Today (July 21) in London History – “the National Gallery of British Art”

The Prince of Wales opened the new National Gallery of British Art (as the Tate Britain was first known) on July 21st, 1897.  This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This is a great day for London. July 21st, 1897.

The Prince of Wales is today opening the new National Gallery of British Art.

That original name has now evolved into The Tate Britain.

And so it should be called The Tate. Because we have a private citizen, Henry Tate, to thank for the National Gallery of British Art, the Tate Britain. 

That state of affairs reflects well on Mr Tate but it doesn’t reflect well on the State.

In the shaming words of the Illustrated London News, “In no other country – at least in Europe – would it be possible to conceive the idea of a National Gallery erected at the sole cost of a private citizen. To the ordinary observer there is something not very creditable to Great Britain as a nation in the attitude of the State towards Art. The National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, in a measure South Kensington Museum, and the new home for British Art are all indebted to private enterprise and generosity. But while the State has willingly allowed itself to be benefited, and its burdens in the way of picture-purchasing lightened, no public recognition of their services was conferred upon Angerstein, Vernon, or Sheepshanks; nor – coming to our own day – upon Mr Tate, to whom we owe our most modern gallery.

Okay, quick biographical explanatory note. London businessman John Julius Angerstein’s magnificent art collection formed the nucleus of the National Gallery collection. And indeed the National Gallery collection was in effect first displayed in Angerstein’s townhouse in Pall Mall. London businessman Robert Vernon also amassed a splendid art collection and gave 157 of the paintings to the nation. His collection was housed first at Marlborough House. It then migrated to the South Kensington Museum. And latterly it was divided between the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery. And, in that same vein, art collector John Sheepshanks also presented his notable collection to the nation. The Sheepshanks pictures are a core element of the Victoria & Albert Museum collection. 

Henry Tate started his business career as a wholesale grocer. He shot into the business stratosphere when he began refining his own sugar and opened a sugar refinery in London. He began collecting art and, well, you can’t really say the rest is history. Because the cheese-paring government did its best to keep his generosity at arm’s length.

They all but spurned it. He had a magnificent art collection. He tried to give it to the nation. He accompanied same with an offer to put £80,000 toward a building to house the collection. Basically, the government – tight-fisted and philistine – snubbed him because it would have had to top up the building fund. 

It’s much to Henry Tate’s honour that he maintained the offer in spite of the cold shoulder the government gave him.

Finally, the government relented and the Pimlico site for the new gallery was settled on, chiefly, it is said, because the government would have nothing to pay for the land. The land had been the site of London’s largest prison – the Mill Bank prison. Aside here: what a terrible place it was. It housed nearly a thousand male and female convicts in its dreary corridors. The regimen was horrific. The so-called solitary system was rigorously applied for the first three months of each prisoner’s sentence. Changes in the British system meant that it was far more prison than was needed. Latterly it became a military prison. And then in 1893 it was taken down altogether. A good-sized tract of land which the government owned. Perfect. We won’t have to fork out top pound to buy land for the building to house those paintings that sugar magnate pest is trying to foist on us. And, yes, that does bring us to July 21st, 1897 and the opening of the new National Gallery of British Art. And indeed it brings us to July 21st, 2022 and the Tate Britain.

And, needless to say, it’s the Tate Britain that gets today’s Today in London recommendation. This summer’s special exhibition is the life and art of Walter Sickert. As The Tate Britain puts it, “Discover the boundary-pushing paintings by one of Britain’s most influential artists.” Sounds good to me. The Sickert Exhibition runs to September 18th.  

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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