Rise to the Tate: a great British survivor

As the Tate Britain unveils a new look, Marcus Field tells the story of a building that has endured bombs, floods and meddling architects

This week we welcome back an old friend as Tate Britain reopens after a £45m overhaul. With its restored building, re-hung collection and cool new café, it’s now a museum to rival its attention-seeking younger sibling, Tate Modern. To mark the occasion, we present the inside story of a great British survivor.

The first hurdle

In 1889, sugar magnate Henry Tate wrote to the National Gallery offering 65 paintings to the nation. However, he stipulated that the works, all by British artists, should be shown in their own room and titled the “Tate Collection”. Lacking the space, the gallery rejected the offer, but it was inspired by his proposal to start planning a gallery dedicated to British art. Subsequently, an anonymous donor wrote offering £80,000 towards the cost of building such a museum, on condition he could approve the site. The donor turned out to be Henry Tate.

What the Dickens!

Several sites were proposed, with locations in Whitechapel and South Kensington high on the list. In 1892, the derelict Millbank Prison – described by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield as “a melancholy waste” – finally triumphed.

Back to the drawing board

The architect Sidney Smith was selected to work on the new gallery but his initial design was rejected as “pretentious”. However, his simpler alternative, which included the now-familiar façade, was accepted. Christened the National Gallery of British Art (it officially adopted its Tate nickname 35 years later), the gallery opened in 1897 with just 10 rooms and 245 pictures. Caruso St John, the architects for the 2013 overhaul, have treated the project as a kind of archaeological exercise by unearthing and reinstating some of Smith’s original details, including the balcony around the Rotunda dome, which will be open to visitors for the first time since the 1920s.

Electric dreams

When the gallery opened, its rooms were lit only by daylight, as this was considered the ideal condition in which to view art. It was not until 1935 that electric light was installed across the entire museum, allowing it to stay open beyond 4pm in winter. As much daylight viewing as possible has been reintroduced in the current scheme to reflect this original intention. Old rooflights have been uncovered, and shading devices installed to control light levels and protect the art works.

An ace caff

In the early days, refreshments were available only in a makeshift area on the balcony. A gloomy basement buffet opened in 1909 and in 1925, a committee was set up to select an artist to decorate the walls. 21-year-old Slade student Rex Whistler was the winner, and spent 18 months painting The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats. The Whistler Restaurant, with this mural now fully-restored, reopens this week.

The great flood

No sooner had Whistler completed his mural than tragedy struck: on 7 January 1928, the Thames burst its banks. The restaurant and nine of the Tate’s basement galleries were submerged under eight feet of freezing water and the director, Charles Aitken, was called out at 5am to help with the rescue operation. Most works were saved, including Turner’s watercolours and sketchbooks, but 18 paintings were irreparably damaged.

Luftwaffe looming

A far worse threat came in 1939 when war was declared. The bulk of the collection was moved to three country houses but Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham was deemed too large to move and so a protective wall was built in front of it. In 1940 the museum was hit by a bomb and the blast damage is still visible on the walls in Atterbury Street.

Saved by the people

The Tate reopened in 1946, but what the Luftwaffe had failed to destroy, Britain’s post-war architects almost succeeded in wrecking. In the 1960s a radical remodelling of the building was proposed, to include demolishing the main façade. The trustees accepted the design, but there was a public outcry when the plans were exhibited. People power won: a rear extension was built instead and the museum, renamed Tate Britain when its international collection moved to Tate Modern in 2000, was elevated to its current status as a national treasure.

Tate Britain (tate.org.uk) reopens on Tuesday. A free house-warming party takes place on Saturday, 3-10pm, with a programme of films, talks and live performances, including a DJ set from Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor.