Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Art Eyewitness Review: 500 Years of British Art at Tate Britain


Five Hundred Years of British Art

By Kirsteen McSwein    

Tate Publishing, $40, 240 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Henry Tate (1819–1899) was a public-spirited man who tried to keep his name out of the bright lights of celebrity. He failed dismally.

Tate rose from a thirteen-year old grocer's apprentice to become a fabulously wealthy sugar merchant and patron of worthy causes. Punch magazine called him "Potent Tate." 

For all of his business savvy, Tate was ill-at-ease with his position as an "Eminent Victorian." He tried to keep a low profile, rejecting several honors from the British government. Finally, in 1898, after an especially generous donation, Tate was informed that Queen Victoria would not be pleased if he again declined a knighthood.

Sir Hubert Von Herkomer, Sir Henry Tate, 1897

Sir Henry Tate's reward came after donating his collection of British paintings and £150,000 to build a museum for British art on the banks of the Thames River in the heart of London. Initially, the museum was called the National Gallery of British Art. Almost from its opening day on August 16, 1897, it was popularly referred to as the Tate Gallery. Museum officials eventually bowed to the inevitable and it was officially designated as the Tate Gallery in 1932. Today, it is known as Tate Britain, one of several "Tates," including the Tate Modern on the other side of the Thames.

However uncomfortable Sir Henry Tate would have been with all of the museums bearing his name, he would certainly be pleased with the new book, Five Hundred Years of British Art. Published by the Tate, this lavishly illustrated volume charts the course of British art in a way which reflects the unique way which Tate Britain displays much of its collection. 

Rather than organizing works of art by artist, theme or artistic movement, paintings and sculpture at Tate Britain are presented in a chronology-based scheme. This "Walk through British Art" (as it is called) gives a sense of the developing course of art, as it occurred. This enables visitors to Tate Britain to appreciate the radical differences in technique and artistic vision which frequently occurred during the same historical era. 

Comparison of three paintings from the 1850's provides insight into this curatorial decision. 

Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2

One of the paintings Henry Tate donated to the museum soon to bear his name was Ophelia, painted in 1851-52 by John Everett Millais. The protagonist is the tragic Shakespearean heroine, driven to suicide by the melancholy, self-destructive Hamlet. The exhausting ordeal of creating Ophelia nearly cost Millais his sanity and almost claimed the life of his model, Lizzie Siddal. She caught a severe cold when Millais forgot to keep the heating lamps going underneath the water-filled bathtub where she was posing.

At the same time as Millais labored on Ophelia, John Martin was engaged on three epic paintings depicting the "end times." Martin's The Last Judgement is the center piece of the three pictures. On the left of the painting, the saved are gathered (George Washington and William Shakespeare can be identified among the elect), while at right, we see "how the mighty are fallen." 

John Martin, The Last Judgement, 1853

Nameless and Friendless 
is another 1850's work dealing with the theme of judgement. This time a young woman, clad in mourning attire, waits for the critical appraisal of an art dealer. If the dealer accepts her painting, she will have funds to buy food and lodging for herself and the young lad with her, likely her brother. If, as seems likely, the painting is rejected, she and the boy will have to resume their desperate quest elsewhere.


Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless, 1857

Emily Mary Osborn, the creator of Nameless and Friendless, was an early Feminist. She joined the Society of Female Artists, which was established in 1857, the year she exhibited her painting. Nameless and Friendless dealt specifically with the plight of women, as Millais' Ophelia did indirectly. Osborn also sought to make a moral statement, as testified by the biblical subtitle of her painting: “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, etc.” - Proverbs, x, 15. But her focus was on contemporary, Victorian, society not the world "hereafter" of Martin's Last Judgement

OpheliaThe Last Judgement and  Nameless and Friendless are very alike in one fundamental way. These three works of art probed sensitive social and ethical subjects. And by doing so, they undermined any sense of complacency or illusions of grandeur induced by the vast power of Britain's empire and industrial might.

This is a very significant point given the frequent controversies and culture "wars" that have marked British history. It is also a reminder that an independent spirit, often of a "contrarian" nature, has been the defining attribute of many British artists. Allegiance to a particular movement or "school" has counted for little or lasted but a short time.

A Walk through British Art navigates a path through thirteen galleries at Tate Britain. The journey begins during the 1540's. In many ways, this was the absolute nadir of the visual arts in England. Henry VIII's break with the Pope sparked widespread destruction of art associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Devotional paintings, stained glass windows, sacred manuscripts, alabaster religious sculptures - an English specialty - and embroidered priestly vestments were subjected to one of the most ruthless campaigns of iconoclasm in European history. 

