“Our mission is to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of British art from the 16th century to the present day and of international modern and contemporary art.”
On the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary prison, the new National Gallery of British Art opened its doors to the public in 1897. Since then, the building has undergone fifteen extensions, more than doubling it in size. From a collection of 245 artworks at its inception, the Tate Gallery, as it was renamed in 1932, now owns over 70,000 works. Since 2000, the gallery has been known as Tate Britain and contains art dating back to the 16th century.
Whilst the Tate Britain hosts several temporary exhibitions throughout the year, there is a permanent display of hundreds of famous works. Set out in chronological order and titled Walk Through British Art, each room shows visitors paintings and sculptures from different eras, gradually revealing the changes in styles over time. Beginning in the 16th century and stretching to the present day, the gallery offers insight into the various art movements and artists that have lived and worked in Britain.
Whilst the Tate Modern, another gallery owned by the Tate Collective, is a more appropriate venue to see contemporary works, Tate Britain is the perfect place to study the changes in British art, both rapid and slow, between 1545 to the 1910s. Although other art galleries display numerous paintings from a whole range of eras, no place describes the journey through British art better than Tate Britain.
The Walk Through British Art begins with the oldest dated painting in the gallery’s collection: A Man in a Black Cap. As the numbers in the background confirm, this oil painting was completed in 1545 and a panel attached to the back of the oak-wood canvas records “faict par Johan Bettes Anglois” – done by John Bettes, Englishman.
Nothing much is known about John Bettes (active c. 1531–1570) except that records state he was living in Westminster in 1556 and had previously been working for Henry VIII (1491-1547) at Whitehall Palace.
Art historians compare Bette’s painting to the style of the German artist Hans Holbein the younger (1497-1543) who also worked for the king. The sitter, however, is unknown but it is believed he was 26 years old due to the inclusion of the Roman numerals XXVI.
The journey through British art starts with works from 1540 to 1650 during which time portraiture was popular, particularly within family dynasties. To put it into perspective, these paintings were produced during the reigns of Henry VIII and his children up until Charles I (1600-49) and the civil war. Thus, it is only natural to find a portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603).
There is some discrepancy over the artist responsible for Portrait of Elizabeth I, which was produced roughly around 1563. Referred to as the “famous paynter Steven”, this portrait has been attributed to the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen (d. 1563/4), however, it has recently been suggested that the Dutchman Steven Cornelisz. van Herwijck (1530-1567) may have been the artist.
Often it is difficult to identify artists from this period because not many signed their work. This is the case with the panel An Allegory of Man of which the original purpose has also been lost. Unusually for the time, particularly the years following the Reformation, this is a religious piece of work featuring the figure of the resurrected Christ. From the 1540s onward, it was not permitted to publicly display religious images.
In the centre of the meticulously detailed scene is the figure of “Man” surrounded by a scroll on which the Christian Virtues are written: “Temporans, good reisines, chastity, almes deeds, compassion, meekenes, charity and paciens.” Surrounding the Man are several figures, including Death represented by a skeleton, who are preparing to fire arrows, each named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This provides an insight into the beliefs and values of Christians, particularly Catholics if the angels are anything to judge by, during the 16th century.
The majority of the other paintings from the 1540-1650s room are portraits, mostly of people who are no longer considered significant to British history today. These include the English court official Sir William Killigrew (1606-95) and his wife Mary painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Whilst Van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque painter, he famously became the leading court painter in England, hence why these two portraits are considered to be British art.
The period between 1650 and 1730 saw an enormous change, not just in art but throughout Britain. Whilst there was still antagonism between Catholics and Protestants, the threat of upsetting the Tudor monarchs was long gone. The country had seen the beheading of a king but by 1660 they were celebrating the Restoration of the Monarchy. With Charles II (1630-85) on the throne, Londoners suffered from the plague and the Great Fire of London. Later, James II (1633-1701) was overthrown by the Dutch stadtholder William III (1650-1702) in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Finally, to end this period of transformation, the United Kingdom was created in 1707.
All of these events had an impact on British art, which had previously been dominated by portraiture. During the Restoration, new genres began to appear, including landscapes and still-life. Whilst there have been many British landscape artists, the genre was introduced by the Dutch and Flemish artists who were coming to England in the hopes of better job prospects.
