• Kath London Culture Tours

Top 10 in the Tate Britain!

Planning a visit to the newly reopened Tate Britain?

To celebrate the reopening, I decided it was time to put together a list of my top 10 paintings in the collection!

The Tate Britain (until 1932 officially called the National Gallery of British Art) is based on the collection of Henry Tate, a lover of the Pre-Raphaelites, and an industrialist who had made his fortune as a sugar refiner.

In 1889 he gifted his collection of British art to the nation. He even ended up contributing most of the money to build a gallery to house the art!

Opened in 1897 the Tate Britain, stands on the site of the notorious Millbank Penitentiary, evidence of which can be found in the surrounding streets.

Starting with 245 artworks, the collection now holds 70,000, and spawned the Tate Modern in 2000 to house the growing collection of Modern and Contemporary art.

The list below follows the galleries chronological order. Be sure to look down once in the gallery as the dates are helpfully displayed on the floor at the entrance of every room.

1. A Man in a Black Cap (1545) John Bettes

This is the oldest dateable painting in the collection and is special partly because the artist actually signed it on the back! This was unusual for the time, as painters were more like craftsmen than ‘artists’ that we think of today.

We don’t know a lot about the artist John Bettes, but it is thought that he was influenced by Hans Holbein the younger, the great court painter of Henry the eighth. Even the background of this painting originally emulated the bright blue backgrounds that we associate with Holbein. Unfortunately, Bettes was not able to afford the expensive Ultramarine Blue, made from lapis lazuli, that Holbein used, and instead used Smalt Blue which turns brownish over time.

2. The Painter and his Pug (1745) William Hogarth

William Hogarth is often looked upon as our first famous British artist, and whilst famous mainly for is satirical works, this is a brilliant self-portrait of himself with his dog.

From x-ray we know that he had originally portrayed himself in a fine suit, wig and hat, but finally changed his mind and portrayed himself in his painters smock complete with painter’s palette and a scar on his forehead from the frequent fights he got into down the pub!

He does try to show off his better side by portraying his taste in culture on the pile of books in front of him - Shakespeare for plays, Milton for sonnets and Swift for satire. If you look closely at his pallet you will see a gold line and the words “the line of beauty and grace”, commemorating a paper he had written about this sweeping line being the base of beauty and grace.

3. Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773) Sir Joshua Reynolds

You can’t cover British artistic history without mentioning Sir Joshua Reynolds who was founder and first president of Royal Academy of Art and arguably the greatest portrait artist of the time. He championed what was later called the ‘Grand Style’, which meant to follow the great masters of the renaissance and to have a classical or historical look to paintings.

You can see the Grand Style perfectly in this portrait of three Irish-English sisters, known as the Irish Three Graces. They are dressed in classical flowing clothes and classical artefacts are dotted about the background, the garden contains a classical sculpture – Hymen the God of marriage - as the painting had been commissioned in honour of the approaching marriage of the middle sister Elizabeth.

4. Flatford Mill (1816–7) John Constable

John Constable is famous for his production of idyllic scenes of the countryside where he grew up, the son of wealthy landowners in Suffolk, and for his obsession with cloud formations. He had a great connection to the land and as actually signed his name in the earth in this painting.

What’s interesting for me about this painting is that although it looks like a summer day, it’s actually a completely false impression. In reality 1816 was called ‘the year without a summer’. Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted and sent dust and sulphur into the air, turning the sky all around the world yellow. It rained and hailed in June and July and 68,000 died in Britain and England alone as the crops failed.

The problem went on for two years and inspired J.M.W. Turner's amazing skies, whereas in contrast Constable continued to paint as if nothing had happened. Constable said, “painting is but another word for feeling”, and the feeling we get here is of Constable’s idyllic childhood.

5. Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) John Singer Sargent

This is a painting of a formidable lady by an amazing painter. The shimmering dress that Terry wears in the portrait is the result of 1000’s of beetle wings cases which she insisted on being sewn on the dress to give a serpentine appearance due to her line “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it”. It’s a sign of her seniority that she was able to insist on her choice of wardrobe, having first appeared in a Shakespeare production as an uneducated girl at nine years old.

Sargent was trying to redeem himself after nearly destroying his career by painting a lady with her gown falling off her shoulder in ’Madam X’.

After seeing Terry on stage as Lady Macbeth he asks to paint her and directs her stand in this formidable position with the crown over her head. Whilst the scene never happens in the play, it is a metaphor for the driving ambition of lady Macbeth to have the crown of Scotland. The painting was an immediate hit and is still powerful today.

