Tate Britain, the original Tate Gallery to distinguish it from Tate Modern, is situated near Lambeth Palace and just a short walk from the South Bank, the Eye and Westminster. It is an elegant building with a neo-classical portico in the area of Millbank and stands on the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary. It houses the greatest collection of British Art in the world, works by Epstein, Gainsborough, Hirst, Hockney, Hogarth, Rossetti, Sickert, Spencer, Stubbs, and the artists of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who revolutionised British art in the 19th century.
Special attention is given to three outstanding British artists from the Romantic age: Blake and Constable have dedicated spaces within the gallery, while the Turner Collection of approximately 300 paintings and many thousands of watercolours, is housed in the specially built Clore Gallery.
Originally called the National Gallery of British Art it started with a collection of 65 modern British paintings given by its founder Sir Henry Tate (he of the sugar cube and sugar refining firm) when it opened in 1897. A further gift from Sir Henry in 1899 enabled an extension to be built, and in 1910 thanks to the gift of Sir Joseph Duveen, the Turner Wing was completed.
Over the years the Gallery amassed a collection of works dating from the 16th to the 20th century, to include Modern Art in 1916 and three new galleries for foreign art ten years later. This led to a change of name from National Gallery of British Art to The Tate Gallery.
The Tate is rightly famous for its collection of the works of the foremost English Romantic painter and landscape artist – J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Turner left his collection of oil paintings and thousands of studies to the nation on condition that they were kept together, and in 1987 the Clore Gallery was opened to house this magnificent bequest.
When the Tate Modern opened on Bankside in 2000, a decision was made to create more space by transferring the collection of international modern art from 1900 to the present day to the new gallery. Tate Modern, a former pumping station, is the perfect repository for modern art, and in the Turbine Hall, it has space to display enormous installations.
Tate Britain however, continues to house the Turner Prize exhibition, one of the art world’s most controversial prizes. Awarded to an artist under 50, British or working in Great Britain, the Turner Prize attracts both media attention and public demonstrations, former well known winners being Damien Hirst, Grayson Perry and Gilbert and George.
The Tate is no stranger to controversy, from accusations of favouritism in the purchase of work by Royal Academicians in the 19th century to media ridicule of the works it purchases today. There was the famous case in 1972 of the work by Carl Andre popularly known as The Bricks, which caused The Times newspaper to complain about institutional waste of taxpayers’ money. In 1995 a gift of £20,000 from art fraudster John Drewe came to light, along with the fact that the gallery had given Drewe access to its archives from which he forged documents authenticating fake paintings which he then sold. The last major scandal was in 2005 over the Tate’s purchase of Chris Ofili’s work The Upper Room for £705,000 with accusations of a conflict of interest.
None of these controversies however, detracts from the Tate’s magnificence. Whatever time of the year one chooses to visit, there will be one or two challenging exhibitions ranging from Neo-classical sculptures, exhibitions of the work of Rubens, William Blake, and Millais (founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), to film and video work of Derek Jarman and that of the Iranian film maker and photographer, Mitra Tabrizian. All this as well as the gallery’s normal offerings.
Three year’s ago the Tate held the Francis Bacon Exhibition (1909-1992), a re-assessment of his work in the light of new research since his death, comprising around 60 of his most important pieces from each period of his life. It showed in great detail, the work of possibly the 20th century’s greatest painter of the human figure in an exhibition that captured its sexuality, violence and isolation. The artist’s bleak outlook, his flamboyant homosexuality and his colourful private life had made him a controversial figure in life as much as in death.
For those visiting Liverpool, the superb Tate Liverpool which opened in 1988 shows various works from the London Tates as well as mounting its own eclectic displays and for those heading for Cornwall, the Tate St. Ives has an equally impressive collection.
The out-of-London Tates entail rail or coach travel from London, but Tate Britain is an easy walk from Westminster. For a truly memorable arrival, the best way to travel is by river-boat which leaves half-hourly from Tate Modern on the Thames, stopping at the London Eye along the way.
Like that other great palace of art in Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, the Tate also offers free admission apart from special exhibitions.
Open 10.00 a.m. to 17.50 daily.
Bus No. 77A runs from the centre of London through Westminster, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and Aldwych to the Museum every ten minutes. Nearest underground: Pimlico. Two superb licensed restaurants are in the basement of the Gallery.
Visitors wanting a quick and expert guide to parts of the Gallery should take one of the free one-hour tours offered daily which start at 11 a.m. 12 p.m. 2 p.m. and 3 p.m (Saturdays and Sundays 12.00 and 15.00 only).