Friday's Book: The Tate: a history by Frances Spalding (Tate Gallery Publishing, pounds 25)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
One of the main points to emerge from Frances Spalding's history of the Tate is that, for much of its hundred-year life, the institution has functioned like a glorified dustbin. It started out as a branch of the National Gallery, and only became fully independent in 1954. The National tended to use the Tate as a repository for art which it deemed sub-standard or not quite respectable. It is thus wholly appropriate that the Tate stands on a site previously occupied by the Millbank penitentiary.

The Tate initially had responsibility for British art. Whereas in the rest of Europe, the art of the host nation is incorporated seamlessly into its main museum, the trustees of the National had been unwilling to include much British art. One major collection, given to the nation in 1847, ended up in the basement at Trafalgar Square. Dissatisfaction with public provision for British art led the sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate to give pounds 80,000 to finance a purpose-built gallery.

In 1917, the Tate was given responsibility for another National Gallery reject: modern foreign art. But the National trustees had no intention of letting the Tate engage wholeheartedly with modernity. They rejected the idea of "rash purchase in the occasionally ill-disciplined productions of some contemporaneous continental schools, whose work might exercise a disturbing and even deleterious influence upon our younger painters".

Post-Impressionism was about as outre as the Tate was prepared to go before the Second World War. The alcoholic director, James Bolivar Manson, advised Customs not to admit sculptures by Brancusi, Arp and Calder into the country as works of art. Manson's cultural calling card was a 1934 exhibition of cricket pictures. The first Cubist Picassos were only bought in 1949, 40 years after the event.

The development of the gallery was further hampered by the absence of an annual grant for purchases until 1946, when it received a derisory pounds 2,000. The Tate's misery was compounded by the fact that the National could claim art when it was no longer considered modern. By the early 1950s, most of the Tate's Impressionists (including Seurat's "Bathers", Renoir's "Umbrellas" and Van Gogh's "Sunflowers") had been recalled to Trafalgar Square.

Frances Spalding's biography of the Tate is full of amusing anecdotes and is an invaluable source of information, but it tends to be too much of a chronicle, and too little of a cultural history in context. There is no reference, for example, to what French or German museums were doing in the same period. The account of the Nicholas Serota years reads like a parody of an annual report.

The book has been sloppily produced. There are far too many typographical errors. There is only very selective use of press cuttings. Appendices listing attendances, and a breakdown of the finances, would have been useful. I'd like to know how the proportion of private to public money has fluctuated. The irony is that although the Tate now knows the buzzwords of the bazaar, virtually all of the money for the new Museum of Modern Art on Bankside has come from the public sector.

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