Director in the summer of 1937.

Kidson describes Boase’s style of teaching: ‘He came to the Courtauld from the Oxford history school. His students were in effect left to educate themselves, supervision on a very loose rein being standard Oxbridge practice at the time. With his arrival …art history began to be a fully fledged member of the humanities.’

The Scientific Department in Courtauld’s former garage

Scientific Department
The Department and Laboratory for Scientific Research opened in early 1935, housed at the bottom of the garden at Portman Square. It was made possible by a legacy from Norman Wilkinson, a noted stage designer and eccentric, who had died in February 1934. The department was headed by Dr P D Ritchie, with Daniel Thompson as Research and Technical Advisor. The programme included research into the problems of the constitution and conservation of paintings, objets d’art and archaeological materials along with a scientific service to the public on a fee-paying basis. Valuable work was done on the application of spectography to glass and ceramics and x-ray diffraction to the analysis of pigments, and members of the public submitted conservation problems, the majority dealing with paintings.

From 1937 the title was changed to the Department of the History of Technology of Art. Research was concentrated on the study of manuscripts and medieval painting materials. Experimental work was done on the absorption spectra of dyestuffs produced from natural products mentioned in medieval recipes.

The department was closed during the war.

Eastern Studies
In 1932-3 Professor W Perceval Yetts, Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology, lectured on subjects as diverse as Chinese script, Buddhist sculpture, anthropology and Chinese metalwork and ceramics. He brought with him an extensive library of books and photographs.

Blunt recalls: ‘The reason the Chair was established at the Courtauld and not at the School [of Oriental Studies] was that Yetts had a blood feud with the School and manoeuvred to install at Portman Square’ (interview with Lillian Gurry, 1980).
Stella Kramrisch gave lectures on medieval Indian art, Indian architecture and regional Indian sculpture from 1937-8.

Peter Kidson’s History of the Courtauld: The Warburg Scholars
In 1933, in December, a group of scholars attached to the Warburg Library at Hamburg sought refuge abroad. Lee and Courtauld were instrumental in arranging for them to be resettled in London. For the Warburg scholars, the arts were bound up with the thought world of their time, and art history entailed research into the past in which the clear-cut distinction between history and art history ceased to exist. It was an approach which called for a formidable array of intellectual talents. One of the first to join was Anthony Blunt.

Sir Blunt
Sir Anthony Blunt in his study

Lillian Gurry’s interview with Sir Antony Blunt, 24 March 1980
‘…In 1932, [at Trinity college, Cambridge] when I submitted my thesis, it was a Fellowship, not a PhD, Constable was one of the people who was asked to read it and in due course I got my Fellowship. And then Constable got in touch with me and said: “Would you like to give some lectures on this?” So, I think it must have been in spring 1933, that I must have given my first lecture. I was absolutely terrified…. It’s the only lecture I’ve ever read completely from a full text… I think I gave six. In the second I had a full text but I think I ad-libbed. Incidentally, I suspect I’m rather responsible for having that habit become so ingrained at the Courtauld. No one ever gives a lecture reading; it was regarded for many years as a confession of failure… the tradition was very quickly established. Certainly, when I came in 1939 it became a regular habit.

‘…Then I gave these lectures every year until I came to London in 1937... In the interval I had met [Fritz] Saxl and other members of the Warburg. Saxl, in that marvellous way he did, decided he wanted to take me on. There was no money and no job so he invented a job, which was to look after publications, which I’d absolutely no qualifications for and there was no money. So he went out and got it. …I joined the Warburg who were then installed in the old Imperial Institute building, off Exhibition Road. There was Saxl…, Rudi Wittkower, who was the person I was particularly working with. …Wittkower was the person from whom I learned the most, in fact it was my first training in art history. I’d never had a day’s training in art history. There was no means of doing so in this country.

‘…Atmosphere was of enormous importance to me. …. In five minutes one learned more from Saxl than half an hour from anyone else. [I worked] with Rudi Wittkower [on Poussin]…Rudi gave me lessons in art history and I taught him English and Margaret [Whinney] cooked the dinner. This went long into the war through the bombing…‘

‘…At Easter ’39 I came in as Deputy Director and Reader … Tom [Boase] had by then introduced a new syllabus, got rid of the old one-year diploma. …Then everything was reduced to an absolute minimum in September ’39…Which meant a few students, either refugees or a certain number of incapacitated English students.

‘…But the most important activity during the war was the Slide Room. There was an incredible demand for lectures on art – SIMA, Red Cross, amateurs, professionals wanted lectures and we were the only source of slides…It really became tremendously important. From ’42 – ’45 it was the source of slides: hospitals, the National Gallery, everywhere.

‘You wanted to know about the Fry Room. Fry died in, I think, ’34 – he bequeathed to the Institute… books and a greater part of his collection of works of art…They were in the room on the second floor, opposite the garden, which was decorated…by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, who painted the door and something in the fireplace. And the pictures were hung and they did make a remarkably gloomy impression. Fry had very, very austere tastes. He had quite a number of his own paintings, one or two of Duncan’s and Vanessa’s and two or three early Dürer of the most leaden kind. A Marchand, a lovely Bonnard landscape and three marvellous Rouault watercolour gouaches – they were really the star thing…

‘Before the war the Students’ Common Room was in the basement. The wall painting was put up by a Greek whose name was Zidis. I think he may have had some help. It portrayed the staff. Tom had arrived – it was after ’37. Rhoda [Welsford, Librarian] was peeping through a doorway. I was represented holding a bottle or glass of wine and a copy of Karl Marx, Jim Byam Shaw was sitting with his legs stretched out, a cat was on his lap…‘

The War Years

From the autumn of 1939, following government calls for decentralisation, 18 full-time students were taught in a room at the Guildford Technical College by Margaret Whinney, assisted by Warburg Institute staff.

Thomas Boase The Director, Tom Boase, was seconded to Bletchley Park. He wrote to Lord Lee in 1939, ‘…and Rhoda Welsford is in the same office down hereso that we can cope with a good deal of the [Institute’s] business between us….’ Of Anthony Blunt, then Deputy Director, Boase wrote, ‘Blunt… fortunately had a fortnight in London after I’d gone, and did all the move to Guildford on his own, besides getting the Warburg Library packed. He gets things done, and is always keen to do them. …However, he’s had orders for France already only cancelled at the last moment, …fortunately, they seem to have picked him for a good intelligence job…‘

Many of the Institute’s lecturers participated in a popular programme of lunch-time lectures at the Institute. Professor Yetts gave regular talks on Chinese art and architecture. These public lectures continued on a regular basis throughout the war.

Although the most valuable books, negatives and photographs had been stored in the west of England, the lantern slide collection remained at Portman Square. Over 8,000 were issued on loan during 1939-40. Loans increased continually to a maximum of 32,000 in 1945.

By the end of 1941 Margaret Whinney had returned to Portman Square where she arranged public exhibitions and tuition for the few remaining students. Tom Boase wrote to Lord Lee that she ‘…always seems to have some new undertaking on hand.’ From October 1943, when Tom Boase was transferred to the Middle East, she took charge of the running of the Institute. Professor Geoffrey Webb was appointed Adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander on the preservation of works of art in battle areas, and a list of monuments to be protected in France was drawn up by Margaret Whinney and other staff.

With the return of the Director in August 1945, the Institute was ready to open its doors to students for the 1945-6 session.