Still-life paintings became very popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, artists during the 17th century were already experimenting with the genre. One such artist was Edward Collier (d.1708), a Dutchman who arrived in England in 1663. One of his paintings, Still Life with a Volume of Withers ‘Emblemes’, gave still-life paintings another name: vanitas. The composition is built up with musical instruments, jewellery and wine, which represent life’s pleasures. This is emphasised by the Latin inscription of Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, hence vanitas. Other objects, however, including the skull and the open book featuring a poem about mortality, gives the message that pleasure is fleeting and that death comes to all.
Now that the Stuarts were on the throne, it was once again safe to produce religious paintings, which both Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) and Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) did during this era. Lely’s painting Susanna and the Elders is based on a story from the biblical Apocrypha during which two elders of the Jewish community attempt to seduce the young lady, threatening to accuse her of adultery if she did not consent to their desires. Kneller, however, painted a slightly more positive scene involving the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Elijah and the Angel shows the elderly prophet being awakened by an angel who is making him aware that God has sent him bread and water to save him from starvation.
This period of art also introduces one of the earliest female artists, Mary Beale (1633-99). Beale, with the help of her husband, ran a professional portrait painting business. It is believed that Portrait of a Young Girl was produced as a study piece to help Beale improve her art technique by painting quickly in order increase the number of sales and commisions.
Prior to the 18th-century, the majority of world-famous painters came from the European continent, however, there began to be a rise in the number of painters born and educated in England. The most significant of these and, perhaps, the first internationally famous British artist, is Willaim Hogarth (1697-1764), whose self-portrait hangs in the Tate Britain along with his dog Trump. Hogarth is well-known for his narrative series of paintings that tell a moral story, particularly A Rakes Progress, which can be found in the Sir John Soane’s Museum near Holborn, London.
An example of Hogarth’s narrative moral series can be seen in the sixth frame of The Beggars Opera based on a scene from John Gay’s (1685-1732) play of the same name, which was first performed at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728. In this scene, the highwayman Macheath is being sentenced to death while his two lovers, who happen to be the daughters of the jailer and lawyer, plead for his life.
Tate Britain owns a handful of Hogarth’s work, which can be seen in the third room of the Walk Through British Art. In a display case are a few prints that were produced of some of his paintings. Prints became popular in the 18th century because they were cheaper thus more affordable to the people of lower status who wish to purchase artwork. It was also a means for the artist to earn some money; whilst a single painting would take months and earn a lump sum, several prints could be made at once and sold to many different customers.
Although British born artists were beginning to take the stage, painters from the continent were still flocking to London. This includes Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (1697-1768), a vendutisti painter (painter of cityscape views), who arrived in England in 1746. He was already known as ‘the famous painter of views of Venice’ but during his ten-year stay in the English capital, he painted many beautiful landscapes showing the grand London architecture. Landscapes include buildings such as the new and old Horse Guards and A View of Greenwich from the River.
The rise of British born painters continued during the later 18th century, helped by the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 by George III (1738-1820). The Academy was intended as a venue for public displays of art and an art school for future generations, both of which it remains today. With 34 founding members, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), who was knighted by the king in 1769, was elected as the first president. A number of Reynold’s works are owned by Tate Britain, including Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen.
By the end of the 18th century, more British artists were on the scene and a wider range of styles and themes were being painted. William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) became the Prime Minister at the tender age of 24, a term that coincided with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. These events influenced many artists, including John Copley Singleton (1738-1815) whose painting pays tribute to Major Francis Peirson who lost his life during the attempted French invasion of Jersey.
The island of Jersey had once been part of France, however, since 1066 it had been in the possession of the English. The Death of Major Peirson shows the death of the young man as well as the victory of the British against the French. In one painting, Copley manages to depict both the victories and horrors of war. Whilst Britain may have won the battle, not everyone lived to see it.
In complete contrast to Copley’s work is Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727-88) portrait of Giovanna Baccelli, which was painted at roughly the same time. Giovanna was an Italian ballet dancer who became brief friends of Marie Antoinette (1755-93) until the French Revolution unfolded. Gainsborough paints her in a lively but elegant manner, using small, light brushstrokes to evoke a sense of movement, which suggests Giovanna is dancing rather than posing. This is a far more positive painting than the war paintings that were simultaneously being produced.
Another popular theme during the late 18th century was literature and mythology. Just as they are today, plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) were well-known and popular amongst the various social classes. Tate Britain displays a couple of paintings based on scenes from his plays, the most eye-catching being Titania and Bottom by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Although born in Switzerland, Fuseli spent the majority of his working life in Britain and was particularly fond of the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His oil painting shows the events of Act IV, Scene I in which Oberon, the king of the fairies, has cast a spell on Queen Titania, causing her to fall in love with Nick Bottom, whose head has been transformed into that of an ass.
