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Top 10 paintings at Tate Britain.

by Andrea on September 23, 2010

Tate Britain near Pimlico has been showcasing the very best of British art since 1500 (image credit below)

Tate Britain hosts an amazing collection of British art.  You can see images of many of the paintings below on the official Tate Britain website.  Sadly, Tate Britain didn’t grant us permission to reproduce any of the images here.

You could quite easily spend all day in this gem of a museum and it’s a day well spent.  But if you just want to see the highlights, I’d suggest this Top Ten list – including a couple of lesser-known but very intriguing works.

1. William Blake, a visionary mystical artist and poet, created some of the strangest and most compelling works in Tate Britain. His etchings from The Book of Urizen are amazing; deep vibrant colour, strange scenes of a mythology he had created himself, rough and muscular figures.  Personally, I love his wood engravings that accompanied Virgil’s pastoral poems – they are mysterious, with their subdued greys and sleepy landscapes, like that kind of summer afternoon when the wind drops and the land bakes in silence.  They’re often overlooked but well worth getting to know.

2. Tate Britain has a good collection by the Pre-Raphaelites – Victorian painters who tried to get back to the purity of medieval art.  My favourite is John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, at least partly for the theme based on Tennyson’s lovely poem; the soulful looks of the lady, the stillness of the scene as her boat floats down the river and the sense of brooding.

3. With Turner, you’re spoilt for choice – but I think the picture to start with is the Sunset, almost an abstract painting with its gash of red in a bright yellow sky.  It’s revolutionary, but it also says everything about Turner’s concerns – light, colour, sunrises and sunsets, lighting effects.  More of the same in the wonderfully named Sunriser with sea monsters.

4. Constable’s Dedham Lock and Mill shows quintessential country England – but the moody overcast sky and looming trees give it a sense of threat that stops it being too ‘chocolate-box’.  It’s also an unfinished painting – interesting to understand how Constable crafted his paintings gradually.

5. Stubbs is best known for his genteel, though always accurately-observed pictures of racehorses.  But he has a wilder side too, shown in his Horse devoured by a lion, a battle royal fought out in a rocky landscape.  It’s not for the squeamish and the antithesis of all Stubbs’s pictures that glorify the ruling class’s horseflesh and the tamed landscape of the English country park – here the horse is obviously terrified, the rocks are wild and craggy, and… someone explain to me what a lion was doing in Derbyshire?

6. Samuel Palmer’s Coming from evening church with its deep colours and somehow mysterious feeling follows on where Blake left off; both artists had a sense of the world as being in some way infused with a strange spirituality.  There’s something about this painting that makes me keep coming back to it, and trying to work out just what is going on; this immense procession, the depth of the landscape, and is that the moon hanging palely in the sky, or a very thinned-out sunset?

7. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Self-portrait as a deaf man is an intriguing work.  Reynolds holds his hand up to his ear; he’s obviously struggling to hear something, and his face is full of effort.  There’s no posing in this picture; on one level it’s deeply sad, on another full of dignity.

8. If you thought Blake and Palmer were a bit strange, Richard Dadd’s work will take you right past the borders of insanity.  The faery feller’s master stroke was actually painted in a lunatic asylum, and it is the weirdest picture, with shifts of perspective and scale that are quite disturbing – the fairy figures are smaller than the daisies, and the style seems super-real, almost 3D.  It gives me the shivers, to be honest.

9. Whistler’s Nocture: Blue and gold shows the River Thames and old Battersea Bridge in evening mist.  It’s all very muted, very impressionistic, very blue – you have to look quite hard to see the gold.  He evokes not the realistic London of wharves and warehouses, but the magical way that evening light transforms the city into a ‘fairy land’.

10. The Cholmondeley Ladies is not perhaps a great work of art, with its very stylised portraits, flat colours, and lack of expression. But it’s a lovely naive work, and it has a great story – two sisters who married on the same day and gave birth on the same day, holding their swaddled babies.  The huge ruffs, the carefully picked out lace, the jewels – it’s a real display piece, but for all that, innocent and rather charming.

Yes, I know I’ve missed out a lot.  No Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore – the whole twentieth century tradition; that’s a pity as some of their work is top notch.

But for what it’s worth, I think these ten pictures will give you a good feel for the breadth and energy of British painting over the centuries.

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You may also enjoy perusing the treasures of the National Gallery or exploring some of London’s best lesser-known museums.

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Photo credits: Luna & Simone Hotel, Bixentro’s photostream.

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