Critiques of the Clore Gallery

 

  The Clore Gallery was created as a wing of the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) 1980-7 with £6 million from the millionaire Sir Charles Clore (1904-79) and his daughter Mrs Vivien Duffield and £1.8 million from the government.  It was to house the Tate’s Turner collection, comprising the lion’s share of the Turner Bequest and its Turners from other bequests, in place of the 1910 Duveen wing.

 

  The Clore was designed by Sir James Stirling.   Some people praised it as architecture, even if it was not one of his best designs.  As a showcase for Turner, however, all agreed that it failed.  Sir Roy Strong gave some praise for the interior, but none for Turner’s pictures (Diaries, 1 April 1987).  Mrs Duffield had told him (Diaries, 7 December 1983) that “she felt rather uninvolved in the ... project as she had no feeling for Turner or for modern art.”  The architect had as little sympathy with the artist.  He and the Turner curators violently disagreed, especially about colours.  The Director of the Tate, Sir Alan Bowness was ineffectual, but generally sided with the Trustees and architect.  The sorry saga is related by Mark Girouard in Big Jim:  The Life and Work of James Stirling, 1998, pp.217-23.  At a press conference to discuss the design Richard Cork “realised with a sense of foreboding, that nobody had actually talked about what kind of building would best suit Turner’s paintings” (The Listener, 4 April 1987).  Later he said:  “the entire scheme had been conceived as Stirling’s work of art, rather than as the most fitting vessel for Turner’s long-abused bequest to the nation” (The Times, 30 November 1991).  Gavin Stamp wrote:  “I ...have the strong impression that an architect is showing off at the expense of England’s greatest painter” (Daily Telegraph, 4 April 1987).

 

  “Great Paintings, Pity about the Building,” was the heading of that review in the Daily Telegraph.    The future Chairman of the Turner Society, Eric Shanes, commented, “It’s diabolical. It’s dire.   None of the colours in the building relate to Turner at all,” (Sunday Telegraph, 29 March 1987).

 

   The Approach and Site.  If one comes via Pimlico underground station, one passes at the exit a crude and deteriorating reproduction of a Turner, bisected by the handrail (emblematic of the bisected Turner Bequest).  Contrary to the Tate’s claim that the Clore is a prominent feature by the river, “it is possible to walk down Millbank without even noticing it” (Martin Pawley in The Guardian, 1 April 1987).  The grave-shaped pond is neither picturesque, beautiful or sublime.  Very few visitors use the Clore entrance to access the galleries.  Approach from inside the Tate has invariably been through rooms devoted to artists with no connection with Turner.

 

  Staircase.  The emphasis on Turner’s “least favourite colour,” “a particularly virulent green” (Evelyn Joll in The Times, 26 March 1987) and other hues discordant with Turner’s make the approach more unsympathetic. “These fun colours,” wrote Marina Vaizey (Sunday Times, 29 March 1987) “are not fun;  they are shocking in the wrong sense.  They are vulgar ... The most subtle colourist in British art is defiantly shouted down.” The staircase is brightly lit and with hardly any interval gives on to an exhibition room, which is more dimly lit.  This reverses Turner’s principle of having a dark anteroom and stairs so that the pictures will seem all the brighter.

 

  Main Rooms - Colours.  In 1987 nearly all the critics agreed that the light walls “drain the pictures of colour” (John Russell Taylor, The Times, 1 April) or destroy “the luminosity of the paintings” (William Feaver, ARTNews, Summer 1987).  “The beige carpet is a disaster, and by the end of the opening week was grubby and stained.  The wall colour too is disastrous ... The walls too are already distractingly grubby” (Marina Vaizey, The Architect, June 1987).  The carpet has now gone and the walls in 1999/2000 “have been painted a shade of red somewhere between salmon, terracotta and condensed tomato soup which ...did nothing for the paintings ...” (Cecilia Powell in Turner Society News, 84, March 2000).  They were next repainted in darker colours, which some have praised.

