Tourists often wonder about the difference between the Tate Modern and this, its sister upstream on the Thames. Well, the Modern is for contemporary art of any origin, and the Britain, besides its calmer and more civilized affect, is mostly for British-made art made after 1500. Its art is far more approachable than the esoteric stuff at Bankside, and you’ll see plenty of grade-A work, though not many recognizable masterpieces. Britain has a historic knack for collecting masterpieces, not so much for creating them, so a lot of the work is rich with relevance but highly imitative of classical or Renaissance styles—it’s hard to shake the feeling that, artistically speaking, Britain was playing catch-up with the rest of Europe. The oldest portion of the collection, full of documentary or moralist works by William Hogarth, William Blake, and Joshua Reynolds, dips into British life from centuries ago, but it’s not until the galleries progress chronologically into the modern era that you find works by visionaries such as Francis Bacon, John Singer Sargent, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (those last two, granted, were not English but Americans in England) that reveal ebullient colors latent in the national mind.
Descriptions are pedantic (“this picture bridges the historical and the sublime”) and paintings are hung salon-style, many at such altitude that lighting glare makes them inscrutable. But the 1-hr. tours (at 11am, noon, 2pm, and 3pm) help get around such shortcomings. The last tour of the day focuses on paintings by J. M. W. Turner, a highlight of the collection (see below).
Beyond temporary charged exhibitions (around £18; in 2019, one is an examination of Vincent van Gogh’s relationship with Britain), there’s a large, free permanent collection. Beloved paintings are constantly being rotated into storage, a frustrating habit with Tate, but some masterpieces can be relied upon. Turner’s trenchant The Field of Waterloo (room 1810) was painted in 1818, 3 years after the battle; its shadowy piles of corpses, and of bereaved family members searching them, is still considered a daring exposure of the true price of war. The oil-on-canvas Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1840) by John Singer Sargent depicts children holding paper lanterns so luminous that when it was first exhibited in 1887, its worth was instantly recognized and it was purchased for the nation. John Everett Millais’ depiction of a drowning Ophelia (1840) is also considered a treasure for its phenomenally tricky depiction of water; the artist painted the plants in the summer so he’d get them right and waited until winter to paint his model, a hat-shop girl, in a tub of water. Naturally, she caught a severe cold (he paid for her doctor’s bill after her father threatened to sue). Kids love the double vision of The Cholmondeley Ladies (room 1540), two new mothers “born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed the same day”; look closely and you’ll realize they’re not identical. Check out the sculptures, too, including forms by Henry Moore, who gets two rooms, and Barbara Hepworth. But the crowning attraction here is the Turner Galleries, with their expansive collection of J. M. W. Turners. Turner (1775–1851), the son of a Covent Garden barber, was a master of landscapes lit by gauzy, perpetual sunrise, and the dozens of paintings testify to both his undying popularity and his doggedly British tendency to convey information mostly by implication. Turner’s work is lovely, if sleepy (the precise landscape painter John Constable called them “airy visions painted with tinted steam”), but it’s best appreciated if you understand its influence on subsequent artists. The free Tate App supplies some additional descriptions of major works. Maps are £1. There are two places to eat: a casual underground café and the Rex Whistler, which in 1927 kicked off the trend of high museum dining.