Artist as Subject – Tate Britain’s “A Walk Through British Art” Room 7.
In the mad rush between the end of lockdown and the looming threat of entering Tier 3 in London I found myself exploring the Tate Britain with a stranger. In a quickly hatched plan of booking a slot day of and going inside to keep out of the cold, I settled on exploring the free collection route that I had seen for the first time just over a year ago.
Due to the current Government restrictions, the gallery was not available to free roam as it would be previously. Following signs, you are guided to the start of the collection in 1540 and would have to make your way through in linear order. This forced navigation ensured you were experiencing the “Walk Through British Art” in time with the evolution of art movements in British art history.
There are thirteen rooms in total in the “Walk Through British Art” associated to different periods of time; only nine of which are accessible through the ticketed slot. Rooms 1-3 contain accumulations of portraiture and a handful of landscapes all painted between 1540 – 1765. An obvious focus on middle to upper class subjects being showcased. The rooms themselves are curated to move from one painting to the next in a linear and clockwise fashion. Each person moves from one painting to the next in simple succession.
This curatorial style continues in Rooms 4-6. Room 4 focuses in particular on Joshua Reynolds and showcases a mixture of both portraiture and historical paintings. Reynold’s was determined to raise portraiture to the status of historical paintings during this time when the Royal Academy had recently been founded. Room 5 is a collection of war time paintings, British landscape and scenes from plays. William Shakespeare was an obvious influence in this time. Room 6 is a focus upon the Neoclassical movement and is highlighted through its collection of John Constable’s landscapes.
Rooms 8-9 continue in the same curatorial manner. Moving clockwise you see works from 1890-1900 in the decade the Tate was founded. Following through is a focus on works from 1900-1930, with more sculpture present than in previous galleries and a focus in the abstract.
This focus on the curatorial style of the “Walk Through British Art” was particularly interesting because it is broken more than halfway through and only in one room.
Room 7 on the “Walk Through British Art” begins in 1840 and the curatorial style shifts. No longer can you read the gallery in a clockwise and linear manner. Instead, the walls from floor to ceiling are covered in works in golden frames. Few Bronze sculptures stand in front of the walls, just off from the paintings. Information is displayed below rather than beside the works of art. Your eyes are forced to travel over several works at a time rather than only one; up and down, side to side.
This gallery is curated in order to showcase how the works would have been displayed during the Victorian era. Beautifully displayed and at times wonderfully overwhelming, we must question the decision to do this in this room and only this room in particular. The other rooms, all moving the works in a linear manner makes them an easy read to someone unfamiliar with art and familiar to someone who is.
It can simply be put down to this idea of grand opulence. The sheer amount of works and the way in which they are displayed is staggering and the grand hall gallery they are situated in elevates these works more than if they were displayed similar to that of the portraits and landscapes showcased within the other galleries.
In doing so, the Tate has curated an experience in understanding how these works were meant to be viewed and how they would have been viewed during the time of the artist’s exhibition. Not only does it heighten the experience for the viewer, but it involves them more thoroughly in the works presented.
Room 7 boasts a collection of British Impressionist and Pre-Raphaelite works. Works by Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Sir John Everett Millais seemingly dominate the gallery and familiar faces make several appearances in the works on display at the gallery.
Perhaps the most famous work being shown in Room 7 and one of the most famous the Tate has in its entire collection is Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia. Her face, captured in a moment of near death is one you will see again throughout the gallery.
In reviewing the “Walk Through British Art” and focusing upon Room 7, I would be neglectful to turn a blind eye to one of the most interesting and tragic women in art history. Because she is real. The model for this painting and many others in the Pre-Raphaelite movement is Elizabeth Siddall. Condemned to be remembered as a muse, Lizzie was an artist and poet. Married to Dante Gabriel Rosetti, he eventually asked her (told her, controlled her) to be his muse only. She died tragically young and sufferred greatly and the irony of her being most famously known in the image of Ophelia is not lost on me. Another woman who’s suffering somehow became a man’s tragedy rather than the man being shown to be the cause of it. Even Rosetti painted her as Dante’s Beatrix (one painting currently on display at the Tate as well titled Dantis Amor, another currently in the collection by not on display called Beata Beatrix) another woman condemned to a tragedy that then becomes a man’s.
Twelve paintings in the Tate Collection showcase Siddall as a model and muse. Two were on display when I went. In exploring this room I hoped to see works by Siddall. I was disappointed, but not shockingly so. Again, I am aware that her legacy is unfortunately known to focus upon her modelling for the Pre-Raphaelites and that her husband exhumed her corpse to steal back the poems he had buried with her.
My opinion is strong on this subject and I’m aware the Tate cannot possibly have every work in their collection out at once, but the significance of Siddall’s work not being displayed while a work of Rosetti’s or Millais’ is always being shown forces me to ask the question; does the Tate value the face of Siddall more than the work? Does the Tate itself condemn her to the fate of muse even more so than her lover in her lifetime?
Room 7 is filled with the faces of beautiful women and even one striking bust of famous Romantic poet Percy Byshee Shelley (shown in images above). Not on display and replaced by Ophelia since I had been there last June was Henry Wallis’ Chatterton.
I bring this work up for the sake of showcasing another Artist as Subject. Along with the bust of Shelley these works depict an artist, however there is a key difference between these men and Elizabeth Siddall. And that is that they are images of them as themselves. Chatterton is shown to be the tragic romantic hero, killing himself rather than face a life where he cannot be a poet. Shelley immortalized in bronze and elevated to greater being. Siddall is not shown to be Lizzie. She is Beatrix, Ophelia, Princess Sabra etc.
What happens if the Tate continues on this path? Room 7 is lined with images of muses, several different ones showing up in the works of Dante Gabriel Rosetti (yes, because Siddall could only model for him, but he could have several other models). Siddall is just one among many, which I believe in her lifetime was one of her greatest fears.
What is the Tate saying by denying Siddall her chance to be shown as an artist on a more regular basis?
Does it place more value in women as muses than as artists?
From a feminist standpoint, the constant objectification of Siddall in both life and death by her husband and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement is being continually amplified by the Tate’s neglect to create what could be a stunning contradiction by displaying Siddall’s works alongside the works in which she was subject. Thus allowing her life to be shown as both artist and muse and for once granting the opportunity for her to be shown as she truly is for the first time in Room 7. As Elizabeth Siddall and not just Ophelia and Dantis Amor or Rosetti’s muse.
Of nine rooms to explore, Room 7 stands out amongst them all. The grand opulence of showcasing works in the manner of a Victorian exhibition allows the viewer to immerse themselves within the work as if they were suddenly in the 1840s. Millais’ Ophelia is a stunning beauty hiding amongst the onslaught of paintings that cover the walls, but the truth behind the entirety of room is hidden behind men and the images they put forward. In a room so predominantly filled with images of women, their voices are completely silent and the Tate continues that silence with the exclusion of Elizabeth Siddall’s works from their display.
If interested in the life of Elizabeth Siddall and of her connection the Pre-Raphaelites you can read Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley. It is available for purchase at the Tate Britain (where I bought it last June). I am very much not a fan of the name and I disagree with some of Hawksley’s rather unsympathetic opinions towards Siddall, however the book covers major point of Siddall’s life, including her artistic career.