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Museums & Heritage

Publishing Tate's colourful past to celebrate its centenary

Histories and anecdotes of the Tate Gallery and the British Museum

Having long exploited the benefits to be accrued from the significant anniversaries of others, British national museums and galleries are now capitalising on their own. Frances Spalding’s history of the Tate marks the centenary of the Gallery’s foundation in 1897 and anticipates the resolution of its Janus-like personality-split between international modern and historic British art—with the move of the former to Bankside next year.

As with most official commissions, there are traces of worthy plodding through the chronological structure and occasionally, towards the end, a whiff of singed flesh caused by too strenuous toeing of the party line. But overall, it is a more rewarding trek than might be expected. This is not on account of broader insights afforded into British cultural policy—if such consistent lack of vision can be so dignified—over the last hundred years. The usual sorry story of Treasury parsimony combined with bungled Trusteeship is recited once more. Not is it on account of a passionate identification with the art which the Gallery was supposed to serve. Bullied by its big brothers, the Royal Academy and the National Gallery, and devoid of pocket money of its own until 1946, for half its life the Tate was singularly lacking in the means, confidence and experience to make acquisitions. Major potential loans or gifts were inspected and rejected with depressing regularity. It was only in 1945 that Trustees agreed to the opening of a small room devoted to abstract art, it was not until 1960 that there were sufficient works in the collection to justify allocating a gallery to Hogarth’s predecessors. In both fields respectively the Museum of Modern Art, New York and Paul Mellon continued to outflank the Tate.

Thus, perhaps inevitably, the fun and fascination of the book lies in its personalities, not least the staff: some, dedicated lifers; other, like Jim Ede, Andrew McLaren Young or John Russell, passing through; a few of such breathtaking unsuitability in key positions, that one wonders whether the notoriously noxious fumes from the vaults of Millbank Penitentiary, on which the Tate was constructed, had not adversely affected their sanity. James Bolivar Manson, director in the 1930s, was an alcoholic flower painter, antipathetic to Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism and even to living British artists of the calibre of Sickert and Moore. It was doubly unfortunate that the period offered some of the greatest opportunities for making imaginative acquisitions. The chance to forge links with dealer in modern German art was squandered with the result that the Tate gained nothing from the Swiss sales of “degenerate art” forcibly de-accessioned from German museums. Manson’s drunken attendance at board meetings was to be capped in March 1938 by his sensational appearance at a banquet staged in Paris to celebrate the British exhibition at the Louvre. Having enlivened the speeches with cat-calls, cock-a-doodle-doos and obscene insults, he proceeded to assault the ambassadress, Lady Phipps. Soon after, he was prevailed upon to resign on the grounds of ill health.

On the event of the war, his successor, John Rothenstein, took over an institution with a slovenly public face, demoralised staff and chaotic management. Nurtured in the bosom of the London art world (his father the painter, William Rothenstein, was principal of the Royal College of Art and a Tate trustee until 1932), he also came with experience of working in provincial art galleries, where his access-broadening initiatives—an exhibition of Walt Disney drawings in Sheffield, for example—would surely have commended him even to the present government. But prolonged leave of absence in America during the phoney war did not enhance his reputation. Over the ensuing twenty-five years of his directorship, while he managed to produce some twenty-odd books, it became apparent he was a fairly hopeless leader, organiser and administrator.

Staff relations reached an all-time low in the early 1950s when Rothenstein’s power-crazed deputy, LeRoux Smith LeRoux, conducted a feud of unprecedented venom against him, citing unseemly film and photo sessions (Zsa Zsa Gabor posed provocatively for Illustrated magazine in the sculpture hall), overpriced acquisitions and irregular use of trust funds. Meanwhile, he was being castigated from without for his less than enthusiastic response to Cubism by the Tate’s “most belligerent and vociferous critic”, Douglas Cooper. At the preview of the Diaghilev show in November 1954, driven beyond endurance by Cooper’s ostentatiously loud, disparaging remarks against him, Rothenstein punched him so hard his glasses flew off. No charge of assault was brought, but, as Ms Spalding points out, it must have been galling for Rothenstein to learn that the trustees still turned to Cooper whenever they wanted advice on more advanced purchases.

