Tate Britain carries the marks of its 116-year history, of architectural development, floods, Second World War bombings and overzealous interior designers.
Now it has undergone a £45m transformation to prepare it for the 21st century, which involves “renewing” some of its lost grandeur and stripping back the layers that have left it “blunted”.
The new Tate Britain will this Tuesday be unveiled to the public, who will again be able to arrive through the refurbished main entrance that overlooks the Thames, with its grand neoclassical portico.
Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, said the new gallery “opens up the Millbank entrance to reassert and enhance the original grandeur and logic of the galleries”. She said she hoped it would be a “clearer and more pleasurable” way for visitors to experience British art.
The works on the oldest part of the Grade II*-listed building on Millbank, were carried out by architects Caruso St John, taking three years. “We haven’t lost anything we loved about this building,” Ms Curtis said. “We’ve peeled away the accretions and taken it back to the simplicity.”
The changes follow another major overhaul earlier this year, with the reconstruction of 10 galleries and a rehang of the collection of British art in chronological order at the gallery. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, called it an “exciting day” and said the history of the venue was one of expansion and renewal.
“Between 1960 and 1990 people felt apologetic about this building. They felt they needed to reduce the heights of ceilings and introduce false walls,” he said. “With accretions and layers of paint we had become rather blunted and almost municipal in character.” Referencing criticism from the 1940s and 1950s that the building had no distinctive qualities, Sir Nicholas said: “Now it does.”
One of the biggest changes to the design is a striking new spiral staircase inside the entrance leading to new public spaces on the floor below. The spaces below include the Archives Gallery, which will house temporary displays from the Tate’s huge vaults. Among the documents currently on display are plans for the prison that was on the site before the gallery – as well as a note from plasterers hidden in the original building in 1897.
The Tate was designed by architect Sidney Smith, and first opened its doors to the public in 1897 with 245 works in eight rooms. Following the renovations, Ms Curtis said they had discovered Smith was “perhaps a better architect than many people had realised”.
The team working on the three-year revamp have opened up the circular balcony in the domed atrium for members and have created a Grand Saloon for functions. This space has been closed since the flood of 1928, when the Thames broke its banks and flowed into the gallery.
Some 95 per cent of the renovations were paid for through private donations, with the rest being made up by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Tate chairman Lord Browne said this marked a “triumph for private philanthropy”.
Sir Nicholas said visitors would now experience the building “in ways they had not done in the past”. He added that “the whole experience of coming to Millbank will be changed from simply looking at pictures to an environment that is stimulating to be within. That’s what Henry Tate originally wanted.”