Sunday, 7 April 2013

Tate Britain Print/Drawings: ReTurning to Turner

'Explosion' in the Tate 
On Friday the MA group went on a field trip to the Tate prints and drawings room. It was reminiscent of the visits I made last year to the V&A, RAI, London Met Archives and the various other amazing places who open up their archives for interested people.

It seems obvious when you think about it but Tate Britain is known primarily for its collection of Turner material/resources, including a complete reference collection which they keep up to date. Though his paintings are all over the place, he didn't leave provision in his will for the contents of his studio  - sketchbooks, small preparatory watercolours, juvenilia, etc, so it all came to the Tate. There are many ongoing research projects, including a cataloguing project which was started by John Ruskin, then continued by Turner's biographer, Joseph Finberg. Sadly two thirds of this collection was affected by the flood in the 1920s and even now, the crinkling and water marks are evident in his early sketchbooks. 

It's not all Turner and from the bespoke study room, opened in 1987 especially for the Turner collection, you can access all manner of prints/drawings from the period 1500-1900, anything from Turner, Blake to historic caricatures. The archivists realise how daunting the catalogues are and very happy to help users call up drawings. 

When material comes up for sale, the museums assist one another, so what the Tate don't obtain, the V&A might. They try to cultivate a collegiate atmosphere for the good of the collections. The National Gallery are happy to let the BM, V&A and Tate keep the works on paper as that is not their area of specialism. As the archivist says, they are lucky to be able to cross refer all types of reference material, not just the drawings but letter, diaries and other ephemera.

There is a deliberate sense of studiousness at Tate Britain. She pointed out that this space was very much for the researcher, academic and rather dubious sounding 'self improver'. They keep it open for all and with the abolition of access fees in the early 2000, there has been a growth in people coming to study here. There was certainly a sense of public ownership of all this material, which is absolutely correct. We own it and should be able to see all this cultural heritage.

Tate Modern on the other hand, is the big blockbuster exhibition space, designed for cultural tourism. This is important for income generation and given the queues, building enhancement at TM, I'd say it was a success. Don't set me off about how brilliant the Lichtenstein is. 

There was a idealogical discussion about what the archivist and university lecturer called the 'golden age' of British arts during the 1990-2000s. They talked about Chris Smith saying his department was instrumental in the flourishing of culture during this time, with many documents disappearing the weekend of the regime change.This newspaper article gives a brief overview. I'm ambivalent about this and believe that arts should be self supporting to some extent because it is their purpose to engage the public with new and interesting stuff. The private galleries have to do it...and organisations like Magnum are using new technologies to make use of their lucrative and extensive back catalogue. Anyway, enough controversy.

The archivist had brought out some of the collection, including the Turner Bequest for us to see close up, including bound sketch books. We admired their portability; they could be rolled up and were light weight. Sketch book 2 from Turner, aged 14, was an education, it showed his exploration of perspective, or 'applied art'. This was before he went to the RA, where he spent years of sketching classical statues and drawing from life. He was good so he moved on quickly. Some of the drawings from his time are stunning, working on mid tone paper to show black and white low- and highlights. Many of these classical torsos, he placed in an idealised in a landscape, reminiscent of anatomical illustrations. 

Some of the preparatory sketches that he did en plein air were then worked up into identifiable finished oils, which the Tate also own. So it is useful for the Turner researcher to see the development from the quick sketch, the finished oil, and later the engraved image. Art historians such as Dianne Sachko have also used this archive to talk about the change in art markets, Victorian patronage and so on.
It wasn't just Turner on display, but many of the Pre Raphaelite sketches, including an early Lizzy Siddal as a 'Victorian angel in the house' by Gabriel Rossetti. Also a Courbet Wapping/Thames inspired Whistler, and most charmingly a sketch of Rossetti's wombat... This demonstrated the importance of the biographical back stories. At Cheyenne Walk, Rossetti possessed a menagerie and even now the leases there say no noisy pets.

Moving on chronologically, there were examples of prints from the 1970s onwards. The Tate obtained job lots of varying quality until the print bubble burst, where prints became rarer and they became more selective in acquisitions. Afterall, this would affect the quality of gallery displays. So we see Alan Jones, Hockney's Rake's Progress, 1964 swimming pool images. And from the print boom in the States where print studios were pushing technical abilities, eg the rather clever and knowing Japanese print 'Catfish envy'. We saw stunning prints by Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton and Patrick Cauldfield.

The point of all this is to get people thinking about the collection and how research can be done. By examining sketches, letters, historic materials you can throw new light on established painters/printmakers, as well as lesser known people. It also encourages you to think about ways of exhibiting and connecting them so that the public also think about classics in a new way. 

We own this collection and associated resources, so it is down to us to make the effort, go down there and speak to the archivists/curators and check out the marvellous prints and drawings. 

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