Not Just a Pile of Old Bricks: From Its First Sugar-Daddy to the Turner Prize, the Tate Gallery Has Usually Had the Ability to Annoy

By Spalding, Frances | New Statesman (1996), July 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

Not Just a Pile of Old Bricks: From Its First Sugar-Daddy to the Turner Prize, the Tate Gallery Has Usually Had the Ability to Annoy


Spalding, Frances, New Statesman (1996)


The Tate Gallery is 100 years old this month. In 1897, it was estimated that it would cost [pounds]2,444 per annum to run it. In 1995-96 it received [pounds]43.2 million. These figures alone give an indication of the Tate's growth during the past century. When the doors first opened it had seven galleries. Today it operates not just at Millbank but also at Liverpool and St Ives, and is about to take its biggest step yet with the creation of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside and the relaunch of Millbank as the Tate Gallery of British Art.

The Tate draws much of its strength from past achievements, most obviously from the riches that can be found in almost every pocket of the collection. Yet its history is complex and uneven. Its progress was stymied for decades by Civil Service procedures and it suffered repeatedly from disasters such as floods and bombs. By the 1950s so many scandals surrounded it that newspapers simply referred to the "Tate Gallery Affair".

In the late 19th century there was a widespread belief that insufficient recognition was being given to British art. At the National Gallery it remained the poor relation to the foreign schools. But various collectors were beginning to promote the native school and Sir Francis Chantrey, who had made his fortune from funerary sculpture, left the nation a bequest for the purchase of British painting and sculpture.

Chantrey made no provision for a permanent home for such a collection because he was confident that the British government would eventually provide one. But the government's desire for a prestigious public art collection on the one hand was balanced by an equally strong reluctance to spend public money on buildings, acquisitions and upkeep. In the end it was not the state which instigated the Tate, but a self-made businessman from Liverpool.

Henry Tate first offered to give some of his paintings, including Millais' Ophelia and Waterhouse's ever-popular The Lady of Shalott, to the nation in 1889. The National Gallery turned him down, pleading shortage of space and because they could not exhibit them together, as Tate wished. He made his offer again, this time to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on condition that the Lords of the Treasury sanction the establishment of a separate institution which would become a national gallery of modern British art.

His offer attracted a great deal of comment. The press nicknamed him "the Potent-Tate", while others suggested that a "sugar-boiler" could have only questionable taste. Tate had begun refining sugar in 1862, having left school at 13 to work in the grocery trade. He bought his own shop at the age of 20, and six years later owned a chain of shops. He must have had a shrewdly scientific mind because he took advantage of a patent, turned down by other manufacturers, for the production of granulated sugar. Later the neat, white cube which became a feature of the British tea table proved the making of his fortune.

With refineries in both Liverpool and London he bought himself a mansion at Streatham, began buying "pictures of the year" at the Royal Academy summer exhibitions and from Agnews', and became friendly with several artists.

To speed up the search for a site, Tate offered to put up [pounds]80,000 to pay for the building of a new gallery. The Prince of Wales suggested Kensington Gore. Tate was shown a site, on a corner of Exhibition Road, and thought it ideal. But it had already been earmarked for the future Science Museum, and when it was discovered that art was about to push out science, the leading scientists of the day joined together and took their protest to the Prime Minister and to the Times. Assurance was given that the interests of science would be maintained. Tate, fed up with the shilly-shallying, lost heart and withdrew his offer.

But with the change of government in 1892 came a new Chancellor, Sir William Harcourt, who later boasted that he had been able to resolve matters with Tate in just half-an-hour.

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