The Pick - Paraphernalia framing British art

November 4, 2010

40 Degrees of Separation

The Goodison Room, Tate Britain

London until February 2011

Established in 1970, the Tate Archive contains more than a million items - diaries, notebooks, letters, sketches, sketchbooks, maquettes, publications, printed ephemera and press cuttings - and represents the world's largest collection of material devoted to British art.

There are 2,500 posters, more than 3,000 audio-visual interviews, talks and documentaries, not to mention 100,000 photographs of artists and their studios, and artists' photographic collections. The papers of critics and art historians, dealers and gallerists, and the records of art societies, exhibiting and funding bodies, periodicals and art publishers, illuminate the contexts within which artists work.

In this 40th anniversary year, the Tate Archive has managed to enhance its holdings with more than 40 additional individual archives pledged as gifts, notably 30,000 photographs taken by Gemma Levine, including the most comprehensive set of images documenting the last decade of Henry Moore's life.

All this makes the archive a crucial resource for researchers but also a treasure trove of strange, haunting and moving objects - from Walter Sickert's overalls to the paintbox found in Turner's studio after his death. There is also the last journal of the painter Keith Vaughan, which ends on 4 November 1977, after a drugs overdose, with an entry that fades out with the words: "The capsules have been taken with some whisky. What is striking is the unreality of the situation. I feel no different...65 was long enough for me. It wasn't a complete failure I did some good work...".

These are just three of the 40 items included in the striking exhibition, on display until February 2011, which is tucked away in the Goodison Room in Tate Britain (and currently unlisted in the Exhibitions section of the gallery's website).

Here too we find a linen table mat designed for Heal's department store, a sculpture consisting of a piece of coral mounted on a metal tripod and a lock of hair that once belonged to Eileen Mayo, model and muse to many of the painters of her generation.

A letter to a friend by Lucian Freud is illustrated with doodles but written in some bizarre code or version of baby talk ("Hey Ho Moud and let the Nordic Barriers fly!"). Ian Breakwell's notebook lists his ideas for future artworks: "shellfish gripped the wallpaper", "old water saturates the restaurant", "bales of wool rolled down the subway".

The result is a very oblique picture of the development of British art.

Each object is linked to the next in a surreal sequence that illuminates the connections and influences between British artists from Constable to Damien Hirst. Viewers are also invited to "rewrite history" and produce a short story based on their own associations between different artefacts.

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