London is one of the world’s great art and cultural centres – many claim it’s the art capital of the world – with more popular museums and galleries (some 250, excluding commercial galleries) than any other city. It’s also home to seven of the world’s top 50 most-visited museums and art galleries, beating rival cities such as New York and Paris. The London art scene is a lot like the city itself – diverse, vast, vibrant and in a constant state of flux – a cornucopia of traditional and cutting-edge, majestic and mundane, world-class and run-of-the-mill, bizarre and brilliant. From old masters to street art and everything in between, London has it all in spades.
Not surprisingly, everyone wants to see the world-class national collections, such as the British Museum and National Gallery, but once you’ve explored the Egyptian galleries and admired Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, what next? Well, then it’s time to seek out smaller but equally captivating collections, such as the Wallace Collection and the Dulwich Picture Gallery; absorbing ‘specialist’ museums like Sir John Soane’s eclectic house of treasures, Dennis Severs’ enchanting house and the fascinating Brunel Museum; and controversial, thought-provoking (even shocking) modern art at the Saatchi Gallery and Tate Modern. London has something for everyone. Furthermore, many museums and galleries are housed in magnificent historic buildings – either purpose-built or former grand homes – which are works of art in their own right.
Also, don’t overlook the treasure trove of smaller ‘secret’ museums (not to mention the plethora of interesting local history museums), many of which are known only to insiders and locals; some are tucked away in the suburbs, but are well worth the extra effort involved to explore them.
Best of all, most national museums offer free entry (although there’s a suggested donation to help defray running costs), as do many others. In fact over half the places featured in this book are free! No other city in the world offers free access to so many museums.
London is also one of the world’s most dynamic centres for contemporary art, with an abundance of commercial art galleries catering to all tastes and forms of modern art. Enterprising galleries and artists’ spaces have burgeoned across the capital, and, in turn, have attracted artists from of all corners of the globe to live and work in the city. Most galleries stage regular free exhibitions, including artist retrospectives and showcases for new talent, and visiting them is a great way to get a feel for the changing arts scene and spot the Next Big Thing! Although the majority of commercial galleries are situated in central London, don’t neglect other areas, particularly East London, which has become one of the city’s most vibrant art hubs in recent years.
As that great man of letters Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” It’s hard to imagine anyone tiring of the capital’s museums and galleries, where there’s always something new, unexpected or unexplored to capture your imagination and fire your enthusiasm.
So, whether you’re an art lover, a culture vulture, a history buff or just looking for something to entertain the family during the school holidays, you’re sure to find inspiration in London. All you need is a comfortable pair of shoes, an open mind – and this book!