The best art worth travelling for: London – Art to stir your soul and get you travelling
The museums and galleries of London are among the very best in the world. Whether it’s the vast, fabled collections of monarchs and wealthy Victorians, or the very latest, cutting-edge pieces from relative unknowns poised to take the world by storm, the capital has something for art-lovers of every variety.
Today we can view artistic treasures on our smartphones, but there’s nothing quite like seeing them ‘in the flesh’… And London is one of the best cities in the world to see art. Many of the museums mentioned are extremely popular tourist destinations. For our LuxuryBARED PLATINUM members we can arrange private tours at many to offer you a much more pleasant and peaceful experience. Find out more about our PLATINUM Member benefits here. Here goes with the list…
The Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner – The National Gallery
What the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square perhaps lacks in quantity when placed alongside comparable galleries in Europe, it makes up for it in sheer quality. The gallery contains key works from the majority of major movements in Western art. The building itself is a delightful chimera: the neoclassical facade is all that remains of the original building, which has been expanded and added to frequently so that exploring its wonderfully eclectic rooms and wings is like exploring the history of modern British architecture.
The figure of Turner looms large over British painting, to the extent that his name has become a byword for powerful, dynamic landscapes. While Tate Britain (more on that later) houses the largest collection of his work, the National Gallery contains some of his most significant pieces. The sea – and the effects of weather and light on it – were frequent subjects of his, and The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838 is one of the finest examples of his work.
Created at the height of Turner’s career, the painting is loaded with meaning. Depicting the last voyage of a warship from the Napoleonic era, the subject, the ship itself, is conspicuously placed far to the left of the painting, almost lost in a hazy triangle of blue. The attention is drawn instead to a vast, glorious sunset that spreads out the last light of a fading age, across sky and sea. Rather than Turner’s characteristic swirling, living clouds, here they appear more unnatural, rising up in a funnel from the sea to the sky, indicating that their source might be a steamboat, which ushered the Temeraire into obsolescence. In the background, the silhouettes of other ships are like ghostly spirits and almost forgotten; in the top left corner is a waxing moon. Turner called the moon his ‘darling’, and it has been taken to represent the artist himself, contemplating his own mortality and the ending of a golden age for the Royal Navy, and perhaps Britain itself.
While you’re there, don’t miss: The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, Men of the Docks by George Bellows (the first major American painting to be bought by the National Gallery).
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon – Tate Britain
The Tate network of museums comprises some of the most prestigious galleries in the United Kingdom. Outside London there is Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool (both well worth a visit), but its heart is in the capital at the celebrated Tate Modern and Tate Britain, the original Tate on London’s Millbank and formerly known as both the National Gallery of British Art and the Tate Gallery. There’s a fun connecting boat ride between the two in the Hurricane Clipper, decorated in honour of the work of Damien Hirst, so you can dedicate a whole day to enjoying some of the finest art in Britain.
Tate Britain is one of the largest museums in the United Kingdom and contains perhaps the most substantial collection of British Art in the world, with pieces dating from the Tudor period. The gallery is filled with beautiful scenes: Tudor nobility, neoclassical myths, Pre-Raphaelite damsels and more. And then there’s Francis Bacon. His work is defined by the grotesque, the warping of the human form as a response to the horrors and transformations brought about by the 20th century. Three Studies was the piece that defined Bacon’s oeuvre, to the extent he saw all his other work before it as worthless. Depicting the bestial furies from the work of the ancient tragedian, Aeschylus, the piece is a rejection of those who glorify power and violence. The figures are demented and deformed, showing how inflicting violence damages the self as much as the victim, and the blood-red background is so bright that it is blinding, giving an apocalyptic cast to the scene.
First displayed in 1945 in the final days of World War Two, the piece disturbed and unsettled both critics and the public. It rejected the nostalgia and optimism that permeated Britain at the time, still maintaining the ‘Spirit of the Blitz’, and laid out the wartime horrors the nation was attempting to gloss over or even glorify. And yet it had a lasting effect and is now considered one of the most significant pieces of 20th century British art.
