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The trouble with Tate Britain

Installation photography of Gallery 15 at Tate Britain, 2022
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Written by Lawrence Goldman

The gallery’s ‘rehang’ is an exercise in selective amnesia

Tate Britain has had a facelift. The gallery describes its ‘rehang’, unveiled in May, as a chance for visitors to ‘discover over 800 works by over 350 artists spanning six centuries’. Unfortunately, Tate Britain’s painful historical sensitivity – and its selective amnesia – make it difficult to enjoy the artwork.

The gallery’s Room 6, ‘Revolution and Reform 1776-1833’, provides one of the most egregious examples. A frieze around the walls is accompanied by a chronology of the period that ends: ‘1833. Slavery is abolished in Britain’.

I kept looking up, imagining my eyes were deceiving me. In 1833, there had been no slaves in Britain for years. In 1772 and 1778, the Somerset and Knight cases, in the English and Scottish courts respectively, had established what had been understood for generations: that no person could be legally held as a slave in Britain. In 1833, of course, Parliament passed an ‘Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British colonies’. But in Tate Britain, curators seem to be suggesting that the culmination of the campaigns to end slavery in the empire in fact freed slaves in Britain.

How could they be so sloppy? One should not be surprised, however, because Tate Britain’s editorialising is plain to see throughout the gallery. Its label discussing slave abolition mentions, quite correctly, the three black activists Ottobah Cuguano, Oluadah Equiano, and Mary Prince, but names no one else. Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and the Whig governments that ended the slave trade and slavery are simply invisible here.

There was so much to criticise in the three rooms covering the years 1776-1905, the period I know best, that I curtailed my plan to see all the collection. There were other ‘howlers’ on display: the Gordon Riots occurred in 1780, not 1778, and Chaucer was not the first of our poets ‘to write in local English rather than Latin’ as asserted in the label accompanying Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Chaucer at the Court of Edward III’. Beowulf, anyone? But the essential problem was not one of error but relentless bias. Return to that frieze for a moment. After Waterloo, it reads:

‘1816 ‘Bread or Blood Riots’, East Anglia. Bussa’s Rebellion, Barbados; 1819 Peterloo Massacre, Manchester; 1823 Demerara Slave Rebellion, Guyana; 1830 Swing Riots across rural England; 1831 Christmas Rebellion, Jamaica; Uprisings follow rejection of voting reform;1833 Slavery is abolished in Britain.’

What about reforms to the criminal and penal codes in the 1820s? The enlargement of the rights of Protestant nonconformists and Roman Catholics in 1828-9? The military support for, and guarantee of, Greek independence? The Great Reform Act itself in 1832, expanding the suffrage and redistributing constituencies? The Stockton and Darlington Railway of 1825? Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine of 1832, the ancestor of the computer? Or John Dalton’s atomic theory?

British history is turned into a narrative of repression. But when comparisons are made with France, Spain, the German states, let alone the east European autocracies at this time, Britain was a stable, liberal society with a representative system of government. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, it was a haven for radicals and revolutionaries from across the globe.

 

You will not discover this at Tate Britain where history is simplified and distorted. Take the discussion of the French Revolution: the Tate tells us that: ‘Many radical thinkers, artists and writers opposed the [Revolutionary] war. They believed that France’s revolution was changing its society for the better.’ Without doubt, general British opinion was initially supportive, but once the real nature of the Revolution became clear, that support ebbed away, even among the literati.

When paintings show scenes that curators dislike for ideological reasons, their labels display cynical disparagement. John Singleton Copley’s ‘The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’ (1783) depicts the defence of Jersey from French invasion. We’re told that: ‘Copley’s inclusion of a Black soldier avenging Peirson’s death romanticises the loyalty of the British colonies and of the people subjected to British rule’.

It might be the case, instead, that this black soldier was fighting bravely and freely for King and Country. Patriotism cannot be allowed to stand, however. According to Tate Britain’s label, Philip James De Loutherbourg’s depiction of the battlefield at Valenciennes in 1794, during the Flanders campaign, offers ‘a celebratory image of British military power at a moment when the war was widely criticised in Britain’.

