The Making of a Saint

Until 22nd August 2021, the British Museum is finally hosting its Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint exhibition, which celebrates the 850th anniversary of Becket’s brutal murder. Having been postponed due to Covid-19, visitors can now discover the murder that shook the Middle Ages and learn about the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum’s collection and those on loan from Canterbury Cathedral and other locations around Europe and the United Kingdom. Each object, whether an illuminated manuscript, item of jewellery or a sacred reliquary, helps to tell the story of Becket’s journey from a merchant’s son to an archbishop, to a martyr and a saint.

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England.

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.

Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.

Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).

It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.

The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.

On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, King Henry II (Becket Leaves, c.1220-1240).

Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.

Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.

Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”

According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)

Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.

The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.

On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.

Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.

A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.

On loan from Canterbury Cathedral is a “miracle window” that reveals several experiences of pilgrims who visited Becket’s shrine. In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.

“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)

The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.

St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.

One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.

Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.

On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.

Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).

Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.

Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain. Yet, for the majority of people, Becket is a name confined to school history books. There is no cult following or pilgrimage route, yet kiss marks have been discovered on display cases holding some of the most revered objects. Perhaps Thomas Becket still has a following after all!

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open until 22nd August 2021 in The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £17 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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French Artists in Exile

The story of the artists who fled to Britain to escape the war in France.

On 19th July 1870, Napoleon III (1808-73), the first president of the Republic of France, declared war on Prussia resulting in a six-month battle that became known as the Franco-Prussian War. Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), the Prussian chancellor, had essentially provoked France into conflict and was prepared for the attack. With no hope of winning from the outset, France was officially defeated on 28th January the following year.

Although the war with Prussia was over, France was not at peace. The French Empire had collapsed following the deposition of Napoleon III in September 1870, leaving the country in the hands of a provisional government of national defence. From this moment, until the end of the war, Paris was surrounded by their enemies resulting in a punishing siege that left the city in ruins and its inhabitants starving from famine.

After the war ended, the radical working-class of Paris rose up against the government. This group was known as the Paris Commune and their uprising caused a brief but brutal revolt that was not suppressed until the end of La Semaine sanglante or “The Bloody Week”, which began on 21st May 1871.

Naturally, many citizens tried to escape from Paris during these turbulent times and took advantage of the British Isles and its welcoming attitude toward refugees. Amongst these émigrés were a handful of French painters who became known as the Impressionists. The Tate Britain in London is currently holding The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in Britain in celebration of these artist’s work, their stories and the network they developed during their time in Britain, whilst also looking into the ways these foreigners perceived London, evidenced through their artworks.

“The horror and terror are still everywhere … Paris is empty and will become emptier … Anyone would think there never were any painters and artists in Paris” – Théodore Duret (1838-1927), May 1871

Thousands of French citizens fled to London, and it is not surprising why given the state of Paris as shown in the first room of the exhibition. The paintings and photographs exhibited here are mostly produced in France during the war and resulting uprising. They are not works of Impressionist art that the exhibition title promises, however, they visually reveal the state the French capital was in at the beginning of the 1870s. Food shortages forced people to resort to eating their pets or zoo animals in order to survive and the streets were not safe places to frequent due to the violence of war. Many monuments and buildings were destroyed, and it is estimated that around 20,000 people died during this period.

The exhibition includes a number of artists who moved to London as a result of the hostilities in Europe. Many of these were Impressionist painters, a movement that had only begun within a decade before the Franco-Prussian war. Like all movements, the artists involved were breaking away from the conventions of a higher authority, in this instance, the rules taught in art schools. Impressionists rejected the large formal, highly finished paintings in preference to works that expressed the personality of the artist.  Traditionally, historical and mythological scenes were the accepted themes of paintings, however, these 19th-century French artists began producing landscapes and pictures of everyday life, including mundane things such as cooking, sleeping and bathing.

Impressionist artists aimed to depict their surroundings with spontaneity and freshness, recording what the eye sees in that instant, rather than a detailed record of appearance. As a result of wanting to capture the moment as it happened, artists had to work on the spot rather than in a studio and use thick paint with quick, messy brushstrokes. Similarly to the adjustment in subject matter, this method of painting was an outright change from the flatter, neater artworks where the brushstrokes could not be detected.

