There has been a universal welcome for the BP Walk through British Art, the re-hang of the collection of British art at Tate Britain. It is well-deserved praise. The chronological arrangement of the collection in a logical sequence of rooms with largely natural lighting provides the best possible introduction to the story of visual art in Britain. There is a high educational value to this arrangement for ‘first-time viewers’: there needs to be one place where one can learn about the British heritage of the visual arts and experience the excitement of discovering some of the great works.
Time is the best washing-line on which to peg the memory both of periods of artistic development and individual works. Students and practitioners of art will study paintings or sculpture free of context and as pure works of art but for most people the enjoyment of the art of a period is to be found, in part, in the way it connects and reflects the aesthetic, social and political pre-occupations of its time. On a practical level, the chronological lay-out means that it is easy to find and dwell on particular periods or individual works. The educational contribution of the hang is reinforced by the excellent presentation of the works on the Tate web site, which includes illustrations of and commentaries on the works as well as biographies of the artists.
It is a walk through British art, not a visit to British artists or their parties. As the arrangement deliberately avoids the ‘canonical groupings’ of art (Pre-Raphaelites, Camden Town, St Ives etc.) some visitors may find small rations of their favourite schools. And since most of the artists are only represented by one work it may not be the best example of their work, or only represent their work at one particular time in their development as artists. The counter to any complaint is that there are collections that feature the work of particular art movements or individual at other British galleries.
Here are some thoughts stimulated by a first walk through the collection.
- At a time when the benefits of immigration to these islands are challenged, it is worth reflecting that two thirds of the makers of British art who were born in the 16th century and whose work fills the first two rooms were not British by birth. As with other forms of innovation and creativity in our national life, British art needed a strong helping hand from foreigners.
- The Scots may have cause to wonder whether their contribution to the Union is undervalued. The Scottish Colourists carried the flag for Britain in the big Fauvist exhibition in Paris a few years back. Here, there is only one work by one painter: Blue Beads, Paris, 1910, by J. D. Fergusson.
- The showing of less familiar works is one of the joys of the walk. Examples in the early rooms are Nathaniel Bacon’s large-scale Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit; the 20 year-old Thomas Gainsborough’s Wooded Landscape with Peasant Resting; two beautiful composed scenes by George Stubbs, Haymakers and Reapers; and Samuel Scott’s An Arch of Westminster Bridge. All are to some extent representations of the working life of ordinary people in an aristocratic age.
- The avoidance of hanging the collection by art movements or ‘isms’ is designed to produce a neutral history of British art. However, it is a selection made from the stand point of today and it does not – and probably should not – necessarily reflect the actual lived experience of or taste in British art in previous ages. In an introduction to the collection there is reference to the laudable intention of rescuing some women artists from obscurity and a less than enthusiastic mention of ‘society painters’. This might account for the presence of Mabel Nicholson and the absence of husband William; the four Gwens to one Augustus John. The work of John Piper has had a love affair with the British public for the last 75 years but is here represented by one relatively modest work. However, a search of the collection on-line by the criterion of ‘most viewed artists’ will show that he is in the top ten and above artists who are represented by four or more works such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Millais or John Constable.
- The intentional hanging of small groups of works based on their contemporary creation rather than stylistic compatibility is sometimes more stimulating to the mind than to the eye. With a lot of wall space around them, Christopher Wood’s Zebra and Parachute sits very tightly above Julian Trevelyan’s The Potteries. It says something about influence of Surrealism in the 1930s but the Trevelyan’s bright red potteries murder the quieter tones of the Wood.
- The hang rightly allocates an increasing amount of floor and wall space to shorter periods of time as it reaches the art of today: about half the total space is devoted to works created from the First World War onwards. Even so there are a few congestion points around strong periods of British art in the later periods. The 1960s room struggles to contain within its walls particularly fine examples of works by Caro, Hockney, Bacon, Riley and others. It is difficult to view Anthony Caro’s superb Early One Morning against the forceful and distracting background of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash or Bacon’s Triptych – August 1972.
- As an enthusiast for studio ceramics – sculpture on a domestic and affordable scale – it is good to see the inclusion of a small group of works featuring Bernard Leach and others. It could have been followed up with works by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper and artists from later in the 20th century.
- On reaching the final rooms one is struck by the limited impact of abstraction on contemporary British art as compared to much European and American art. Perhaps this is a matter of selection – other than Ben Nicholson there is a relatively small showing from the St Ives painters. But probably it is the re-engagement of contemporary artists with the British tradition of art based on figuration, landscape, ideas and stories. It is a feeling that is reinforced by a visit to this year’s Summer Exhibition at the RA.
- If you are tempted to feel that the British art story is too literalist, then turn right out of the 1940 room into the Turner Collection and be almost immediately faced with Norham Castle, Sunrise.
- A final, facetious observation. As an artist you have a bigger chance of being in the collection if your name begins with H than any other initial letter. It’s the opposite of Eliza Doolittle: from Holbein and Hilliard through Heron and Hilton to Hockney and Hirst, British art picks up Hs everywhere. Well, actually there are more Bs (31Bs to 29 Hs) but there are always more Bs in a list of surnames – think of your record collection.
With the BP Walk Through British Art and the adjacent Turner Collection Tate Britain has regained its pre-eminent position as the place to see, learn and contemplate British art. Let us congratulate and thank Penelope Curtis, the Director of Tate Britain, and Chris Stephens, the Curator, on this achievement.
Nigel Farrow, Chairman