All wrapped up, nowhere to go

The Courtauld Gallery closes tomorrow for refurbishment: some works will be lent, others stored. Vanessa Thorpe reports

One bite from the apple and the artless Adam and Eve are suddenly shamed into searching for a way to cover up their bodies. It is a biblical scene that was favoured by many of the Old Masters, yet no image of the Garden of Eden is more familiar than Lucas Cranach's 470-year-old depiction, complete with its exotic menagerie. But if you have not yet viewed the painting at its London home you have missed your chance, because yesterday Cranach's famous nudes were covered with more than their usual fig leaves and hidden away for at least a year.

The picture is one of around 400 works that are going into storage while the Courtauld Gallery, housed in the north wing of Somerset House on The Strand, is refurbished. It will be closed from tomorrow. Some of the most prestigious paintings will go on loan to other galleries during the pounds 2.5m building work, but more than half the collection will be out of circulation until next autumn at the earliest. In addition to the Cranach, a renowned 1778 Gainsborough portrait of the artist's wife on her 50th birthday and a popular Tintoretto, The Adoration of the Shepherds, will also be wrapped up and stowed in warehouses while the gallery's decorative plasterwork is restored and the lighting improved.

Often the poor, forgotten relation, the Courtauld hopes to reopen in a blaze of brilliance, enabling it to rival Europe's major galleries and live up to the grandeur of its home of seven years beneath Sir William Chambers' allegorical sculptures of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance in the building often cited as one of the finest in London.

"It would be impossible to keep the pictures on the site during the work because it would not be a safe environment," said a gallery spokeswoman. "We feel we have taken up all the opportunities to lend out and we are pleased that a lot of our best known works will be on display elsewhere." The Courtauld's recent lottery grant will pay for the restoration work and an air-conditioning system, while the prints and drawings gallery and the cafe will be re-organised.

The gallery's collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings will be sent to Japan where it will tour three venues. Cezanne's moody Lac d'Annecy (1896) will be one of the stars of the trip. Other noted works in this section of the collection include Manet's ubiquitous A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, and oils by Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir.

Twenty-nine other paintings, including a Van Gogh portrait, will go to the National Gallery and 13 will go to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. One Rubens, The Bounty of King James Triumphing over Avarice, will spend a year at the London Tate.

The temporary closure of the Courtauld can be seen as a small step backwards in the campaign to openall of Somerset House to the public. Formerly used to keep the registrar-general's birth, death and marriage records, the neo-Palladian building on the Thames is still occupied by the Lord Chancellor's Department and staff from the Inland Revenue. Ministers first promised to open it up to the public in 1971.

The gallery moved into the north wing seven years ago, along with its sister, the Courtauld Institute. Both are part of London University and the art collection was bequeathed by the industrialist Samuel Courtauld.

Eventually the whole site is to become a grand arts venue, thanks to a lottery grant. The pounds 75m Arthur Gilbert silverware collection - the biggest art bequest made to the nation - will move to another wing within the next two years. The central quadrangle, now a car park, may be used for open-air concerts and the 860ft river-front terrace will be opened to the public.

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