What Have the Huguenots Ever Done For Us?..

A sort of two ply silk thread connected my Saturday and Sunday this week, and it’s a tale spun in the name of Courtauld. I visited the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House on Saturday, and spent Sunday afternoon at Eltham Palace (see it used for location shots in the “Three Act Tragedy” and “Death on the Nile” episodes of the Poirot series).

From February to June next year, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris will host an exhibition entitled “The Courtauld Collection: a Vision for Impressionism”. It will bring together about one hundred works which once belonged to Samuel Courtauld and most of which now belong to the Courtauld Gallery. The exhibition will highlight his pioneering role in shaping public taste for Impressionism in the United Kingdom. It will also include watercolours by William Turner which belonged to Samuel’s brother Stephen.

Samuel Courtauld’s ties with France ran deep: of Huguenot origin, his family originally came from the Ile d’Oleron on the Atlantic coast of France. They were part of the great wave of French Protestant migration, numbering about 50 000, that transformed London and England after Louis XIV had in 1685 cancelled the civil rights granted them by the Edict of Nantes. This led to the first use in English of the word “refugee”, from the French “refugie”.

“Our” Samuel Courtauld was the great nephew of the Samuel Courtauld whose father George, made two innovations: taking the family from its work in silverware to working in textiles; and, having been baptised in the French Protestant church of the London Huguenots, becoming a Unitarian.

(Coventry was once known for its textiles industry, particularly the weaving of silk ribbons. Courtauld’s opened a silk works in Foleshill in 1904, installing the first viscose yarn spinning machine that year. In 1941, it became the first British firm to produce nylon yarn.)

The present day George Courtauld, former Vice Lord Lieutenant of Essex, explains:

“My family has a Calvinistic background , which stresses personal responsibility, together with a feeling of responsibility to the community, and an ethos of hard work and anti-establishmentarianism.”

The youngest brother of the founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art was Stephen Courtauld. He did not enter the family business, but used his wealthy background to travel, and to pursue cultural and philanthropic interests – notably, the redevelopment in the 1930s of Eltham Palace.

Among Sir Stephen’s many interests was mountaineering, and his death in Rhodesia in 1967 brought obituaries from, among others, the Alpine Club. Professor GI Finch wrote of his “heart full of compassion and gold”, and the “sheer mystery ” of his survival of Loos and Mont Kemmel in the Great War. “T.S.B.” wrote that Stephen and his wife had retired to Rhodesia from Argyll partly for the climate and “partly owing to dislike of the Welfare State.”.

Courtauld’s pioneered the production of man made textiles including rayon, or artificial silk. While Stephen and his wife Virginie were entertaining at their Art Deco home in Eltham in 1937, the fictional Ruggles family first appeared in print by the pen of Eve Garnett, as “The Family From One End Street”, the first of a trilogy of children’s books. They dealt with the social conditions of the English working class, something exceptional in children’s literature.

(Garnett is a metonymic occupational name given to makers or fitters of hinges, from the Old French word for hinge.)

In Chapter Two, “Lily Rose and the Green Silk Petticoat “, the eldest of the Ruggles children encounters “the difficulties and dangers of ironing artificial silk”. She accidentally selects the hot flat iron for the job of ironing a customer’s slip:

“She made one long sweep up and down with the iron, and oh! What was happening! The petticoat was shrinking…shrinking…shrivelling up…running away before her eyes!”

Eve Garnett was born in Worcestershire and on leaving school went to the Chelsea Polytechnic School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools, eventually exhibiting at the Tate Gallery, the Lefevre Gallery and the New English Art Club. She was commissioned to illustrate Evelyn Sharp’s 1927 book “The London Child “, and the work left her “appalled by the conditions prevailing in the poorer quarters of the world’s richest city.”. She determined to show up some of the evils of poverty and extreme class division in the United Kingdom, especially in contemporary London.

During World War II, the Courtaulds continued to have friends to stay at Eltham Palace, including the Cabinet Minister, Rab Butler, who was married to Stephen’s niece, Sydney. He spent much of the war at Eltham, drafting, while staying there, his 1944 Education Act, the “Butler Act”. It radically reformed secondary education, introducing a system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools.

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