The Tate Britain displays art linked to British history over the last five hundred years. Displays are roughly chronological. Rooms 1 - 17 display works before 1900, rooms 18 - 34 show works after that date. Rooms in the Clore gallery are dedicated to Turner. Displays are built around a particular theme, which is explained on a wall panel in each room. Pictures on show are changed regularly.
Wandering round the gallery there is a real sense of the changing ways in which people have looked at the world. Paintings don't seem so much a window on the world as a window into people's minds. It is remarkable how life is seen through a filter of conventions. When I visited, the Tudor and Stuart periods were represented by portraiture. The portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, as the little note beside it explained, was not so much a likeness as a symbolic representation of the monarch. I found myself thinking about pictures of today's royals in the newspapers. Today of course we have photography, and it might seem as though we have now thrown off the old conventions and are looking at the people as they really are. This of course isn't true. People are still symbolically represented, in the choice of which pictures are used to support the story that requires writing.
I then moved on to the eighteenth century, passing pictures of Italy, glorified and frequently lovely holiday snaps for young men on their Grand Tour. There was a change here to an interest in the outdoors and in nature, something which is not seen in the Tudor and Stuart paintings. In nineteenth century paintings nature became an overriding theme, in just the same way that it became a central theme for society in general.
Walking through the Tate's galleries is like walking through history, seeing not so much the past world, as the way in which people saw it. Michael Hicks, biographer of Richard III, has written: "In history what happened is often much less important than what is thought to have happened." The paintings I saw at the Tate seem to bear this out.
Address: Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Directions: The Tate Britain is in Millbank, London. From the Houses of Parliament walk west along the Thames. The Tate is just beyond Millbank Tower. The nearest Underground stations are Pimlico, Westminster and Vauxhall. There is no dedicated car parking. Click here for an interactive map centred on the Tate Britain.
Access: Disabled parking spaces and wheelchairs are available on request. Ring 020 7887 8888 to reserve a space. There is full disabled access within the gallery. Audio, large print, tactile Braille guides, and raised thermoform versions of pictures on display are available. Sign interpreted talks are provided.
telephone: 020 7887 8888
web site: http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/