“a wonderful view of a revised history of British art”

Five Hundred Years of British Art by Kirsteen McSwein (Tate Publications)

Guest review by Sarah Mulvey


It is easy to forget that before 2000, when the Tate Modern was opened on the South Bank and the old Tate Gallery reverted to its original purpose to show the history of British art, the Tate’s small building on Millbank housed both the history of British art and modern British and international art. In the era before the split the gallery was proud of its incongruous collections. However, their divergence certainly caused headaches for curators; how to separate the different collections and tell a series of cohesive histories was an ongoing problem. Modern British art was sometimes viewed as a coda to the more dramatic narrative of 20th century European and American art. So-called masters of modernism set the standard and made British artists who worked out on a limb, such as Lucian Freud and Stanley Spencer, seem provincial. When, in the 1990s, the place of British artists, who did not fit neatly into the story of international modernism, had been re-evaluated, their inclusion in the gallery had to be organised on rotation due to the lack of space. So, when the Tate became the Tate Britain the story of British art from 1500 to the present day could be displayed in all the galleries including those vacated by the modern Americans and Europeans. Artists who previously did not fit into the accepted narrative of the 20th century could be shown without apology.

However, in the 1990s, questions were being asked about how to adapt museums’ and galleries’ focus on connoisseurship and formal concerns to the problems that art historians were addressing around historical context and diversity. The need to reassess the contribution of diasporic artists of African and Asian descent to the canon of British art and how to reinterpret representations of African and Asian people and their British descendants in works of art was inescapable. In 1999, just before the Tate Modern opened Nicholas Serota, who became director of both London Tate galleries, identified that the gallery’s “challenge would be to collect a much more diverse range of art”. The new focus on British art in one museum allowed curators to reassess the contribution these artists had made to the history of British art, especially in 20th century, despite the scepticism of some mainstream art historians and critics.

After Tate Britain was enlarged in 2013 the space to include and promote previously excluded artists was made possible. The gallery rehung the collection with the banner of 500 Year of British Art and has more freedom to question what should be included in the new displays. The interlocking of the history of Britain and the legacy of empire and British colonialism was freshly addressed in the 2017 at the Tate when Maria Balshaw was made director. Before coming to the Tate, when she was at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, she had embraced art from Africa and the work of women artists. Moreover, her background in cultural studies and her doctorate in African American Visual and Literary Culture made her an appropriate person to address the omissions and distortions of Black and Asian artists and art within the Tate Britain collection and to bring the gallery up to date with revisionist art history which enjoyed an established reputation in universities in the UK.

The foreword to this lavishly illustrated guide, 500 years of British Art, explains the attention paid to Black and Asian artists and addresses the history of the gallery within the context of slavery, empire and diaspora. Although Henry Tate, who established the gallery in 1897, was not involved directly in slavery the sugar industry from which he profited was indebted to it. The catalogue includes well established Black and Asian artists such as Sonia Boyce and Lubaina Himid as well as lesser known artists such as Ronald Moody. Whether they were born in Britain or moved here their place in the history of British art is assured. Hamid won the Turner Prize in 2017 and is a professor of contemporary art at the University of Central Lancashire. Boyce is a professor of Black Art and Design at the University of the Arts, London. She will be the first Black woman to represent Britain at the 2021 Venice Biennale.

Johanaan 1936 by Ronald Moody 1900-1984In the guide is an image of a wooden sculpture by Ronald Moody, Johanaan, which he made during 1936, in which the artist tried to combine the different styles of ethnographic sculpture he had studied in the British Museum to show a generic male figure, perhaps in a bid to question the racism rife in a society that separates and catalogues different peoples in line with structures of power. The catalogue informs us that he was inspired, in particular by ‘tremendous inner force, the irresistible movement in stillness’ of the Egyptian sculptures he saw in the museum.

Sonia Boyce, a British Afro-Caribbean artist, is interested in the debates around art as social practice which she confronts in her art works and in her role as a professor at UAL. In her mixed media artwork from 1987: From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction, she asks questions about her identity within the structures of colonial power and slavery and media representations of Black people.

From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born 'Native' Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction 1987 by Sonia Boyce born 1962

Although one of the aims of this guide is to readdress the institutional invisibility of BAME and women artists, the old favourites are not forgotten; however, with the proviso that they are reinterpreted in the light of critical revisions. The captions opposite each plate in the catalogue tell us some fascinating facts about the art works and re-evaluate their subject matter from new perspectives.

The cover of the guide shows the haunting pre-Raphaelite painting, The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888, which tugs at the emotions, capturing the extraordinary romantic light of a dull English day. The painting shows the final scene in Tennyson’s poem, written in 1832, when the lady, imprisoned on an island by a curse, is enchanted by the sight of Sir Lancelot in her mirror and leaves her island on a boat, fulfilling the curse and is depicted in the throes of death. Popular paintings of the time informed and moralised and the catalogue advances the idea that Waterhouse’s painting could be interpreted as a warning to women not to leave the domestic sphere. The painting serves as both a stylistic representation of the Pre-Raphaelite movement but also as a record of how judgements on women were made in the 19th century.

The Lady of Shalott 1888 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

Whilst it is true that masterpieces that are revered as belonging to the canon, including those illustrated in this guide, excite us with their power and beauty, I would argue that the spectacular pleasure of a work of art is not diminished by acknowledging its didactic ambitions or by exploring its frame of reference. Moreover, who decides what is included in a museum or gallery and by what rationale is surely open to discussion.

The guide, reflecting the displays in the Tate Britain, gives us a wonderful view of a revised history of British art which includes the contribution of artists of the diaspora and women artists and presents plural perspectives of Britain and its diverse cultures. The commitment to probe the links between British art and its historical context is well established and our obligation to exhibit works of art previously excluded from the canon is essential. The works of art included in this guide show us ourselves through our shared but diverse histories and competing narratives of what being British means today.

500 Years of British Art by Kirsteen McSwein is available in hardback from Tate Publishing


Sarah Mulvey is an art history graduate and has worked in education for over twenty five years, teaching art and photography. She has also written on art and fashion. Her passion is visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions. When not working she tries to find time to draw and paint and to take photos on her strolls in diverse London boroughs.

Image credits: Tate Gallery

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