“Work at the same time on sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis … Don’t be afraid of putting on colour … Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.” – Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

Landscapes became the archetypal subject of the Impressionists and introduced the idea of painting en plein air, often with no regard to the weather. The paintings often include bright colours and sketchy brushwork to emphasise the way the sunlight reflects off various surfaces. The constant changing of the sunlight was the main reason why artists had to keep up a rapid pace when producing their work.

Although regarded as a key movement in the art world, Impressionism was never established as a formal group with clearly defined principles. It was a loose association of artists who were linked together by the community they found themselves in, for instance, the French refugees in London. In fact, the group was so indeterminate that their name almost came about by accident. The artists struggled to get their work exhibited because they were generally rejected by art critics, however, Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise (1872) was latched onto and attacked in an essay by Louis Leroy (1812–85) called Exposition des Impressionistes (25th April 1874), and thus the name Impressionism was coined.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is one of the most representative Impressionist artists. Initially, he began as a caricaturist, however, a tutor inspired him to turn to landscape painting. From here, Monet started studying at the Académie Suisse in 1859, where he met Camille Pissarro and later, in 1862, entered the studio of Gleyre in Paris where he encountered Alfred Sisley (1839-99), an Anglo-French Impressionist – both feature in this exhibition alongside Monet.

Monet, impoverished and only 29-years old, crossed the Channel with Pissarro to avoid being conscripted into the Franco-Prussian war. With nothing but his painting skills to use in an attempt to earn money, Monet spent time beside the Thames and in the London parks, painting the scenery. Whilst here, Monet encountered the landscape artist Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), the earliest exponent of en plein air painting who had also sought refuge in London. It is thanks to his connection with the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), another refugee, that Monet and the other French Impressionists began to find their feet.

Comparing an early painting by Monet displayed at the beginning of the exhibition with a later painting in the final rooms shows the difference between the style of painting that was generally accepted during the 19th-century compared to the types of impressionist painting the artist eventually turned to. It is without a doubt when looking at Meditation, Mrs Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1871), that Monet was a talented painter, however, his later works, such as Leicester Square (1901), could arguably suggest that the artist is incompetent.

These two paintings by Monet are two extremes and the majority of Impressionist paintings fall somewhere in between. Many French artists focused on painting their impressions of the city they found themselves in, rather than produce something bordering on Abstract Expressionism.

In comparison to the devastating landscape they left behind, the Impressionists were drawn to the open spaces around London. Here, they became fascinated with British customs and culture which was significantly different to their own. The French were enthusiastic about the British sports played throughout the year, particularly regattas and rowing events to which spectators wore a range of costumes.

More importantly, the Impressionists were awed by the teeming crowds and forbidding buildings that made up the cityscape. Coming from a country where monuments and important buildings had been destroyed by armies and rebels, the towering facades were a marvel to the refugee artists. It was during this period that the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt on the north bank of the River Thames, which became a central focal point for a vast amount of paintings.

“Monet and I were very enthusiastic over the London landscapes” – Camille Pissarro

The London fog was also a fascination for the artists, particularly Monet who, around his 60th birthday, returned to London in 1900 to paint the Thames’ atmospheric effects. During this time, he produced multiples of oil paintings showing the same scene but experimenting with the effects the sunlight, or lack of light, affected the ambience of the location.

“I find London lovelier to paint each day,” Monet told his wife Alice in one of the many letters he wrote whilst he completed this project in the British capital. He wrote about his fascination with the mist and sunsets as well as the varying colours of the sky. He notes the difficulties he had in creating his impression of the cityscape in front of him before the sky changed once again. A few of these paintings are on show in one of the final rooms of the exhibition.

Despite titling the exhibition Impressionists in London, the Tate Britain displays more paintings by other artists than the promised examples of Impressionism. The subtitle French Artists in Exile 1870-1904 is a much more accurate representation of the included artworks. Although many artists who sought refuge in London were Impressionist painters, there were others who were not. One of the major artists in the exhibition is James Tissot (1836-1902) whose paintings were a complete contrast to the spontaneous landscapes.

