Tate Britain is the original gallery, and many would say still the best, in the Tate group, and remains at the forefront of world and British art hosting the annual and controversial Turner Prize. Tate Britain is also home to the largest collection of work by British artists anywhere in the world, and is a UK and London attraction high on the must-see lists of both nationals and tourists alike.
Established in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art, Tate Britain is built on the site of the old Millbank prison. The distinctive and slightly oversized portico at the front of the building was designed by architect Sidney R.J. Smith – building work began in 1893, and the gallery opened its doors on 21 July 1897. Despite being named otherwise, the gallery became affectionately known as the ‘Tate Gallery’ after its founder, English sugar merchant, Sir Henry Tate.
The twentieth century was a colourful time for Tate Britain, with several extensions changing both the appearance and the dynamic of the gallery. The Second World War saw the whole collection put into safe storage, a prudent move as the gallery did sustain some damage from German bombing raids. The Clore Gallery was opened in 1987, and houses the work of J.W. Turner, of which Tate Britain has the world’s largest collection.
As the twentieth century drew to a close the Tate Gallery became known as Tate Britain as its modern art collection was moved to Tate Modern down the Thames at Bankside, near South Bank, which can be accessed by speed boat from the Millbank Millennium Pier outside Tate Britain. Today Tate Britain concentrates on historical and contemporary British art only. Tate Britain welcomes in excess of 1.7 million visitors every year, making it a leading UK attraction.
Permanent works on show date from 1500 to the present day and include Francis Bacon’s (1909 – 1992) Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion – a work that is said to show the tortured artist’s work move into maturity, with its heavy use of colour and study of the grotesque.
Newton by visionary engraver and poet William Blake (1757 – 1827) presents a rather muscular vision of the physicist in the artist’s attempt to defame what he saw as the ‘single vision’ of science.
Recumbent Figure by sculptor Henry Moore (1898 – 1986) shows the female form in harmony with the landscape of England, in a commissioned work designed to form a link between man and nature.
Ophelia by James Everett Millais (1829 – 1896) shows the eponymous subject from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, singing in a river before she drowns. The work is famous as much for the detailed depiction of the riverside flora, as it is for the tragic maiden striking a pose of martyrdom.
Tate Britain is also well-known for the shows it puts on, the most famous (or infamous) being the annual Turner Prize exhibition which features the work of four artists under the age of fifty. Other shows include the Triennial exhibition held every three years with a guest curator providing their take on the current British contemporary art scene; there are also rooms dedicated to the work of artist’s like John Latham, Tracey Emin and Douglas Gordon, and these are subject to rotation.
Tate Britain is constantly innovating and hosting new exhibitions with the young, disabled and non-English speakers all well catered for. Check the Tate website for current exhibitions. Entry is currently free.
Tate Britain opening times
10:00 – 18:00 seven days a week
Last admission 17:15
Closed on 24, 25 and 26 of December
Nearest tube: Pimlico – Victoria line
Nearest train station: Victoria
Buses: 2, 36, 87, 88, 185, 360
London SW1P 4RG