Tate Britain: Sugar baron’s dream comes true

The opening of new galleries and the division of the museum’s collection with Tate Modern have realised Sir Henry Tate’s vision of a national gallery for British art. Three rooms for Constable and one each for Hogarth and Blake


British painting is finally displayed in its full glory in London with the opening of the Centenary Development at Tate Britain on 1 November. This major internal expansion provides additional galleries in the north-west quadrant of the museum, as well as a new entrance in Atterbury Street. Display space has now been increased by 35% with the extra galleries and last year’s removal of modern international art to Bankside.

Sir Henry Tate’s vision of a “national gallery” of British art has finally been properly realised, over a century after the sugar baron’s original donation. The Millbank gallery opened in 1897 for British pictures, but two decades later it took on collecting modern international art. In recent years, there was simply not enough space to show the collection, even with Sir Nicholas Serota’s annual rehangs, and a decision was made to open a second London building. When Tate Modern was inaugurated at Bankside in May last year, work had already begun on expanding facilities at Millbank and the north-west quadrant was shut. Tate Britain was then launched, with the British collection rehung in controversial thematic rooms. Galleries on themes such as “Literature & Fantasy” and “Home & Abroad” were slated by the critics, just at the moment when TateModern was drawing almost universal praise. Now TateBritain has returned to a more conventional display. “I would describe it as a bold chronological hang. The rooms are arranged around themes as well as individual artists, hung within a clear chronological structure,” explained director Stephen Deuchar. The opening display is “Collections 2002-1500”, a slightly gimmicky title which emphasises that Young British Artists will be just as strongly represented at Millbank as Bankside.

The new galleries

Designed by John Miller+ Partners, the Centenary Development is the most important expansion since the opening of the Millbank gallery. Close to the new entrance on Atterbury Street are the Linbury Galleries on the lower floor, a suite of five rooms for temporary exhibitions, now showing “Exposed: The Victorian nude”. Next spring the new Research Centre, with the library and archive will open on this level.

A grand staircase, temporarily decorated with Tony Cragg’s huge “Britain seen from the North”, rises to the main floor, where there are four new galleries and five refurbished ones. The story of British art begins with works up to 1800, in rooms which at last have proper air-conditioning.

Then comes the 19th century, except for most of the Turners, which remain in the 1987 Clore Gallery. These rooms end at the original Thames-side entrance, which remains open.

Nearly half the British art at Millbank is post-1900. On the other side of the original entrance is modern art up until 1960. Until now the north-east quadrant of the gallery had been largely given over to temporary displays, but with the new Linbury Galleries, a smaller area will be devoted to special shows, and the remainder is showing post-1960 art from the permanent collection. The first exhibition in the main floor temporary display area will be the Turner Prize shortlist, with works by Richard Billingham, Martin Creed, Isaac Julien and Mike Nelson (7 November-20 January).

All this extra space means that more of the Tate’s collection is now on show, along with major loans: 40 paintings from the V&A (mainly Constables) and 26 others from the Royal Collection, the Royal Academy, the National Gallery, the Foundling Museum and the Yale Center for British Art. There is also more room for changing displays of works on paper. Tate Britain promises that the most important artists will always be shown in depth; Hogarth and Blake are among those who now have a room to themselves, while Constable has three.

Sir Henry Tate originally donated 65 pictures, but the British collection has now grown to 2,400 paintings up to 1900 and 1,100 20th-century works. Even with the extra space, Tate Britain is now only able to display 600 paintings, or around 17% of the collection (several hundred others are on show at Tate’s three other galleries: Tate Modern, Liverpool and St Ives). Rotation of pictures at Millbank will continue.

Meeting the cost

The total cost of the Centenary Development has been £32.3 million, of which £18.75 million came from the Heritage Lottery Fund. By far the most important private donation was from Sir Edwin and Lady Manton, who gave £7 million. British-born Sir Edwin, who lives in New York, is now aged 92, which means that he was born just 12 years after the opening of the original Tatein 1897.

The next largest private donation came from the Linbury Trust, the family trust of Lord and Lady Sainsbury of Preston Candover (John Sainsbury and Anya Linden). It funded the Linbury Galleries, for temporary exhibitions. Other major donors who paid for individual gallery rooms include Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly and the Wolfson Foundation.

Building work began in June 1998, and all went smoothly until a serious flood occurred on Easter Sunday last year. Water from a mains pipe carrying water for fire fighting had, it is alleged, been pierced by contractors working for construction managers Mace, flooding through the new entrance and sinking into the recently constructed basement. Costs are believed to have been close to £5 million, but this should be met from insurance. The flood delayed the opening by five months.

There are also two developments just outside the Tatesite. Across from the Atterbury Street entrance is the old Royal Army Medical College, which early this year was acquired by the London Institute to house Chelsea College of Art and Design. Plans are under discussion to transform the military parade ground into a public sculpture garden and to open up a walkway towards Pimlico underground station. Millbank Pier is due to open next spring, offering a new shuttle boat service to Tate Modern.

Before Tate Modern, the Millbank gallery was receiving some two million visitors a year, although in its final year before the split it was 1.7 million. Tate Modern then became a spectacular success, attracting 5.25 million people in its first 12 months. Visitors to Tate Britain slumped by a third, to 1.2 million in the financial year 2000-01.

In its Heritage Lottery Fund application, Tate Britain estimated that it would attract between 1.5 and 2.3 million visitors after the Centenary Development, although this projection has subsequently been reduced downwards. It is now expected that visitors in the current financial year will number around 1.2 million, the same as last year. Although the new Centenary Development will be a major draw, the foot and mouth outbreak and the 11 September terrorist attacks have led to a serious fall in foreign visitors.

Tate jobs

Last June, the inaugural director of Tate Modern, Lars Nittve, resigned to head the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. To the surprise of outsiders, Tate trustees delayed advertising for a replacement and overall director Sir Nicholas Serota was appointed acting director. The decision was made for “continuity”, because Tate Modern had lost not only its Swedish director, but also the main curatorial boss, Iwona Blazwick, head of exhibitions and displays. She took over as director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in June and has since been replaced by Sheena Wagstaff, who had done the same job at Tate Britain (her old position has been filled by Judith Nesbitt). Tate trustees felt that an outside appointee as Tate Modern director would take time to settle in, delaying important decisions in the crucial period following last year’s opening. The trustees will be discussing the appointment of a new Tate Modern director in January, and are expected to advertise with a view to getting the new person in post during the spring. Possible candidates who may apply include Richard Calvocoressi (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art), Elizabeth MacGregor (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and formerly Ikon Gallery, Birmingham), Declan McGonagle (formerly Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin), Sandy Nairne (Tate), Julia Peyton-Jones (Serpentine Gallery), Andrea Rose (British Council) and Stephen Snoddy (Milton Keynes Gallery). The other internal change is still at a consultation stage, but the proposal is to modify the current system under which Tate curators are either attached to one of the four galleries (Britain, Modern, Liverpool and St Ives) or to the central Collections Department. These divisions have proved rather rigid for curators, and a more flexible system is under discussion to encourage them to work more broadly.