London is one the world’s great art capitals
With blockbuster exhibitions, cosmopolitan art colleges and major art fairs and auctions drawing attendees from all over the world, London is a booming art city. From slick Mayfair galleries to student pop-ups, residents and visitors across the social spectrum are drawn by the sheer volume of art on display.
Looking out over Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is one of the top ten most visited art museums in the world. Although its collection of some 2,300 works is smaller than in many national galleries, its scope is encyclopedic, with virtually every major name in European art represented from the medieval period onwards.
Many of its works would make it onto a list of the most recognisable images in art, including Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, John Constable’s The Hay Wain, Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres, Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and many more.
Around the corner, the National Portrait Gallery is closed until 2023 for essential building maintenance. However, many works can still be viewed online, some in 3D.
Tate Modern occupies the former Bankside Power Station on the south side of the River Thames, where the vast Turbine Hall forms an exhibition space unrivalled for sheer scale. Home to the national collection of modern art from 1900 to the present day, it was the most popular museum in the world when it opened in 2020, drawing over five million visitors.
Part of the Tate network of galleries in England, which also includes Tate Modern in London, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives in southwest England, Tate Britain is the oldest of them, having opened in 1897. One of the largest art museums in the country, it houses a substantial collection of British art from 1500 to the present day.
Works which may be on display at any one time are by a roll-call of British greats, such as William Blake, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, John Constable and John Singer Sargent, while more recent names include David Hockney, Peter Blake and Francis Bacon. There is a particularly large body of work by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), who bequeathed his own collection to the nation, including The Battle of Trafalgar, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, The Fighting Téméraire and Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway.
The Royal Academy of Arts has championed art for over 250 years. Established in 1768 as an independent, artist-run institution to host exhibitions and operate an art school, it counts innumerable distinguished artists among its Royal Academicians, or RAs. It marked its 250th anniversary in 2018 by commissioning the architect David Chipperfield to link its Burlington Gardens and Piccadilly buildings to create the “new” RA. The RA is especially popular for its annual Summer exhibition, when the gallery walls are covered with over 1,000 works.
The Wallace Collection is a national museum which displays the art collections assembled by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, thought to be the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess. It was bequeathed to the British nation by Lady Wallace, Sir Richard’s widow, in 1897. Displayed in Hertford House, the family’s former London residence, the collection consists of some 5,500 pieces spanning Renaissance and European paintings, sculpture, furniture, decorative art and princely arms and armour and is displayed in lavishly appointed state rooms.
Fine art fans will be drawn to masterworks by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin and Velasquez as well as centrepiece works such as Watteau’s Rendez-vous de chasse, Venetian scenes by Canaletto and Guardi, Frans Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier (although The Hardly Smiling Cavalier would be a more accurate title), Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda and Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette – better known in English as The Swing. Many of these are shown in the magnificent Great Gallery, a long, imposing room – the largest in Hertford House – filled with natural light. There is also a lovely, glass-roofed courtyard cafe.
Opened in 1999 in a purpose-built space (the original, Victorian-era building was badly damaged in WWII), the Guildhall Art Gallery houses the art collection of the City of London, the name of the financial district. Displayed in a dense, 19th century hanging style set against period colours, the changing selection of about 200 works from the permanent collection make up essentially ‘a portrait of the City’.
The works mainly span of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), a period when the approach to fine art changed across Europe, as painters challenged established ideas about ‘appropriate’ subjects and styles for pictures, turning away from historical works to scenes of contemporary life which still resonate with modern viewers.
The gallery was built practically on the very spot where Roman London was established, and the remains of its Colosseum were discovered during site preparation for the new building. These can be seen as part of the gallery visit, while outside a circle around the central courtyard follows the outline of the arena.
Initially showing exhibitions which drew on the collection of advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, the Saatchi Gallery has become a global authority in contemporary art. An early champion of the late 1980s Young British Artists (YBAs), it has acquired a reputation for introducing artists who would later gain worldwide recognition. The gallery’s 6,500 square metre home in the Duke of York’s HQ is one of the most impressive art spaces in London. There is a regular series of exhibitions on themes of contemporary culture.
Occupying the former royal stables alongside Buckingham Palace, The Queen’s Gallery stages a series of themed exhibitions featuring works from the Royal Collection, the largest private art collection in the world. Owned by HM Elizabeth II and spread over royal residences, it is made up of over one million objects, including paintings, works on paper, photographs, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, ceramics, textiles, carriages, weapons, armour, jewellery, clocks, musical instruments, tableware, manuscripts and books.
