Prison rags to art riches
The Tate Britain art gallery has reopened and entrance is free but you have to book tickets on line. On Sunday I visited the gallery for the first time since March and it was great to be there again. Outside the front entrance is this sculpture by Henry C Fehr. I like its sinuous, art nouveau feel. The Rescue of Andromeda was unveiled in 1883. The poor girl lies helpless under the wings and in the grip of a horrible monster that is going to eat her. Perseus has jumped onto the serpent’s back.
Greek myth says that a sea-serpent ravaging the land would stop if beautiful Andromeda were sacrificed to it. Perseus saw her and wanted to save her so that he could marry her. Her father agreed. Perseus had already killed the gorgon, Medusa and was carrying her head in a bag. He took it out and held it in front of the sea-monster. The creature turned to stone when it looked at Medusa’s eyes and Perseus killed the it with his sword.
The Tate Britain stands on the site of Millbank prison and I find this drawing of the prison interesting. It comes from a book published in 1862 so we have a date for the view. You can see factory chimneys right in the heart of what is now a very expensive part of London. Westminster Abbey is on the left and on the right there is scaffolding on the Queen Victoria Tower of the parliament building. Officially the tower was completed in 1860 but the interior decoration was not yet finished and maybe work on the pinnacle at the top was still going on. Incidentally, some of the ditches surrounding the prison still exist.
Millbank prison was on the site from 1816-90. Life there must have been terrible. The prison was built on marshy land and the damp encouraged disease. It had a rabbit warren of corridors with small exercise yards between the buildings. The regime was one of solitary confinement so that prisoners could do sit alone to do penance for their crime (the origin of the name penitentiary). Those who were there for minor crimes would not be further corrupted by mixing with the hardened criminals. It was thought to be a vast improvement on crowded gaols where many people lived in the same dirty room but nowadays we think of solitary confinement as a form of torture.
Millbank was the prison from which people were transported to penal colonies in Australia. They would spend about three months in it for assessment to decide where in Australia they should go. On the riverside near the Tate is this stone block. The plaque says “ … this buttress stood at the head of the river steps from which until 1867 prisoners sentenced to transportation embarked on their journey to Australia”.
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