Also prevalent at this time were mythological scenes, particularly the tales written about in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the 4th president of the Royal Academy, painted an imagined scene of the Greek poet Homer reciting The Iliad to a small audience. Although no one knows who Homer was or even if he ever existed – some scholars suggest the stories had more than one author – Lawrence accurately portrays the way the epic poems would have been “read”. Paper books did not exist during Homer’s time, therefore, bards learnt the words and travelled around Greece telling the story in instalments at different locations.
Not all the artworks at Tate Britain are paintings. British Sculptor Richard Westmacott’s (1775-1856) Jupiter and Ganymede is a marble relief of Ganymede, a shepherd boy, being abducted by an eagle as written about in stories from classical mythology. The head of the Roman gods, Jupiter, was attracted to the handsome youth and took the form of an eagle so that he could seize Ganymede and take him to his home on Mount Olympus.
Later on in the Walk through British Art, another well-known sculpture is displayed, which many people will recognise from the centre of Picadilly Circus. This is the Model for “Eros” (or Anteros) on the Shaftesbury Memorial, Picadilly Circus produced by Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934) in 1891 and eventually cast in Bronze in 1925.
During the early 19th century, Britain faced more wars, most famously the Battle of Waterloo which saw the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) defeat Napoleon (1769-1821). As well as victory, these conflicts brought more death and destruction as shown in JMW Turner’s (1775-1851) The Field of Waterloo, which depicts a group of people searching through masses of corpses for their loved ones. Despite these hostilities, artists continued to paint and new styles began to emerge, particularly in relation to landscape paintings.
Two British painters, in particular, held the forefront in landscape painting: Turner and his contemporary, John Constable (1776-1837). A marked contrast can be seen between Constable’s sketch of Hadleigh Castle in Essex and the landscapes produced by artists in the previous century, for instance, Canaletto’s painstakingly detailed cityscapes. Although this version of Hadleigh Castle was only a preparatory oil painting, Constable’s rapid brushstrokes and almost Impressionistic sky suggest artists were moving away from the traditional methods of painting. Constable’s gloomy and sombre sketch reflects his mood – his wife had just died – rather than the atmosphere he experienced on site.
Britain’s most famous landscape painter is arguably Joseph Mallord William Turner who gifted the majority of his work to the British public in his will. Tate Britain has an entire gallery devoted to his atmospheric watercolour landscapes, however, a Walk Through British Art focuses on a couple of his oil paintings. As well as his depiction of the Battle of Waterloo, the gallery displays a mythological piece based on the poem Hymn to Apollo by the Greek poet, Callimachus (310-240 BC). The Greek sun god is on a quest to build a temple for his oracle at Delphi but in order to do so, he must defeat a giant python. Turner shows Apollo moments after delivering the final blow to the monstrous creature.
Whilst some artists were embracing new ideas, others preferred the tried and tested methods of the 16th and 17th centuries. Henry Thomson (1773-1843), a member of the Royal Academy, was one of these artists whose work resembles the style seen during the Renaissance era. Not many British artists produced large-scale religious works, however, this was one of Thomson’s main focuses. His painting of The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, a story that can be found in three Gospels of the Bible, is an example of this.
Densely hung in two tiers are many works produced in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). This is to evoke the atmosphere of a Victorian gallery where paintings would have been crowded together in a similar manner. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to view all of the artworks, particularly those higher up that have to compete with the glare of the sunlight coming through the glass ceiling. Yet, the number of examples from this period emphasise the vast range of styles and genres that artists gradually adopted.
Scenes from everyday life began to address topical issues that also reflected the changes in industry, culture and politics, including the question of female emancipation. Many of these artists were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who determined to ignore the teachings of the Royal Academy and revert to styles popular before the Renaissance, i.e. before the painter Raphael (1483-1520) came on the scene. A couple of paintings from the founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82) are on display, as well as works by those who associated themselves with the Brotherhood, for example, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).
Other artists sought back to antiquity for inspiration, often focusing on ancient buildings such as the ones in the background of John William Waterhouse’s (1849-1917) Saint Eulalia. Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was also famous for paintings of antiquity, however, the painting on display is of a more recent 17th-century setting.
