There isn’t one Tate gallery, there are in fact four: two in London, one in Liverpool, the fourth in St. Ives, Cornwall. But the original Tate galley – Tate Britain – was initially known as the National Gallery of British Art. How did it end up being named after a sugar merchant?
Tate Britain is the permanent collection of British paintings, sculptures and prints, and Turner’s own major holdings, which he bequeathed to the Nation. The trouble was more and more wealthy benefactors were giving away their art collections and the National Gallery was running out of space. Sometimes bequests weren’t intentional… Hugh Lane, an Irish art dealer, left a collection of modern European Art by mistake in his will to the gallery. He died in 1915 when the cruiser RMS Lusitania sank. The artworks should have gone to a Dublin gallery.
It was Henry Tate, sugar magnate, who solved the problem of space when he left his collection of Victorian art; he offered to find a new building to house British Art. The galley was exclusively focused on ‘modern’ art, mainly 19th Century, and was managed by the National Gallery until 1954.
Tate Britain, as the collection eventually became in 2000, is big. The gallery is based on Millbank on the site of a former prison, and opened with its original name in 1897, from 1932 it was known as Tate Gallery until Tate Modern was established in 2000.
Like most Victorian Museums, Tate Britain, back in the 1890s has the familiar classical portico and dome, The Clore gallery, which houses the Turner collection, is postmodern. The problem of being close to the Thames has caused flood damage, and there was bomb damage during WW2. Most artworks were put in storage during the war, except a large immovable painting that had a brick wall built in front of it.
Over a century after the Tate Britain was built, what gets defined as modern had changed. While the original Tate gallery has kept its focus on British Art, the Tate’s collection of modern and growing international art was shifted to the Tate Modern, on the other side of the River Thames.
Tate Modern is one of the largest museums of modern art in the world, and includes the obvious artists like Cezanne and Picasso, and many you’ll never had heard about, unless you’re an art critic. The choice of building, an abandoned power station, has provided a huge turbine hall that can be used for temporary exhibitions on gigantic scales. Even if you’re not a fan of modern art, its hard not to be impressed by these vast installations that attract big crowds of visitors.
The other two Tates are smaller. Liverpool’s on the docks, features mostly modern art and performance art. The Cornish Tate is focused on local artists; again the buildings are themselves significant and representative of the area.
The Tate galleries are sponsored in part by the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with that in mind, I wonder how the modern Tate will evolve: more digital media? How will it deal with the rapid changing definitions of art?
Well, whatever happens, Turner’s paintings at the Tate Britain aren’t going anywhere, which I’m sure would please Henry Tate.
Personally I find the buildings the fascinating part, and I admire them all for their unique approaches to the world of art.
Given the choice, which Tate would you visit first?