Henry Tate was a Victorian sugar millionaire, philanthropist and art-lover. In 1897 he donated his large collection to form the nucleus of a National Gallery of British Art, situated in a new building on Millbank which he had paid for himself. A fine statue of Sir John Millais, the recently deceased President of the Royal Academy, dominated the front entrance. But in 1932, only thirty five years later, much of the gallery space was taken over to display the modern art of all countries. Even now when a former power station has been acquired as a more suitable place to hold the modern art collection and the Millbank building has been re-branded as Tate Britain, most of Tate’s collection and the gallery’s later acquisitions are still hidden from public view. Modern art remains dominant in Tate Britain and Millais’s statue has been removed from its prominent position at the front of the building and relegated to the side entrance.
Tate Britain is now the home location of the Turner Prize. Exhibits have usually been British but not art. They have included a shark in formaldehyde, a dishevelled bed and much else of the same sort. The award of the prize always attracts considerable media attention, mainly negative but nevertheless all apparently welcomed by the organisers and the those who have submitted their work.
How did it happen that a National Gallery of British Art was established, and why did it so soon stray so far from its original purpose?
The nineteenth century, when Britain was the foremost trading nation of the world, had produced an incomparable flowering of British painting. This was not unprecedented. The great schools of painting have often flourished in periods of commercial affluence. In Renaissance Italy, the bankers of Florence and the merchants of Venice provided a market for paintings. In the seventeenth century, the newly established States of Holland had a hundred years of unparalleled trading prosperity – and we have the great Dutch painters. In the nineteenth century, Britain led the world commercially, and again, surplus personal wealth made possible great artistic excellence.
Nineteenth century Britain provided a good living to hundreds of painters, none of whom had a penny of encouragement from state funds or from Victoria’s court. The opening of the annual Royal Academy exhibition was a major social event; subsequent days attracted crowds of all classes. The most successful British painters lived like princes and Gladstone and Disraeli were flattered to be painted by them.
But before the British school had time to attain the stamp of international critical recognition, the twentieth century turned the art world upside down. There was a collapse of all traditional values and not merely the British School but the whole art of painting gave way to what we still call “modern art.” And at the same time, the generation that had only just survived the catastrophe of the First World War reacted against everything in the recent British past.
No one disputed the excellence of the continental old masters in the National Gallery. But the British tradition, so recently a source of national pride, was condemned or ignored. Titian and Rembrandt were allowed to retain their places in official approval beside Picasso and his successors. The British artists were not. The arbiters of public taste decided that a gallery of traditional British art was not called for after all.
Fortunately there are some places where British paintings can still be seen. The original buyers of our nineteenth century masterpieces had often made their money in the great centres of the Industrial Revolution. The art galleries of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and other major provincial cities still display (not always with sufficient pride) many fine British paintings. Public taste is changing, as in other fields, because of the internet. Those who are curious to see the work of Millais, Frith, Leader, Dyce and many others can look them up on line and see them there.
But the Arts Council and the rest of the artistic Establishment, secure in their cocoon of mutual approval and assured public funding, are immune to any improvement in public taste. Often it seems that they despise and wish to defy, not only public taste but even common sense. Henry Tate’s original intention is treated with contempt and the splendid art gallery which he built to show Britain and the world the best of British art is used to place on view trivia and rubbish.
Britain has a very great deal to be proud of, mainly in her past, but unfortunately also too much to feel ashamed of, mainly in her present. Tate Britain has both. A Gallery designed to exhibit our great art has been commandeered to exhibit our national decadence.
(Photo: © Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)