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In 1889, Henry Tate, the sugar magnate, wrote a letter proposing to the National Gallery a donation in return for a collection in his name, it was turned down. Soon after he renewed his offer to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, this time requesting an institution of his own, and possible loans and grants to realise his dream.
In 1897 the Tate Gallery was brought into being: an art gallery that began life as the National Gallery of British Art, but was soon to extend its interests abroad, becoming the country's finest collection of British and foreign modern art.
The collection began as an annexe to the National Gallery, housing 'modern' works from artists born after 1790; sixty-five of the original 245 pictures on view were donated by Tate, the others were on loan from the Royal Academy and the National Gallery (most notably the collection contained several Constable's and Turner's, so that the previously stated guidelines of what was modern were blatantly ignored to provide the new gallery with a bit of status). The Tate courted criticism and controversy from here on in, proving to be more expensive than previously expected, and because of the fashion in art at the time, found itself filling its walls with weak Victorian paintings that earned it an inferior reputation in the high art society.
Just after 1911, there was an interesting managerial discussion as to whether or not to install electric lighting within the gallery: One has to try and imagine the smog filled streets of London, and realise that attendance levels at the Tate dropped dramatically on such days, as the public could not possibly view the artwork by natural light (this was also a problem for the surveillance staff, and so on really foggy and dull days the gallery would be closed).
Charles Aitken, the Keeper at the time, decided not only on installing the lighting, but also on introducing the sale of prints, photographs and catalogues of the collection. In 1914, the Tate and the National closed their doors in response to an attack by 'Slasher Mary'; Miss Mary Richardson entered the National wielding an axe, promptly slashing Velaquez's The Toilet of Venus, claiming that men were gaping at the picture all day, and that she wanted to destroy it, as the government were destroying Mrs Emily Pankhurst.
In the following years the collection opened its selection to foreign artists, acquiring, among others, Degas' and Gauguin's, but it continued showing exhibitions that were on loan from its more established peers. Telephones were installed, bequests and gifts increased, and during the first world war, Aitken managed to buy a very important collection of William Blake's illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy.
In January 1928, the Tate suffered grave damage when the winter snow thawed, and the Thames burst its banks: The waters washed through the lower gallery (where most of the collection was hung), cutting the electricity supply and leaving the staff fishing for the artwork in darkness. The gallery reopened as soon as possible, to reassure the public that the bulk of the collection had not been damaged, but the storage space and lower floors continued to be considered unsafe, and the gallery's board ordered the removal and return of numerous drawings and watercolours to the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert.
Under a new director, John Rothenstein, the gallery began a new lease of life: While the Tate was being evaluated for small places to be made into bomb shelters, he fell upon about twenty rolls of dirty, dusty canvases; these turned out to be very late works by Turner, almost abstract. They were put on display later that year, and with that, Rothenstein's eye was turned towards more contemporary works by foreign artists. The reaction of the general public was xenophobic to say the least, but he continued his attempts to update the Tate's image and keep it in line with that of the Museum of Modern art in New York.
The Tate suffered significant damage again on the 16th September, 1940, when it was hit by a bomb. On the 22nd of the same month, another, and once more on January 6th, 1941. The Tate was left with no roof, no windows and few doors; the rain fell in and it was impossible for the staff to work in without heating and electricity.
After this, with new impetus, the collection grew rapidly, scouting the art world for new and innovative acquisitions: In 1945 there was a retrospective exhibition of Paul Klee, in 1946, Paul Cezanne, and a well organised exhibition of American painting - 18th Century to present day. Exhibitions of Vincent Van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Paul Nash and Fernard Leger were quick to follow.
The Tate was officially separated from the National Gallery in 1955, and at this point the gallery began to express its independency through its artistic taste. Many prints and drawings that had been previously on loan were returned, in favour of the promotion of younger, fresher, contemporary pieces.
Most people still remember the public outrage caused by the Tate's acquisition in the late '70's of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII, also known as 'the Bricks': Part of this outrage was due to the increase of donations given by those who believed that they were contributing to British culture, only to be presented with a pile (more accurately, a line) of bricks. There was also general demonstrations against the impeding implementations of charges for entrance. I will not even try to justify Andre?s work here (just to say the press ran several detrimental articles without consulting the artist), but this was not the last time that the Tate was to cause such controversy.
In 1984, with the aid of a patron, Oliver Prenn, the Tate created the first Turner Prize: Nominations were excepted for the artist, curator or critic that had made the greatest contribution to British art in the last year. The first winner was Malcolm Morely; this choice caused a stir as the artist had been living and working for several years.
The prize courted the press and brought contemporary art to the masses (now annually shown on Channel 4). The Prize has continued to attract attention by its choice of winners as the public tend to feel ill informed on the intentions of the art and the artist: In 1992, Damien Hirst burst into public view with his winning piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, otherwise known as 'The Shark in a Tank' , and the next year Rachel Whiteread hit the headlines with her piece, House, when the K Foundation (otherwise known as the pop band, KLF), offered her the the same amount as the prize money for the worst piece of British art in the past year - this led to a staged performance on the outside steps of the Tate, where 10,000 pounds was supposedly burnt when Whiteread didn't arrive to claim her prize.
The Tate today boasts all of the aforementioned collections. The collection of Turner works is extensive and will take you a day alone to view. Other highlights of its permanent collection are (in no particular order): Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, Joseph Beuys, David Hockney, Picasso, Degas, Matisse, Rebecca Horn, Claude Monet, Barbara Hepworth and Mark Rothko. There are also short term exhibitions held at the Tate, that usually continue for three months - check press for details.
It is, more often than not, a crowded and busy gallery, yet do not let that detract from your visit - there are plenty of less frequented Turner rooms upstairs. The Tate has two eateries - the Tate Restaurant (which is over priced) and the Tate Cafe and Expresso Bar. The gallery has good disabled facilities, and a clean Baby Care area which I have had the pleasure of using on many occasions. There is an extensive shop in which you can buy the catalogues of touring exhibitions and the permanent collection, as well as the de rigueur postcards of all your favorite masterpieces. These are also available online at:
The web site is well worth visiting, as it will inform you of all the current exhibitions and give you a general overview of the collection.
The Tate Gallery is open daily (closed for three days over Christmas) from 10.00 - 17.50. Entrance is still free, but a donation is encouraged. For further information: The Tate Gallery, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG. Tel: 02078878008