Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Proud to Be British

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Proud to Be British

Article excerpt

BP Walk Through British Art Tate Britain, Main Galleries Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life Tate Britain, Level 2 Gallery, until 20 October There has been much positive comment about the rehang of the Tate's permanent collection, which sees a welcome return to the great tradition of the chronological hang and thus gives the visitor a chance to see the development of British art from 1545 to today. At last we are permitted a rest from themed displays and given a proper educational arrangement that maps out our artistic heritage - at least in part. (Most of the larger movements are covered. ) This is not a conservative stratagem: there is still plenty of room for discussion and controversy in the various inclusions and omissions (particularly noticeable when we reach the 20th century). But now there is finally on permanent display a backbone or schema on which to build a knowledge and understanding of the nation's art. We have been in sore need of it, and praise must go to Penelope Curtis, the new director of Tate Britain, for seeing through such a radical re-organisation.

The rehang occupies nearly all of the main galleries on the main floor of the museum with a few rooms off devoted to specialist displays: Henry Moore, Rose Wylie, the witty photographs of Keith Arnatt and so on. If you want to get round the whole thing, allow at least a couple of hours. Ideally, it's the sort of display worth visiting several times to focus on favourites or those artists new to you. (I guarantee a good sprinkling of these for most people. ) But a first visit to gauge the extent and range of work on offer is the best approach. I began by making copious notes, singling out such items as the anonymous 'Leake Panels' from the early 16th century, on loan from York Museums (by no means everything on show comes from the Tate's own collection), religious scenes rather bashed about by the iconoclastic Puritans, or the marvellous Marcus Gheeraerts portrait of Captain Thomas Lee (1594), dressed as an Irish foot soldier with bare legs and open shirt. I also love the Nathaniel Bacon painting of a sexy kitchen maid with a cornucopia of suggestive fruit and veg. There are early landscapes, a grisaille sketch by Rubens for the Banqueting House ceiling and William Dobson's magnificent portrait of Endymion Porter. I could go on . . .

If I did go on, this review would deteriorate into just a list of extraordinary paintings (the sculpture doesn't really get going until the early 20th century), from John Michael Wright to Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds, and on to Wright of Derby, Zoffany and Stubbs. And that doesn't even take us into the Victorian period. But let me emphasise one of the key aspects of this rehang:

the regular strategic interpolation of lesserknown artists. Thus we have George Lambert's panorama of Box Hill among the Gainsboroughs and Allan Ramsays, or the fabulous (and surprisingly abstract) 'Peat Burning' (c.1864-6) by John William Inchbold, in a room of works on paper by the likes of Ruskin. The strictly chronological approach allows us to see how styles and developments overlapped and co-existed; and how startling the modernist works around 1910 must have looked in the context of fading academia.

The 1915 gallery reveals why Gertler's great anti-war painting 'Merry-Go-Round' was not loaned to Crisis of Brilliance at Dulwich (reviewed last week) - it was needed here to make a powerful statement alongside Stanley Spencer and Matthew Smith. …

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