Turner comes up trumps for Tate Britain

Thanks to a series of blockbuster exhibitions, the national gallery of British art has seen a huge increase in the number of visitors in 2005, despite a prevailing downward trend among other London attractions. Martin Hickman and Louise Jury report
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yesterday, however, Tate Britain was back in the limelight, celebrating the highest rise in visitor numbers among the country's leading tourist attractions. The total number of visitors that passed through the Millbank gallery was 1,733,120 - up 58 per cent in 12 months.

By contrast, almost all other leading attractions in London slumped after the 7 July bombings. The National Gallery had 15 per cent fewer visitors, the London Eye was down 12 per cent and the Tower of London by 9 per cent.

The falls came despite a record number of foreign visitors to the UK - almost 30 million in 2005, representing an increase of 8 per cent, and netting £14bn, according to the national tourist organisation Visit Britain. However, attractions in London struggled in the summer months following 7 July, mostly because British families chose to stay away from the capital.

Despite the slump, Tate Britain succeeded in attracting the public and its success led to the Tate empire as a whole - overseen by Nicholas Serota - recording its second most successful year with 6.5 million visitors.

Tate Modern, sited in a former electricity generation plant in Southwark, still achieved most of the visitors - 3.9 million. However it was down 12 per cent on 2004, despite the popularity of a Frida Kahlo exhibition.

Attractions outside central London performed strongly by comparison, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. Kew Gardens (up 25 per cent) enjoyed a good 2005, while Portsmouth Historic Dockyard - home to Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory - thrived during celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

However, Tate Britain, located in central London, leaped into the top 10 attractions in the country. The gallery attributed the 58 per cent leap to two factors - the blockbuster Turner Whistler Monet exhibition and a major re-hang of the gallery. The Turner Whistler Monet show, which set the work of the English landscape artist alongside those of two of his famous admirers, pulled in the highest attendance for an exhibition since Tate Britain opened in 2000 - 382,000.

The rehang in September showed some of the gallery's masterpieces in a new and flattering light. For instance, Romantic Painting in Britain in Room 9, the longest and highest room, dramatically displays Turner's pair War and Peace and John Martin's trilogy of works depicting hell, purgatory and heaven.

Tate insiders believe that the public has re-discovered the treasures of Tate Britain, which include the biggest collection of works by Turner and large collections of Pre-Raphaelite works. Indeed, it was partly because of the Turners that the Tate was created in the first place: Turner left his work to the nation with strict instructions as to how it should be hung, but the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, was unable to comply with these. It was only in 1910, when the Turner Wing was built, that they were brought out of storage.

"The opening of Tate Modern meant for a while that that people slightly forgot about Tate Britain," said Will Gompertz, director of media and communications. "It was a sort of secret in the art world, though not to us of course."

He enthused about the gallery's ability to put in context the history and development of British art since 1500. "It shows art over a 500-year continuum," he said. "You can be looking at Hogarth, Constable and Gainsborough and within a few steps you can be looking at Hirst, Hockney and Bacon. There's a breadth and depth there."

Tate has galleries outside London, of course; St Ives, which shows the work of the St Ives set of artists such as Barbara Hepworth, and Liverpool, which shows a selection of the Tate's collections. They also both enjoyed a successful 2005. Tate Liverpool had a 5 per cent increase following the Summer of Love exhibition that explored the art of the psychedelic era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Later this year, Tate Britain expects strong public interest in an exhibition of Constable's large works and a comprehensive Holbein in Britain show.

The gallery believes the information age has heightened people's appreciation of painting and other art. The National Portrait Gallery also recorded a record year - up 1 per cent.

"The British public are more visually engaged than they probably ever have been," said Mr Gompertz. "I don't think it's just down to galleries; it's to do with the internet and digital photography. People have become much more familiar with the visual and there has been an uplift in people going to galleries and theatre and the cinema."

* Turner Whistler Monet (10 February-15 May 2005, 382,269 visitors)

What it was: Three artists who changed the course of landscape painting. An orgy of atmospheric effects, revolving around rivers - the Thames and the Seine - and the Venetian lagoon.

Highlights included: Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), Monet's Sunset on the Seine and Turner's Burning of the Houses of Parliament, above.

What the critics said: "The premise linking the Englishman, American and Frenchman is tenuous, but the 100 paintings, pastels and watercolours on show are exquisite" (London Evening Standard). "You leave with a sense not only of having seen an acutely chosen exhibition of beautiful pictures, but of the complexities of influence and attribution; of art history itself being a matter of impression" (Independent on Sunday)

* Joshua Reynolds (26 May-18 September 2005, 55,947 visitors)

What it was: The Tate's first exhibition dedicated to the founder of the Royal Academy presented some of the greatest of his portraits, many showing the most famous men and women of the 18th century, including Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke and David Garrick.

Highlights included: The portrait of Omai, a young Polynesian who came to England with Captain Cook and became a social sensation.

What the critics said:"There are plenty of glimpses of what Gainsborough meant when he said of Reynolds, 'Damn him, how various he is.' And he is" (The Mail on Sunday). "Reynolds ... [was] the creator of a new tradition of English portraiture. It is unfortunate that the organisers should have felt it necessary to have obscured his real significance in the cloak of 'celebrity'" (Scotland on Sunday)

* A Picture of Britain (15 June-4 September 2005, 83,600 visitors)

What it was: A collaboration with the BBC, who presented an accompanying series presented by David Dimbleby, the exhibition explored how British landscape has inspired artists for 300 years. It also examined how artists have influenced the way we look at and think about the landscape. It focused on six regions of Britain.

Highlights included: Works by John Constable, JMW Turner, LS Lowry, Paul Nash and Philip Wilson Steer, above. The exhibition showed 250 paintings in total.

What the critics said: "A glorious blockbuster of an exhibition" (London Evening Standard). "Having been persuaded into a ridiculous geographical organisation, rather than a thematic or chronological one, the Tate has produced as clear a case of dumbing down as I ever saw" (The Mail on Sunday)

* Turner Prize 2005 (8 October 2005-22 January 2006, 94,042 visitors)

What it was: The annual exhibition of the work of the four artists shortlisted for the £25,000 prize, which is the most prestigious in British contemporary art. This year it featured Simon Starling, above, who eventually won, Darren Almond, Gillian Carnegie and Jim Lambie.

Highlights included: ShedBoatShed, a shed that Simon Starling turned into a boat, paddled down the river Rhine and reassembled as a shed. What the critics said: "If you put a gun to my head, or threatened even the smallest violence, I would immediately say: give the prize to Jim Lambie. I prevaricate only because the work he's showing here isn't what makes him good. But Lambie is not a boring artist, at least. Of the other three on the shortlist, two are quite boring, and one very boring" (The Independent)

* Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec (5 October 2005-15 January 2006, 200,837 visitors)

What it was: Focusing on the three big-name artists, it showed how they and their contemporaries underpinned the development of modern art in London and Paris.

Highlights included: Degas's famous status of the Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old; Toulouse-Lautrec's depictions of dancing girls.

What the critics said: "We Brits have a legendarily prickly relationship with the French, but as this luminous exhibition shows, our artists have long enjoyed a more fruitful exchange of ideas" (London Evening Standard). "Reading the labels, it seems as though the paintings are to be seen only as texts, not as paintings at all, just so much prose. That is why good, bad and indifferent are hung together indiscriminately" (The Scotsman)