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. Not to diminish the quality of the grade-A work on display here, but you won’t spot many recognizable masterpieces. Britain has a historic knack for collecting international art, not so much for creating it, so a lot of the work is rich with relevance but highly imitative of classical or Renaissance styles. The main collection has corporate sponsorship by BP, not as skilled with handling oil as the artists represented on the walls. Although the oldest portion of the collection, full of documentary or moralist works by William Hogarth, William Blake, and Joshua Reynolds, skillfully illustrates British life from centuries ago, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, artistically speaking, Britain was playing catch-up with the rest of Europe. That changes when the galleries progress chronologically into the modern era, and works by visionaries such as Francis Bacon and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (granted, not English, but an American in England) reveal ebullient colors latent in the national mind.
Descriptions are academic (“this picture bridges the historical and the sublime”) and paintings are hung salon-style, many at such altitude that lighting glare makes them inscrutable. One-hour tours go at 11am, noon, 2pm and 3pm.
Shifting objectives consistently rotate beloved paintings into storage, a frustrating habit with Tate, but some masterpieces can be relied upon. J. M. W. 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, made viewers question his patriotism.
The oil-on-canvas Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1840) is by another American who settled in London, John Singer Sargent, and it 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).
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 misty, perpetual sunrise, and the dozens of paintings testify to both his undying popularity and his doggedly British tendency to convey information purely by implication. Turner’s work is lovely, if sleepy. Just don’t sully his name in these halls; even his old sketchbook is dotingly preserved.
A free app supplies expert audio descriptions of major works, but download it at home before going because it’s over 100MB. Maps are £1.