The idea of the chronologic circuit is very simple, it is just to present the history of British art in the order that it was made. To dispense with traditional art historical constructs and simply show the art in the order that it was produced. From 1540, the earliest painting in the Tate collection, right up to the present day to work made in the last year or two.
We’re here in the first room of the chronological circuit that covers the first century, from the mid-1500s to about 1650. Nearly all the all the paintings in this room are portraits because of the nature of British art but there are one or two which aren’t. One is this wonderful ‘Allegory of Man’, and it’s very exciting to see it alongside maybe a more familiar and more typical painting of the period, Robert Peake’s portrait of Anne Pope.
One of the things that these just positions might allow one is to consider something like this portrait in relation to the religious and moral values of the time which are much more evident and literally spelt out in this religious painting.
Here, we’ve got a classic modernist work from 1906, Sickert’s ‘La Hollandaise’, a painting of a naked woman, probably a prostitute, in a seedy bedroom in Camden Town alongside this painting by Alma-Tadema, a classic Victorian picture showing the imagination of the Roman baths but actually made in 1909, three years later than the Sickert. That’s one of the things this chronological approach allows us to do, is to see the works actually being made at the same time, to see the work of an older artist continuing alongside these new emerging forms.
This room shows the work of the 1910s and 20s, one of the most contested periods in art, when modern art is fighting with the academic. One of the great revelations for me is this piece, ‘Christ at the Whipping Post’ by Arthur G Walker. It’s a sculpture made in the early 20s showing the suffering Christ in a very traditional way, which now seems to take on a completely different meaning when seen alongside these horrific war memorials like Agar’s relief here showing the horrors of the trenches in the First World War. Suddenly this image of suffering Christ means something very different and takes on a relevance that it seemed not to have when only judged in art historical terms.
One of the great things about this chronological circuit, the walkthrough British art, is that we can bring together major figures like Francis Bacon behind me, David Hockney, Anthony Caro in this room, and also less well-known artists. This is a work by Jann Haworth recently acquired by the Tate, one of the few pop sculptors working in Britain in the 1960s. So you see artists of different generations who were exhibiting alongside each other - pop and abstract painting, figurative and other subject matter coming together because all this work was all to be seen in London and Britain in the 1960s.
We wanted the circuit to include not just paintings and sculpture but also more immersive works, installations like this fantastic piece by the Chapman Brothers. It appears to be a collection of tribal art, familiar objects from Africa and elsewhere, but on closer inspection you see that every single figure in one way or another references McDonalds.
We’ve reached the end of our journey, we’ve walked through 500 years of British art from the Tudors to the present day. The important thing to remember is this is a story without a conclusion. It’s open-ended, this last room will change all the time to show the range of art that’s being made afresh year after year.