Advertisement

Tate ‘playing God’ as academics battle to view publicly-owned art

The Peep-o'-Day Boys' Cabin, in the West of Ireland by Sir David Wilke
One of the artworks by Sir David Wilke that Mr Kidson had petitioned the Tate to see - Alamy Stock

A former curator of British art at the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool has said the Tate is “playing God” with the nation’s art collections by seemingly restricting access to tens of thousands of works that are held in its storerooms.

Alex Kidson has staged acclaimed exhibitions, yet claims he has tried in vain for weeks to see various paintings by Sir David Wilkie, the Scottish artist who was appointed painter to the King in 1830.

The national collection of British art – from 1500 to the present day and international modern and contemporary art – boasts nearly 70,000 artworks. Much of the collection is in storage, although works on paper are too delicate to be displayed permanently.

“I haven’t succeeded in seeing the Wilkie paintings”, Mr Kidson said. “The Tate says, ‘You can go on a Tuesday morning for one hour and you’re limited to looking at five works’. If the next visit is full up, you have to wait until there’s a free spot. That’s usually about six or seven weeks ahead.

“The last time I tried they said they can make three of these works available, but a further one was not allowed to be seen at all. They didn’t say why not. I originally approached them to see these Wilkies in late November. I returned the application form on Dec 1 and in response to that was offered Feb 3.

‘The public own these works’

“That’s waiting months. I took that spot and then found I couldn’t attend for personal reasons. They said, the next available date is mid-April, but that was too late for my deadlines.”

He added: “The situation is ridiculous because the public own these works. The Tate is playing God with them.”

The requested Wilkie pictures include The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, June 10 1559, painted in 1832. Mr Kidson said: “That’s the one they wouldn’t let me look at at all. Yet, in the first half of 19th-century Britain, it was one of the most famous and admired British history paintings.”

He also requested three other 1830s Wilkie paintings – the portrait of Thomas Daniell, The First Ear-Ring and The Peep-o’-Day Boys’ Cabin, in the West of Ireland.

The First Ear-Ring by Wilkie
The First Ear-Ring by Wilkie, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835 - Alamy Stock

Mr Kidson was curator of British painting at the Walker for more than 25 years. He focused mainly on the later 18th century, compiling catalogues and curating exhibitions on George Stubbs, Joseph Wright of Derby and George Romney.

Among others, David Bindman, co-curator of the William Blake exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, spoke recently to a Tate curator about accessing their drawings by Thomas Rowlandson, the 18th-century English painter and caricaturist.

“They said that it’s ‘very difficult to get at them’. I suspect that it’s about understaffing, but still they ought to be under pressure to do something about it,” he said.

Brian Allen, who was director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, said: “The Tate has an inordinate proportion of their works in store - it’s probably 80-odd per cent. The irony is that Alex Kidson is in fact trying to catalogue their pictures for them in making their collection more accessible by publishing it, given that don’t do it themselves. They’re only interested in putting on woke exhibitions.

“There’s a sense that, if they make access as difficult as possible, people will just give up. It’s awful and it shouldn’t be that way. I’m sure they’ll have all kinds of defensive reasons but, if people in the field can’t even get to see these works, what chance would a member of the public have?”

Steven Parissien, interim director of Gainsborough’s House Museum in Suffolk, argued that the Tate’s collections should be shared with regional institutions rather than being kept in storerooms, and that “other nationals are building easy-to-access store facilities away from central London”.

He said: “All the nationals say that their works are effectively owned by the public. They should make their storage easily accessible. They should not behave as if they are a private collection, where it’s difficult to gain access.”

A Tate spokesman said they responded within days to arrange viewings for Mr Kidson, but did not deny that the dates offered were weeks ahead. “Around 85 per cent of Tate’s collection can be viewed by the public in our four galleries, in other museums and galleries around the UK and the world.

“Many other works are undergoing cleaning or conservation, are being prepared for loans to other museums, are in transit, or are undertaking necessary periods of rest between displays. We do everything we can to help people access individual works when we receive requests to do so.”