Unlike Monet who fled France to avoid becoming part of the war, Tissot was a supporter of the Paris Commune. He was already an established artist in France but the Franco-Prussian war, and probably his association with the Commune limited his prospects, prompting him to seek shelter on the other side of the Channel.

Tissot received support from the editor of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles (1841-1922), who introduced him to British high society – a complete contrast to the communities Monet and his friends found themselves in. This allowed him to concentrate on scenes he loved best, contemporary life and women wearing intricate costumes.

Tissot’s parents were in the clothing business, which may have influenced his passion for painting the full-length complex dresses that women amongst the middle and upper classes wore. He was also skilled in observing and portraying nuances of social interaction, particularly of a romantic or sexual nature.

Tissot did not restrict himself to London and painted other areas of Britain, for instance, Portsmouth. However, his themes were the same: the fashionable Victorian life. Some critics believed Tissot was mocking British customs and not painting a realistic version of society, but it was more likely that Tissot was focusing on things he found interesting and reflected his early life in France. On the other hand, some critics admired Tissot’s work, referring to its “fashion-plate elegance” and “chocolate-box charm”.

As well as Tissot, other artists that do not fall under the Impressionist blanket are also featured in this exhibition. These include two sculptors, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75) and Jules Dalou (1838-1902), the latter exiled in London as a result of supporting the Paris Commune. For such a popular and crowded exhibition, the rooms containing the sculptures are almost deserted, implying that these were not what people had come to see. Granted, people would not expect to see James Tissot in an exhibition about Impressionism, however, they would be prepared for paintings.

Nonetheless, there are enough examples of Impressionist paintings for the exhibition to be worthy of the title Impressionists in London. The addition of other painters such as Tissot provides a contrast which emphasises the traits and nature of Impressionism. The use of brushstrokes and colour are brought to attention in juxtaposition with the smoothness of other paintings. It is also interesting to observe the differences between the Impressionist artists, each employing a different method.

To conclude the exhibition, the Tate Britain provides yet another contrast, this time being completely unrelated to French exiles. The final room is titled Derain and the Thames: Homage and Challenge and contains three paintings by the French painter André Derain (1880-1954). Although mostly associated with Fauvism and Cubism, Derain was interested in Monet’s Views of the Thames which he saw in an exhibition at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery.

“In spite of everything, I adore him. Wasn’t he right to render with his fugitive and durable colour, the natural impression which is no more than an impression, without lasting power, and did he not increase the character of this painting? As for myself, I’m looking for something different, something in nature which, on the contrary, is fixed, eternal, complex.” – André Derain

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Charing Cross Bridge, 1906-7, André Derain

These final paintings were part of thirty canvases that art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) sent Derain to London to paint in 1906. In an attempt to imitate Monet’s Views of the Thames, Derain focused on similar landscapes including Charing Cross Bridge and other buildings seen from the Thames. These, however, look in no way similar to the Impressionist’s version, being full of unnatural colour and bold lines – not unlike a child’s drawing.

Although not much to look at, Derain’s work goes to show the changes in the style of art that sparked from the development of Impressionism. For years, art had remained relatively the same, but after Impressionism, the 20th-century saw the most changes within art in history.

Impressionists in London is a huge exhibition that successfully introduces the Impressionist artists that were, in some way, affected by the Franco-Prussian war. For those less interested in the relaxed, impromptu works, the paintings by Tissot and a few others are there to satisfy different tastes.

Despite the designation of “exhibition”, the Tate Britain is doing far more than showing a few paintings. Detailed information is provided about the majority of the artists, but more importantly, the experiences of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune is expertly expressed. This is a period of history that is usually left out of British education, preferring to focus on events that affected Britain directly. Seeing the paintings that came about as a result of the war, even though they do not necessarily show the incidents, makes the whole account more real, distressing and important.

Often, artists who do not paint realistic images are ridiculed by those who do not understand the art movement or scenario that led to the artwork. As a result, some may deem Impressionists artists who do not know how to draw or paint, however, after coming away from this exhibition, those thoughts will have been challenged and, hopefully, visitors will feel more enlightened and knowledgeable.

The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in London will remain at the Tate Britain until 7th May 2018. Tickets are £19.70 (with donation) and can either be booked online or bought at the gallery on the day.