The Tate Gallery, which is in Westminster, near Vauxhall Bridge, has an interesting history, new as it looks. It, also, like Hertford House, at least the land on which it is built, has been redeemed to finer uses. Where once stood a prison now stands a palace of art. Not many years ago, when the penny steamboats plied on the Thames, looking on either bank of the river for landmarks, your eye was attracted by a grim-looking building. You had just passed the Houses of Parliament, the glorious Abbey. This was a contrast, no stately pile, but a six-sided fortress. You asked ` What is that ?’ and heard with a thrill ` Millbank Penitentiary.’ You thought of all the misery that was shut in by those thick walls, of the people there who had done dreadful deeds, and were paying a dreadful penalty. Now, if you go up the Thames, and say ` What is that white building which stands out so clearly in the sunlight ? ‘ (there never seemed to be sunlight over old Millbank) you will be told it is the National Gallery of British Art, better known as the Tate Gallery.
It is to Sir Henry Tate that we owe the building and some sixty of the pictures it shelters. He died in 1899, when he was eighty years old. He had worked his way up in life, for he started as a grocer’s assistant. After some years of toil he went into a firm of sugar refiners, and put his whole heart into the business. He noticed the awkwardness of the great blocks of sugar that were sold to householders many years ago. They had to break them up with pincers before a little sweetness could be put into the teacup. Henry Tate invented a machine that would cut up the sugar loaves into small pieces just the size wanted for a cup of tea. It seems to us a simple thing, but he made a fortune by it. With his great wealth he was able to gratify his taste for pictures by modern British artists. He bethought himself that he would like to give the nation a thank-offering for his prosperity, and he offered it sixty-five of his pictures. When, as there often is, there was a difficulty as to where to put them, he came to the rescue and gave the money for the building of this gallery.
Before his time another bequest had been made, an important one for painters. Sir Francis Chantrey, who died in 1841, left a legacy to the nation. The money was to be invested and spent every year in buying works by British artists, and artists who have lived in England. The Royal Academicians were to choose the pictures. When you go to the Academy, nearly every year you see on some important canvas ` Purchased by the terms of the Chantrey bequest.’ It is often said that the Trustees have not made a wise choice, and sometimes that important modern artists are neglected by those who have the spending of the money. But I cannot deal with this question here. Sir Francis Chantrey, too, made his own way in the world. His father was a small farmer and the boy was taught at the village school. He soon mastered the three R’s, and that was about all that could be learned in those days. His parents were poor, and Francis Chantrey had to begin earning money when he was twelve years old. He got a place as a grocer’s assistant, and for four years ran errands and helped in the shop. He was looking out for a more con-genial task, and in his leisure learnt mason’s work and wood-carving. Of his early struggles from darkness to light I cannot tell you more than that he was taught drawing by John Raphael Smith, and carving by a stone-mason, and that after much study he became a great sculptor. Those of you who have been to Lichfield Cathedral will have seen his masterpiece, the beautiful ` Sleeping Children.’
Chantrey was a friend of the great painter Turner, whose sketches and pictures fill a room in this gallery. Turner was a barber’s son, and genius would out in his case, as in that of Chantrey, and as in that of Watts, who also has contributed to the nation’s store of works of art.
It is interesting to think that these four donors all started life without the silver spoon in their mouth. They all had to work their way up for themselves, winning fame, and fortune too, for that matter.
The Tate Gallery is a fine classical-looking building designed by Sidney R, J. Smith. Look up at it as you go in and you will see Britannia presiding over its destinies, the lion and the unicorn sharing with her the labour of keeping watch. In the grounds you will see the statue of a painter, standing brush in hand. It is Sir John Everett Millais, who must have been Sir Henry Tate’s favourite painter, for nine of Millais’s pictures are marked ` Tate Gift.’
The other pictures that are here have been removed from the National Gallery, so that this collection may be representative of British Art from about 1790 to the present day.
In taking you through the rooms I have given the pictures by number, as this seems a simpler way than going room by room. I shall tell you of the painters so far as I can in the order of their dates, for by so doing you can build up a better idea of the influences that have affected artists in each generation.