 

  Lighting.  Colours and lighting have to be planned together.  The architect’s elaborate system for lighting by daylight has never worked, and was comprehensively dismissed by an expert, Dr William Allen CBE, a member of the Scientific Committee of the National Gallery, in an unpublished report.  Now virtually all natural light is excluded in the main rooms, as they were in the reserve ones.  John Spurling referred to “the dispiriting hotel-conference-room environment of the Clore’s galleries, gloomily lit ...” (The Spectator, 8 April 2000).  Julian Spalding, a former gallery director, remarked that Turner was a painter of light.  “Here, if ever, was a chance to design a gallery as a hymn to light.  Sadly, however, the Clore Extension immediately dampens one’s spirits upon entering.  The light in it is so subdued that the paintings look drained of colour, and all the life and love has gone out of them” (The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collections, 2002, p.94).   In the original watercolour room contemplation of the works was “rendered painfully difficult by reflections of the overhead lamps” (R.S. Miles in Museums Bulletin, August 1987).  The artificial lighting remains patchy and poor. 

 

  Main Rooms - Proportions.  Once the mouldings came too far down, so that the larger pictures had to be hung too low.  “If you want to gain a sense of Turner’s rendering of space in these pictures, you have to sit or lie on the floor” (Michael Kitson in Turner Society News, August 1987).  The central room is too narrow for large works.  “Like a well upholstered bomb shelter,” said John McEwen, “its proportions are almost all wrong and mostly discomforting” (Art in America, July 1987).

 

  Plan of Main Rooms.  “Everywhere visitors are left to guess how the collection is arranged, how to visit it.”  “Full and orderly coverage of paintings in rooms with separated entrances and exits ... requires visitors to loop the loop, and of course some visitors loop in one direction and some in the other, with chaotic results.  Room 107 with its four doorways is really stacking the odds against visitors ...” (R.S.Miles, 1987).  The plan was based on a misconceived imitation of Dulwich Picture Gallery, which Soane designed for history pictures, not landscapes, on a plan that has been altered.  After  several rehangs the illogicality of the room sequence remains.

 

  The Hang.   This has been changed more than once.  The shortage of space allowed presents the curator with a dilemma:  either consign even more pictures to store (already the original prospectus has been dishonoured by consigning over half) or crowd them together too much.  “Ruskin knew that Turner’s magnificent pictures look best in isolation, but the perpetual tendency of art historians to aggrandise themselves at the expense of their subject results in a crowded confusion of hanging which violates quiet enjoyment of great art” (Stephen Bayley in The Architect, June 1987).

 

   Since 1987, despite changes, no year has gone past without more slashing criticisms - by Stephen Games, David Lee, Brian Sewell, Waldemar Januszczak, Martin Gayford... Mrs Duffield too was unhappy.  An exception was Stephen Greenberg, but even he suggested a change of use for the wing (Architects’ Journal, 11 April 1990).  Museologists were also critical.  Kenneth Hudson OBE, Director of the European Museum Forum, said American students he took round were confused; comparable galleries abroad were much better.  Dr Peter Cannon-Brookes said, “the environment for the paintings finally achieved is seriously at variance with them.  In this James Stirling is in many ways also a victim” (The International Journal of Museum Management & Curatorship, March 1987).  Dr Maurice Davies, Deputy Director of the Museums Association, was even more forthright (“Turner betrayed?” Tate magazine, 5, Spring 1995, pp.32-5).

 

  From the Duveen wing experiment all that was learnt was that, after the Tate flood, pictures should be kept above ground level, a print room was needed and room size matters: the central Clore one was made too small in reaction to the too large Duveen one.  Otherwise the concept of each wing was identical.  No heed was paid to foreign innovations, to my proposal for study rooms freely open to all, to Al Weil’s critiques and championship of Turner’s prints (cf. New Statesman, 10 April 1987).   

 

  The main faults of the Clore - of size, plan and site - are ineradicable.  Other faults are correctable only at the expense of Stirling’s design.  Some have wrongly tried to make Stirling the scapegoat.  The Tate’s aim was to kill the campaign to reunite the Turner Bequest, to grab the Clore money, and provide a vehicle for Stirling.  Turner’s wishes, ideas and “collection” came a poor fourth.  “The ideal Turner Gallery is still a dream” (Dr David Gervais, The Cambridge Quarterly, XIV, 1,1988).

 

Selby Whittingham,   January 2003.