Just a quick boat trip across the Thames from the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain is England's premier institution of British art from 1500 to the present day. The museum itself is massive yet easy to navigate. The architecture of the museum is especially impressive when you compare it to the minimalist qualities of its sister museum the Tate Modern. The doorways are shaped like large archways, and there is a haunting room lit dimly where impressive pillars loom as a video on screen whisks you through a tour of the museum, as if you were a ghost. This is just one grand room of many, where you will primarily encounter notable works of art by some of Britain's most famous artists, including works by William Blake, FrancisBacon, Thomas Gainsborough, , J M W Turner and Henry Moore. When you enter the museum I suggest you first walk through the BP Walk Through of British Art.
|Tate Britain, London|
The BP Walk comprises a large section of the Tate Britain's first floor, and it is the best way to see a variety of art from the museum's vast collection. The Walk is designed to ensure that pieces from the collection's full historical range (1545 to the present) are always on display. The gallery is laid out like a circuit around the perimeter so that the galleries blend into one another, with no rooms leading to a dead end. The museum says the walk causes you to “experience a cross-section that is representative of what we know as 'British art', meeting both well-known and less-familiar works.” The dates on the floors indicate the period of art you are viewing, and there is a noticeable progression from the royal portraiture art style that was prominent during the 1500s, to the more experimental art of the late 1800-1900's, and to the modern art of today.
|BP Walk, Tate Britain, London|
Some of the most interesting art from early English history are the portraits of monarchs and their various members of Court. The background details behind the pieces give them life, as you can see what the monarchs wanted to emphasize about themselves. For example, Nicholas Hilliard's portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was painted according to her wishes. Elizabeth wanted her portraits painted in a near shadowless style that served less to show a likeness of her, but rather to show a symbolic representation of herself, the Queen. The painting is dominated by the rich images of Elizabeth's clothing and jewelry, and a jewel above her hand takes the image of a phoenix. The phoenix is symbolic both of the city, London, that is always eternally reborn, and also of the unmarried Queen's virginity. Most of the paintings from this era are portraits, ones that exhibit numerous similarities in style. The subjects are painted in modest fashion against a dark background, with a focus on their clothing and accessories that accompany them. One painting that puts an interesting twist to the portrait style of the time is The Cholmondeley Ladies.
|Queen Elizabeth I, Hilliard, Tate Britain, London|
The Cholmondeley Ladies, by an unknown English painter, is a painting filled with mystery. In addition to the unknown identity of the artist, no one knows for certain who these two women are, or if they are even members of the Cholmondeley family. The two women are said to have been born on the same day and married on the same day, and their children can be seen held in their arms. While the women appear to be identical twins, a closer inspection reveals that one has blue eyes while the other has brown eyes. In addition, their clothing also shows minor differences that award viewers who pay close attention. The attention to detail here is really impressive, and the piece stands as a hallmark of British portraits.
|Cholmondeley Ladies, Tate Britain, London|
As you progress through the walk, you will continue to see more portraits of note. One aspect of the style that you should notice is how the portraits grow more varied in color, composition, and pose. The standard image of a person sitting and framed in front of a black background from the waist up is replaced by a livelier portrait. Thomas Gainsborough's Giovanni Baccelli serves as a prime example of this. The titular subject is painted in the costume, make-up, and pose from a ballerina she performed in that season. Gainsborough manages to capture the woman's grace and her vivacity shines through as well. The colorful background, a forest path, also adds to the calm and poise of a ballerina that is reflected in this portrait.
|Giovanna Baccelli, Gainsborough, Tate Britain, London|
In addition to numerous portraits, the walk also offers some stunning landscape paintings that are sure to command your attention. My favorite would be the trio of paintings by John Martin known as the Judgement Series. The subjects are the end of days from the book of Revelation. The paintings all depict landscapes either torn asunder by the wrath of God, or separated by the powers of good and evil. All three of the paintings are impressive in scope, vivid in color, and epic in their romantic vision of the end. The Great Day of His Wrath shows an entire city being destroyed and thrown into an abyss, The Last Judgement illustrates the titular event where God is condemning those on the right to hell and welcoming the saved on the left to heaven, and lastly The Plains of Heaven depicts a serene image of good and evil separated by a giant chasm in the Earth.
|Turner Collection, Tate Britain, London|
Overall, these beautiful works and many more can be seen in the Tate Britain. If you are especially interested in British art, then this is a museum you should definitely visit. It is easy to navigate, varied in art type and art from different time periods, and filled with masterpieces by the most skilled British artists.
-By Phillip Storm, Arts Correspondent, Visitmuseums.com