Note the ambiguity: it was not, in fact, the principle of fighting French expansionism that was drawing criticism but the poor conduct of Britain’s military campaigns against the French armies in the Low Countries. And given that the artist had visited the battlefield, might it not simply be an accurate image of what he saw there?

Take another example: Elizabeth Butler’s ‘The Remnants of an Army’ (1879), depicting one of the few British survivors of a battle during the First Afghan War. He is returning to the British garrison at Jellalabad, close to death. This picture is described by Tate Britain as ‘a critique of that war’. But Butler was celebrated for her lifelike, realistic and detailed paintings of ordinary men in battle. This is one such, a study in heroism and endurance. Even if her views were critical – and that is doubtful – Butler was too good an artist to turn her canvas into a political message. The image of the survivor has been painted to evoke varied responses. But Tate Britain will tell you what they, and you, should think.

The result is that people from the past, and people in the present going to Tate Britain, are patronised. According to Tate Britain, Victorian artists ‘often overlook, caricature or romanticise the experiences of many people. These include women, people of colour, workers or those living in poverty’. They ‘simplified the crowd into stereotypes…Such figures reflected the perspectives and prejudices of middle-class viewers’.

Only people without self-consciousness and historical knowledge could write like that. With dreary repetitiveness, ideological sinners are convicted of averting their gaze from social reality. Edwin Landseer ‘helped inspire a romantic image of the Highlands, distanced from the realities of the turmoil and deprivation caused by the Highland Clearances during this period’. Samuel Palmer’s painting ‘Coming from Evening Church’ in 1830 ‘depicts a ‘traditional’ rural community in harmony and guided by religion’. This cannot be allowed to stand. We are told that:

‘Palmer’s time in Shoreham coincided with the eruption of the ‘Swing Riots’ throughout the countryside. In Kent, agricultural workers protested against new farming methods and harsh conditions, burning haystacks and smashing machinery’.

The insinuation is, of course, that Palmer should have been depicting these things, rather than burying his head in the sand with his ‘idyllic, mystical vision of rural life’.

David Wilkie’s painting, ‘Newsmongers’, from 1821, depicts a jaunty group reading a journal. Far off is the skyline of a city, and this ‘distant city may relate to contemporary reports of social unrest’. But 1821 was a notably quiet year in our social history, and in any case, why speculate in an obviously lame manner? The curators would seem to prefer that we were in Moscow in the 1930s: the only art worthy of the name is a kind of socialist realism. When this isn’t in evidence, the artist is seemingly at fault for failing to paint in the approved style.

Then there is a picture about which everything is uncertain, attributed to John Downman and entitled ‘Possibly Sir Ralph Abercromby and Companion c. 1795-1800’. We can’t be sure of the artist; the painting doesn’t have a proper title; we don’t know when it was painted; one of the two figures is unknown, and the other might either be Sir Ralph Abercromby or General Edward Mathew. But Tate Britain is not daunted: it has decided to hang this mysterious painting because it is apparently connected to the suppression of a slave rebellion on the island of Grenada in 1795, and it tells us that ‘John Downman’s portrait implicitly celebrates British military strength in the Caribbean despite the violence underpinning it’.

Given all the uncertainties, how can Tate Britain be so sure? And what does it mean to celebrate military strength ‘despite the violence underpinning it’? Military strength, of course, always depends on the potential for violence.

The sheer stupidity and ignorance of some of the comments overwhelms one. Take Millais’ iconic painting of ‘Ophelia’, in which Ophelia was modelled by Elizabeth Siddal. Tate Britain is so desperate to praise radicalism and unconventional behaviour that the label here is the very reverse of the truth.

