The Tate: A History 
by Frances Spalding.
Tate Gallery, 308 pp., £25, April 1998, 1 85437 231 9
Show More
Show More

This useful, well-balanced and at times enthralling history of the Tate Gallery was commissioned for its centenary. It more or less coincides with the obsequies for the Gallery as we have known it and with the baptism – by marketing experts, one supposes – of TGBA and TGMA, twin offspring of the deceased, dedicated to British art and modern art respectively, and already known as Millbank and Bankside. The institution has in fact often changed identity. It began by being British but took on a North American look. The dust-jacket shows the austere lonic Portland stone sculpture hall. Spalding observes, justly, that by insisting on the intervention of the American architect John Russell Pope in 1929 the sponsor, Lord Duveen of Millbank, was promoting, against the inclinations of British curators and civil servants, the ‘latest American style’, the style of the new sculpture gallery in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Pope was subsequently chosen as the architect of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and was also responsible for the design of the Duveen Gallery for the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum (not, as Spalding claims, destroyed in the Second World War but damaged and re-opened in 1962). The hushed temple in the heart of the Tate was for sculpture which had to be lent by the V & A.

Following the example of his father, Sir Joseph Joel Duveen, who commissioned W.H. Romaine-Walker to create the Turner Wing (the first Turner Wing, opened in 1910), Joseph Duveen had already paid for the new modern foreign galleries and the Sargent Gallery, which were inaugurated in 1927 (also partly the work of Romaine-Walker). Spalding records this munificence fully and illustrates the splendid rooms, but we are not encouraged to step back and reflect that in the first hundred years of the National Gallery, parent of the Tate (which was only granted full independence in 1955), none of a whole series of new galleries had been sponsored. We think of such benefactions as typically American, but were the Duveens inspired by the example of their transatlantic clients or did they favour the Tate because it had been founded at the initiative of another merchant prince, Sir Henry Tate? And why were the gestures of the Duveens so rarely imitated before the new Turner Wing of the Tate, the Clore Gallery, opened in 1987?

Spalding is remarkably candid, if often crisp, in her survey of recent developments. These include the attempt made in the mid-Eighties by the millionaire property developer and art collector Peter Palumbo to extend his power as chairman of the trustees and to reduce the role of the director, Alan Bowness, to that of a manager. The political circumstances in which this coup nearly succeeded are not neglected, but more context and commentary are required if they are to be understood. Palumbo may have been inspired in his conduct by American museum trustees, who often, and not always unreasonably, behave as if they own the institution they represent.

It was under Thatcher that the traditional role of the museum trustee in this country began to be ignored or misunderstood. Indeed the idea of an inconspicuous but vigilant custodian of the achievements of the past and an independent assessor of the needs of posterity has no place in the model of government that she espoused – and has bequeathed to her successors.

Today the Tate is no longer run by a director with assistance from curators, but by a director with a ‘management team’, which inevitably includes senior administrators with no special knowledge of art. One finds in the Civil Service and in the business world, and of course in universities and hospitals, ‘team’ members addicted to acronyms and bullet points, and dedicated to market strategies, consumer surveys and retail opportunities. A new ‘management culture’ is being absorbed by museums and galleries. It wins Lottery funding and government approval, but it tends to stifle unorthodox intelligence and has little of the sympathy for the past which is the best protector of future needs. We must hope this does not happen at the Tate.

The Gallery’s imminent division may be an appropriate moment to review the prehistory of the type of institution, or rather types of institution, which it embodies. This means looking back, not a hundred years but two hundred, and not to London or New York so much as to Paris. That city, long the chief supplier in Europe of luxury crafts, and the centre of modern fashion, was enabled by Napoleon’s conquests to appropriate much of the status previously enjoyed by Rome and other Italian cities as the repository of the masterpieces of the past. Yet after Waterloo, when British diplomats insisted on the restitution of most of the greatest cultural trophies in the Louvre, Paris somehow regained its dominance.

