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For the past three years Tate Britain, built in 1897 and designed by patron Henry Tate’s favourite architect Sidney R.J. Smith (1858–1913), has been undergoing a stunning transformation. Original architectural features have been restored and new features have been subtly integrated into the older design. New artistic and educational spaces have been added, and the public café has been updated, upgraded and expanded to fit the gallery’s growing number of visitors. Meanwhile, the lower ground floor restaurant has seen its room-surround mural The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, 1926–7, created by Rex Whistler (1905–44), restored to its original beauty.
The £45 million restoration and refurbishment of Tate Britain has been 95% funded by private philanthropy: from private individuals, private organisations and Tate Members plus aid from independent bodies and the Lottery Fund. This wealth of generosity has helped Tate Britain become a gallery fitting for the 21st century, creating a modern space to welcome visitors.
So what has changed? Architect partnership Caruso St John have transformed the Grade II-starred oldest part of Tate from a rather tired interior space at the Millbank main entrance into a stunning architectural re-interpretation of the original, whilst keeping all the features of the late 19th-century building. For the Rotunda (where information desks used to be), there is now a spectacular spiral staircase, which leads down to the lower ground floor and a new café, plus archive rooms and the refurbished Rex Whistler restaurant. A new educational centre benefits from a dedicated schools reception, and entrance, and located underneath the Millbank Entrance steps.
The most spectacular part of the new scheme is the refurbishment of the Rotunda. Now, as in its original plan, carefully chosen sculptures sit within the surrounding niches. The stunning black and white floor design, made in polished concrete but looking like marble, is based on the pattern of the original floor. The ‘Art Deco’ style staircase leads down to the lower ground floor where the Djanogly Café seats around 250 people. The previously boarded-up windows now flood the room with daylight. Looking up to its vaulted ceiling one sees subtle hand-drawn pencil designs by Alan Johnston: Tactile Geometry (2013), one of three site-specific works commissioned by the Tate. (The others are Richard Wright’s beautiful handmade glass window No Title (2013) in the Millbank Foyer, and Nicole Wermer’s double-headed teaspoons, Manners (2013), in use in the Rex Whistler restaurant and Tate Members café.) At the far end of the Djanogly café, doors lead out to the garden where further seating is arranged.
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Report by Rosalind Ormiston