It has taken 13 years but this week Tate Britain emerged from the shadow of its younger sibling Tate Modern to steal the limelight as the UK’s most beautiful, engaging and free-spirited museum.
Long obscured by boxed-in displays and tired decor, Millbank’s architecture is gloriously restored: elegant shades of grey-painted walls, grand architraves, natural light filtered through state-of-the-art glass roofs. A stately enfilade of rooms now showcases the story of British art across half a millennium. As gallery after gallery unfolds, with Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of darting youths, “Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers”, at one end, facing the dynamic abstract forms of David Bomberg’s “The Mud Bath” at the other, you will be surprised, challenged, amused and – crucially – left to make your own connections.
Conceptually as well as physically, all doors have been thrown open. There are more pictures, and fewer words, than before. Each gallery simply bears a date – 1760, 1840, 1930 – and contains works made within a couple of decades of one another. Favourites of every epoch – from Holbein’s enigmatic “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling” and William Hogarth’s determinedly unglamorous “The Painter and his Pug” to Chris Ofili’s affecting “No Woman, No Cry”, pinned against the wall with elephant dung – hang prominently and gracefully. But every room is enlivened by unlikely juxtapositions, asserting not cultural context but the opposite – the chance-taking of the creative mind.
In the mid-Victorian gallery, where paintings busily climb walls in serried ranks, as they would have done in 1860, the heightened realism, Day-Glo colour and earnest metaphor of Holman Hunt’s lost flock in “Our English Coasts (‘Strayed Sheep’)” confronts Whistler’s Thames nocturnes, where motifs dissolve into luminous watery abstractions. From 1910, contrived, fashionable London portraits by William Orpen and Augustus John are blown away by the blazing hues, slashing brushwork and frank eroticism of Scottish Colourist JD Fergusson’s “Blue Beads, Paris”. Stanley Spencer’s “The Resurrection, Cookham”, with parishioners leaping ecstatically from their own graves, always looks magnificently awkward; its position now, opposite ultraconservative Alfred Munnings’ “Their Majesties Return from Ascot”, painted the same year and in similar horizontal format, made me laugh out loud.
Year-on-year chronology, says Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis, is “a neutral search tool”, disabling curators from imposing textbook schools and “isms” that are outdated and narrow. So, although Millbank’s new display is a volte-face from its much-criticised thematic hang, introduced in 2000, it is as radical – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A bold, end-of-history approach denies any leading arc of progress and dispenses with accounts of influence and “who got there first”, according to curator Chris Stephens, in favour of a pluralistic presentation appropriate for “a digital age where we find our own material and narratives through surfing”.
Still, curators have selected, hung, sometimes purchased these works: history reveals the prism of our present, and that is wonderfully refreshing here. Johann Zoffany’s lavish panoramic “Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match” (1784-86), set in Lucknow, India; Rose Finn-Kelcey’s exuberant photograph of herself doing a handstand, “The Restless Image – A Discrepancy Between the Felt Position and the Seen Position” (1975); Jack Butler Yeats’ sensuous landscape/abstraction “A Rose Among Many Waters” (1952): the acquisitions within the past decade of these arresting works reflect shifting cultural priorities, away from the straitjacket of metropolitan modernism, to embrace postcolonial, feminist, regional readings of art.
Adding texture and interest are newly dedicated spaces for watercolours – Arthur Melville’s “The Blue Night, Venice” is a highlight – and drawings, while reinforced floors make possible an inspired interplay between sculpture and painting, energising the entire installation. Epstein’s alabaster “Jacob and the Angel” has come down from its position at the head of the Manton staircase to dominate a small octagonal gallery, forcing one up close to its disturbing macho power. In the same room hangs Lucian Freud’s penetrating “Girl with a Kitten”, a portrait of Kitty Garman (his wife, Epstein’s daughter), looking so terrified under the painter’s scrutiny that she squeezes – to death, it seems – the scrawny pet/namesake she holds for comfort.
I loved too the stand-off between the marble austerity of John Gibson’s “Hylas Surprised by the Naiades” and John Martin’s crimson catastrophe “The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum”, each from the 1820s and representing contrasting responses to the classical world, and the daring placement of Anthony Caro’s steel and aluminium abstraction “Early One Morning” before David Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash”. Both are British responses to the abstracting impetus of 1960s America; the sculpture’s beams wittily echo the painting’s diving board and vertical palm trees.
As we approach the contemporary, curators must make controversial judgments about works not yet sanctified by time. Here there are some staggering mistakes – a room devoted to dreary Rose Wylie but not a single work by pioneering Paula Rego; tepid Fiona Rae instead of unsettling Cecily Brown. And shreds of political correctness persist: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s mediocre “10pm Saturday” might not be here if Yiadom-Boakye were white and male. But the scarcity of video is a relief, and how terrific to interpret the 1990s from a non-YBA viewpoint: just one quiet Damien Hirst, a glass cage with ashtray and cigarettes, “The Acquired Inability to Escape”, and Sarah Lucas’s small stocking sculpture “Pauline Bunny” stand alongside paintings by Gary Hume, Peter Doig, Leon Kossoff and Bridget Riley.
This is a supremely assured presentation that plays to British art’s strengths – its eclecticism, its resistance to dogma. Inevitably, there are losses: while one-off masterpieces – Mark Gertler’s “Merry-Go-Round”, William Powell Frith’s “The Derby Day” – shine in this democratically flattened arrangement, the giants of British art do not get the scope they need. With lone works dotted about, there is no sense of the scale, breadth and development of Constable, Bacon or Freud – artists that a British art museum ought to boast about. Tate acknowledges as much with permanent solo presentations of Henry Moore and William Blake; Turner in the Clore gallery remains the model.
Nonetheless, Curtis’s display is a vibrant intellectual reappraisal. Through the 20th century it was assumed that British art largely missed greatness by refusing quickly enough to embrace those movements – impressionism, abstraction, surrealism – that determined the avant-garde. Now the concept of the avant-garde is itself old-fashioned; hybridity and pluralism are cool, and British art takes its place on the global stage.