Today (March 19) in London History – the Tate, the Prison, the Crime

March 19, 1891 was the day of conception for the Tate Gallery. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.





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Ok, Today in London. Has to be a visit to the Tate Gallery. You want a recommendation, be sure to see Augustus Egg’s triptych Past & Present. Past & Present No. 3 is set in the Adelphi Arches. A bit of the Victorian underworld that can still be accessed. I take people there on some of the Dickens walks I guide.

And be sure to see William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea, John Everett Millais’s Death of Ophelia and anything by John Martin.

Ok, Today in London History. Today, March 19th, 1891 was the day of conception for the Tate Britain. The sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate offered to donate £80,000 toward the construction of a new national gallery of modern art.

Here are a few takeaways for you to whet your appetite – and sharpen your Tate Britain focus. 

1. Born in 1819, in Chorley, in Lancashire, Henry Tate was the 11th child of a vicar. He got into the grocery business first. And then, in 1859, the cane sugar refinery business.

So, yup, sure enough, slavery was one of the foundations for that great fortune and thus for the Tate Britain. 

Assuming of course that at least part of the sugar crop was coming from Brazil or Puerto Rico or Cuba. The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London has taken a close look at the Tate Galleries and Slavery question. Here’s their conclusion: 

“While it is important to emphasise that Henry Tate was not a slave-owner or slave-trader, it is not possible to separate the Tate galleries from the history of colonial slavery from which in part they derive their existence. 

2. Almost nothing in the Tate story reflects well on the government. 

In effect, the government snubbed Henry Tate. Snubbed him because in the first instance Henry Tate offered his collection of British paintings to the nation. That was two years before, in 1889.

Niggardly – not to say philistine – the government did nothing. It couldn’t or wouldn’t see its way to paying for a gallery to house the collection. So, two years later, Henry Tate offered to pay for the construction of the building. Ergo his March 19th offer of £80,000 toward the construction of a home for the paintings.

The government still dragged its heels. It seems it didn’t want to purchase a piece of land for the building to stand on. It speaks well of Henry Tate that he maintained his offer despite the persistent snubbing from the British government. It took about ten years but the government finally came across. Grudgingly. Basically, the government told Henry Tate to take what he could get.

3. And that’s by way of saying, the government came across because it didn’t have to pay for the land. It already owned the site. Yes, it’s the same site today.

It had been the site where Millbank Prison once stood. And what an unprepossessing place it was. As one critic sneered, “Millbank and the adjoining Horseferry Road indicate the original use of the district.” The mill was the Westminster Abbey Mill. Millbank was a lonely riverside road leading from Westminster to Chelsea through marshy ground. The least desirable patch of ground in that part of London. Perfect for a prison in other words.

The prison had come down. It was waste ground. In a pretty sorry state. A desert of crumbling bricks and mortar – and in the background the symmetrical beauty – I’m being facetious now – of two huge gasometers. Excellent neighbours for a picture gallery. 

4. There were other good reasons the art world wasn’t best pleased with the site. They’d had it on good authority from the keepers of the chief galleries of Holland and Flanders that there is always a danger in having picture galleries in close proximity to canals and rivers. The damp arising from the water deposits a layer of solid matter on the pictures which require constant cleaning and high varnishing to keep from actual surface damage. Indeed, they said in time the canvas itself would deteriorate in the damp atmosphere.

5. Not good enough for paintings, but good enough for people. For some people, that is. The unfortunate wretches who were locked up at Millbank Prison, which stood where the Tate Britain stands today. And so we come to another one of those X-ray or “double vision” moments that I talked about in a recent podcast. 

When I’m at the Tate Britain – looking at a Turner or a Martin or a Millais – I’m seeing, at the same time, something really ugly, something really forbidding. I’m seeing Millbank Prison. 

London’s largest prison. It covered 7 acres of low-lying marsh ground near the river. It was a cold, gloomy building with three miles of labyrinthine passages. It was in the shape of a six-pointed star. With prison officers in the centre and the prisoners fanned out along the arms of the building, it gave the illusion of perpetual surveillance. Perpetual surveillance and perpetual silence. Its dreary corridors housed nearly a thousand prisoners who were forbidden to communicate with one another during the first half of their sentence. 

It was a miserable, sorry place. For many of the prisoners, the short walk to the river was the last time they set foot on their native land. They were the prisoners whose sentence had been transportation: to the penal colony, Australia.  From the wharf there they were put on boats which took them to ships which took them halfway round the world, never to return to the land of their birth. 

The huge, menacing, forbidding, gloomy Millbank Prison was there throughout most of the nineteenth century. It ended its days as a military prison. And was taken down in 1890. Seven years later an altogether more agreeable institution opened on the site: the Tate Gallery.

6. A final point, now largely forgotten. Back in those days when the Tate was struggling to get out of the birth canal, London’s art world referred to it as London’s Luxembourg. As in the Luxembourg Gallery in Paris. In other words, they saw its relationship to the National Gallery as being akin to the Luxembourg Gallery’s relationship to the Louvre in Paris.

So if you want to be very knowing – want to put a historical feint on a friend – just airily mention, “oh I’m off to London’s Luxembourg.” It even alliterates. 

And on that note, good night from London.

See ya tomorrow. 

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