News Issue No.14 Autumn 2002
Two decades on Mount Olympus:
Sir Nicholas Goodison retires
Staircase, Home House
Among the Courtauld’s past and present
staff and alumni are many of the world’s leading scholars, teachers,
curators and writers on western art. In business language, the Courtauld
is a world brand. Everyone in the world of art and art history knows
of its name and reputation.
My involvement with the Courtauld came as a surprise. In the early 1970’s, I helped Ben Nicolson to produce an edition of the Burlington Magazine devoted to the history of furniture, with a heavy emphasis on relating objects of furniture to archival research. Michael Jaffe said to me ‘Nicholas, I am used to you filling the Connoisseur with your bric-a-brac, but oh not the Burlington!’
When someone whose opinions you respect says that what you are doing is somehow not in the top drawer, you believe it. So I was astonished when, in quick succession, John Dixon Hunt, Michael Hirst, Peter Lasko and then Sir John Witt came to my office in the Stock Exchange and asked if I would consider joining the management Board of the Courtauld. Of course I said yes, because I had long been an admirer of the Courtauld but I said yes with some diffidence because I thought that it was situated somewhere on Mount Olympus and was the home of the gods of the art world.
After two meetings of the Board at Home House, I realised from Peter Lasko’s hints that I had been recruited to assume the chair. I also learned that Peter’s plans to re-unite the Institute with its collections in Somerset House were material to my entrapment. So I became Chairman of the Management Board, and ex-officio a trustee of the Home House Society (not the Samuel Courtauld Trust) which owned most of the collections. And I discovered that the Management Board didn’t manage anything. Its only power was to confer Honorary and Visiting Fellowships. The Director answered directly to the Vice Chancellor of the University of London. Academic matters were dealt with by the Academic Board, and business matters by the University. Financial information was obscure. The Board did however have a role in promoting the Courtauld, and despite the limitations we very much felt that we were part of the Institute. The University was immensely supportive, and we would not have survived in the 1980’s and 1990’s if it had not been for the support of successive Vice Chancellors and the willingness of the Principal, Peter Holwell, to balance the budgets whatever the outcome. Those were the days when the University was still an agglomeration of large revenue-producing colleges and the Courtauld was a very small part of the University’s financial accounts.
We set to, first under Peter Lasko and then under Michael Kauffmann, on moving to Somerset House. The project seemed to me to be a splendid beginning to solving the future use of William Chambers’s great masterpiece, for which the Government had no clear plans. After many negotiations, they agreed to the project and passed the necessary legislation. A big problem remained; where was the money to come from? We had already agreed that one source was payments for major loans of pictures to Japan, America, and Australia, and we had a number of friendly trusts and individuals whom we knew we could count on. But there was a big gap. Peter was quite frank, he hoped that I would find a solution. I did, but like many of the happy things in life, the solution came quite by chance. My wife Judith, during her Open University studies, had met Cecilia Neal. They had been at school together. Cecilia asked us to lunch and we met her husband Morton. During conversation I told him about the Courtauld’s needs, and he said that he would like to help. So I invited him to chair the appeal committee, which he did with great method and enthusiasm, and frequent use of the dining room at the Savoy. We undertook to the University to find £6 million of the cost, which enabled the University to enter into the contract for the refurbishment. Morton’s experience of building and development were also of immense value during the project.
Since the Courtauld has moved to Somerset House, it has gained greatly from the reuniting of the teaching, research, conservation and libraries with the collections. There have been squalls, there have been cuts and trimmings owing to financial constraints, but despite these there have been splendid academic achievements, great exhibitions and a steady demand for undergraduate and graduate places. Generous benefactors have helped in all sorts of ways. The galleries have been redesigned, re-lit, air-conditioned and de-carpeted, with the help of a Lottery grant.
The financial constraints have been constantly worrying. I came to the view about fifteen years ago that the best long-term solution for the Courtauld was to seek endowment finance to allow it to develop as a free-standing college. Without endowment finance the likely future was a steady erosion as grants from government sources were squeezed. That could only mean a genteel decline from being a world-class institute to the status of an also-ran. I used to say to Michael Kauffmann and to Eric Fernie that we needed a second founder and our own cheque book. Without these how would we attract top academic staff to ensure our future as a world-class organisation? How could we properly fund the libraries, the gallery, and the extra space that they would need? How could we contemplate any extension of the scope of our research and teaching?
Besides, the governance model was no good. The Board had no role other than giving advice and no assurance that its advice would be taken. The Courtauld could give no commitment to any project because only the University could commit. The Director and management had none of the advantages that a normal Board of responsible trustees can bring to guiding the management and taking timely decisions.
Then the opportunity came. The University decided that the Courtauld was an anomaly within its much reduced organisation. The threat of being absorbed by a larger college concentrated peoples’ minds. Barry Munitz of the J. Paul Getty Trust and Lisbet Rausing saw the opportunity and generously offered the core endowment needed. The University and the Higher Education Funding Council approved the plans. On 1st August the Courtauld was reborn as a college of the University, with direct funding and with a Board of Governors who will have real responsibility for the first time.
I have been privileged to have served as Chairman of the Advisory Board. If I have often exceeded my brief and behaved like a real Chairman, I make no apologies. I did it to help successive Directors and to fill a vacuum in the University’s arrangements. It has been fun working with Peter Lasko, Michael Kauffmann and Eric Fernie, who have all made a big contribution to the Courtauld’s success. Now I hand over to Nick Ferguson, who has done so much to ensure the success of the new arrangements, with a lot of confidence and enthusiasm for the future. His new Board and the new Director Jim Cuno, who will come in January, will be busy. Bringing the libraries and other services up to date, expansion into other parts of Somerset House, cementing the potentially fruitful relationship with the Getty, raising more money for the endowment and for other needs, considering other fields such as Eastern art, and relationships with other disciplines, some in conjunction with other institutions, are some of the matters on the busy agenda.
I am more excited about the prospects now than I have ever been. The Courtauld is now properly equipped, for the first time, to capitalise on its brand.
Method and Style
Brevity is Nicholas Goodison’s style, hence the appropriate length of this note. The one-line letter is his ideal, similarly the one-hour meeting, and all the more effective, indeed sometimes devastating, for that. He keeps few notes or papers (after a meeting there is always a stack of discarded sheets, neatly torn or scored through, at his place at the table). There is only one respect I can think of in his relations with the Courtauld in which he is not a minimalist, and that is in the amount of time, in both thinking and doing, he gives to an important problem and its resolution. The Courtauld has benefited more than we know from this, and certainly I have as Director. Our debt to him, as Chairman, fundraiser and trouble-shooter, would be difficult to overestimate.
PROFESSOR ERIC FERNIE