When Tate first opened its doors to the public in 1897 it had just one site, displaying a small collection of British artworks. Today Tate has four major sites and the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day and international modern and contemporary art, which includes nearly 70,000 artworks. A number of new developments are planned for Tate Modern, Tate Britain  and Tate St Ives to ensure the galleries continue to expand.

Henry Tate

In 1889 Henry Tate, an industrialist who had made his fortune as a sugar refiner, offered his collection of British art to the nation. There was no space for it in the National Gallery and the creation of a new gallery dedicated to British art was seen as a worthwhile aim and the search for a suitable site began. This gallery would house not only Henry Tate’s gift but also the works of British artists from various other collections. 

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, 'Ophelia' 1851-2

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
Ophelia 1851-2
Oil on canvas
support: 762 x 1118 mm frame: 1105 x 1458 x 145 mm
Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

View the main page for this artwork

The gallery at Millbank, London

In 1892 the site of a former prison, the Millbank Penitentiary, was chosen for the new National Gallery of British Art, which would be under the Directorship of the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. The prison, used as the departure point for sending convicts to Australia, had been demolished in 1890.

Sidney R.J. Smith was chosen as the architect for the new gallery. His design is the core building that we see today, a grand porticoed entranceway and central dome which resembles a temple. The statue of Britannia with a lion and a unicorn on top of the pediment at the Millbank entrance emphasised its function as a gallery of British art. The gallery opened its doors to the public in 1897, displaying 245 works in eight rooms from British artists dating back to 1790.

Growth of the gallery

Since its original opening, the Millbank site has had seven major building extensions. In its first 15 years the Millbank site more than doubled in size, including the addition of seven rooms designed by the architect W.H. Romaine-Walker and funded by the arts and antique dealer J.J.(Sir Joseph) Duveen, built to display the Turner Bequest.

By 1917, the remit of the gallery changed. It was made responsible for the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day and international modern and contemporary art Romaine-Walker was again commissioned to design the new Modern Foreign Galleries, which were funded by Joseph Duveen’s son, Lord Duveen. These opened in 1926 and a year later a series of murals by Rex Whistler were unveiled in the restaurant.

Tate Gallery

In 1932, the gallery officially adopted the name Tate Gallery, by which it had popularly been known as since its opening. Five years later the new Duveen Sculpture Galleries opened. Again funded by Lord Duveen and designed by Romaine-Walker and Gilbert Jenkins, these two 300 feet long barrel-vaulted galleries were the first public galleries in England designed specifically for the display of sculpture. By this point, electric lighting had also been installed in all the rooms enabling the gallery to stay open until 5pm whatever the weather.

In 1955, Tate Gallery became wholly independent from the National Gallery and discussions began on an extension that would increase the its exhibition space. A major extension in the north-east corner, designed by Richard Llewelyn-Davies opened in 1979. In the same year, the gallery took over the adjacent disused military hospital, enabling the building of the new Clore Gallery, designed by Sir James Stirling and funded by the Clore Foundation. It opened in 1987 and went on to win a Royal Institute of British Architects award the following year.

Tate Britain Millbank entrance from across the street
The Tate Liverpool gallery building, on the Albert Dock

The Tate Liverpool gallery building, on the Albert Dock

Tate Liverpool

In the 1980s Alan Bowness, then director of Tate, decided to create a ‘Tate of the North’, as the project became known. This would be a gallery with a distinct identity, dedicated to showing modern art and encouraging a new, younger audience through an active education programme.

A warehouse at the disused Albert Dock in Liverpool was chosen as the site for the new gallery. The dock, once a bustling site crammed with rich cargos from Asia, tea, silk, tobacco and spirits, was derelict. In 1981 the dockyard underwent a rejuvenation, with the Maritime Museum leasing one of the warehouses and restaurants and bars opening.

In 1985, James Stirling was commissioned to design the new Tate Gallery at Liverpool. His designs left the exterior of the brick and stone building built over a colonnade of sturdy Doric columns almost untouched, but transformed the interior into an arrangement of simple, elegant galleries suitable for the display of modern art. It opened to the public in May 1988.

2008 marked the year Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture. To celebrate this, in 2007 the gallery hosted the Turner Prize, the first time the competition was held outside London. more than 600,000 visitors a year visit Tate Liverpool, cementing its position as a venue for major European exhibitions of modern art.

Tate St Ives

St Ives, a small Cornish town on the southwest coast of England, perhaps seems an unlikely site for a major art gallery. However, its artistic connections date back to Victorian times when numerous artists came to St Ives to paint, attracted by its special quality of light. Artists associated with the town include Barbara HepworthNaum Gabo, Alfred Wallis and Mark Rothko.

Tate had formed a close link with St Ives when it took over the management of the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1980. By the middle of the decade it was decided a gallery should be built there to show works by artists who had lived or worked in St Ives, loaned from the collection.

In 1988, a building was chosen on the site of a former gasworks overlooking Porthmeor Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The architects Eldred Evans and David Shalev were selected for designs that echoed the shapes of the former gasworks, including the rotunda that forms the heart of the gallery.

Building work began in 1991, funded by donations from the local community, the Henry Moore Foundation and the European Regional Development Fund. The Tate Gallery, St Ives opened in June 1993 and in just six months welcomed over 120,000 visitors – 50,000 more than the original target for the entire year. Since then, the gallery has been an outstanding success with an average of 240,000 visitors per year.

An exciting development is now planned for Tate St Ives, which will provide better exhibition and display spaces, new education areas and improved visitor facilities, allowing greater scope for understanding the heritage of the St Ives artists’ colony. 

Tate St Ives seen from Porthmeor Beach in the summer

Tate Modern

In December 1992 the Tate Trustees announced their intention to create a separate gallery for international modern and contemporary art in London.

The former Bankside Power Station was selected as the new gallery site in 1994. The following year, Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron were appointed to convert the building into a gallery. That their proposal retained much of the original character of the building was a key factor in this decision.

The iconic power station, built in two phases between 1947 and 1963, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It consisted of a stunning turbine hall, 35 metres high and 152 metres long, with the boiler house alongside it and a single central chimney. However, apart from a remaining operational London Electricity sub-station the site had been redundant since 1981.

In 1996 the design plans were unveiled and, following a £12 million grant from the English Partnerships regeneration agency, the site was purchased and work began. The huge machinery was removed and the building was stripped back to its original steel structure and brickwork. The turbine hall became a dramatic entrance and display area and the boiler house became the galleries.

Since it opened in May 2000, more than 40 million people have visited Tate Modern. It is one of the UK’s top three tourist attractions and generates an estimated £100 million in economic benefits to London annually.

In 2009 Tate embarked on a major project to develop Tate Modern. Working again with Herzog & de Meuron, the transformed Tate Modern will make use of the power station’s spectacular redundant oil tanks, increase gallery space and provide much improved visitor facilities. 

The Swiss Light at Tate Modern lit up at night, 2000

Tate Modern lit up at night, 2000

A family of galleries

With the creation of the new gallery at Bankside, the gallery at Millbank was able to return to its original function as the national gallery of British art. In preparation for this, a major Centenary Development project was completed, providing the site with ten new galleries, five refurbished galleries and a dramatic new entrance on Atterbury Street.

In 2000, the four galleries were re-branded with the opening of the new gallery at Bankside: Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives.

A number of building projects are now underway to further develop and expand the galleries.