Hidden messages and meanings began to appear in paintings, such as the American-born John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. The artist draws attention to the young girls whose innocence is emphasised by the lilies, which represent purity. The Japanese lanterns, however, represent ephemerality, suggesting that this innocence will never last. George Elgar Hicks (1824-1914), on the other hand, hid meanings related to a more topical issue: women’s rights. Whilst many later became involved in Suffrage movements, there were some people completely against the cause, such as Hicks who represents women as the ‘fairer sex’, i.e. pure and submissive to men, thus suggesting women need not have the right to vote.
Biblical scenes were not as popular during this era but Tate Britain has located a couple of examples of artists who did use the Bible for inspiration. Millais painted a scene loosely based on scripture showing Christ in the House of His Parents. Likewise, Edward Armitage imagined The Remorse of Judas (1817-96) after he sold Jesus to the Romans.
The works produced from the end of the 19th century onwards are younger than the Tate Gallery, which Sir Henry Tate (1819-99) began providing artworks and funding for in 1889. Some of the works Tate donated “for the encouragement and development of British art” are still on display at the gallery, including Arther Hacker’s (1858-1919) The Annunciation, a more contemporary version of Mary receiving the news from an angel that she will have a son based on descriptions in the Protoevangelium of James (145 AD).
Many art movements were competing with each other and new styles and processes were being developed. Impressionism, whilst rejected by critics, to begin with, began to appeal to many artists, particularly those who painted en plein air. Henry Scott Tuke’s (1858-1929) August Blue is an example of this impressionist style painted by an Englishman; most Impressionist painters emerged from France.
Aubrey Beardsley’s (1872-98) Masked Woman with a White Mouse is an example of another art style, which was influenced by Japanese woodcuts. During his very short career, Beardsley was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement, which including other artists, such as James A. McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), and authors, for instance, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
The 20th century and the beginning of the Edwardian-era saw a return to more realistic approaches to art. Art schools still taught classical and traditional painting techniques, however, young artists had been exposed to Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists and other avant-garde approaches. Whilst Realism was becoming popular, artists were moving away from the “old” version of realistic, as seen in many Renaissance paintings, and producing more natural-looking outcomes, particularly of the human body. Take Sir Thomas Brock’s (1847-1922) marble model of Eve for example; there is nothing to suggest she is the sensual temptress in artworks of the previous centuries, instead, she looks natural with an anatomically correct body and a subtle expression of feeling.
Other artists chose to concentrate on realistic settings that depict the working class rather than the elite. Both Albert Rutherston (1881-1953) and Sir George Clausen (1852-1944) painted people at work in some of the least glamorous jobs, i.e. laundry and gleaning. Rutherston also painted in a realistic style, however, it was far from the smooth brushwork of the 15th and 16th centuries. Clausen, on the other hand, leans more towards an impressionist style.
The 20th century also saw a rise in female painters, including Lady Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979). Tenth child of the philanthropist Benjamin Waugh (1839-1908), who co-founded the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Clarke Hall was mostly known for her illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1818-48). Tate Britain, however, displays one of her oil paintings, Still Life of a Basket on a Chair.
The artwork from the 1910s onwards is much harder to document. Modern art was at war with academic art; Britain was at war with Germany; suffragettes were at war with parliament. It was a difficult time for everyone and artists turned to their work for consolidation. Some joined Futurist movements, others experimented with Cubism and some artists wholly embraced Abstract Expressionism.
Whilst Tate Britain continues its Walk Through British Art to the present day, it is impossible to accurately describe the styles and outcomes of British artists. With so many influences, it is simpler to use the title “International Art” since no form of contemporary art is unique to Britain. The spectrum of art is so diverse that every artist becomes almost incomparable to another, whereas, prior to the 20th century, only a trained eye could recognise whose hand had painted certain canvases.
From 1540 to 1840, Tate Britain does a fantastic job at documenting the history of British art. After this period, the rooms become more crowded and the styles more assorted, making it difficult to follow a timeline of development. Nonetheless, Tate Britain has access to some wonderful artworks and a huge range of British artists. Whether the aim is to experience the changes in art throughout time or just look at a handful of paintings, Tate Britain is an excellent destination.
Entry to Tate Britain is free for everyone with a charge for special exhibitions. Visitors with a disability pay a concessionary rate, and a companions entrance is free. Tate Members and Patrons get free entry to special exhibitions. Under 12s go free (up to four per parent or guardian) and family tickets are available (two adults and two children 12 – 18 years) see individual exhibitions for more information. Tate.org.uk