The Rex Whistler at the Tate Britain, a restaurant inside the prestigious Pimlico art gallery named after the artist, has permanently closed — a decision which comes nearly two years after the dining room’s mural, The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats by Whistler, commissioned in 1926 — a work which features numerous racist images — faced a widespread backlash.
After an internal consultation process, the decision has been reached to reopen the room as a “display space,” a spokesperson told Eater.
The reopened space will feature “a new site-specific installation by a contemporary artist exhibited alongside and in dialogue with the mural, as well as a new display of interpretative material which will critically engage with the mural’s history and content,” they added. There was less detail on the future of the “fine-dining” offering the company said would return to Tate Britain. “[Tate will] develop new dining offers in other spaces at Tate Britain as and when this becomes viable,” they said.
The restaurant closed in March 2020 when COVID-19 lockdowns forced all non-essential businesses to close; it has never since reopened. The restaurant and the gallery attracted widespread criticism in August 2020 when after the murder of George Floyd by the white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, widespread social justice and anti-racism protests took place in cities across the world, including in London. An Instagram post in late July of that year by art critics The White Pube pointed to a reference on the Tate website calling the restaurant the “most amusing room in Europe, owing to its specially commissioned mural.” White Pube asked: “i’m sorry what. How does this restaurant still exist?” The gallery removed this reference soon after.
It also then published its “interpretation text” which it said had featured on the restaurant’s wall:
“[...]Whistler depicts the enslavement of a Black child and the distress of his mother using highly stereotyped figures that were common at the time. In later scenes the boy runs behind a cart, attached to it by a chain around his neck. In the Great Wall of China scene, the Chinese figures are presented in costume that now suggests caricature. Whistler’s treatment of non-white figures reduces them to stereotypes.
Eater has contacted representatives both of the Tate gallery numerous times over the course of the last 18 months, each time being told that no final decision had been made on the future of the restaurant nor the space. In May 2021, Tate confirmed that a consultation process to determine the space’s future was underway. It said it had been “open and transparent about the deeply problematic racist imagery in the Rex Whistler mural,” and that it wanted to “actively discuss how best to address the mural and we will keep the public updated over the coming months.”
The consultation’s findings, published in February 2022, say that the decision not to reopen the space as a restaurant was reached in 2020. “In 2020, Tate’s Directors and Trustees agreed that the room should no longer be used as a restaurant and that a new, bolder approach was needed,” it says. This was not communicated to Eater, despite requests for further information on the future of the Rex Whistler mural and restaurant as recently as November 2021.
Still, a decision has been reached — one which, for the time being, will see no further association between a mural replete with racist imagery and restaurant dining.