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In his Leader article in The Art Newspaper‘s June 2023 edition, National Portrait Gallery should become a dispersed museum, the author Simon Jenkins states: “The Tate sits atop an iceberg of some 60,000 paintings, which it stashes in its basement like a curatorial Dr No.” Leaving aside the fact that the Tate collection is not stashed in any basement, but in a huge environmentally controlled store in Bermondsey, Sir Simon clearly does not understand its nature.
The most recent figures I have to hand date from 2002, but the Tate collection grows relatively slowly, so they will do for the present purpose. They break down as follows:
• Total number of works in the collection: 61,208
• Number of paintings, sculptures and other three-dimensional works: 5,835
• Number of works on paper, that is, watercolours, drawings, prints and photographs: 54,833
• Of which, number of works on paper in the Turner Bequest: 37,463 (of which approximately 5,000 are blank pages in sketchbooks that nevertheless have accession numbers and contribute to the total number for the collection).
At the time I obtained these figures Tate could not provide a breakdown between paintings and three-dimensional works, but a safe bet is that the number of paintings in the collection is around 5,000. So some way off Sir Simon’s 60,000.
Works on paper thus make up about 90% of the Tate collection by number, and few, if any, major museums display works on paper other than in strictly controlled conditions for limited amounts of time.
Sir Simon writes that “a decade ago an attempt to relocate some of the Tate’s impressive store of Pre-Raphaelites to relevant National Trust properties got nowhere”. This complaint, together with his general complaint about the National Museums in London sitting on their collections, previously appeared in an article by Sir Simon in the Guardian on 17 August 2018 where he wrote that he “pleaded with the Tate to donate some unseen Pre-Raphaelites to National Trust houses of the same period and drew a complete blank”.
Of course he would have, since what he was suggesting was deaccessioning—highly circumscribed for the National Museums under the provisions of the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act, which do not include donation to the National Trust.
In response to that article theGuardian (23 August 2018) published a half page of letters, led by one from Richard Lambert, then chair of the British Museum, challenging his views and correcting some of his errors of fact. One letter, from me, specifically dealt with the Tate issue.
It is both distressing and depressing to find all this recycled in a leading article in TheArt Newspaper.
• Simon Casimir Wilson OBE, retired Tate curator