As a result of this purge, there were few Englishmen who were able to paint or sculpt competently by the end of the 1500's. Foreign artists dominated the British art scene during the 1600's. Rubens, van Dyke and Lely gained the favor of the Stuart monarchs, who tried to repair the damage done during the Tudor era. 

Mary Beale, Portrait of a Young Girl, ca. 1681

One of the most intriguing paintings by a native English painter during the 1600's is Mary Beale's Portrait of a Young Girl, dating to around 1681. Beale (1633-1699) established a successful portrait studio, beating the incredible odds against women of talent during this period. Beale was highly regarded by rival painters, including Sir Peter Lely, the chief court painter for Charles II. If Beale's work lacks the polished sophistication of Lely's, it shows that, somehow, the artistic tradition in England had survived. 

Shortly after Beale died, she was praised in a literary work, An Essay towards an English-School. As the title implies, art in Great Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century (England and Scotland having unified in 1707) still lacked a cohesive focus. What Britain needed was an artist of genius, who was able to ignite a nationwide enthusiasm for the visual arts similar to what had occurred in the Netherlands during the 1600's. 

As if on demand, this charismatic figure duly appeared. In 1710, a young goldsmith's apprentice began engraving drawings of his own design. By the time he died, William Hogarth (1697-1764) had raised the status and prospects of British art and artists to an unprecedented level. 

William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745

This triumph, however, was anything but predestined. Like Charles Dickens - who revered his art works - Hogarth had to struggle to escape the poverty of his youth. Even when Hogarth achieved success with his early engravings, his work was so plagiarized that he realized little profit. He took legal action, reaching all the way to Parliament which passed the Copyright Act in 1735. A turning-point in Anglo-American history of immense significance, this legislation became known as Hogarth's Act.

Hogarth made his reputation - and fortune - with several series of paintings and related engravings. These were "moral subjects" which depicted in sequential progression the downward life spirals of scoundrels, harlots, playboys, lazy apprentices, cheating husbands and unfaithful wives. 

Since Five Hundred Years of British Art utilizes one iconic work of art to highlight each featured artist, Hogarth's format presents a problem. Which episode best represents the Rake's or the Harlot's step-by-step descent into oblivion?

The Tate editorial team brilliantly responded to this challenge by selecting a "one-off" work by Hogarth which displays most of the hallmarks of his celebrated series. 

O the Roast Beef of Old England ("The Gate Of Calais") is based on a real incident in Hogarth's life. In 1748, after a treaty briefly ended hostilities between Britain and France, Hogarth crossed the English Channel. As recorded in the painting, Hogarth was arrested while sketching the battlements of the port city of Calais. The hand of a suspicious guardsman can be seen, about to lay hold of his shoulder.

             William Hogarth, O the Roast Beef of Old England , 1748 

Hogarth's arrest is really a minor detail of Roast Beef. Hogarth hardly needed a pretext for deploying the heavy artillery of his scathing humor on the French. The real action of this comic masterpiece centers on the facial expressions of emaciated French soldiers, in filthy, tattered uniforms, and a well-fed monk as they watch a joint of beef being carried to the inn where Hogarth and other English tourists are staying. 

Heavy-handed though the humor may seem now, Hogarth hit the mark with his salvos of sarcasm. Hogarth painted what he truly believed - that the life of an Englishman is superior to the French. The English eat roast beef, the French subsist on soup maigre. In England, Hogarth can draw and paint whatever he wants, protected by an Act of Parliament, while in France he was arrested for sketching an old drawbridge. 

With O the Roast Beef of Old England, Hogarth secured a niche for narration in the realm of British art. By depicting dramatic incidents, narrative paintings and prints acted as the visual counterparts of novels, which thanks to authors like Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding were fast becoming the dominant genre of English literature. Narrative works of art by Hogarth and his successors told stories unifying the people of Britain in times of crisis or challenging social conventions leading to needed reform.

Narrative art can speak to generations unborn when a painting or print was first displayed. A superb example of art's ability to span the centuries can be found in the collection of Tate Britain. In 1890, Henry Tate commissioned a painting from Luke Fildes, a noted commercial illustrator. Fildes, whose grandmother was nearly killed in the Peterloo "Massacre" of 1819, was sensitive to issues of public welfare. Tate encouraged Fildes to select the subject of his painting and the artist responded with The Doctor.

Sir Luke Fildes, The Doctor, 1891

Fildes, reflecting on his own life experience, recalled the devoted care of Dr. Gustavus Murray for his one-year old son, desperately-ill with typhoid fever. Sadly, Philip Fildes died on Christmas morning, 1877. 

