One-way transfer of 19th-century works from Tate to British Museum planned

All 19th-century European drawings and watercolours in the Tate’s collection will be loaned to the BM, with the possibility of transferring ownership entirely


The Tate is to loan all its 19th-century European drawings and watercolours to the British Museum, including masterpieces by Degas and Van Gogh. Initially they will go on a long-term loan, but ownership may then be transferred. “We regard these works on paper as part of the national collection, and they should be available for study where they are best placed,” Sir Nicholas Serota told The Art Newspaper. The British Museum has a more accessible print room and, with other 19th-century European works on paper, it has a more appropriate context. It also holds the “national collection” of prints and drawings (although British watercolours are also collected at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate). The Tate’s long-term loan has not yet been formally agreed, but a decision is expected later this month and the transfer is likely by March.

The Tate’s decision to relinquish its 19th-century drawings and watercolours is part of a wider initiative. “The trustees are discussing whether there are certain works here which would be better placed in other collections,” Sir Nicholas explained. Four years ago the Tate and the National Gallery agreed that 1900 should be the dividing line for the two collections of European paintings, and they then swapped an important group of works. In 1999 the Tate and V&A undertook to cooperate by providing key loans for new displays at the V&A’s planned British Galleries and Tate Britain. Sir Nicholas now says that the Tate is also considering whether a few of its portraits might be more suitable in the National Portrait Gallery.

Initially the move of Tate works on paper to the British Museum will be as a five-year loan, but after this ownership may well be transferred. Although the Tate is normally prohibited from deaccessioning, it is allowed to give items to other national collections. Unlike the 1997 deal between the Tate and the National Gallery, this latest move is a one-way arrangement and not a “swap”. However, the Tate is a regular borrower of British Museum works on paper for exhibitions (such as the current Blake show), whereas the British Museum rarely borrows from the Tate.

Of the Tate’s 19 European works going to the British Museum, all are drawings or watercolours, except for a Cézanne print. The earliest item is a 1879 Degas and the latest is the Cézanne print, made in 1898. Many of the works being transferred were acquired before World War II, but the most recent acquisitions are four Schuffeneckers and Degas’ “Woman in a tub”, all given in 1983.

Although the British Museum is acquiring 19 European works, as part of its own rationalisation programme it is sending its posters and most of its photographic collection to the V&A. Meanwhile, V&A chairman Ms Paula Ridley has just mooted the idea that her museum should disperse its paintings and watercolours (see The Art Newspaper, No. 108, November 2000, p. 15). Former museum director Sir Roy Strong reacted strongly against this proposal, commenting on The Art Newspaper report in a letter to The Times: “The recent dilemma of the V&A lies in its inability to capitalise on its very diversity. Rather than dispersing its treasures, the challenge is to present them to a contemporary audience.”

From the Tate to the British Museum

Anquetin, Girl reading a newspaper (1890); Bauer, Strasbourg cathedral (1891); Benois, Limburg on the Lahn (1894); Cézanne, The bathers (1898); Degas, Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879), Bedtime (1880-5), Woman in a tub (1885), Woman at her toilet (1894); Gauguin, Tahitians (1891); Circle of Gauguin, Study of a tree (1887); Van Gogh, Thatched roofs (1884), A garden at St-Rémy (1889), The Oise at Auvers (1890); Helleu, Studies of Mme Helleu and Ellen (1895); Mauve, Entering the fold (1885-8); Schuffenecker, Martin Printanier, Marine, Cliffs, Falaise temps gris (dates unknown).

1997 The Tate and National Gallery swap late 19th- and early 20th-century paintings.

1999 The Tate and V&A agree to help with loans for the V&A’s British Galleries and Tate Britain.

2000 The British Museum decides to transfer its posters and most of its photographs to the V&A. V&A chairman Paula Ridley moots idea of dispersing its paintings and watercolours to other collections.

2001 The Tate will transfer its 19th-century European drawings and watercolours to the British Museum, and may also move a few of its portraits to the National Portrait Gallery.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'One-way transfer from Tate to British Museum'