diamond geezer

 Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Prior to 2000 there was only the Tate Gallery. Then Tate Modern opened at Bankside, and everyone embraced it, and mostly forgot about its elder sister parked up the Thames in Pimlico. The older gallery became Tate Britain, now home to a diverse collection of historical and contemporary British art. It was built on the site of a former penitentiary, the scary Millbank Prison, and started out because sugar magnate Henry Tate wanted to leave his art collection to the nation. Since 1897 there have been seven enlargements, including a move into the ex military hospital nextdoor to create the Clore Gallery extension. The latest upgrade opened last month - a major rejig up front plus an internal rehang. And well worth a look around, I'd say.

It's lovely to be able to walk back in through the front doors again. Imposing though the rear basement entrance is, nothing quite beats the clean chequered black and white of the proper foyer. Step through to see what all the fuss has been about - the restoration of the rotunda and the creation of a new staircase. This spirals down beneath the dome, not far, but enough of a spiral to be absurdly photogenic. Best viewed without people, obviously, so I plumped for Monday morning, and that worked. But going down doesn't lead to anywhere spectacular, just cloakrooms and a couple of dining options, so best not yet. Two smaller staircases curve upwards, one marked Grand Saloon, the other Members Room. I took the former to reach an elevated balcony, where an employee stationed at the top told me I could look around but couldn't use the facilities. There didn't seem to be much up here apart from cosy places for members to sit, so I scuttled back down at the earliest opportunity feeling distinctly unwelcome.

So, best head straight ahead into the gallery proper. The main hall is really long, and the Tate has a habit of not filling it with very much. Previously there's been an athlete running up and down, and a film showing what it might look like if it were full, and currently there are some piles of sort-of bricks. The full-size aeroplane, once, was a nice touch, but otherwise too often dismissed. A couple of side galleries currently impress. One holds rather a lot of Henry Moores, including the model for the Draped Seated Woman that Tower Hamlets council attempted to sell off. Another, much smaller and darker, is host to a temporary sound installation consisting of three free jukeboxes. Their playlists are eclectic, including pop, classical, folk and speech, plus vinyl discs recorded by members of the visiting public. I synched together When I'm Cleaning Windows with George V's Silver Jubilee Message, which was novel, then fired up Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald and left this reverberating around the inner galleries as I fled. Childish, delightful.

The main focus of the Tate Britain's new look is a chronological rehang through twenty galleries around the perimeter. Its umbrella title is "BP Walk Through British Art" - not because the petrochemical multinational are well known for their creativity, but because the marketing department have paid a substantial amount in sponsorship. I considered being minorly offended by this, then remembered that the gallery is itself named after a sugar dynasty that exploited slaves and rotted teeth. The 500-year art tour starts in 1540, then promptly rockets up to the 19th and 20th centuries. For old masters the National Gallery remains the place to go, although Constable's Flatford Mill and Millais' Ophelia are amongst the classics Henry Tate assembled. Again Monday morning proved the perfect time to visit, often with an entire gallery to myself rather than having to jostle and shuffle for a clear view.

The 20th century half of the circuit has considerable overlap with Tate Modern, although I found that collection unexpectedly unexciting the last time I visited and too full of bluster. In comparison Tate Britain's decade by decade highlights speed by, with Bacons and Hockneys and Rileys to peruse, and not too much chunky, lah-di-dah faff. Right up at the far end is a darkened room containing what looks like three dozen primitive wooden sculptures, but which on closer inspection include the faces of Ronald McDonald and Hamburglar, courtesy of Jake and Dinos Chapman. In total contrast, across the hall are some of Sylvia Pankhurt's suffragette paintings, and then there's an entirely empty gallery where the lights go on and off. This is Martin Creed's Work No 227, The Lights going on and off, which I was amazed to read has been bought for the nation, and will shortly be going on tour.

Miss one door on the right and you could overlook an entire wing. The Turner Collection lurks round a corner beyond 1940, and boy do they have a lot of J.M.W.s. Many of these are unfinished works, not that it's always easy to tell with Turner, given how his canvases usually have that glowing woolly look. Others are proper and complete, while others are merely sketches that didn't get damaged when the Thames flooded here in 1928. A room of Constables lurks down the back, and William Blake is hiding upstairs, if you get that far. Perhaps you ought to download the free app to guide you round, in case you miss anything important. Or why not try the Walk through British Art audioguide, with commentary on 50 key works, before you go, for nothing. The new Tate Britain, sweet.

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