Room with a view tops off Tate Britain’s revamp

Penelope Curtis, the gallery’s director, aims to accentuate the strengths of the collection and the building


When Tate Britain reopens its main entrance on 19 November, visitors will be able to enjoy a view across the River Thames from one of its finest spaces for the first time in living memory. The Grand Saloon, a large room under the museum’s portico, has been closed to the public since the flood of January 1928, when the river broke through at Millbank and water swept into the Tate.

The room with a view is no longer subdivided into offices. It has been restored and rechristened the River Room and will host seminars and events. It is one of several improvements to the oldest part of Tate Britain’s 1897 building (see box). The completion of the second, £16m phase of a £45m project follows the opening in May of a chronological promenade through the nation’s collection of British art. The rehang marked a departure from thematic displays that often included jarring juxtapositions of works.

The renovation project was launched as “Transforming Tate Britain”, a slogan that jarred with the gallery’s director Penelope Curtis when she arrived in 2010. “I didn’t want to transform it,” she says, preferring to discover the building’s strengths and those of the collection. The former Tate Gallery became Tate Britain in 2000 when Tate Modern opened as the home of Britain’s collection of international Modern and contemporary art. Under Curtis, Tate Britain is an institution that is making the most of what it has and worrying less about its identity and “ommissions” in the collection.

Curtis describes the long, central Duveen galleries as the art museum’s “nave”. The outer most galleries around it now form an uninterrupted circuit, starting with works from around 1600 and ending with contemporary pieces. Vistas have been restored or created, helping orientation and lending themselves to visual surprises. Across the central axis, for example, a bright red sculpture by the late Anthony Caro, Early One Morning, 1962, in a gallery of 1960s art, can be glimpsed from a gallery of mid-19th century works, including John Martin’s fiery, large scale canvas, The Last Judgement, 1853.

Meanwhile, smaller galleries that lead off the Duveen galleries, which Curtis describes as “side chapels”, are devoted to monographic, medium-based or thematic displays called “Spotlights”. There will be 16 new displays annually, with eight changing each spring and eight every autumn. Visitors currently find sculpture by Henry Moore in one gallery while in another there is a new acquisition installed last month: Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: the lights going on an off, 2001. The changing displays allow Tate Britain to do things that “we cannot do in a paying exhibition because they are too niche or scholarly—but things we should be doing”, says Curtis. The combination of long-term chronological hang and changing displays gives the institution two curatorial speeds. It also means visitors find familiar works always on display along with unfamiliar ones.

A significant but not immediately obvious improvement to the 1897 galleries is the increase in their floor loading. Installing large sculptures is now possible. Two monumental works by Jacob Epstein are particularly impressive: the double-sided Sun God, 1910 (reverse Primeval Gods, 1931-32), which is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Tate’s Jacob and the Angel, 1940-41.

Curtis praises Caruso St John Architects for the way they discovered new spaces and opened up old ones. A new spiral staircase in the foyer will help connect the upper floor with the building’s lower level, where there is a new cafe opposite the restaurant. Its Rex Whistler mural, The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, 1926-27, has been restored. The artist Richard Wright has designed stained glass for the Millbank foyer, among the new commissions.

Where next for Tate Britain? Curtis does not rule out an extension, but she says that it is a virtue that the building is “not too big”. That said, she thinks that the basement could yield more display space. “The upper floor could then be devoted to the collection, with temporary exhibitions on the lower level,” she says.