Frances Spalding, author of this text on the history of the Tate, is an art historian and critic with significant experience in the field of British art; among her other works are 'British Art Since 1900', 'Roger Fry: Art and Life', and many other books, articles and exhibition works.
This book includes nearly 100 photographs, over half in full in colour. These include reproductions of the art, the buildings, and selected individuals, including Sir Henry Tate, the sugar magnate who founded the first gallery (then dedicated to becoming a national gallery to showcase British art). Spalding traces the history prior to the establishment of the Tate, and the general state of the arts in British care (an issue that is perennially problematic, as the demands on the public purse and the generosity of the private donors always present a challenge).
'The history of the Tate Gallery begins with the letter Henry Tate wrote to the National Gallery on 23 October 1889.' Tate offered his own collection of modern British art under certain circumstances, eventually to include the erection of a new building on the site of the old Millbank Prison. Tate's collection was joined with works from the National Gallery (on Trafalgar Square) and other private and public collections; indeed, the Tate Gallery was already planning an extension when it opened in 1897 - the plans for the extension were on display even then.
The Tate may seem to be secure in the public and artistic mind now, but the search for an identity was long and often controversial. The mission of the Tate Gallery took a long time to solidify into the presence it has today, with its network of several galleries. The original Tate Gallery is now called 'Tate Britain', having returned to its original mission; the Modern art collection is now housed across the river at the Bankside gallery.
Part of the Tate Gallery's controversy over time has been its penchant for Modern art - one of the aspects of Modern art is, by necessity, that it has not been tested over the course of time. There is also an annual Turner Prize, given to a British artist under the age of 50 - this has often sparked controversy in both artistic and political realms. Spalding looks at the artists and art works, to be sure, but more directly focuses upon the personalities that made the Tate as an institution function, which includes an interesting mixture of people.
This is an interesting history, certain to be of delight to any with an interest in the business of Modern art, British art, and how artistic institutions survive and thrive in the sometimes hostile and more often neglectful environments of the Western world.