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Women’s Work in the Tate Britain Rehang

2013 June 13

Here’s some probably-not-very-surprising news: not many of our big national galleries have female directors. The Ashmolean, The Fitzwilliam, the National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery, The National Museums Scotland and National Galleries Scotland, the Natural History Museum, the Tate, The Wallace Collection, the V&A and the British Museum are all directed by men.

This is an especially grim state of affairs since in the rest of the museums, galleries and cultural heritage sector women actually outnumber their male colleagues – sixty percent to forty.

So it’s heartening that Dr Penelope Curtis, a specialist in sculpture and British art, should have taken up the mantle of Director of Tate Britain. Since her appointment in 2010 she has been largely overseeing The Millbank Project, whose most recent result is The Tate Rehang.

So they’ve got the hammer and nails out.

The London-dwellers among you might remember the old Tate Britain – pictures ordered roughly by category or theme. That big Pre-Raphaelites room with the dodgy John Martin landscapes next door. A room of Modernism. A room of sixteenth-century portraits. That’s all gone.

In its place is a ‘Walk through British Art’ – pictures ordered chronologically, swirling round the main hall, with a timeline at the beginning giving you not the potted history of art, but the history of the Tate itself.

Sugar pots and panopticons

The Tate & Lyle golden syrup tin, still emblazoned with a line from Judge 14.

The Tate & Lyle golden syrup tin, still emblazoned with a line from Judges 14 – ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’.

The Tate was founded from a bequest of Henry Tate, of Tate & Lyle – who also did (and do) sugar and golden syrup.

Like the Tate Modern, which was converted from a mid-century factory, the Tate Britain partially re-appropriates an earlier space. The Millbank Prison was originally going to be Jeremy Bentham’s pilot Panopticon, but it didn’t work out and the National Penitentary was demolished and replaced by the National Gallery of British Art – which then became the Tate.

Built on Henry Tate’s sugar- (which in practice means ‘slave-‘) money, and sitting there on the site of Bentham’s prison overlooking the Thames, the Tate has always felt strangely emblematic to me.

Unlike the National Gallery, which has a noble heritage more akin to the great educative state institutions – the Louvre, say, or the Uffizi – the Tate has an intrinsically London spirit and a capitalist soul, with something of the Protestant Work Ethic hanging about it.

Indeed, today the Tate group as a whole earns over sixty percent of its income – staggering when you consider the average equivalent for its fellow UK museums is more like two to three percent.1

A woman’s work is never done

Most of the painting interpretation has now been stripped out entirely. I always read those explanations slavishly, but I have to say I didn’t miss them at all – in fact, I barely noticed they were gone.

thoughts of the past

Thoughts of the Past (1859)

But there is a little bit in one of my favourite new rooms of the rehang – the drawing and prints room covering the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On a preliminary drawing for John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s alt-Pre-Raphaelite Thoughts of the Past, the curators comment on the depicted ‘sex worker’ in her lodgings which (like the Tate) overlook the Thames.

Her industry is compared with that of the Thames itself, and its corruption with the corrupt contemporary society the picture implicitly comments upon.

What was interesting for me here was not only the correct use of the term ‘sex worker’ (I notice that the interpretation available for the final painting on the Tate’s website sticks to the more trad-Art History ‘prostitute’) but also the connection between her work and the city as a whole, its bustle, its trade, its work ethic.

This sits alongside the (for me, at least) unprecedented acknowledgment of female artists and their productions through the ages. We had Mary Beale – seventeenth century, claimed as ‘the first professional female English painter’ – Mary Sargent Florence, Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington, Georgina Macdonald, Mabel Nicholson and many others, all on display.

There was nothing of the tokenistic about this: you just casually bumped into female names in much the same way you might casually notice a few Raphaels in the Renaissance rooms at the National Gallery. They were just there.

The work of painting

Gwen John - Self Portrait

Gwen John – Self Portrait

As an example of how ‘women’s painting’ was displayed, one particularly interesting juxtaposition for me was that of a self-portrait by Gwen John. It sat atop two paintings by male artists depicting female models – William Orpen’s The Mirror and Philip Wilson Steer’s Seated Nude. The choice of the John self-portrait here seemed to me to comment implicitly on the relationship between artist and model and, again, different kinds of work.

The Mirror shows a fully-clothed female model in a large hat looking glumly out at us – except she’s not looking at us, but at William Orpen, who can be seen working at his painting in the Van Eykian mirror above her.

Wilson Steer’s painting shows a naked female model, also in a large hat, sitting within roughly sketched unfinished surroundings, in the process drawing attention to painting’s backstage elements, its construction.

Gwen John shows herself fully clothed and looking at the viewer, but she is of course painting herself modelling herself.

These kinds of juxtapositions really bring out some of the nuances of the ‘History of British Art’, and the rehang is full of them. I could also go on about the new room of 1920s silent film responding to two Pre-Raphaelite paintings; the sudden influx of craft, sculpture and 3D works, and the re-instatement of the glorious Blake collection.

And other reviewers have talked at length about the choice to spread a single artist over multiple rooms, so you see the same artist appearing and reappearing at different points throughout the journey, depending on where you are chronologically. I won’t talk about it forever – I’ll just suggest that you go and see it.


  1. In fact, my one gripe with this new rehang is that it has an actual, literal, break for the gift shop. As in, you have to walk through the gift shop to get between two rooms in the middle of the big Walk Through Art. Tacky, guys, tacky. []
One Response leave one →
  1. June 16, 2013

    I’m not sure how relevant it is here, but a few years ago I noticed a possibly interesting piece of art related sexism. Or it looked very much like sexism to me.

    In the 1990s, Taschen published a series of 96 page art books as their Basic Art Series. All of the volumes devoted to male painters that I saw took as their frontispiece one of the artist’s paintings. The two I saw devoted to female painters (Frieda Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka) took as their frontispieces photographs of the artists.

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