With the deliverance of the gallery into Norman Reid’s safe pair of hands in 1964, the Tate at last began to acquire some of the trappings of professionalism. A division was made between the British and Modern collections, each now headed by its own keeper. In the fashion of the time, the Edwardian galleries took on a bright new look with plywood walls and muslin ceilings muffling the heavy marble trim. Llewelyn Davies was commissioned to design an extension which, in its most ambitious form, would have blocked out the front portico in uncompromisingly modernist style. Objections from the Greater London Council resulted in a more modest scheme with nevertheless took nearly ten years to complete due to problems with the lighting (apparently the blinds, when first tested, sounded like pigs having their throats cut) and air conditioning.

The directorship of Alan Bowness, coinciding as it did with the Thatcher regime, was a less happy period for the Gallery both internally and externally, in an attempt to make national museums more self-sufficient, the government appointed a new breed of business trustee, better acquainted with money than taste—although the two sometimes coincided. At the Tate, the aspiring property developer, Peter Palumbo, epitomised the genre, seeking a more hands-on approach and trying to reduce the role of director to that of manager. Peter Palumbo’s own ambitions backfired badly when, on the eve of assuming the chairmanship in 1984, he was quoted condemning the Gallery for being dull, turgid and unimaginative, its staff for possessing power without responsibility and its director for paying too much for too fashionable art. After a stand-off with Bowness, he was prevailed upon to stand down.

In a booming art market and with a declining purchase grant, Bowness and his staff quietly continued with the business of plugging gaps in the patchy collections. Although still saddled with the meagre surveying and project management skills of the government’s Property Services Agency, they succeeded in getting the Clore Gallery built for the Turner Bequest in London and the Tate Gallery opened in Liverpool before Bowness’s retirement in 1988.

The last ten years have undoubtedly been the most exciting decade in the Tate’s history, with new opportunities to expand in St Ives and Liverpool, Bankside and Millbank seized through the help of professional fund-raising and the advent of the National Lottery.

The Lottery also provided the occasion for the short Building the British Museum catalogue and exhibition, timed to place in context the on-going development of the Museum’s Great Court and circular Reading Room into a new public space. Wending its way through the tortuous building history with admirable clarity, the catalogue traces the impact made by no less than nine architects, one of whom, the American John Russell Pope, also worked at the Tate (his Parthenon gallery at the Museum and sculpture hall at Millbank were both financed by Duveen).

Elevations and early photographs record the Museum’s first home, Montagu House, while George Sharf Senior’s delightful drawings capture the construction of the monumental neo-Classical edifices of its eventual replacement on the same site. Sir Robert Smirke’s great design was conceived in the early 1820s (almost certainly pre-dating Schinkel’s design for the Altes Museum); the front hall finally opened to the public in 1847, by which time the project had been taken over by the architect’s younger brother, Sydney. In contrast, the Reading Room was completed with astonishing speed, between 1854 and 1857.

The usual battles with the government dogged further attempts to house the encyclopaedic accessions; the misspelling here of Sir Humphry Davy’s name is perhaps a lingering trace of that neglect felt by the science trustees of those collections which lay at the heart of Sloane’s foundation bequest. Natural history finally departed for South Kensington in the early 1880s. The White Wing was wholly financed from a legacy to the Museum, as were in part the King Edward VII galleries. Most poignant because so mean was the Treasury’s arbitrary decision that the two limestone lions guarding the north entrance were not worth the £2,000 agreed with their sculptor, Sir George Frampton, and could be left “in the rough”.

The trustees have just commissioned a new history of the Museum from the ex-director, Sir David Wilson, to be published in time for its 250th anniversary in 2003.

Meanwhile, the V&A is marking the centenary of its rechristening this autumn with the publication of its history by Anthony Burton. We are promised murder, suicide, nepotism, embezzlement, theft and forgery—seemingly, a not untypical record of the inner drama of our public bodies. But collectively their biographies should shed some light on the strategies by which these institutions managed to survive and even thrive despite such goings-on, and in the face of government negligence, intransigence and general failure to comprehend the importance of committed cultural provision.

Frances Spalding, The Tate: a history (Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1998), 320 pp, 48 b/w ills, 48 col. ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 1854372319

Marjorie Cargill and Christopher Dale, Building the British Museum (British Museum Press, London, 1999), 80 pp, 53 b/w ills, 6 col. ills, £8.50 (pb) ISBN 0714121649

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Thud and blunder'