Paintings – like people – found safety in Underground stations during the Blitz in 1940
Paintings – like people – found safety in Underground stations during the Blitz in 1940

The Tate Archive is no longer a dusty destination of interest only to experts: now you can explore it from home. Frances Spalding leads an online tour

Archives are places where time has stopped. The past quietly accumulates as letters, diaries, photographs and memorabilia lie silent in files and boxes. Hidden away, documents turn cold; words lose their sheen; meanings are lost. Even the most passionate message, which once spilled across the page in urgent fashion, becomes subject to that forgetting which is a part of the historical process. Archives, you might think, are repositories for dead and dusty material, where only the husk of life remains.

There is, however, an alternative view in which archives are like sleeping princesses, awaiting only the kiss of attention. Step into the Tate Archive and you enter a fascinating domain. Now housed with the Tate Library in the beautifully appointed Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, designed by John Miller & Partners, the Archive occupies a central position within Tate Britain on Level 1. Here, one of the joys for any reader is the discovery that you can access the collection through a computerised catalogue, with its excellent system of cross-referencing. Search for information and a host of references comes up, to archival material as well as catalogues and books. You then fill in request forms, sharpen your pencils and sit back and wait for the material to arrive. Scholars have a habit of becoming absorbed in their period: Richard Holmes, the famous biographer, often misdated cheques by 200 years while researching Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Bloomsbury group photo from Vanessa Bell’s collection

Bloomsbury group photo from Vanessa Bell’s collection

© Tate Archive, 2003

This September [2003], to coincide with Archives Awareness Month, material from the Tate Archive is going online. Now you can become a reader from home by visiting Archive Journeys. Virtual visitors can browse, search and study in detail three subject areas: Tate history, the Bloomsbury group, or the art world of the late 1960s and 1970s through the eyes of the art critic Barbara Reise. Tate’s Insight initiative, supported by the New Opportunities Fund, has devised a user-friendly approach which offers a learning package to each subject area. Click on ‘Tate History’, for instance, and you are offered a brief introduction as well as a set of thematic options. One of these is the damage which the gallery suffered during the 1939–45 war. It is hard to believe the ruined building imaged here is the same as that which houses today’s pristine Tate Britain.

Another thematic option is ‘Directors’. Click on this and a whirligig of names and faces begins spinning round. The most notorious was J.B. Manson, who loathed Picasso and declared that while he was director (1930–8) no Henry Moore would ever enter the Tate. Manson’s drunken behaviour at a banquet in Paris to celebrate an exhibition of British art at the Louvre was so outrageous he was persuaded to resign on the grounds of ill health. The critic Clive Bell witnessed this debacle and sent a description of what happened in a letter to his wife, the painter Vanessa Bell. Both were part of the Bloomsbury Group whose antics in the garden at Charleston, the Bloomsbury house in Sussex, can now be checked out online, for Tate Archive owns Vanessa Bell’s photograph albums. The next stage is for the whole computerised catalogue to go online, planned for 2004.

The third strand on offer uses Barbara Reise’s papers to take us into a period when ideas took over from form in art; thought processes became more highly rated than technical skill or craftsmanship. Barbara Reise was an American who came to London in 1966 as a Fulbright Fellow, initially to do work on Turner. Invited to lecture on ‘Recent American Art’ in conjunction with an Arts Council exhibition, she was amazed at how strange this art looked out of context. Two years later, by then fully aware of the controversy that the reception of American art and theory had aroused, she published a two-part article, ‘Greenberg and The Group: A Retrospective View’. It revealed her to be one of the most intelligent and independent-minded critics of contemporary art and ideas. It also established her role as a transmitter of information about the American art scene to this country.

Reise wrote on many major artists of the period – Carl Andre, Jan Dibbets, Gilbert and George, Robert Ryman, Carel Visser, Sol LeWitt, to name a few – with all of whom she remained friends. In 1968 she joined the art magazine Studio International, and was astonished to discover that none of the editorial staff knew American art. Reise organised special issues on Minimalism and on Barnett Newman and promoted its connections with artists in America, Holland and Belgium. A brilliant and original thinker, she could be described as the Sylvia Plath of the art world. Had she not died young (she took her own life in 1978 at the age of 38) she would be on a par with Lucy Lippard and Suzie Gablik. As it is, she has been largely written out of the histories of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Now that Tate Archive has gone online, with access to much of Reise’s work, interest in her will surely revive.

This article originally appeared in Tate Magazine, issue 7