Walking 'The Line'

The golden age of British painting in one fell swoop

Taking in the golden age of British painting in one fell swoop is a snap this season. The Courtauld Institute's sweeping exhibition Art on The Line (through January 20) reenacts highlights of London's Royal Academy shows from 1780 to 1836. Here are the great Gainsboroughs (15 in all), Reynoldses, and Turners, along with nearly 300 other masterpieces, all staged in their original setting—Somerset House, designed by Sir William Chambers.

The peculiar title refers to the line of carved molding that ran around the Great Room at Somerset House, at the height of the doors. Only the most important pictures were destined to be viewed "on The Line," while less fortunate artists had their pictures "skied," or hung very close to the salon's 22-foot ceiling. The current show is also installed in period fashion—floor to ceiling, frame to frame. A number of pictures, like the regal Lord Byron in Albanian Dress, by Thomas Phillips, have not been seen by the public since the 19th century.