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With its unrivalled collection of British art spanning five centuries, the Tate presents its visitors with a detailed survey of the national school while also offering a fascinating glimpse of the spirit and psyche of the British themselves
—-their tastes and preoccupations, predilections and prejudices. Artists in the past produced objects not just for their own satisfaction but also to strike a chord with collectors, patrons, and the public. Many traits are revealed, but the love of landscape is a consistent thread, often expressed with a haunting lyricism and passionate sense of involvement. Also evident is a fascination with conveying both physical appearance and psychological character in the painted portrait, as well as native wit and an occasionally ribald sense of humour. Other works display the British love of animals or attraction to the sea. This range of subjects reflects the rich diversity of British culture itself.
I hope this small book will give you an insight into the full variety and continuing excellence of British art. If you have not paid a visit to the Tate Gallery in London, Liverpool, or St. Ives, I hope it will whet your appetite to do so.
The Tate Gallery, while perhaps best known for its modern art, is responsible for the United Kingdom's collection of British art from the sixteenth century to the present day. This book offers a survey of some of the finest and most interesting of the British works, including paintings, watercolours, drawings, and sculpture of all periods, as well as a number of pieces constructed in recent decades from a wide variety of other media. Some of theartists represented here are familiar British masters with international reputations, such as William Blake and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Also to be discovered, however, are many outstanding works by artists who, unjustly, are less well known, especially abroad.
The Tate Gallery at Millbank currently shows British works in the same building as modern foreign art. However, with the opening at the turn of the century of the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art in the converted Bankside Power Station, a short distance down the Thames, Millbank will revert to its original conception as the Tate Gallery of British Art and will be able to offer a definitive overview and evaluation of the "British School."
The Tate Gallery has a short history compared to its elder cousins the National Gallery and the British Museum. It was founded on an initial act of great generosity and philanthropy, and has continued to grow over the decades because of subsequent ones. The gallery, which was opened in the summer of 1897 by the Prince of Wales, took its name from its munificent benefactor, the sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899). Tate had risen from modest beginnings to build a fortune on refined sugar, and in particular the sugar cube. Not only did Henry Tate give his large collection of fine, mostly nineteenth-century British pictures to the nation, he also paid for the construction of an elegant neoclassical gallery to hold them. Designed by Sidney J. R. Smith, it was built on a site by the River Thames where the notorious Millbank Prison had stood before its demolition in 1892.
Henry Tate believed in the power of art to educate and enrich the lives of those who had access to it, and the gallery has opened its doors to a large and appreciative audience ever since. As the founder's inscription in the building recorded, he also intended the gallery to be "for the encouragement of British Art and as a thank offering for a prosperous business
career of sixty years."
For the new gallery's opening, Henry Tate's collection of sixty-five pictures and three pieces of sculpture was supplemented by British works of art transferred from the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). Along with these came a number of pictures purchased previously for the nation with funds provided for that purpose by the endowment of the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey. The works in the gallery from this variety of sources were predominantly nineteenth century.
Since 1897 the original building has been much added to, as have the collections. Henry Tate paid for an extension that was completed in 1899, and subsequent additions were funded by the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen and his son. Throughout the twentieth century the collections have expanded in scope and increased in size, and the Tate now holds important collections of work by British masters of all periods.
The largest group of works by a single artist is by Joseph Mallord William Turner-nearly three hundred oils and several thousand drawings and watercolours. These were accepted by the nation from the artist's estate and are now housed in the purpose-built Clore Gallery, which opened in 1987 through the generous funding of the Clore Foundation. For the first time a fully representative selection of Turner's work in all media and all periods can be seen under a single roof, and this is a popular attraction for visitors.
In recent years twentieth-century British works have also been shown in the regional galleries that the Tate has opened in Liverpool and St. Ives. In addition, the new policy of rehanging the collections in London each year has allowed the Tate to show a far greater range of its rich holdings, since the current space allows only a fifth of the collection to be exhibited at Millbank at any one time.
This book offers only a taste of the great variety of masterpieces of British art of all periods that can be seen at the Tate. It has been extremely hard to limit the number of artists and pictures included here, and many have been left out who in a fuller history should take their rightful place beside their peers.
The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
William Hogarth and His Successors
Romanticism and the Early Nineteenth Century
The Late Nineteenth Century
The Twentieth Century
Index of Illustrations
Author Biography: Nicholas Serota is director of the Tate Gallery. Robert Upstone is a curator in the museum's British Collection.