Ouch - 'The Burlington Magazine' on Tate Britain

April 30 2012

Image of Ouch - 'The Burlington Magazine' on Tate Britain

Picture: Burlington

The new edition of The Burlington Magazine is out, and is devoted to British Art (hooray). There are pieces on Sandby, Turner, Landseer and Samuel Palmer. There is also a timely editorial on the current goings on at Tate Britain, which is well worth a read. It highlights many of the problems mentioned here on AHN over the last few months:

While the troubles besetting the gallery are not confined to Millbank, in a national collection they are deeply disquieting, especially the unprecedented exodus of some of its senior curators. Most of the problems stem from Tate Britain’s invention in 2000 and the reorganisation that preceded it. The gallery then became responsible for the acquisition and showing of British art from c.1500 (inexplicably changed recently to 1550) to the present, with the historic collections ending in the early twentieth century. It is in effect the national gallery of the British School, a publicly accountable institution. Its management bears responsibility for the display of and access to its collections, the standard of its temporary exhibitions and the quality of its scholarship. A visit made to Tate Britain at the time of writing demonstrates all too clearly several shortcomings.

Current refurbishment has closed a number of rooms on the east side of the building. Of the fifteen or so rooms to the west, only one is devoted to the primary historic collection (with three much smaller ‘Focus’ rooms on aspects of seventeenth- and eight­eenth-century art). Double-hung, this anthology runs from Hans Eworth to Burne-Jones. Even if this is only a ‘temporary’ hang, it surely shows a contemptuous attitude to the collection and to its audience. Visitors from abroad may take delight in some popular Victorian paintings but they may well be disappointed to find in this room not a single Constable, an artist of whom they are likely to have heard.1 In the other galleries now open, eight are given over to A Walk through the Twentieth Century, an idiosyncratic, occasionally revealing, stroll that introduces the non-specialist to many obscure names among other well-known paintings and some good groups of sculpture. Throughout, wall labels omit any context or information beyond artist, title and date: a visitor wishing to know more of such representative figures of modern British art as Winifred Knights or James Gunn (individual works by them dominate two of the rooms) are left in ignorance. When the renovations are finished next year, it seems that a new hang will devote much more space to the historic British holdings. We can only hope that it will prove an arresting and visually authoritative display. It should also to some extent reflect, without losing sight of public interest, recent enlightening art-historical research into many aspects of British art in publications and exhibitions (including several fine ones held at Tate Britain itself). We hope not to see again those thematic displays with their clunky juxtapositions that in the early 2000s were greeted with considerable dismay; nor yet the somewhat skittish narrative currently in evidence.

Has a British national collection ever been the subject of such steely criticism in such an august journal? '...shows a contemptuous attitude to the collection and to its audience.' That's pretty strong stuff. But, sadly, mostly deserved. Here's hoping the editorial is read by those who matter...

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