It did so, however, as the capital of modern art: not only art that was commissioned by the Church or Crown, but large independent easel paintings, some of them made by artists who possessed, or claimed to possess, the Romantic poet’s sublime indifference to patronage and even in some cases sparks of the revolutionary spirit that was associated with Paris. The chief support provided by the state for such works was the Musée du Luxembourg. This was housed in a palace which had long been visited for its gallery of Old Masters. In 1816 it was emptied of its collection to help fill gaps in the Louvre and it reopened in 1818 as a gallery for pictures by great living artists (including David, then in political exile). The creation of the first European museum of modern art was thus something of an expedient, but the political impulse behind it was not ephemeral. No subsequent French regime dared to neglect it.

Unsurprisingly, the character of the Musée changed frequently, and often radically. Works by David, Géricault, Delacroix and Ingres were removed to the Louvre, other pictures were consigned to the regions, and the criteria for accession were altered, as was the nature of the display. Much of what was housed there is now disparaged as official art. Yet the most ambitious work of the Impressionists and their successors was made with half an eye on the Luxembourg – Monet’s big painting of a picnic, which he abandoned, Manet’s attempts to paint modern history, and those of Renoir and Seurat to monumentalise suburbia. Gauguin referred to it as a prison, but it was a prison into which his admirers strove to have him admitted.

This first great museum of modern art was also a museum of national art. The museums which sprang up all over Europe in imitation of it were also devoted to national, or sometimes to more narrowly local schools. (Tourists who explore the museums of arte moderna in Italy are often disappointed to find very little that now seems modern, nothing that is not Italian, and little that is not regional.) Why did London have to wait so long for its museum of modern national art to be founded? The conventional – but inadequate – answer, repeated by Spalding in her opening pages, is that the Government was reluctant to support the arts. The truth is more complicated.

From its foundation, the National Gallery was conceived of as an institution that would both honour British painting and foster its further development. We are reminded by Judy Egerton’s magnificent new catalogue of British painting in the National Gallery that the founding collection of 38 paintings included nine British works (by Hogarth, Reynolds and Wilkie, the last of whom was still alive).* The group of collectors and connoisseurs who formed the remarkable exhibiting society known as the British Institution were among the chief promoters of the Gallery, and they were much concerned to encourage young artists to measure their achievements against those of the Old Masters. Although their paternalism was often resented, creating paintings that would be regarded as modern equivalents to the work of Claude, Teniers, Poussin or Cuyp, was a fundamental ambition of artists as varied as Wilkie, Constable and Turner. The latter’s insistence that two of his paintings should hang for ever beside two Claudes in the National Gallery indicates how closely British artists could identify their prospects with those of the national collection.

By the 1850s it was clear that there was no room in the National Gallery to display its collection of British painting, now greatly enlarged by the Vernon Gift and the Turner Bequest. Government parsimony could be blamed for this, but it was government expenditure under the Gallery’s first director, Sir Charles Eastlake (a painter well represented in the Vernon Gift), which reduced the available space. His acquisition of Old Masters was conducted with a vigour unequalled by any European public collection.

Many of the paintings in the Musée du Luxembourg were very large. These had been produced in response to the exalted but extravagant ideals of the Academy and as part of the competition for public attention which had been stimulated by the Salon exhibitions. Neither these ideals nor quire this competition had ever prevailed in London, and the more admired examples of British painting were relatively modest in size. Indeed, some influential members of the British Institution were actively hostile to large pictures, and few commissions for murals were offered which might have encouraged painting on this scale. The response of painters to the opportunities presented by the Houses of Parliament was not a matter for patriotic celebration. A separate museum like the Luxembourg, giving prominence to the more monumental efforts of British art, would not have elicited international admiration.

The situation changed decisively with the election of Frederick Leighton as president of the Royal Academy. His Continental training and ambitions for both himself and his colleagues inclined him to make and to encourage paintings of an undomestic character. His Captive Andromache, for example, was nearly as large in size and quite as heroic in style as Veronese’s Family of Darius in the National Gallery. It was purchased in 1889 for the City Art Gallery of Manchester by a group of local supporters. The creation of the British regional galleries in the 1870s and 1880s is not mentioned by Spalding but, as was clear from Palaces of Art, an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in the winter of 1991-92, and from the exhibition Art Treasures of England, which took place early this year at the Royal Academy, they provided new opportunities for modern British artists, and this is surely not irrelevant to the initiative of Sir Henry Tate, who had made his fortune in Lancashire before moving to London.

