“Oh look” said Graham, “that’s a painting of St Mawes!” As we sail into the pretty harbour there on most summer weekends, we recognised the scene immediately. But we were nowhere near home, just across the water from St Mawes in Cornwall; we were standing in central London!
I love living in Cornwall, though contrary to popular opinion perhaps, those of us who live and work here aren’t actually on one long holiday….. but I also relish my visits to London four or five times a year. In between visits to trade shows and meetings with clients, I pack in as many museums, exhibitions and events as I can.
With the luxury of a whole free day, I picked Tate Britain this time, partly inspired by seeing an interesting balustrade in a pic on their website. The number 87 bus dropped us right outside the grand porticoed entrance. What a generous man Sir Henry Tate, of sugar refining fame was, for financing such a wonderful building, which opened in 1904.
The new staircase balustrade sits very happily alongside the original architecture.
Devoted to showing British art, the galleries are now hung in chronological order, so you can literally walk through 500 years of art history, starting at 1545. But first that balustrade. In what must have been a bold move in 2013, the rotunda was opened up and a staircase added so that light from the dome high above, floods right down to the basement level. Whilst it’s immediately obvious that the staircase is contemporary, it sits very happily in the centre of the original architecture and is a great focal point as soon as you walk in.
The detail on the contemporary balustrade is echoed in the floor.
The sweeping new staircase down to the Lower Floor
Despite passing busy school groups at the entrance, the galleries were quiet and you can stand within a couple of feet of the awe-inspiring art. Quickly realising that, even in a whole day we were only going to scratch the surface, I soon decided to concentrate on just a handful of works per room.
What were the highlights? Without doubt, the view of Horse Guards Parade by Canaletto was the most memorable for me. What a privilege to stand in front of a painting from 1750 with all its details, colours and humour too if you look closely. Funny too, that at a time when English gentlemen were undertaking Grand Tours to Italy, Canaletto came to the UK for ten years.
Detail from Canaletto’s painting Horse Guards Parade complete with one very round gentleman!
I have a soft spot for Joshua Reynolds, since we were both born in Plymouth, and his painting of three ladies, at over 3m square, dominates the 1760 room. I stopped to wonder at just how you work on such a large canvas – amazing!
The death of Major Peirson, 1781
We moved through the centuries, past the bloody scenes of the Napoleonic wars, through Victorian England and into the 20th century. The list of artists was simply a roll call of the greats – Stubbs, Gainsborough, Lowry, Moore and Hepworth, to name just a few.
Instantly recognisable TS Lowry
Arriving in the separate galleries devoted to JMW Turner just as the wonderful guide was starting her talk, was a stroke of luck. Portraits, landscapes, architecture, seascapes, the naturally gifted Turner could paint them all and it was here that we spotted St Mawes.
It had been a whistlestop tour but I couldn’t recommend it more highly. I’m intrigued to know though, why entry to Tate Britain is completely free (except to the temporary exhibitions), whilst a substantial entry fee is charged at Tate St Ives. It seems unfair that those of us in Cornwall have to pay to see a tiny fraction of the art on display in London…..
And finally, one big tip for a visit – there are loos in the corner of the Djangoly cafe. You may laugh, but all the signs direct you to the main loos in the centre of the lower floor, where there was an enormous queue for the ladies throughout the day, whilst the cafe loos were deserted. You’ll thank me for the heads up on that one!