Friday 22 November 2019

A Tate Caption

Yesterday I took a stroll around the gallery we must now call Tate Britain. The walls of the Duveen Galleries are at present covered with school photographs (Steve McQueen's 'Year 3' project), which somehow failed to pique my interest, so I strode briskly past and turned left into the permanent collection. I always enjoy wandering around these galleries, revisiting old favourites and seeing what else might catch my eye.
 An old favourite – or rather two old favourites – that I would place high in my list of top Tate paintings are George Stubbs's Haymakers and Reapers, a pair of beautifully balanced, perfectly composed (iconic even) representations of two seasons of the English farming year. I love the colours, so delicately and luminously handled, the landscape settings and the paradoxical sense of calm and repose in these scenes of agricultural labour. The figures (including, of course, the horses and the dog) are beautifully drawn and perfectly placed. I'd say they are two of the finest, and most English, of English paintings. But enough of me – here, in its entirely, is the Tate Britain caption:
'As a depiction of labour, this picture [The Reapers] is greatly idealised. The workers are spotlessly clean despite their drudgery. The church in the distance, and the farm manager on the horse to the right, serve as reminders of spiritual and social authority. Stubbs's picture can be seen as a celebration of the order and nobility of rural life, in tune with the concern with efficiency shown by agricultural writers of the time like Arthur Young. Alternatively, you may think that his picture robs these workers of their individuality and denies the harsh realities of work for sentimental effect.'
 Really sells it, doesn't it? The subtext seems to be: put on your Marxist spectacles before you go near these paintings, then move smartly along. Nothing to see here. 


  1. Captions written by curators educated at the Tell Them What To Think School are everywhere now. Happily, some punters are adding their own insightful contributions. At a regional art gallery not far from me, some wag has enlivened a tedious explanatory notice on 'cultural attitudes towards gender and sexuality' by removing several key letters. The notice is now much more interesting, enlightening us on such phenomena as 'atriarchy', 'exuality' and 'hallic power' and on artists who ‘allenge our own perceptions.’

  2. Excellent – there should be much more of that...