“Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” so said the great eighteenth century wordsmith Samuel Johnson.
Fast forward to the twenty first century and, testament to the brilliance of the city and its ability to stay relevant, Johnson’s words still resonate.
No more is this true than in the English capital’s art scene. Power, money and influence may have all contributed to London’s image as one of the foremost homes of art, but thinkers, creatives and those with a genuine passion for the industry have helped ensure that it has maintained credibility and integrity.
This useful guide is aimed at those looking to enjoy all the city has to offer in terms of art, from places to buy works –remember always sort out fine art shipping beforehand – to the best museums and galleries to visit.
Buying art in London
It goes without saying that the big auction houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams – regularly hold events in the city, so a perusal of their websites will provide an itinerary of what’s coming up next.
However, those looking to purchase newer works of art, can do no wrong with the following black book list of places and events where affordable pieces can be picked up.
Every November, the Royal College of Arts holds Secret, an exhibition of original postcard sized works of art by emerging and established artists.
You could bag yourself an original Paula Rego or not, it doesn’t really matter: this is an exciting addition to the calendar.
SPACE, a charitable organisation that delivers affordable art studios and training for artists, is a leftfield way of acquiring a work of art. Here you can meet painters, sculptors and designers in an environment of febrile creativity.
The benefits of sourcing art this way is that it is more personal, it allows people to engage with artists at a deeper level and you can bag a work of art for a bargain (bypassing gallery commissions for example). See also Acme Studios.
A more innovative way of purchasing art in the city can be realised through the Art Council’s Own Art Scheme, which makes it easier than ever before to secure a work of art. It’s effectively allows you to spread the cost over ten months… interest free as well.
London-based galleries participating in this include Barbican Art Gallery, Saatchi Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, Whitechapel Arts Gallery, August Art, Hang-Up Pictures, Matt’s Gallery and The Griffin Gallery.
Seeing art in London
Where to start? London is positively lavished with all sorts of museums, galleries and establishments dedicated to the world of art. Small, big and ephemeral – pop up shops – the city caters to all tastes. Old Masters? You bet. Postmodernist provocateurs? Sure thing.
The major art galleries include the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery (Trafalgar Square), the former home to art from Western Europe between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. The latter showcases portraiture of famous Britons from the past and the present.
Other historic and well-established art institutions, such as the Serpentine Gallery, Somerset House, Hayward Gallery, Tate Modern and Barbican Gallery, are equally celebrated for their unique, extensive and engaging collections, as well as their thought-provoking exhibitions.
Interspersed among these giants are smaller, more independent art spaces. Though diminutive in size, they are, nevertheless, an important part of the cultural scene in London and the city would be worse off without their presence.
They include Dulwich Picture Gallery, otherwise known as the oldest public art gallery in England, Pump House Gallery, a contemporary space housed in a four-storey grade I listed Victorian tower, and Calvert 22, which specialises in contemporary Russian and Eastern European art.
London’s independent galleries you have to sometimes chance upon yourself. However, the following are popular with those in the know: Victor Wynd Fine Art, Banner Repeater, Large Glass, CABINET Gallery and The Old Police Station.