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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Tate Britain In London

What is Tate Britain famous for?

Tate Britain is a gallery featuring the best in British art from 1500 to the present day

tate britain

Tate Britain is dedicated to the very best of British art. Its expansive permanent collection ranges from Elizabethan portraiture to conceptual installation. From the huge reclining figures of modernist sculptor Henry Moore to the visionary watercolours of William Blake, George Stubbs’ signature horses and David Hockney’s sunlit Californian pools, the canonical figures of the story of British art reside within these walls. This extensive permanent collection is coupled with a blockbuster series of temporary exhibitions held throughout the year.

History of Tate Britain

Tate Britain is the oldest institution in a network that also includes Tate Modern, just a short boat journey along the Thames to its south bank, as well as Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives in Cornwall. It was founded in 1897 by Sir Henry Tate, a great collector of British 19th-century art and an industrialist who had made his fortune from sugar refining. In 1889, Tate offered his collection to the National Gallery. This generous bequest was turned down, on the grounds of insufficient space. Tate then realised the importance of creating a new gallery dedicated solely to British art, and donated £80,000 of his own money to this end.

He commissioned a new building for his project, a classical palace designed by Sidney Smith. It opened to the public in 1897 with 245 British works of art, in just eight rooms. More than a century later, the building has been extended in various directions to house its fast-growing collection. On the grand porticoed entrance, however, you will still see three statues on top of the pediment: a lion and a unicorn, and the symbolic figure of Britannia, symbolising as a trio the United Kingdom. It’s not exactly a subtle hint that the gallery focuses squarely on British art.

Every other year, Tate Britain hosts the often controversial Turner Prize. The prize was founded in 1984 by the Patrons of New Art, a group formed to forge links between the private and public sector at a time when government funding for the arts was being cut. The competition was founded to encourage wider interest in contemporary art and to assist the Tate in acquiring important new works. Every year, the Turner Prize is awarded to a British artist, either one based in the UK, or British-born and working overseas.

The 19th-century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, after whom the prize is named, might well have won the Turner Prize had he been alive today. Innovative and controversial in his own day, Turner had actually wanted to establish a prize for young artists himself. On his death, Turner bequeathed his entire collection of work to the British nation. This comprised of 300 luminescent seascapes and landscapes, as well as 300 sketchbooks and thousands more sketches and watercolours. You can see many of these awe-inspiring works in the Clore Gallery, a postmodern extension designed by James Stirling in 1987 specifically to display this collection. Although the gallery may have a rather traditional national focus, it is never shy of innovating.

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