Tate Britain shows off refurbishment that transforms display

Tate Britain has unveiled a £45m refurbishment largely funded by philanthropic donations which transforms the way masterpieces are displayed in the national collection of British art.

The gallery on London’s Millbank, which began the work three years ago, will show its works in strict chronological order along a continuous configuration of 20 rooms, rejecting the traditional grouping of art by schools such as Pre-Raphaelite or Impressionist.

Penelope Curtis, Tate Britain director, said the BP-sponsored display which opens this week would trigger unexpected reactions among viewers by placing different styles of painting alongside one another.

“Themes and movements tend to leave out a lot of artists and artworks that don’t fit into those groupings. We have tried to create more conversations between paintings and sculptures, and show that artists don’t exist in isolation,” she said.

Tate Britain’s fundraising clout was underlined by its ability to raise 90 per cent of the £45m cost via philanthropic donations from individuals and bodies such as the Manton Foundation, with the other 10 per cent coming from the Heritage Lottery fund.

“We have a small nucleus of supporters who have been with us for a long time,” Ms Curtis said.

Its ability to raise large-scale investment is unusual at a time when many UK arts organisations are struggling with a public spending crunch. London bodies account for the great majority of philanthropic donations to the arts, receiving some 81 per cent of individual gifts to the arts in 2010/11, according to research from Arts & Business.

In A Walk Through British Art, the permanent exhibition supported by BP, a family portrait by 18th century artist Sir Joshua Reynolds sits alongside the equestrian paintings of George Stubbs and Joseph Wright’s dramatically lit scene of an iron forge.

Elsewhere, Walter Sickert’s 1906 La Hollandaise, depicting a woman in a dingy bedroom, is hung next to A Favourite Custom, an idealised 1909 image of frolicking Pompeii bathers by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Chris Stephens, head of displays, said: “We were so familiar with seeing [Alma-Tadema’s] work as Victorian we were in denial of its actual date.”

Two new permanent galleries have been built to display the works of William Blake and Henry Moore. The Blake room puts 40 of the 18th century poet and artist’s watercolours, paintings and drawings on display, 100 years after Tate held the first exhibition of his work in a public gallery.

Martin Myrone, curator of the Blake room, said Tate had played a big role in putting the “anomalous figure” of the artist in the public eye. “People come to Tate looking for Blake. We are the gallery that keeps him on permanent display.”

Henry Moore receives his first permanent galleries in London, with 30 works including large-scale public sculptures, from a collection of more than 600 of the artist’s works held by Tate.

The revamp has seen nine galleries reconstructed, with floors strengthened to allow large sculptures to be put on display and air conditioning installed for the first time. Sunlight streaming through the skylights is prevented from falling directly on the works by special glass that ensures light of a perpetual “north-facing” hue.

A second phase of building work will conclude in November, incorporating a café, terrace and learning spaces for school trips, as well as opening up the great Rotunda at the atrium of the gallery to Tate members.

Visitor numbers at Tate Britain have risen 60 per cent in the past decade, reaching 1.4m in the year to March 2012.

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