Tatenotes – A run down to Tate Britain

This week’s “run to a museum in town” saw M and I run down to Tate Britain, which I’d never visited before. Oddly enough, on a previous run into town I had passed the gallery and made a note to visit again this way. Lo and behold it’s almost bang-on 10km door to door, so it was a satisfying achievement.

I liked the gallery itself. It’s a lovely building, and there was a variety of things I hadn’t known to expect.

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We primarily went to see Steve McQueen’s Year 3 photography display – class photos of all (most?) of the 1,500 or so year 3 classes in London, taken in the previous school year.

The visual impact is staggering – those pictures take up a huge amount of wall-space.The above shows a small section of the main gallery where the images are displayed.

If you’re like me and went to school a long time ago, and very much not in the city, you might be surprised to learn that even in primary school, year groups can be  – and often are – split into two and three and sometimes even more forms. So in this display there is often more than photograph per school just for year three alone.

Each photograph naturally contains anywhere from 2 to 30 or so school kids plus teachers and assistants. You quickly spot the similarities in the photos – the reds, greens and blues of the majority of school uniforms. The layout of school halls – generally wooden floors with climbing apparatus on the rear wall. The arrangement of the subjects – along wooden benches, children of varying heights, flanked by adults (of varying heights).

And once those similarities have bedded themselves in, it’s the differences you being to notice. Along with mainstream schools, the project naturally includes special schools which tend to have fewer pupils, or a greater adult-to-child ratio.

The rooms used for the photographs also vary: not all schools have vast halls, it seems. And any variation to the generic school hall you conjure up in your head suddenly sticks out like a sore thumb: the one with the “live, laugh, love” variant daubed on the wall in metre-high script was one such surprise.

There are, therefore, a shit-ton of photos lining Tate Britain’s walls. By the time you’ve circumnavigated the gallery a few times taking in the whole spectacle, you’ve seen the faces of 76,000 children. That’s a lot.

I came away feeling impressed by the scale of the project’s achievements – from the photography to the framing and mounting, to what that size of project even looks like all laid out on the wall like that, to the sheer audacity that such a thing could even be pulled off in the first place.

But I also came away thinking, “Bloody hell, there might just be too many people.” And I don’t think that was the intended outcome at all.


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Away from the grinning faces of tens of thousands of children – I really did need a break after that – I found myself in the Turner rooms. I was pleased to learn that Tate Britain had so many Turners on show, but ultimately it made me realise that perhaps I’m not such a fan. Or perhaps it was the number of his works in close proximity that I quickly grew tired of.

Seeing that many Turners in one space is quite a lot to take in.

In small doses I love his deft use of light and texture to show a scene in such a unique and unmistakable way. But before too long I was actually quite excited to see a crisply-rendered architectural study by Canaletto or, in the next room, paintings by any number of mid- to late-18th century artists whose names I feverishly jotted down in my phone’s notes app for future reference.

I was particularly taken by Stanhope Alexander Forbes’ The Health of the Bride (1889):

The Health of the Bride 1889 by Stanhope Alexander Forbes 1857-1947

When I showed M this painting she commented how dark it looks. Looking again at it now, she’s right.

But when stood almost with my nose pressed against it – and it’s a large painting – I couldn’t help but be taken by the life and movement present in the details of the image.

The boy taking a drink. The man’s hand lightly carressing the lady’s hip at the bottom left. The raised glasses with extended pinkies. And the way the light falls on the sailor’s uniform.

It was all very real. And somehow it struck me as uncannily photographic.

What this made me realise is how much I love paintings which reveal the influence of photography on artists of that era. And I think that just comes down to me enjoying reflections of a scene in as realistic a way as possible. I love city scenes from historic periods. I love interior ‘snapshots’ of a family or other group surrounded by their worldly goods. I love portraits which capture a subject’s skin, and life, and glint in the eye. And I love the ability an artist can have to capture light in a way that almost makes the painting glow.

So anyway. That’s what I re-realised on this latest visit to a gallery. It also reminded me that I have often found myself scribbling down the names of artists and paintings I enjoy whenever I visit galleries, and I should spend twenty minutes sometime adding those various paintings to my TV’s screensaver or something.

I remain immensely grateful to be surrounded by institutions of the calibre of Tate Britain, the Science Museum, and the British Museum, and so on. And I also remain grateful that I am able to get up and run to these places – not to mention relieved that no one seems to mind seeing me in my running gear as I peer at paintings and other artifacts.

For those of you considering running to it: Tate Britain does a great, stodgy flapjack packed with goodies, which goes down nicely with a flat white.