History of Tate Library

The Tate Library, the gift of Sir Henry Tate, was opened in 1893 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). It was designed by Sydney R. Smith, who later designed the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain). The interior has been remodelled in recent years to improve access between the different sections.

The lending library holds books, CDs, DVDs, and hosts computers where sessions can be booked for internet access. The reference library on the first floor has a large collection of encyclopedias, directories, maps, newspapers and magazines and desks can be hired for private study. There is also a small pod which can be hired for meetings.

The Brixton Theatre, which had its own entrance next to the Tate and the auditorium behind it, opened the year after the Library. It was bombed in World War II.The Ritzy Cinema opened in 1911, which dates this photograph before then as there is no sign of it!

The open land in front of the Library was bought by Sir Henry Tate’s widow, Dame Amy Tate, in 1904, and opened as a public garden in 1905. The bronze bust of Sir Henry Tate originally stood on a larger stone base in the centre of the garden as you can see in this picture.

As first laid out, the garden had a very formal layout, surrounded by railings. The gardens had their railings removed for their metal in World War II. The gardens have now been incorporated into Windrush Square.

Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899)

Henry Tate was born in Chorley, Lancashire, the son of a clergyman. When he was 13, he became a grocer’s apprentice in Liverpool. After a seven-year apprenticeship, he was able to set up his own shop.

His business was successful, and grew to a chain of six stores by the time he reached the age of 35. In 1859 Tate became a partner in John Wright & Co. sugar refinery, selling his grocery business in 1861. By 1869, he had gained complete control of the company, and renamed it Henry Tate & Sons.

Tate rapidly became a millionaire after patenting a machine to make sugar cubes – previously it was sold in large “sugar-loaves” which had to be broken up at home. He opened a London sugar factory at Silvertown, which is still there, near London City Airport. At the same time, he set up home in Streatham, where he built up a collection of contemporary British paintings, many of them hanging in his own private library and in the billiard room.

He donated generously to charity, including paying for 3 libraries in Lambeth – one in Windrush Square, one in South Lambeth Road, and one in Streatham.

In 1889 he donated his collection of 65 paintings to the government, on the condition that they be displayed in a suitable gallery, toward the construction of which he also donated £80,000. The National Gallery of British Art, better known as the Tate Gallery, and now Tate Britain, was opened on July 21, 1897, on the site of the old Millbank Prison. There are now other “satellite” Tate galleries – Tate Modern, Tate St.Ives, Tate Liverpool.