We’re told that ‘Siddal and the other working-class women who joined the Pre-Raphaelite circle as colleagues, friends and wives challenged Victorian expectations of arranging marriages for money and status.’ But Lizzie Siddal was used and betrayed by the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who conducted affairs with other women while stringing along this girl from a milliner’s shop who was painted by the Brotherhood and then left to depression and laudanum. Siddal didn’t want to challenge Victorian conventions: she wanted Rossetti to marry her. Like Ophelia, she took her own life, in 1862. This story is so well known: how could Tate Britain have written such idiotic lines about Victorian women challenging conventions and place them beside the tragedy of a woman spurned by men who used her?

But well-known history is no obstacle to Tate Britain. In the same Room 10 as ‘Ophelia’ are objects from the Chartist movement. We’re told that Chartism – the movement to win the suffrage for adult males – ‘reached its height in 1848’ but no serious social historian would subscribe to that view.

Chartism was at its most potent between 1838 and 1842, coinciding with the deepest economic depression of the nineteenth century, and was in decline after that. Twenty thousand people attended the demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848 featured by Tate Britain; it’s estimated that more than 300,000 were present at the Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor, outside Manchester, on 24 September 1838. More to the point, the paintings in Room 10 are mostly from the 1850s and 1860s and not from the ‘age of the Chartists’. There was a world of difference between the social upheavals of the 1830s and 1840s, and the following ‘Age of Equipoise’. Many initiatives, including the enfranchisement of working men under the Second Reform Act of 1867, created an era of profound stability.

Tate Britain’s sin here is anachronism. In its eagerness to present a story of discord, and without sensitivity to historical change, it yokes together the radicalism of the 1840s and the different history of the next generation. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were socially-acceptable radicals precisely because the Victorians had entered an age of assurance when rebel artists could be indulged.

Yet the greatest sin is hypocrisy. In a gallery now dedicated to anti-colonialism we would respect honesty about the origins of Tate Britain. Why not explain properly that the museum is itself implicated in colonial exploitation? I found only two items concerning Sir Henry Tate whose financial benefactions and gift of paintings established the Tate in 1897. On a board entitled ‘Art for the Crowd 1815-1905’, we’re told that the National Gallery of British Art, funded by the sugar merchant Henry Tate, became known as the Tate Gallery. In a corner there is a bust of Sir Henry by Thomas Brock with an adjoining label that explains: ‘Tate had made his fortune through a new process of sugar refining and by selling sugar in neat, white cubes’. That’s it: he invented sugar lumps.

In fact, Henry Tate purchased his sugar – the classic colonial commodity – by the ton from islands in the West Indies where the direct descendants of slaves tended and cut the sugar cane for poverty wages. They were free, but exploited nonetheless. The economies of these islands did not diversify after emancipation: they were fixed in the cultivation of cheap commodities for European consumers. Nor did unrest cease with freedom. Is there any mention in Tate Britain of the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 in Jamaica, when hundreds died, by which time Henry Tate was making his fortune from sugar? If so, I couldn’t find it during my visit.

Tate Britain is an example of the very thing it decries: it owes its existence to the exploitation of colonial labour. Perhaps, then, it’s self-loathing which explains the many deceits in Tate Britain’s ‘rehang’?

There are honest words about Henry Tate on Tate Britain’s website, if you know where to look. But visitors to Tate Britain might not go there and will leave the gallery deceived, ignorant of its connections with ‘colonialism’. Honesty might have met with public sympathy: people understand that benefactions may derive from questionable sources. But to work in an institution founded in this manner while judging others so intemperately is hypocrisy on a scale deserving ridicule. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

With its errors, distortions, bias, and evasion, this is a shameful account of the British and their art. No one asks for a roseate and patriotic narrative, just one that is correct, well-informed, and which encourages visitors to assess for themselves.

 

Lawrence Goldman is Executive Editor of History Reclaimed. He is also Emeritus Fellow of St. Peter’s College, Oxford and was the Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography between 2004 and 2014.

 

This article first appeared in The Spectator and is reproduced by kind permission.

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Lawrence Goldman