6. Ophelia (1851–2) Sir John Everett Millais

This is one of original paintings in Henry Tate’s collection and was painted when Millais was only twenty-one years old. At eleven he had been the youngest ever student at the Royal Academy school and later was a forming member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood who loved to paint figures from ‘the immortals’ such as Shakespeare, as with this painting.

All the flowers in the painting are in a speech by Ophelia who had been rejected by Hamlet and came to her family handing out flowers and herbs with symbolic meanings - pansies for thoughts – rosemary for remembrance – fennel and columbine for adultery and sorrow – rue for repentance, daisies for heartbroken lovers and violets for faithfulness. The robin is also a reference to a song Ophelia had been singing in the previous scene.

In reality the lady in the bath was Elizabeth Siddal who famously got pneumonia posing in the cold bathwater for Millais and later became an artist herself.

7. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (c.1944) Francis Bacon

Bacon’s use of a triptych has religious arts connotations. He gives us the three figures around base of crucifixion, he was going to do the crucifixion itself but never got around to it and so instead the figures round the base are meant to tell the story. He himself didn’t believe in god, but he’s using powerful symbol of crucifixion every one of us knows to show humanity.

© Estate of Francis Bacon

The background is blood orange and Bacon has created an enclosed windowless space through manipulation of the traditional method of perspective lines. These lines don’t disappear to a vanishing point, instead they add to our sense of distortion and confusion.

Bacon often worked from photos and pages torn out of art history. He was repulsed and inspired by fascist orators behind microphones, and he picked up a second-hand book of diseased mouths in Paris, which he found fascinating. He has used these influences to create a pretty disturbing set of images. Many people think he may also have been influenced by the photos of concentration camps which were starting to emerge around that time.

8. Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) J.M.W. Turner

Turner grew up in Covent garden when it was a working-class area, living above his father’s barber shop. An incredibly talented man his uncle managed to get him into the Royal Academy, no small feat for a working-class man in those days, and he became extremely successful and is often named as Britain’s best painter. After he died he bequeathed all of his paintings to the nation, including those in his studio, on the condition that they should hang in their own wing, as they do today.

This ethereal painting of Norham castle, on the border of England and Scotland, is my favourite. Turner is quite old at this point and has had a successful career, he has nothing to prove and can paint what he likes, and he loves to paint the light.

Turner held an exhibition of similarly abstract works and included this piece. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert went to see it they hated it. Prince Albert thought it was sign of him being mentally ill and that he should be hospitalised! In reality Turner was probably just a little ahead of his time! His works are said to have been an influence on Monet's handling of light.

9. Reclining Figure (1951) Henry Moore

Henry Moore produced many reclining and recumbent figures through which he constantly experimented with the balance between masses and voids. With this one he felt that he had achieved a break through, that finally the form and space are integral – it is impossible to imagine the form without the space, or the space without the form.

© The Henry Moore Foundation

In fact this is the plaster version of the final bronze version which was commissioned to sit outside the Royal Festival Hall Southbank for the Festival of Britain in 1951. In what was an upbeat time for the people of Britain, looking to the future. The lines give a rhythmic quality and bring awareness to the shapes and the form.

The question with this statue as you move around and observe it from different angles, is it really upbeat and forward-looking? In the 1950s with the cold war and the fear of a nuclear attack the mood in Britain changes.

The sculpture begins to be described as representing the geometry of fear, people began to reconsider head and wonder if rather than looking forward it was actually looking for bombers coming, or struggling to breath, much as Moore was when gassed in World War 1..

10. A Bigger Splash (1967) David Hockney

Hockney arrived in California in 1964 and felt a great liberation, both as an artist in his use of light and clarity, and a sexual liberation as a gay man. He was also amused and fascinated that everyone seemed to have a swimming pool, it was not a luxury as in Britain. He has used that fascination, as well as his attraction to transparent materials, like the pool and the glass, in this painting.

© David Hockney

Hockney is getting us to think about what it means to be a painter. If you were to take out the diving board and splash, it's suddenly very flat. Why has he not painted up to the edge of the canvas? He provides us with a frame reminiscent of polaroid photography. He is reminding us that what we are looking at is illusion.

Then we have the magnificent splash, contrasting with the flat background. “When you photograph a splash, you’re freezing a moment and it becomes something else. I realise that a splash could never be seen this way in real life, it happens too quickly. And I was amused by this, so I painted it in a very, very slow way.”

With the splash he is proving that painting will always be superior to photography.

There is so much more to see in the Tate Britain than just these 10 paintings, but hopefully they give you a starting point to explore the collection!

If you want any other information or a private tour of the collection please contact me!

And if you have a different favourite painting please post it in the comments below..

Happy travels!

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