At Tate Britain

Daniel Trilling

‘A Disaster at Sea’ by J.M.W. Turner (c.1835)

Tate Britain’s rehang, unveiled last month, aims ‘to show a broader, more complex picture of British art history’. Its historical galleries, arranged in chronological order from 1500 to the present day, present a fresh selection of artworks, with more women painters and a greater focus on ‘people and stories that have often been overlooked’. The contextual information has been rewritten, too, with an emphasis on the social and political conditions in which the art was made. Empire, inequality and the transatlantic slave trade all feature heavily.

To further draw out these connections, the Tate has invited guest curators to place historical artefacts and contemporary artworks among the displays – to ‘bring to light a story that isn’t visible or encourage us to think differently about the art on display.’ In the gallery entitled ‘Exiles and Dynasties 1545-1640’, for instance, portraits of early modern aristocrats – many painted by emigré artists – overlook Mona Hatoum’s Exodus II (2000), a pair of mid 20th-century leather suitcases, joined together by strands of human hair. In ‘Court v. Parliament 1640-1720’, Nils Norman has surrounded John James Baker’s The Whig Junto (1710) – a group portrait of the early 18th century’s dominant politicians – with images of radical pamphlets from the English civil wars half a century earlier.

At least one of the contemporary additions is missing, however. The historian Marcus Rediker, much of whose work focuses on resistance to slavery and exploitation, was invited to respond to the Tate’s Turner displays. He proposed a set of exhibits that would commemorate mutinies, unfree labour and rebellions at sea, but withdrew suddenly last autumn.

The sticking point was a proposal for Turner’s A Disaster At Sea (c.1835), which shows people clinging to the wreckage of a ship in stormy waters. The identity of the ship is disputed but one theory is that it’s the Amphitrite, which left London for New South Wales in 1833 carrying 108 women convicts and twelve of their children. When the ship ran into difficulty near Boulogne, the captain refused help from rescuers, worried that it would encourage the prisoners to escape. All but three passengers drowned. Tate Britain sits on the site of Millbank prison, where women convicts were held before transportation to Australia.

Rediker told me he wanted to display one of the black wooden ‘punishment boxes’ used to discipline women convicts on prison ships. He proposed either showing an original (one survives in a museum in Tasmania) or a replica alongside Turner’s painting, to ‘declare solidarity’ with the women and pay tribute to their rebelliousness. It was important, he said, to show visitors the life-size object: being confronted with a tool of state violence would draw out the themes of protest in Turner’s work.

Although Tate Britain initially seemed open to the idea, last autumn the gallery told Rediker he couldn’t show the box. A replica would seem too much like a theatrical prop, the Tate said, and its ‘domineering presence’ would put visitors off rather than encourage them to engage with the themes in Turner’s work. They couldn’t in any case be confident about the connection between the box and the painting, since recent scholarship has questioned the identity of the ship portrayed in A Disaster at Sea. But the gallery also worried that an object associated with such violence would be ‘triggering, even traumatising’ for some visitors – and, given ‘the intense media interest in this country at present with exhibition interpretation in museums’, a row about the exhibit might overshadow the whole rehang.

According to Alex Farquharson, Tate Britain’s director, it simply wasn’t possible to fulfil this part of Rediker’s plan. ‘Sadly one aspect of his proposal – to build an interactive replica of a torture device – was neither an artwork nor historic artefact, and would have presented a number of insurmountable practical problems for an art museum,’ he told me. Rediker, on the other hand, believes a toned-down display would have undermined its political impact. Showing a photograph of the box – a compromise suggested by the Tate – would have ‘flattened out the radical juxtaposition with the painting, deadening or sapping the art of its power,’ he told me.

It isn’t easy to find a balance when representing violence in museums. It should, at least on some level, disturb people – otherwise what’s the point? But the fact that concerns about public and media responses weighed on the Tate’s reasoning is an indicator of the pressures that UK cultural institutions have come under in recent years, as demands to acknowledge more fully the violent aspects of British history have been met with a right-wing backlash.

Tate Britain, both a custodian of the nation’s art history and a major global tourist attraction, has moved cautiously through this territory. In 2019, the Tate galleries issued a statement clarifying the connections between the wealth of their founder, the sugar merchant Henry Tate, and the transatlantic slave trade. (Tate was too young to have profited directly from slavery, but the industry on which he built his wealth clearly did.) This year’s rehang is a fairly restrained effort to make such historical connections more visible, though it hasn’t stopped the right having a go: ‘BLM moves in under Tate Britain’s “inclusive” rehang,’ the Daily Telegraph complained last month. The paper’s columnists have frequently portrayed Black Lives Matter as a Marxist plot.

It’s a shame the gallery wasn’t a bit bolder with the contemporary commissions, since the most successful ones are the most disruptive. In ‘Metropolis 1720-60’, a room devoted to paintings of London as a hub of 18th-century trade and commerce, parts of a Georgian-style chair lie splayed on the floor, resembling a broken body. Sonia Barrett says she made Chair No. 35 (2013) as a response to the deaths by drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean but it’s also a reference to the mahogany furniture produced by enslaved people in the Caribbean as London’s wealth grew. In ‘Troubled Glamour 1760-1830’, which features the elite lifestyles portrayed by Gainsborough, Reynolds and others, Keith Piper’s Lost Vitrines (2007) contain imagined toolkits and guidebooks on how to smash and burn plantation machinery, or spit in your masters’ food and drink.

Some reviewers have criticised the rehang for focusing too much on the history and not enough on the art. But these are parts of our history that have been suppressed. It’s good to see the Tate acknowledge them – even if their form of acknowledgment has its limits.


  • 10 June 2023 at 12:52pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    Last autumn I visited Manchester Art Gallery, which was going through a similar process of problematising its exhibits. In practice this meant putting up boards in each room apologising for the fact that most of the exhibits were by white men, and little notices by each work tying them, often rather tenuously, to one of the usual causes. (For instance, a light-hearted 19th-century engraving showing people flying on home-made wings was accompanied by a note about carbon emissions from Manchester Airport. "The reality of flying is very different", the note pompously informed us, as if we might really have thought that we could just go to our local airport, hire some wings and fly off.)

    However worthy the idea of publicising ignored history, there's something depressingly smug about the way it's often done. Is art of no value unless we can enlist it to signal our allegiance in the culture wars? Is the past now merely something to be condemned for not being sufficiently like the present?

    In any case this kind of basic awareness raising often feels futile: anyone still unaware of the history of slavery or the existence of climate change probably isn't the kind of person who visits art galleries.

    It's hard not to conclude that "challenging" exhibits about the history of empire are popular at present precisely because they are *not* challenging, at least to the people who commission them. It's the unwashed who are meant to have their prejudices challenged, not the enlightened folk.

    The suspicion endures that this is one of those games that is played because it suits both sides. For privileged lefties, denouncing injustices from centuries ago is an easy way to burnish their radical credentials at no risk to their careers; for right-wingers, it's just one more thing to keep people angry about.

    • 14 June 2023 at 8:17pm
      Robin Blake says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      I agree with almost every word of this. A little discreet historical information in the labeling may be needed to help things along, but the most important duty of curators at a public gallery should be to allow art to speak for itself.

  • 14 June 2023 at 1:10pm
    thought_fox says:
    When you start worrying that art will offend, you’re on a slippery slope.
    There are various pieces of art in Tate Modern by South American artists that convey extreme violence, that metered out on the population by CIA-installed thug dictators or drugs gangs. But I suppose that’s ok, because it’s South American. It feels like there is a whole load of contradictions inherent in this move towards wokeness, or whatever you want to call it.