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The site

A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcasses of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

This is how Charles Dickens described Millbank Penitentiary and its neighbourhood in 1850. The prison, the biggest in Europe, was the main departure point for the transportation of convicts to Australia. It was designed by Sir Robert Smirke along the principles outlined by Jeremy Bentham in his octagonal design for prisons, and built between 1812 and 1821. It was demolished in 1890.
Site Map of Millbank Prizon
Site Map of Millbank Prizon

© Tate Archive 2003

It is hard to believe that such a site could even be considered as a possible location for the new gallery of British art, but it was, along with sites in Whitechapel and Exhibition Road in South Kensington.

Although decaying and derelict (with the added gloomy association of the notorious and disease-ridden prison), the potential of the site with its river views and space to build was recognised, and in 1892 Millbank was officially chosen as the site for the new 'National Gallery of British Art'.

Punch, 'Royal Acedemicians at Millbank'
Reproduced with permission of Punch Ltd

Punch, 'Royal Acedemicians at Millbank'