Fildes never forgot the heroic efforts to save the life of his son, but relocated the action to a working-class setting. Fildes, a stickler for authenticity, constructed a model of fisherman's cottage in his studio. He worked on the painting in the early hours around dawn each day, over the course of an extended period. In this way, he sought to capture the beam of misty light seeping through the widow on to the bowed shoulders of the child's despairing mother.

Is that beam of light a harbinger of hope or is it merely announcing a cheerless day? The answer is left to the viewer to decide. 

By placing us in the sick room, Fildes brilliantly highlighted the most important attribute of narrative art. It enables us, the viewers, to participate in the drama. It ennobles our hearts and souls, as we join in empathy with the protagonists of the painting.

Luke Fildes' The Doctor was created at the high "watermark" of representational art. Within a few years, painting and sculpture began to take radical new paths. The twentieth and twenty-first century art works selected by the editorial team of Five Hundred Years of British Art necessarily reflect this change. But it is worth a few more moments of reflection on The Doctor to emphasize the creative opportunities provided by narrative art.

Fildes' success as a graphic artist brought him to the attention of Charles Dickens. He was hired to illustrate The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens died on June 9, 1870 before the novel was completed. Fildes visited Dickens' empty study and painted an homage to the great writer, The Empty Chair. This watercolor was later engraved and published in The Graphic magazine.

Vincent van Gogh was a devoted reader of The Graphic and a great admirer of Fildes. Later, he reworked Fildes' image of Dickens' empty chair into two immortal versions of his own, the chairs which he and Gauguin used at the Yellow House at Arles. Because Fildes had left plenty of room for the imagination of the viewers of The Empty Chair, van Gogh was enabled to participate in the dialog of that wonderful work of art and carry it forward with his paintings.

   Anne Lloyd, Photo (2014) 
Gallery view of A Walk through British Art at Tate Britain

The process of "cross-pollination" is one of the many virtues of narrative art. It is also one of the greatest blessings conferred on us by art museums where we can project ourselves emotionally and spiritually into the great works of art we behold before us.

I have been fortunate to take the Walk through British Art a couple of times at Tate Britain. I dearly hope to do so again, but in the meantime there is this wonderful companion volume to ramble through, in company with such kindred spirits as Mary Beale, William Hogarth, John Millais, Luke Fildes and, lest we forget, Sir Henry Tate.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photo: Anne Lloyd All rights reserved    Images of paintings from Tate Britain, courtesy of Tate Britain Museum 

Introductory Image: Five Hundred Years of British Art Book Cover: © Tate Publishing, Ltd. 2020

Sir Hubert Von Herkomer (British, 1849–1914) Sir Henry Tate, 1897. Oil paint on canvas: 1422 × 1118 mm. Tate Britain. Bequeathed by Amy, Lady Tate, 1920. # N03517

Sir John Everett Millais (British,1829–1896) Ophelia, 1851-52. Oil paint on canvas: 762 × 1118 mm. Tate Britain. Presented by Sir Henry Tate, 1894. N01506.

John Martin (British,1789–1854) The Last Judgement, 1853. Oil paint on canvas: 1968 × 3258 mm. Tate Britain. Bequeathed by Charlotte Frank in memory of her husband Robert Frank, 1974. #T01927

Emily Mary Osborn (British,1828–1925) Nameless and Friendless.“The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, etc.” - Proverbs, x, 15, 1857.  Oil paint on canvas: 825 × 1038 mm. Tate Britain.  Purchased with assistance from Tate Members, the Millwood Legacy and a private donor, 2009. # T12936

Mary Beale (1633-1699) Portrait of a Young Girl, ca. 1681. Oil paint on canvas: 535 x 460 mm. Tate Britain. Purchased 1992. # T06612

William Hogarth (British,1697–1764) The Painter and his Pug, 1745. Oil paint on canvas: 900 × 699 mm. Tate Britain. Purchased 1924. # N00112

William Hogarth (British,1697–1764) O the Roast Beef of Old England ("The Gate Of Calais"). Oil paint on canvas: 788 × 945 mm. Tate Britain. Presented by the Duke of Westminster, 1895. # N01464

Sir Luke Fildes (British, 1843–1927) The Doctor, exhibited 1891. Oil paint on canvas: 1664 × 2419 mm. Tate Britain. Presented by Sir Henry Tate, 1894. # N 01522.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2014) Gallery view of A Walk through British Art at Tate Britain. # N00112

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