Friday, October 10, 2014

Seeing Britain Through Art

The only way to end my two week holiday in Britain is with a truly British institution. I started the London portion of the holiday with the British Museum and am ending it with Tate Britain.

The Tate Britain sits on the Thames in the Pimlico neighborhood and looks like a smaller British Museum, with a ground round dome under which is a rotunda court in gleaming white marble. It however is nowhere near as overwhelming in terms of its collection and can easily be done Ina few hours. It's also the perfect pairing to go with the National Portrait Gallery.

The Tate is named after Sir Henry Tate, an industrialist who had made his fortune as a sugar refiner, offered his collection of British art to the National Gallery in 1889. However, the  National Gallery did not have space for Tate's collection. So to remedy this problem, Tate created a new gallery dedicated to British art, opening to the public in 1897. This gallery grew to hold more than just Tate's collection but the works for British artists from various other collections. The original name of the gallery was the National Gallery of British Art.

The result is a fine collection dating from the 16th century to the present with most of Britain's leading artists represented, such as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable, Hogarth, Blake, and of course JMW Turner. The Tate has the largest collection of Turner's works spread over seven rooms. Turner willed most of his paintings and watercolors to the British nation, and he intended that a special gallery would be built to house them.

It also has an impressive number of the Pre-Raphaelites, which is a wholly British movement in 19th century art. Founded in 1848 by by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, critics. The groups purpose was to reform art and return it to the colorful and complex compositions of Italian art before the adoption of Classical ideals of Raphael  and Michelangelo.  The Pre-Raphaelites' paintings on display correspond with the Romantic period of poetry. One of the most stunning pieces is John Williams Waterhouse's "The Lady of Shalott,"which colorfully and mournfully illustrates lines from Tennyson's poem.

There couldn't have been a better way to end a truly British holiday, excursions that spanned time and country, then to walk through 500 years of British art.  To see the scope and depth of the change in British art across time was the perfect compliment to bookend the heritage contributions to British history.

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