The 2018 European Museum of the Year, the Design Museum specialises in product, industrial, graphic, fashion and architectural design. Founded by the late, pioneering English designer Sir Terence Conran, of whom it was said that he ‘moved Britain forward to make it an influence around the world’, the iconic building’s entrance hall is a magnificent, double height space under an angular, folded ceiling. The free to view permanent collection is introduced by Designer Maker User, looking at the development of modern design, and there is also a series of paid for special exhibitions. On the way in you will pass Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s giant bronze sculpture The Head of Invention, a human head lying on its side and modelled on the Scottish inventor of the steam engine James Watt.
The multi-disciplinary Barbican Centre is the largest of its kind in Europe, hosting classical and contemporary music concerts, theatre performances, film screenings and art exhibitions. The Brutalist, labyrithine building is the base for the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company. While in some critics’ eyes the concrete complex lives up to its name (a ‘barbican’ is a fortification), it is softened by water features with resident wildfowl and the closed off architecture provides a peaceful retreat for both visitors and inhabitants of the 2,000 or so surrounding apartments.
The Serpentine Galleries are five minutes from each other on either side of the Serpentine Bridge in the Royal Park of Kensington Gardens. Occupying a former 1930s tea pavilion, Serpentine South every year commissions a temporary summer pavilion by a leading architect, which is situated on the gallery’s lawn for three months for the public to explore. Over the years structures have appeared by the likes of Daniel Liebeskind, Oscar Niemeyer, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. Housed in a former gunpowder store from 1805, Serpentine North is famous the late “starchitect” Zaha Hadid’s extraordinarily flowing extension in a glass fibre textile which seems to grow organically from the original brickwork.
On the pleasant Lincoln’s Inn Fields square is Sir John Soane’s Museum, one of London’s most fascinating, yet unheralded museums. The architect for Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sir John Soane (1753-1837) amassed a vast collection of classical statuary and other artefacts, art and furniture that he displayed in three adjacent houses that he bought, demolished and rebuilt over the course of about 25 years. Soane even managed to get Parliament to pass legislation requiring trustees to preserve the house and collection exactly as things stood at the time of his death. The residential rooms in particular look as if the master of the house has just popped out for a stroll.
The result is a weird and wonderful experience which variously evokes Georgian England, ancient Rome and Egypt of the Pharoahs. Visitors enter through a hall with walls painted in Pompeian red (possibly inspired by a fragment of wall plaster Soane pocketed on a visit to the doomed city), while in the Picture Room hang iconic Venetian scenes by Canaletto. Elsewhere there are paintings by Hogarth and J.M.W. Turner.
Throughout, the atmosphere is enhanced by the use of mirrors and coloured glass and light filtering through skylights. The roving eye might pick up a sculpture of an Indian deity sitting on a crocodile, small statues of Raphael and Michelangelo or a model of the domed tomb Soane designed for his wife. The basement contains the Crypt, the Sepulchral Chamber (with the massive sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti) and the Catacombs, where Soane’s collection of Roman urns is displayed in niches, as they were originally.
For over a century the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End has premiered modern masters such as Picasso (it exhibited Guernica in 1938 in a response to a nascent fascist movement in the area), Pollock, Rothko and Kahlo (all for the first time in London) and Pop Art (the 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow introduced the genre to Britain). Opened in 1901 with the aim of making culture, especially visual art, accessible to the poor of the East End of London, the building has an Art Nouveau facade remodelled by long-time Whitechapel resident, the sculptor Rachel Whiteread.
Located in the Southbank Centre, the UK’s largest arts centre which also includes the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the National Poetry Library and the Purcell Rooms, the Hayward Gallery opened in 1968 with a Matisse retrospective. Since then it has presented major shows by some of the world’s leading contemporary artists such as Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Ed Ruscha and Anish Kapoor. The famously Brutalist building received a facelift in 2018, leaving it brighter as a result.
Redisplayed and reinterpreted after a three-year renovation, the Courtauld Gallery collection of paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and decorative arts is one of the finest in Britain and ranges from the medieval period to the present day. Housed in the 18th century splendour of Somerset House, London’s first academic centre devoted to the history of art, the gallery comprises a series of interconnected rooms with grand fireplaces and soft pink or blue walls lending it a domestic feel. The Great Room was the first purpose-built exhibition space in Britain and the first top-lit gallery in Europe.
