Show of the week: Splash hit at the Tate

Walk Through British Art: 1540 To The Present Day
Tate Britain, London                                                                              4/5

David Hockney's A Bigger Splash from 1967

David Hockney's A Bigger Splash from 1967

Tate Britain, in most other countries, would be regarded as the nation’s most important gallery and probably simply termed the National Gallery.

It tells the story of its country’s art over the past 500 years; it is extraordinarily complete and compelling, containing great masterpieces, eccentric and quirky diversions, and art from which fashionable taste averts its eyes.

It has just been radically rehung, and the effect is thrillingly new.

The principle which the director, Penelope Curtis, and her curators have followed sounds like an old-fashioned one: the collection has been hung chronologically.

No themes, no arguments, just paintings from the same decade hung together.

Previous rehangs have focused on ideas that unite artists separated by centuries. This one is going to tell the story with confidence.

When you come to the end, the 2000s room looks quite ordinary – a grouping of various interesting artists working now.

That’s what contemporary art exhibitions usually look like.

A detail from Frank Bowling's Mirror, from the 1960s

A detail from Frank Bowling's Mirror, from the 1960s

The excitement of earlier rooms is that artists who had very little in common, but who were working and exhibiting at the same time, are reunited. The story is complicated, but full of energy.

An apocalyptic John Martin work hangs next to an exquisite and intricate one by Samuel Palmer, joined only by their dates and a commitment to internal fantasy.

A grand Leon Kossoff painting of a city church mildly reproaches the Young British Artists of the 1990s; Constable’s magnificent Hadleigh Castle from the 1820s is next to a stiffly humorous caricature painting by Edward Burney.

The effect is to show how history proceeds in leaps and bounds.

Sometimes a painting seems astonishingly ahead of its time, as in a 19th Century William Etty nude, an 18th Century Allan Ramsay group portrait that hovers on the edge of Victorian morality, or, from the early 20th Century, a naked prostitute by Sickert, which hangs, alarmingly, next to a rather soapy Alma-Tadema work of life in Ancient Rome.


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Sometimes a fine painting seems an accomplished, crabby relic of a room or two back – Sickert, so ahead of his time in one room, seems a masterly, grumpy old presence among chic and flippant 1930s painters further along.

Sir Alfred Munnings’s scene of George V and his family returning from Ascot is a reproach to the Art Deco of his time.

Masterpieces like Frith’s Derby Day or Reynolds’s Master Crewe are here, with some brilliant discoveries from the Tate’s enormous holdings – I recommend Frank Bowling’s quintessentially 1960s Mirror next to Hockney’s A Bigger Splash and a great Anthony Caro sculpture.

If you thought you knew the history of British art, visit and think again; anyone who wants to find out, there is no better place to go.


Britain is full of little gems of museums of British art. Derby Museum and Art Gallery has a superb collection of its great painter Joseph Wright, and the beautiful Norwich School of the early 19th Century has a superb centre in Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

If you have time for only one, try the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, London – Britain’s first home for abandoned children and the capital’s first public art gallery.

A wonderful collection, and a moving story, too.

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