Nigel Sunter, architect of the Courtauld Gallery renovations, describes to Jane Ferguson the procedures and challenges of integrating a modern gallery into an historic building.

Installation of fire proofing in Gallery 4 of the Courtauld Gallery
Installation of fire proofing in Gallery 4 of the Courtauld Gallery
Can I start by saying how I got here ? I was invited to work on the Courtauld Gallery on the strength of refurbishment work I had done in the National Gallery, where we re-instated many of the galleries’ original features which had been, during the 1960s and 70s made very bland. We also installed air-conditioning, re-lit the pictures using discreet and unobtrusive light fittings. It was on the strength of that experience that the Courtauld asked for advice in the mid 1990s about the lighting in the Great Room of the Courtauld Gallery. At that time we had just completed the refurbishment of the Central Hall at the National Gallery. We had installed the light fittings right up into the lantern, quite a long distance away from the pictures. The Courtauld had a similar problem in the Great Room where a large space originally designed to be lit only by natural light needed modern lighting systems. We lit the Great Room in the same way. At the same time we introduced a mechanical extract system in the centre of the oval ceiling, incorporating a grille within a ring of lights to illuminate the lower wall surfaces. We also introduced a track light around the underside of the cove. This would allow us to light pictures on the upper register and also to light exhibits within the room. In theory it would be possible to recreate an 18th century hang the full height of the walls as Chambers had designed but avoiding the need as in the 18th century to cant the pictures at an angle off the walls to prevent reflections from the high windows. Extra light is now controlled by louvres.

The current phase of works, which is jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and by the Samuel Courtauld Trust addresses four main issues: environmental conditions, fire-proofing, general alterations and improvements and lighting. In the case of the air-conditioning, part of the brief was to do away with the unsightly humidifiers and dehumidifiers. We looked at various methods of providing air-conditioning. Chambers’s master project leaves very little room for introducing conventional air-conditioning which normally involves vast ducts and plant rooms. We didn’t have space for either of these. We introduced fresh air by finding routes into the building in unobtrusive spaces and hidden routes between galleries to get the duct work up to the second floor. The mechanical extraction system had already been installed in the Great room in phase one. In a conventional air-conditioning system a large proportion of the air is recycled. Instead of re-circulating air back to a central plant we are using individual air-conditioning units under each window. On the second floor we have re-introduced Chambers’s shutters across the lower windows so that a continuous hang can be achieved. We are putting our air-conditioning units into the voids behind these window shutters. Much of the conditioned air has to be brought up through grilles in the floors and in the Great Room particularly there will have to be a large number of these. At the National Gallery we were able to adopt 19th century ventilation grilles, use the pattern of air circulation that had been originally designed for the rooms. But Somerset House was before the time that ventilation systems were introduced and the challenge is to install grilles in a way that will look satisfactory in a building of the 18th century. Those grilles which have to be located in the centres of the rooms will be in the form of decorative cast iron grilles. We felt that 20th century-style grilles would draw attention to themselves whereas something which looks as though it has been there for some time will look more acceptable. The air-conditioning grilles around the perimeter of the room on will on the other hand not be emphasised. We will colour these diffusers to match the floor finish.

This use of earlier styles of architecture some might consider dishonest and there are indeed instances where a thoroughly modern insertion into the historic interior is the correct approach. However, in other instances a modern intrusion can be alien or assertive and something which blends in by using an historic style may be more appropriate. In the Reception Hall, for instance, a new draught lobby in a modern style would, I believe, be quite intrusive. Instead I have designed a lobby as Chambers might have done but within it will be a pair of glass doors which are clearly late twentieth century in date.

As regards the aesthetic qualities of the principal rooms we are presenting them more closely to the feel the interiors would have had in Chambers’s day. We are exposing the soft wood floors, some of which have to be replaced by second-hand boards which have been salvaged from old demolished buildings. These are closer to the quality of timber which would have been used in the 18th century, with close-grown grain and harder than modern force-grown timbers. They should wear better and will have a better colour.

Fire protection has a high priority. I was very conscious of this, having worked at the National Gallery. In an 18th century building there is even less fire protection than in a mid-19th century building with concrete floors.
At Somerset House we have double-joisted floors which originally incorporated sophisticated 18th century fire-proofing. Most of that has either been removed or is no longer effective. Both to protect the building and the collection the need for greater protection and compartmentalisation to allow salvage is very important. Whilst we have the floors up for the introduction of air-conditioning we are installing fire-proofing material within the floors and are fire-proofing vulnerable walls, partitions and doors to give a one hour separation between rooms. Salvage could then proceed in safety even with a fire in an adjacent room. Not only would this measure give more time to remove paintings, this would also help to save the building which is arguably as valuable as the works of art.

In compliance with health and safety standards fire bells, fire exit signs and fire detectors need to be provided but in a less conspicuous way than those presently installed. We are setting fire bells into the tops of the cornices so that they will no longer be visible. We are using fire exit signs of a design more befitting their setting. Fire detectors will be the discreet aspirator-type in which a small tube projects through the foliage in the decorative ceilings. In the main west stair we will replace the wall sconces with discreet spotlights and down-lighters to introduce discreet light at various stages of the staircase. The former sconces may have been traditional in style but the stairs were designed originally to be naturally lit from the roof light above.

We have made considerable changes to basement. The screen around the lower part of the staircase was a device used by Chambers to conceal the continuation of the staircase down to the 'below stairs’ and gave the keeper his own external courtyard as entry to his apartment. The public access to the café and cloakrooms in the 1980s refurbishment was indirect and confusing. Furthermore the original door to the keeper’s flat had been filled with services. Now, at great expense, we are removing those services. The public will enter the café and cloakrooms via the courtyard and through a new entrance hall behind the facade. To enhance the 'below stairs’ character at this level york-stone slabs will cover the floor as they would have done in the 18th century.

One or our biggest challenges has been the lighting in the main galleries on the first floor. We have had several reports by specialist lighting consultants and have made mock-ups of several schemes. These include individual picture lights using the 'country house’ approach where each picture has a light over the top of the frame, up-lighting from a picture rail at dado level and lighting from brackets supported off the picture rails. This last approach was the one favoured by the Courtauld. The idea was that these lights would be supported off the new traditional-style picture rail and would project from the wall to light the pictures. This would have involved about 20 light brackets on a full-length wall. English Heritage felt very strongly that this was quite inappropriate to the Chambers interior. Therefore we had no alternative but to return to the individual picture-lighting solution for which we commissioned specialist lighting designers who had recently re-done the lighting in the Frick galleries in New York and the Waddesdon Manor Collection. The Waddesdon solution was acceptable to English Heritage and we have to accept this route even though its not the one favoured by the Courtauld. The lighting track will be fixed along the picture rail and then individual cables will be stretched down the chains to pictures lights fixed to the back of each picture. I think the lights will look good in these interiors, but will be more complicated and expensive to manage. For general gallery lighting in the main galleries we will be keeping the existing chandeliers. They are copies of ones originally designed for the Society of Antiquaries Meeting Room. We shall remove the shiny lacquer and instead of shades will use electric candles and incorporate enhanced up-lighters. The lighting problem is an instance where I believe that English Heritage has been overly inflexible in their refusal to accept compromise in the re-use of historic interiors for a new purpose, in this case as an art gallery.