Spalding quotes from a leading article in the Times in March 1890 which called for a new gallery that ‘should do for English art what the Luxembourg does for the French’. The Museum of Modern British Art at Millbank, to give its original title, was meant to do exactly that, but hardly had it been founded than the model began to seem inadequate. A demand developed for a fuller historic collection of work by British artists than had been deemed appropriate within the National Gallery. Before long the Tate Gallery became the repository not simply for modern British art, but for old, and even ancient, specimens.

There also arose a demand for a museum of modern foreign – above all, French – art. The reason for this lay in the mystique that increasingly surrounded modern art in Paris. By the end of the 19th century, art students were drawn there as they had once been drawn to Rome. The magnet was not the antique but the avant-garde. A measure of official resistance had long been considered the likely fate of any work of art of outstanding originality: now official opposition was an essential qualification. Similarly, the small élite of critics, collectors and dealers who identified the true torch-bearers seldom had access to public funds. The situation changed completely, as Spalding notes, with the European determination to imitate New York’s Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1939. During the last half-century we have witnessed the ‘institutionalisation of Modernism’ (a phrase of Spalding’s) and, some have argued, its death. The £50 million allocated by the Millennium Commission on 30 October 1995 for TGMA is a landmark in this process. The new gallery will contain modern foreign art – Picasso and Rothko – but much of the contemporary art will be British and it may not be a coincidence that this massive gesture was made at a time when local artists enjoy perhaps unprecedented international esteem.

Soon after the Millennium Commission announced its grant, Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child, Divided went on exhibition at the Tate. Then Hirst won the Turner Prize. According to one of the jury, William Feaver, who is quoted by Spalding, this was ‘for panache and effrontery ... He has been the leading brainstormer of his generation of artists, a goad and corrective, showing up the solemnity of professional art curators while demonstrating that art’s main concern has to be the way we live now.’ Solemn professional curators (are there amateur ones?) are here invoked to supply an equivalent to the Salon jury or the president of the Royal Academy against which brave youth battles. Yet the curators seem eager to provide plenty of floor space and to deal with the formaldehyde. And what could be more solemn, or more of a cliché, than such a pronouncement about art’s ‘main concern’?

The message is clear: he’s the latest thing, the leader of the young pack, rather dangerous, even disagreeable, but fail to welcome him and you’ll look foolish tomorrow. Ever since the early days of the Paris avant-garde, some element of intimidation has been commonplace in art criticism. At times this is reminiscent of the way the grand manner and the antique were commended by the disciplinarians of previous centuries, except that it lacks a respectable theoretical foundation.

The suggestion is sometimes made that the difficulties many educated and artloving people have in trying to understand or to follow modern art are no greater than those which new art has always presented, but the idea of the avant-garde, especially in the visual arts, identifies, almost by definition, full appreciation with initiation and anticipates anxiety in most beholders.

Take the carpet of jagged slates spread by (or to the order of) Richard Long through Duveen’s sculpture hall, as seen in the photograph on Spalding’s dust-jacket. The elect smile serenely at the attractive pattern. Others pick their way around it with care, propping their minds open, nervously feigning a relish, gradually finding that one has developed, then wondering whether after all it is meant to be more than it seems, perhaps a metaphor, a statement ...

There is nothing wrong with this sort of response: it has been felt for centuries by pilgrims confronting high art – by 18th-century travellers in the Tribuna, by ancient Roman visitors to Cnidos – and indeed the phrase ‘feigning a relish’ was used by Reynolds to describe a perfectly proper preliminary response (his own) to Raphael’s frescos in the Vatican. What is new is the transferral of this aura to the modern, which was once approached with a lighter step and was loved or loathed with a singular lack of critical inhibition. Modern art is now something you ‘believe in’.