While you’re there, don’t miss: William Blake’s Watercolours and The Ghost of the Flea, Ophelia by John Everett Millais, No Woman No Cry by Chris Ofili
Nataraja, Bridget Riley – Tate Modern
Even if you stripped the walls bare and emptied out all the sculptures, Tate Modern on London’s South Bank would be worth visiting. Once Bankside Power Station, the building is like no other art gallery in the world with iconic, unique spaces, from the dynamic, breathtaking Turbine Hall to the atmospheric Tanks. Even Herzog & De Meuron’s controversial design for the Switch House has a charm in a sort of ugly-cute manner. Fill these spaces with one of the largest and most prolific modern art collections in the world and you have a destination that simply should not be missed on a visit to London.
Tate Modern is filled with works of masters, from Picasso to Kirchner. But it also gives an opportunity to see works by many prominent female artists, who are often sadly under-represented in some of the more old-school galleries. Among them is the work of Bridget Riley, one of the foremost masters of Op Art, a movement relying on optical illusion to give a sense of movement and hidden images.
Her most glorious work on display in the Tate Modern is Nataraja. Prior to a trip to Egypt in the 1980s, much of her work was largely monochromatic. But having seen the sights and colours of the bazaars and Muslim artists, Riley adopted what she termed her ‘Egyptian Palette’, where her pieces were reduced in complexity of pattern but enhanced in intensity and variety of colour.
Nataraja is an explosion of colour, each one bright and vibrant on a large scale (1.65m x 2.28m). It is both overwhelming and magnetic at the same time. The name, Nataraja, is a title of the Hindu god Shiva, referring to his role as Lord of the Dance, in which he is the source of all arts as well as both creator and destroyer. The dazzling colours of the piece symbolise both the fury and beauty of these actions.
While you’re there, don’t miss: Portrait of Jacques Nayral by Albert Gleizes, Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, Swinging by Wassily Kandinsky
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Edouard Manet – the Courtauld Gallery
Somerset House is the most iconic building on the Strand. This huge neoclassical former palace has housed some of the most important institutions of Britain, from government offices to the Royal Academy of Sciences. Currently, the north-west wing contains the fantastic Courtauld Gallery. While small in comparison to some of London’s other galleries, the Courtauld contains many excellent pieces, most notably the collection of French impressionist and post-impressionist paintings.
Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is one of the absolute jewels of this collection. The last major work of this amazing artist, it provides a fascinating insight into Parisian high society at the turn of the 20th century. Depicting a bar from the (in)famously decadent and glamorous Folies-Bergère nightclub, the painting is a masterclass in ambiguity, displaying the paradoxes at the heart of the emerging modern society.
We as the observer can only see the distorted reflection of the frivolity in the mirror behind the bar, the opulence kept beyond our reach. Rather, the focus is on the woman standing at the bar. While a beautiful figure, her expression is not a welcoming one, nor enjoyment at the scene but rather indifference, or even alienation. Surrounding her are the goods for sale at the bar, which take on an almost sinister edge when we notice the reflection behind her. Due to either some kind of optical distortion in the mirror or perhaps even deliberate choice by Manet to maintain ambiguity, the reflection stands illogically to her left, making it easy to miss. Then we realise that we are filling the role of a gentleman addressing her intently, who is obviously wealthy due to his top hat. Some kind of negotiation is occurring and then we come to see that she is just as much a commodity as the other goods on display, one of the Folies-Bergère’s famed prostitutes. To further this notion, oranges, which are displayed so prominently on the bar, were frequent motifs of Manet to denote prostitution. Manet is showing here how wealthy Parisian society had reduced everything to goods that could be sold: class, glamour, taste and even femininity.
While you’re there, don’t miss: Nevermore by Paul Gauguin, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt by Annibale Carracci, The Card Players by Paul Cézanne
Special mention – The Saatchi Gallery
Since it opened its doors in 1985 in London’s leafy Boundary Road, the Saatchi Gallery has been the place to see the most cutting-edge art in London by artists on the cusp of superstardom. Giants of the British art scene such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and more got their big breaks from Charles Saatchi when they were still relative unknowns, and there is fierce competition to have work displayed. The gallery is now a permanent fixture in the heart of London’s King’s Road at the Duke of York’s HQ and continues to be known for casting a spotlight on the work of more obscure or extreme artists who would not be granted display in more institutional galleries in London.
This focus on new blood and fresh talent means that the gallery’s permanent collection is lacking. However, it is always filled with exciting new pieces and exhibitions, making it well worth a visit in every trip to London by an art-lover.
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