The Best Things To See at Tate Britain
Opened in 1897, and showcasing works that span the last 500 years in British art, the Tate Britain is a London must-see—even if it gets overlooked in favor of its flashier, younger sibling. Don’t let the crowds sway you: bypassing this museum would be a mistake. Housed in a grand porticoed building just off the Thames, the museum’s collection includes everything from Elizabethan-era portraits and Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces to boundary-pushing sculptures and Modernist canvases. Here are 10 must-see collection highlights to explore during your next visit.
“London: The Old Horse Guards from St James’s Park”
While the Venetian-born Canaletto is best-remembered for his highly detailed panoramas of the Floating City’s waterways and canals, he also spent the years from 1746–56 working in England. This canvas brings his same exceptional eye for detail—look for the couples strolling along the promenade, the dogs on the lawn, and servants airing out a carpet—to Central London’s landscapes and passersby.
John Everett Millais
One of the best-known canvases of the Pre-Raphaelite movement—and of the Victorian era—Ophelia is also one of the Tate Britain’s most popular paintings. The instantly recognizable work depicts the scene from Hamlet when Ophelia tragically meets her end in a “weedy brook,” though as Millais rather romantically depicts the scene, Ophelia here is garlanded in flowers and greenery.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Another classic Pre-Raphaelite work, Proserpine may have a mythical subject—Proserpine was a Roman goddess, and the wife of Hades—but the real subject was closer to home. Rossetti’s favorite model and longtime lover (and the wife of artist William Morris), Jane Morris, posed for the painting, and small details, including the pomegranate in her hand, signify marriage and captivity.
“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”
John Singer Sargent
This halcyon painting is perhaps best thought of as a study of light. John Singer Sargent painstakingly painted it over the course of months, setting up his canvas outside for only 10 or so minutes each day in order to capture the golden hour at its peak. The results could almost be a scene from a fairytale, as two children light paper lanterns amid tangles of the titular flowers.
“Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”
Painted towards the end of World War II, Francis Bacon’s unsettling and visceral triptych is thought by many to be a commentary on the brutality of war, though the title also references figures that typically appear in religious paintings, and Bacon said he thought of the subjects as the Furies from Greek mythology. With their lurid orange backdrops and grotesque figures, the three paintings conjure a sense of creeping horror.
“The Seagram Murals”
Less a series of paintings and more an immersive environment—the Seagram Murals comprise seven large canvases, and are all shown together in a small, dedicated room—these Rothko canvases feature the artist’s signature color fields, and share the same moody maroon and black hues. Originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram building, the paintings were later gifted to the museum after Rothko withdrew from the project.
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“Mother and Child”
Though relatively small in scale, Barbara Hepworth’s Mother and Child reveals telling details about its creator, who was a pioneer of British Modernist sculpture. Carved from Cumberland alabaster, the piece—which verges on abstraction—was made in the then-radical “direct carving” approach, whereby a sculpture isn’t pre-planned but rather carved directly into the material, the result of chance and the stone’s own forms.
“Two-Piece Reclining Figure No. 2”
Hepworth’s contemporary and peer, Henry Moore, was also known for his borderline-abstract sculptures of direct-carved, reclining figures. This sculpture is a slight break from the norm; with its craggy surfaces and two separate halves, it almost resembles partly eroded rock formations on the edge of the sea.
“A Bigger Splash”
When walking into a gallery and spotting David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, it’s hard not to reflexively grin with joy. Painted in hyperreal hues of turquoise, pink, and yellow (with pops of green among the palm trees), the painting depicts a super-saturated vision of summery California. In the middle of the canvas, in a break from those flattened shades, is that namesake riot of splashing water.
“Yacht Approaching the Coast”
The Tate Britain is home to dozens of canvases by Turner, spanning the full breadth of his career. While his early work sometimes surprises with its articulated landscapes and mythical subjects, later-stage paintings such as Yacht Approaching the Coast epitomize the traits for which he’s best-remembered: namely, nautical imagery, as well as the impressionist haze that took some of his works to the edge of abstraction.