The gallery’s many highlights include Cranach’s Adam and Eve, Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergeres and Cezanne’s The Card Players, part of the most significant collection of works by him in Britain. Other featured artists include Bruegel, Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, Gauguin, Kokoschka, Botticelli, Rubens, Gainsborough, Pissarro, Boudin, Renoir, Degas and Monet.
In its imposing location overlooking Hampstead Heath, an expansive area of parkland in north London, Kenwood House, a stunning stately home with sumptuous interiors, is home to a magnificent collection donated in the 1920s by Edward Cecil Guinness of the brewing family. There are over 60 Old Masters by the likes of Vermeer (The Guitar Player), Rembrandt (two self-portraits), Van Dyke and Frans Hals, while other painters include Reynolds, Landseer Gainsborough, Turner, Raeburn and Joseph Wright of Derby. The surrounding estate is dotted with sculptural works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
Shown in a Georgian townhouse in north London, the Estorick Collection of early 20th century Italian art was assembled by the American writer and sociologist Eric Estorick (1919-1993) and his wife Salome, a textile designer. It is Britain’s only museum dedicated to modern Italian art.
The Estoricks made frequent visits to Italy, meeting and befriending major artists. Their particular passion for Futurism, an early 20th century movement which aimed to capture the dynamism and energy of the modern world, led them to acquire acknowledged masterpieces such as Umberto Boccioni’s Modern Idol (the gallery’s centrepiece work), Giacomo Balla’s Hand of the Violinist, Carlo Carra’s Leaving the Theatre, Luigi Russolo’s Music and Gino Severini’s The Boulevard.
As well as Futurism, the Estoricks’ wider interests embraced figurative Italian art of the early 20th century, including etchings and drawings by Giorgio Morandi and metaphysical work by Giorgio de Chrico. Amadeo Modigliani, famous for his elongated portraits, is also well represented. The permanent collection is joined by a series of thematic exhibitions.
The core of the collection in the Dulwich Picture Gallery was originally intended for Stanislaw II Augustus, King of Poland, who in 1790 asked two London art dealers, Noel Desenfans and Francis Bourgeois, to assemble a collection for him. Five years later, following political upheaval in Poland, Stanislaw abdicated and Desenfans and Bourgeois were left with one of the country’s finest collections, which tells the story of European painting between 1600 and 1800.
The collection eventually found a home in Dulwich, as did Desenfans and Bourgeois, who are interred in the mausoleum within the gallery in a building by their friend Sir John Soane which greatly influenced later gallery architecture. One visitor who would have appreciated the design was Vincent van Gogh, who signed the guest book in 1873 during his London sojourn.
The collection embraces the best of European art schools, including the Italian School (Canaletto, Raphael, Tiepolo, Veronese), Dutch (Cuyp, Dou, Rembrandt), Flemish (Rubens, Teniers, Van Dyck), French (Fragonard, Poussin, Watteau) and English (Dobson, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Landseer, Reynolds, Constable). PLEASE NOTE: Dulwich Picture Gallery is a 15-minute train journey from central London followed by a pleasant 10-minute walk from the station.
The Victoria & Albert Museum is simply the world’s leading museum of art and design. A day spent in the V&A is merely a peek into the breadth and depth of its collections, which cover the entire gamut of human creativity from ancient times to the present day. The scope is mind-boggling, from (deep breath) Ming china, Sevres pottery, William Morris wallpaper designs, Raphael cartoons and Warhol screenprints to Antonio Canova sculpture, a suite of Turners, Roman jewellery, French Regency furniture and Alexander McQueen fashion designs. You will want to go back again and again.
In their beautiful, spacious rooms opposite St James’s Park, the Mall Galleries champion new contemporary figurative art by living English artists. Home to the Federation of British Artists, they host several of the UK’s premier open art competitions. They receive no ongoing public funding, relying instead on income such as admission fees and commissions from art sales.
Originally brought to attention by the street artist Banksy, Leake Street Arches, known as the ‘graffiti tunnel’, is one of London’s most popular urban art locations. The former railway arch near Waterloo Station is one of the UK’s few legal walls. Anyone can spray on it, no license is required and works are continually over-painted, creating an ever-changing outdoor gallery.