Kevin McCloud: You may or may not recognise this building. It’s on London’s Millbank. It’s the Tate Britain, designed by an architect called Smith in the 1890s. For over 100 years it has housed the cream of British art, and now it is rediscovering its identity as it establishes itself as the pre-eminent gallery of British arts.
Kevin McCloud: Hello.
Chris Stephens: Hi, nice to meet you. Chris Stephens.
KM: Chris, you are the curator?
CS: I’m the curator here; I’m the head of Displays, so I’m overseeing the rehang of the collection here at Tate Britain.
KM: This is a big enterprise, isn’t it?
CS: This is a major rehang for us – I mean, the first time we’ve rethought the collection for over a decade.
KM: Wow! And you are restoring this building – repairing, re-imagining, re-inventing?
CS: Yeah. The rehang is part of a refurbishment of a whole suite of galleries. You know, this really is a kind of re-energising and a rediscovery of the original Tate Gallery.
KM: How beautiful, and how exciting. Is there…there’s more to see? I mean…
CS: Yeah, it’s fantastic. There’s more going on.
KM: Yeah? Are they all as advanced as this?
CS: They are not quite as finished as this one.
KM: Oh, I see what you mean – no! It’s a work in progress.
KM: It’s quite magical, isn’t it, when it’s like – empty and quiet.
KM: As though, actually, you’re watching the building being constructed for the first time.
CS: This is a building that has grown throughout its 100 year history, and we’ve been re-examining its past and finding all sorts of wonderful stories hidden in its fabric.
KM: You’ve got a document?
CS: Well, this is a document, actually, which was found not on this occasion, but in the 1980s, but it’s a wonderful, kind of, a record of the moment when this building was first erected in the summer of 1897 – left by the plasterers, who I guess were just finishing their job, and it was hidden in a blind right at the top of the dome, so not expected to be found for a long time.
KM: What does it say?
CS: ‘This was placed here on 4 June 1897, Jubilee Year, by the plasterers working on the job, hoping when this is found that the Plasterers’ Association may still be flourishing.’
KM: I’m not sure it is.
KM: ‘Please let us know in the other world when you get this, so as we can drink your health.’
KM: These were the guys working here finishing the building.
CS: Exactly; the first Tate Gallery, which was, you know, a fraction of what it is now. But I love the fact that they are obviously so proud of their profession and what they’ve done, and they’ve, sort of, you know, they’ve kind of signed off on it.
KM: Now, these marks are really dramatic, aren’t they? I mean, they make the building look as though it’s, kind of, degrading back to the quarry, almost, but it’s…they are from what, the Second World War?
CS: Yeah. They are shrapnel damage from the Second World War. There are these marks on this side, and then on the other side of the building again, so I mean, I guess the Tate was surrounded by falling bombs.
KM: Oh, was it not hit directly?
CS: It was. There was a direct hit, and there are photographs showing the central Devine Galleries, which weren’t that old, then, piled up with rubble from the roof.
KM: What happened to the art? I mean, had that been…was that still in there, or had it been taken…?
CS: No, the art had been evacuated. It was taken down, mostly, to Piccadilly Tube Station. The director, Kenneth Clark, said that Churchill had said explicitly that no works of art were to leave the country. The site was closed down, and it was staffed, I think, fire-watching. And on the far side there was an area which is now part of the building, which was an outside area, that was dug up for allotments, and the locals grew vegetables.
KM: Great! Dig for Victory at the Tate!
KM: Over the past 10 or 12 years, every couple of years a new Tate Gallery has opened somewhere in Britain. Meanwhile, amidst all the froth of publicity and excitement, this building, the original Tate, has remained serene and calm. Now, its star is in the ascendancy, and it too promises a whole new, exciting experience – a new encounter, if you like, not just with the building, but with the art; with its contents as well. I know it’s not over yet, though.