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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
37 - The pockpitted Tate - Millais moves from front to back, and Ophelia gets expensive
Next door is Tate Britain, or, as it was called for most of the 20th century, the Tate Gallery. Like the Army buildings to the west, the Tate Gallery was built on the grounds of the Millbank Penitentiary. It was specially commissioned in 1894, as a consequence of Sir Henry Tate's generosity, to be the national gallery of British art. The first stage of the building, consisting of the front facade, an entrance hall under a rotunda and seven galleries, designed by Sidney Smith, was opened in 1897. Since then, the museum has expanded, both on this site (with many extensions and additions, not least the Clore Gallery which houses the amazing Turner collection) and elsewhere, with Tates also in Liverpool, St Ives and on the South Bank. I turn left before reaching the gallery's main entrance into Atterbury Street, and walk along the south facing wall of the main building. Although the stone is clean and bright, it is much pockpitted. This was caused by bombing raids in 1940 and 1941. One bomb nearly destroyed all the offices, roofing and glass, while another buried Frank Dobson's sculpture 'Truth' which, like the war memorial in Streatham, sustained no damage.
At the western corner of Tate Britain, where Atterbury Street and John Islip Street meet on the 300 easting, there's a lively statue of Sir John Everett Millais, by the sculptor Thomas Brock, with paint brush and artist's palette in hand. Millais, who died in 1896, only months after having been elected President of the Royal Academy, was a friend and confidante of Henry Tate. The statue was commissioned by a memorial committee chaired by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). For 95 years, from its unveiling in 1905 to 2000, the statue stood on the east side at the front of the gallery building. In the early 1960s, the Tate's director, Sir Norman Reid, made attempts to replace it with something artistically superior, but these were blocked by the statue's owner, the Ministry of Works. It was only moved after English Heritage (the successor to the Ministry of Works) transferred the statue's ownership to the Tate in 1996.
However, it's a shame Millais has been demoted, as it were, because in spring 2004 Tate Britain launched a major exhibition, 'Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature', devoted to the purest form of Pre-Raphaelitism. This movement, started in the 1850s by Millais with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, aimed to paint directly from nature itself, as truthfully as possible and with incredible attention to detail. Millais's painting of the tragic death of Ophelia, as she falls into the stream and drowns (a scene from Hamlet), is one of the best-known of Pre-Raphaelite images. It was also one of Henry Tate's original bequests to the gallery. Although entrance to Tate Britain is free and a view of Ophelia would normally be free too, while the 'Truth to Nature' exhibition was on, it was only possible to see her by paying the £8.50 special exhibition entrance fee.
I leave Millais behind and head on along John Islip Street (named after
John Islip, 16th century abbot of Westminster Abbey), lined with pollarded
plane trees which give the road a strange ethereal atmosphere. Passing by
the side of the restful Millbank Gardens where a man is reading and two
ladies picnic, and where a small camellia is flowering already (mid-February),
I only go as far as the junction with Bulinga Street. This road used to
divide the Tate Gallery from the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital, until
the Tate took over part of the latter for its expansion. The old hospital,
built at roughly the same time as the Tate and the army barracks, looks
ripe for redevelopment. But it's worth remembering that 60 years ago, on
21 December 1942, 250 Queen Alexandra nurses were aboard the SS Strathallan,
along with 4,000 troops and 900 crew, when it was torpedoed and sunk by
a German U-boat in the Mediterranean Sea.
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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