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Walk Through British Art

Walk through time and explore artworks from 1545 to the present day

Visitors at Tate Britain looking at a Francis Bacon painting

Photo © Rikard Österlund

15 rooms in Walk Through British Art

A roaring success

The Sunday Times

If you thought you knew British art, visit and think again … there is no better place to go

The Mail on Sunday

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose  1885–6

The children lighting lanterns are Dolly (left) and Polly (right) Barnard. Their father, illustrator Frederick Barnard, was friends with Sargent. It was painted in a garden in Broadway, a village in south west England where Sargent stayed in the summer of 1885.
Sargent wanted to paint from real life. There were only a few minutes each evening where the light was right. He would place his easel and paints, pose the models beforehand, and wait for the right moment to start. As summer ended and the flowers died, he replaced them with pot plants.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion  1944

The title of this work refers to figures that are often featured in Christian paintings of the death of Jesus. Bacon said the figures in his work represented the Furies, ancient Greek goddesses. They punished human wrongdoing. The work was first shown publicly in April 1945. The Second World War was in its final months, after six years of conflict. The first photographs and film footage of Nazi concentration camps were being released. For some, Bacon’s painting reflected the horror of the Holocaust, in which six million Jewish people were murdered. It was also seen to reflect the fear caused by the development of nuclear weapons.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke  1855–64

This scene shows a number of different characters, including the Pope and Dadd’s father. In the centre the ‘fairy-feller’ is about to split a large chestnut, to be used to build a new carriage for Queen Mab, a fairy mentioned in William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. The picture is painted in great detail. Dadd worked on it for between six and nine years. He painted the work while he was at Bethlem Hospital, having been sent there after killing his father and experiencing mental illness.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers  ?exhibited 1812

This dramatic work was probably inspired by a performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. Encouraged by the deceptive prophecy of witches, Macbeth and his wife plot to take the crown of Scotland by murdering King Duncan in his sleep. Here Macbeth emerges horrified from the murder scene off-stage, still holding the bloodied weapons. Lady Macbeth takes control of the situation but by the end of the play, consumed by guilt, she succumbs to madness and suicide. Fuseli treats the scene with an almost supernatural intensity.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Sir William Quiller Orchardson, The First Cloud  1887

This is the last of three paintings by William Orchardson on the subject of an unhappy marriage. The empty space of the parquet floor emphasises the psychological tension between the couple. It suggests that their dispute might lead to more serious problems. When it was first exhibited these lines from a Tennyson’s poem Merlin and Vivien were published in the catalogue: ‘It is the little rift within the lute, That by and by will make the music mute’.

Gallery label, November 2016

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John Constable, Flatford Mill (‘Scene on a Navigable River’)  1816–7

Landscape painting flourished in the 19th century, ranging from the epic, through rustic nostalgia to the naturalism championed by John Constable. He based what he called his ‘natural painture’ on study of nature, experience of his subjects and attention to working life, especially in the Stour Valley where his father was a miller and merchant. When possible, he sketched or worked on pictures outdoors. Flatford Mill shows barges approaching Flatford footbridge after passing through the lock near his father’s mill. Its bright, airy realism was unprecedented at the time.

Gallery label, February 2016

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N01615: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885–6
N06171: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944
T00598: The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
Richard Dadd The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke 1855–64
T00733: Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers
Henry Fuseli Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers ?exhibited 1812

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