Interview with Dr Deborah Swallow

As the Courtauld celebrates its 75th anniversary Artvehicle catches up with Dr Deborah Swallow, Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art (

AM: What celebrations are planned for the Courtauld's 75th anniversary?

DS: We have planned a special year-long calendar of events to celebrate our 75th anniversary. We have three anniversary exhibitions, focusing on the works of major artists in our collections: Walter Sickert, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Paul Cézanne. There is a special academic programme focusing on the theme of 'Writing Art History', and in early July, we are hosting a three-day celebration for students, alumni, and friends.

AM: How do the Courtauld's dual functions of art gallery and centre for the study of the history and conservation of art and architecture operate together?

DS: The Courtauld was founded on the basis that art is best understood through close examination of the works being studied. Our students have unique access to works in our collection, and our small class sizes are designed to encourage discussion amongst students and the faculty. The founders of the Courtauld also felt it was important to make our gallery open to the public so that anyone with an interest in art could benefit from it.

AM: What are the strengths of the Courtauld Gallery's collection?

DS: The Courtauld Gallery's collection spans more than 700 years of art history. It is an intimate collection of high-quality pieces and has a particularly strong selection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works from the turn of the century, including works by Renoir, van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, and Matisse.

AM: The Courtauld Gallery is something of a well-kept secret. Do you have plans to raise its public profile?

DS: People do often refer to the Courtauld Gallery as a 'well-kept secret', but recently we have seen record numbers of visitors coming to the gallery. We enjoy the fact that more and more people are enjoying our collection, and our aim is to preserve the quality of the gallery's offerings and of the exhibitions so that people continue to come back.

AM: What kind of students does the Courtauld Institute attract? Would you like to broaden its appeal?

DS: The Courtauld aims to attract the best students of art history and conservation from around the world. They come to study the broadest range of periods and genres, ranging from the medieval to the contemporary. Courses at the Courtauld help students focus closing in on the work of art itself while also placing art in its social, historical and broader artistic context. The resources which our community has at its disposal are unparalleled. Our Witt and Conway libraries contain more than three million images and are used by art professionals in many different areas.

AM: How does the Courtauld Institute disseminate its scholarship and expertise?

DS: The Courtauld mounts a large number of special events and programmes throughout the year. Its Research Forum hosts international research events which bring together academics from around the world; its Public Programmes Department runs special programmes for school students, evening and summer courses for adults, and lunchtime talks in the Gallery for the public. The Courtauld Gallery's exhibition programme brings a range of scholarship and research into the public domain, our academics curate exhibitions in major galleries and museums around the world, and the network of Courtauld alumni can be found working in positions throughout the art world from education and journalism to museums, galleries, and auction houses.

AM: I really enjoyed the Courtauld's closely focused exhibitions 'Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes' and 'Temptation in Eden Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve'. Who is responsible for curating the cohesive programme of temporary exhibitions? What exhibitions are planned for 2008?

DS: The exhibition programme is led by the Head of the Courtauld Gallery, and the exhibitions are distinctive in that they are often curated by Courtauld Gallery curators with Courtauld academic staff; each exhibition focuses on a single or group of work from the collections, or arises out of research being carried out in the Institute.

Our first anniversary exhibition of this academic year has featured the Camden Town Nudes of Walter Sickert and runs until 20 January. The 2008 programme starts with the exhibition 'Renoir at the Theatre: looking at La Loge' which runs from 21 February to 25 May and explores the glamour of theatre going and its social implications to Parisian nightlife. Our summer exhibition will display for the first time the Courtauld's complete collection of works by the artist Paul Cézanne and runs from 26 June to 5 October. Cézanne is often described as the 'father of modern art' and this collection illuminates how he bridges 19th and 20th century art together through his concentration on form rather than content. In the autumn of 2008 we will be showing the Courtauld's very significant collection of works by Turner.

AM: What has been your personal experience of working at the Courtauld?

DS: I find the Courtauld an immensely stimulating place to work. There is an invigorating intellectual life, a tremendous sense of engagement and an intensity of experience, but a great sense of enjoyment too. All my colleagues are dedicated to the institution; students who chose us as a place of study are strongly committed and there is a strong sense of a Courtauld family among both the permanent staff and the wider community of students, alumni and friends.

AM: Where would you like to see the Courtauld at its centenary?

DS: Twenty five years from now, we hope to be as relevant as ever in our fields of interest. The art world is changing rapidly. It is increasingly globalised and the speed of development is accelerating. We intend to embrace these new realities while continuing to be committed to the highest academic excellence.


Walter Richard Sickert 'The Camden Town Murder or What Shall we do for the Rent?' (detail)c. 1908 Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund(c) Estate of Walter R. Sickert/DACS 2007.

Walter Richard Sickert 
'The Camden Town Murder or What Shall we do for the Rent?' (detail)
c. 1908 
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
(c) Estate of Walter R. Sickert/DACS 2007.