On 21 July, 1897, the Tate Gallery was ceremonially opened to the public by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Sir Henry Tate not only presented his collection of sixty five paintings and two pieces of sculpture to the nation, (most of it was work from the Victorian period), but he also funded the building to house them and financed the first extensions in 1899. He wanted London ‘to have the best lighted Gallery in Europe and I cannot be a party to building a gallery in which every picture would not have top light’ (Henry Tate, Patron of British Art, Robin Hamlyn in Henry Tate’s Gift, A Centenary Celebration, Tate Gallery, 1987).
Obtaining the gallery site was not easy. Sir Henry Tate made his decision to give his pictures to the nation in 1889 and wrote to the Trustees and Director of the National Gallery in a letter dated 23 October. He asked that the works be kept together and exhibited as ‘The Tate Collection’. The National Gallery could not provide adequate space so declined the offer. Sir Henry Tate then offered his collection to the Government on condition that a gallery be provided that he approved of. After a long search and a protest from scientists about the possibility of the collection being housed on a plot set aside for the London Science Museum, Sir Henry Tate announced that he would finance the 80,000 cost of a new gallery. No site could he found so he withdrew his offer.
A change of government took place in August 1892 and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt, persuaded Sir Henry Tate to renew his offer and the site was suggested at Millbank, once the home of a prison. This area was difficult to reach by public transport and the area was run-down but Sir Henry Tate agreed. Sidney Smith was the architect and building began in 1895 being completed by the opening in July 1897.
Sir Henry Tate had the support of two leading artists, Sir John Millais and Lord Leighton. His collection had a ‘taste for painterliness, a desire for a clear and thoughtful narrative and a fondness for the contemplative’ (Henry Tate, Patron of British Art, Robin Hamlyn in Henry Tate’s gift, A Centenary Celebration, Tate Gallery, 1987). Artists felt inclusion in his collection would result in their immortality.
He gave the gallery to the nation ‘for the encouragement and development of British art, and as a thank offering for a prosperous business career of sixty years.’ Sir William Agnew (the art dealer), hung ‘The Tate Collection’ in one room and another group of British works from the National Gallery, the Chantrey Bequest and GF Watts’ gift were hung by Sir Edward Poynter, the National Gallery’s Director and President of the RA since 1896, in another. The gallery was immensely popular with over three thousand visitors recorded on the first six Sundays of opening, double that of the National Gallery.
You can view the works presented to the nation by Sir Henry Tate from 1894 and 1897 in the Henry Tate Collection. All the works listed were presented at the opening of the gallery except for two watercolours (Alfred William Hunt, Windsor Castle 1889 and Edward John Gregory, Marooning 1887). Sir Henry Tate later presented The Order of Release 1746; 1852-3 by Sir John Everett Millais, A Violin Concerto, 1898 by John Gulich, and Eve, 1900 by Sir Thomas Brock. The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1870 by Sir John Everett Millais was presented in 1900 by Amy, Lady Tate in memory of her husband. In 1920 Lady Tate also bequeathed A Foregone Conclusion, 1885 by Sir Lawrence Alma- Tadema, and Sir Henry Tate, 1897 by Sir Hubert von Herkomer.