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The Best Things To See at Tate Britain

It may not attract the same crowds as the Tate Modern, but the Tate Britain is no less worth discovering.

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Claire Bullen is an award-winning food, drinks, and travel writer and editor who has lived and worked in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and London. She is the author of The Beer Lover's Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, and the editor at GoodBeerHunting.com. Her writing has also appeared in Time Out New York, The Daily Meal, Pellicle Magazine, and beyond.

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.

1. “London: The Old Horse Guards from St James’s Park”

Canaletto

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.

2. “Ophelia”

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.

The exterior of the Tate Britain in the heart of London, set on a leafy street.
The Tate Britain is just as visit-worthy as the Tate Modern.Photo Credit: N.M.Bear / Shutterstock

3. “Proserpine”

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.

4. “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.

A woman heads up a spiral staircase in the Tate Britain.
The Tate Britain is housed in a beautiful Central London building.Photo Credit: Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB / Shutterstock

5. “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”

Francis Bacon

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.

6. “The Seagram Murals”

Mark Rothko

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.

Related: 12 of the World's Best Masterpieces and Where to See Them

A woman looks up at some of the gold-framed paintings in the Tate Britain.
Take time to admire the artworks at the Tate Britain.Photo Credit: I Wei Huang / Shutterstock

7. “Mother and Child”

Barbara Hepworth

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.

8. “Two-Piece Reclining Figure No. 2”

Henry Moore

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.

Huge portraits hang on the walls of the Tate Britain in London.
Tate Britain is one of London's top museums.Photo Credit: Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock

“A Bigger Splash”

9. David Hockney

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.

10. “Yacht Approaching the Coast”

JMW Turner

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.

A woman contemplates the images in the blue-hued Turner Rooms at the Tate Britain.
The Turner Rooms at the Tate Britain.Photo Credit: Alex Segre / Shutterstock

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