Walk Through British Art, Tate Britain, London

Maurice Davies has mixed feelings about the lack of interpretation at Tate Britain's Walk Through British Art
Maurice Davies
I’ve probably visited Tate Britain more than any other museum. I even worked there for a bit.

It’s a shock to realise that it’s almost 40 years since I first went to Millbank – when it was the one and only Tate Gallery. It was in a sorry state. I recall Turners and Constables hung on plywood partition walls with grubby woodchip wallpaper.

Since then it’s been through many changes, most of them for the better. The permanent displays have been reinstalled regularly. The building has been extended roughly once a decade.


Now, the building is being refurbished at a cost of £45m, with new spaces opening in the autumn. In the meantime, Tate Britain’s collection has been completely rehung, in part as a Walk Through British Art.

It’s strictly the BP Walk Though British Art – the sponsor has been amply rewarded with branding, with BP appearing more than 20 times in the little booklet that accompanies the redisplay. As well as the WaIk, there are themed BP Spotlights and temporary exhibitions.

Many galleries are vastly improved. The building looks crisp and smart, most of the lighting is excellent and there are plenty of seats.

The Walk’s guiding conceit is that it rejects “designated themes or movements” and simply runs chronologically through British art from the 16th century to today.

 “Turn left, keep going anticlockwise and you’ll end up in the present,” advised the friendly volunteer guide by the entrance.

If only it were so simple. Tate Britain has a complex layout, as do many large old museums. The Walk occupies the rooms round the perimeter of the building, which might make sense on a plan.

However, in the building, it’s easy to get lost as “Spotlight” displays lead off many of the chronological galleries and a new commission (an installation by Simon Starling) fills the centre of the building.

My sense of chronology got squiffy when I left the 1940s gallery and, without warning, found myself in the Clore Gallery. Suddenly about a century out of sequence, I was surrounded by Turner works.

A room a decade

Perhaps getting lost in a museum isn’t so unusual. At least the individual rooms in the Walk should be easy to understand: each one simply contains works of the same date.

In the earlier centuries that might be a period of 30 years, such as 1730-1760; in the 20th-century, it’s roughly a room per decade. However, the absence of themes means many rooms include a disconcerting mixture of art.

Often, adjacent pictures clash. An Angelica Kaufmann portrait of a lady is hung between two George Stubbs horse paintings. Why? They look terrible together and there appears to be no relationship in terms of subject matter or meaning.

And the perverse decision is not explained by chronology – the portrait is from c1775, roughly a decade later than the two Stubbs’s.

Similarly, Constable’s idyllic Flatford Mill (featuring gentle sunlight, fluffy clouds, a calm river and a boy sitting peacefully on a horse) perhaps doesn’t benefit from being placed next to an apocalyptic John Martin of the Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (featuring volcanic eruptions, lightning, stormy seas and people collapsing with fear).

Clashing juxtapositions aside, lots of things do look good. It’s good, too, that there’s a fair bit of sculpture and a couple of rooms showing works on paper. There’s even some 1920s pottery, part of it on loan from York Art Gallery.

All walk and no talk

In one brightly lit gallery, Thomas Girtin’s seminal watercolour The White House at Chelsea is displayed in the traditional manner – in a desk case with a leather cover.

And some juxtapositions are visually sensitive – such as a beautiful grouping of a gentle early Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, and Victor Pasmore’s Hanging Gardens of Hammersmith. Between the two, a Lowry appears delicate and pale.

Head of displays Chris Stephens says the Walk aims to “dispense with traditional art-historical constructs”.

That doesn’t help tourists and other first-time visitors who might expect to get a sense, albeit inevitably a simplified “construct”, of key themes and movements, rather than an apparently almost random selection. (Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis would perhaps prefer to describe arrangement as “open” or “neutral”.) It probably makes it hard to use the gallery for teaching, too.

Another practical problem with the simply chronological approach is that a single artist’s work can be split between several rooms. Francis Bacon, for example, appears in at least four different galleries. Constable, confusingly, is in three places: he’s on the Walk, in a Spotlight room and also has a whole room in the Clore.

Pity those visitors who want an overview of those great British painters. Reynolds and Gainsborough are represented rather fragmentarily. Other artists fare better: there are two Spotlight rooms each for Henry Moore and William Blake.

Until recently, part of the space now occupied by Blake housed an interactive display on Turner and his techniques. Now that’s gone and there are regretfully few (if any) opportunities for interaction anywhere in Tate Britain. Perhaps that will change when the rest of the building opens?

Not only is there little interaction, there’s also not much interpretation. For 20 years or so it has been standard practice at Tate Britain, and at most other historic art museums, to have extended labels on most works of art.

That’s still the case in the Spotlight displays, but in the Walk most labels include only artist/title/date/medium – and most of those labels are banished to skirting-board level. (A few labels do have about 20 words of interpretation, but only four or five works in each room have extended labels.)

There are no panels to introduce the rooms, just the date set into the floor. The inadequate interpretation means the main message often reduces to “look, what a lot of different types of art were being produced at the same time”.

A relaxed amble

I eventually admitted defeat. I gave up trying to understand what was going on and instead simply looked at individual works of art. My studious walk of learning became a relaxed amble of enjoyment.

At the very end of the Walk there are some films of the curators. At last, I had access to some of the thinking behind the arrangements.

I quickly realised there’s far more to them than had met my eye as I walked round. I felt bothered and short-changed – slightly stupid, even.

I’d enjoyed looking at a marvellous variety of works of art, but realised how much I had missed without easier access to the curators’ knowledge and ideas.

Maurice Davies is the head of policy and communication at the Museums Association. He has worked in Tate’s education and curatorial departments

Project data

  • Cost £45m (for whole Tate Millbank project)
  • Sponsor BP
  • Architect Caruso St John Architects
  • Project manager Deloitte
  • Structural engineer Alan Baxter & Associates
  • Services consultant Max Fordham
  • Cost consultant Turner & Townsend
  • Construction manager Lend Lease

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