The first article of faith is the genius of Cézanne. Also above critical dispute are Cubism as practised by Picasso and Braque, the glass artifacts of Marcel Duchamp, and American Abstract Expressionism. Orthodoxy was demonstrated with special strength in responses to the concurrent exhibition of paintings by Cézanne at the Tate and Leighton at Burlington House in 1996, the former eliciting uniform and indiscriminate critical approval, the latter almost unanimous distaste, often accompanied by facile comparisons between the struggles of uncouth, unacknowledged genius, on the one hand, and the official honours and worldly success of the president of the Royal Academy, on the other. The early history of the Tate Gallery, in the view of the believer, chiefly consists in its sad failure to escape from conventional and insular ‘academic’ taste and to embrace the ‘challenging’ new art of France. Spalding often reinforces this myth, even if sometimes only out of carelessness. Thus, for instance, she claims that in the late 19th century the trustees of the National Gallery ‘shared the English suspicion of all things French’: an odd allegation to make of the ninth Earl of Carlisle, a prominent patron of the exiled Jules Dalou; of J.P. Heseltine, a keen admirer of Rodin, often resident across the Channel; and indeed of Alfred de Rothschild, who collected French art for his château in the Chilterns.

When the Tate was founded, funds for the acquisition of modern British art were available from a bequest made especially for this purpose by the great portrait sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey, who is described by Spalding very unfairly as an artist ‘who personified just the kind of professional success that the RA hoped to promote’. Few people were happy with the way the bequest was spent and it is right to echo complaints made at the time, but it is highly misleading to say that ‘the broad terms of the will meant that the Chantrey purchases could have encompassed paintings by Monet, Sisley and Pissarro, all of whom had painted in England.’ These artists had indeed brief1y painted in and around London in the early 1870s but they had not left much of what they painted behind, and the Chantrey bequest only came into effect in 1876.

And so we come to Cézanne. ‘At the sale of Degas’s collection in Paris in 1918 the director of the National Gallery, C.J. Holmes, had refused to purchase a Cézanne.’Three years later Charles Aitken, the keeper of the Tate, rejected two Cézannes offered on loan. The editorial in the Burlington Magazine, which must have been inspired by Roger Fry, claimed that all ‘enthusiasts’ and collectors of modern French art ‘have come to an agreement about Cézanne ... universally recognised as the father of the whole movement’. This was probably correct but it amounted to a priestly veto on any discussion of the artist’s merits – which contrasts with the outlook of Sicken, Ricketts, MacColl and Holmes, to mention only some of the more articulate critics (all of them also painters) still active at that date.

The priorities of the first keepers of the Tate were not the same as those of the directors who succeeded them. They were deeply conscious that they were in charge of an institution founded as a gallery of modern British art which had only gradually come to be devoted to historic British art and modern foreign art. To neglect to buy drawings by Alfred Stevens, who had profoundly influenced the preceding generation of painters and sculptors and had done much to regenerate British design, would have seemed to them more of a failure than ignoring, say, Matisse from among many other foreign contenders for their attention. With Norman Reid, who became director in 1964, priorities were decisively reversed. The transitional figure is John Rothenstein, director from 1938 to 1964. Spalding does full justice to his complex personality and mixed achievement. The thrilling episode when he punched the arrogant high priest of the avant-garde Douglas Cooper in the face is very well described and explained.

Avant-garde attitudes now enjoy official endorsement. The work of young art celebrities tends to be very large and in other respects too (the formaldehyde and so on) would be hard to keep in any home. Bankside, like the Musée du Luxembourg, is going to be full of new art which was made for a museum space. There will undoubtedly be the grimly portentous residue of some appalling ancient ritual, the oily stone, the slaughtered calf, as well as much brashly advertised concern for ‘the way we live now’ and some pieces with a genuine magic.

A ferry will take us upstream to Millbank, where we will hope to find that the heretics and reactionaries, the neglected and marginalised, to which Richard Morphet’s small exhibitions in the Seventies drew attention and who have also been rehabilitated by some of the admirable rehanging in the Tate in recent years, will be more comfortable. Soon, perhaps, Ben Nicholson will seem no more advanced than his father, William Nicholson. Both will belong to what will by then be the last century. And the merit of those British artists who, like the curators, Holmes and Aitken, hesitated to embrace Cézanne will be more in evidence, looking perhaps less provincial than Wyndham Lewis and Roger Fry and other eager mimics of the Continental avant-garde.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences