Correspondence of Sir Henry Tate

Scope and Content

Sir Henry Tate was the founder and first benefactor of the Tate Gallery. This small collection is composed of letters received by Sir Henry from various artists and public figures of his day. They focus on the last years of the nineteenth century, when his collection was at its height, and cover his attempts to negotiate and arrange for the new Gallery for Modern British Art which he planned.

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry Tate was born at Chorley in 1819, the seventh son of a Unitarian minister. He was educated in a school run by his father and entered the grocery trade as an apprentice at the age of thirteen. By the age of twenty he had bought his first shop. Around this time he married Jane Wignall of Aughton, and a year later his first son was born. At the age of twenty six he owned a chain of shops and had begun to expand into the wholesale trade. In 1859 he became a partner in the sugar firm of John Wright and Co, and two years later sold all his shops and devoted all his capital and energies to sugar. In 1862 he began refining sugar and took advantage of a patent others had turned down for the production of dry, granulated sugar. His success in this enabled him to expand and open another refinery in Silvertown, East London. Here he experimented with another patent, the sugar cube, and it thrived. In 1881 Tate moved with his family to a large mansion,'Park Hill', at Streatham Common, London. His wife died in 1883 and two years later he married Amy Hislop of Brixton Hill. At 'Park Hill' Tate indulged his interest in art and added a picture gallery to his house. He bought single works by John Constable, John Crome and William Etty, and acquired examples of late Pre-Raphaelitism, narrative, animal and landscape paintings. He began to develop friendships with artists and held an annual 'painters' dinner', usually on the evening before the Royal Academy's private view of the summer exhibition. In October 1889 Tate wrote a letter to National Gallery in which he offered to donate a collection of modern British art, valued at around 75,000 pounds, on three conditions: that a room or rooms be provided for its reception; that this should be effected within two or three years; and that when hung the pictures should be called 'the Tate Collection'. The letter went before the Gallery's Board of Trustees in January 1890, but after initial acceptance, the Director, Sir Frederic Burton, eventually had to turn down Tate's offer for want of space. Tate renewed his offer to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and it was made public knowledge in the Spring of 1890. There followed years of public debate and negotiation regarding Tate's offer and proposed gallery. In 1893 work finally started on the foundations of the new gallery at Millbank, which opened to the public in 1897. Tate retired in 1896, but his sugar business and gallery both continued to grow successfully. The gallery was extended in 1898-9, by which time the value of Tate's contribution towards its devlopment was approaching 1 million. Tate was made a baronet in June 1898, and died in December 1899 at the age of eighty.


One large group of letters was collected into an album during the 1950s, but there are also many loose letters. Although the two groups overlap in terms of correspondent, date and subject matter, the album contents have been left in situ. The loose letters have been arranged chronologically. The collection is arranged as follows:

TGA 7811/1 Pictures at Park Hill

TGA 7811/2 Correspondence album

TGA 7811/3 Loose correspondence.

Access Information

Open. Access to all registered users.

Other Finding Aids

Paper list available.

Custodial History

The letters were found and given to the Tate by the Tate family in the 1950s. They were transferred from the Library to the Archive in 1978.

Related Material

Sir Henry Tate's will (TGA 971/36); scrapbook regarding Sir Henry maintained by Lady Henry (TGA 991/17); photographs of his home 'Park Hill' (TGA 8318/9); sale prospectus for 'Park Hill/St Michael's Convent' (TGA 991/9); cartoon of Sir Henry offering to build a gallery (TGA 2001/1/14); and illuminated address given to Sir Henry on his 80th birthday (TGA 7510/15).

Corporate Names

Geographical Names