Another Olympic Alternative: London Art Picks
The summer of 2012 undoubtedly belongs to London with the extraordinary pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s Jubilee and the excitement of the Olympic Games. For those of us who aren’t Royalists or sports enthusiasts, London is a city known for being steeped in culture of all kinds but with particularly deep holdings of art, both historical and contemporary. According to Wikipedia there are more than 240 museums in London making it extraordinarily difficult to decide how to spend your time. Here’s our round-up of just a few of our favourite spots to soak up the work of both Old and New Masters that continue to impress year after year. Click here to view a map.
The National Gallery: Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN
The treasures at the National Gallery are too numerous to mention but some astonishing examples of unparalleled painterly virtuosity include da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Velázquez’s sumptuous Rokeby Venus – and those are just the Old Masters. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist holdings are equally impressive and include many paintings you will recognize from art history textbooks, including Cézanne’s Bathers. In addition to their world class permanent collection, The National Gallery is renowned for their blockbuster temporary exhibitions, including those examining the works of Titian, Velazquez and da Vinci, managing to reunite paintings that have not been in the same room since the days of the Medici or thereabouts. They are always completely packed but absolutely worth fighting the crowds to see.
Tate Modern: Bankside, London SE1 9TG
The Tate is London’s answer to MoMA, and the most visited gallery in the world with 4.7 million people passing through its doors annually. Housed in a Herzog & de Meuron conversion of the Bankside Power Station, the Tate makes ingenious use of its enormous central Turbine Hall, for example with Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, a 548-foot long crack in the floor which eventually widened to two feet. The permanent collection, including work from 1900 to the present day is thoughtfully and thematically curated and includes a breathtaking room dedicated to Rothko’s vibrant colour field paintings. The Tate’s exciting program of temporary exhibitions often gives the retrospective treatment to contemporary artists of significant stature including, recently, Gerhard Richter and Yayoi Kusama. It’s open until 10 pm Fridays and Saturdays, offering an incredibly enjoyable evening activity and a fantastic option to avoid the crowds.
The Wallace Collection: Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN
The Wallace Collection, like the Frick in New York, is set in the grand former home of the person who built this once private collection of almost 5,500 objects – amongst them treasures once owned by Marie Antoinette and Mme de Pompadour. Amassed by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, it’s a highly personal collection best known for its Rococo works including signature paintings by Boucher and Fragonard, exquisite Sèvres porcelain, and French furniture. But there are also a myriad of other riches including stellar examples of Franz Hals’ exuberant brushwork, as well as works by the English scions of portrait painting Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and an astonishing collection of snuff boxes. The Wallace Collection’s stunning Great Gallery with its red swathed walls and pictures hung on rails, is exactly the way you would imagine an 18th century grand salon. The glass-roofed courtyard is beautiful and one of the nicest places to lunch in London.
The Courtauld Gallery: Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN
Housed in Sir William Chambers’ magnificent Neoclassical building overlooking the Thames, The Courtauld Gallery is renowned for its holdings of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. Although the Courtauld does mount temporary exhibitions, you’ll likely be satiated by its collection of ionic French masterpieces of the late 19th century, including works by Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Rousseau, Seurat and most notably Manet’s last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. In the winter, the central courtyard is home to an open air ice skating rink – a quintessential London outing.
Serpentine Gallery: Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA
Situated in Kensington Gardens, the Serpentine Gallery is known for its innovative modern and contemporary program of temporary exhibitions – concurrent with the Olympics, the Serpentine has mounted a solo exhibition of work by Yoko Ono examining her pioneering impact across a diverse range of media including performance, film and installation. Annually, the Serpentine also commissions a temporary pavilion on its lawn, providing a unique opportunity to highlight contemporary architectural practices – this summer the team that created the celebrated Beijing National Stadium, Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, have collaborated on a structure. Other past participants include architectural luminaries Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaus and SANAA. In the summer of 2013, the Serpentine will open the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, another 900 square meters of space in an adjacent building, being renovated by renowned architect Zaha Hadid – another reason to visit.
The Saatchi Gallery: Saatchi Gallery, Duke Of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London, SW3 4RY
The Saatchi Gallery opened its doors in 1985 to share the advertising magnate’s personal art holdings with the world. Currently housed in the Duke of York’s Headquarters in 70,000 square feet of exhibition space, the Gallery’s mandate as stated by Rebecca Wilson, head of development, “…is to show what is being made now, the most interesting artists of today. It’s about drawing people’s attentions to someone who might be tomorrow’s Damien Hirst.” And notably, Saatchi did help launch Hirst and his compatriots, the Young British Artists, when they were young, to world-wide fame. Since its inception, Saatchi and his gallery has been steeped in controversy of varying kinds – sometimes for off-loading an artists’ work in bulk and being accused of destroying their career, as well as for some of the divisive work on view. While some disparage Saatchi’s collection for its sensationalist qualities, it’s still interesting to see a private collection of this stature, operating in the guise of a museum. And Richard Wilson’s 20:50, a glistening room-sized, waist-high installation of oil is worth the trip alone.
Auction Houses: Christie’s and Sotheby’s
Christie’s: 8 King Street, St. James’s, London SW1Y 6QT and 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LD
Sotheby’s: 34-35 New Bond Street London W1A 2AA UK
Some of the most exciting encounters we’ve had with art in London have been at its revered auction houses that offer an unique opportunity to view masterworks, sometimes of exceptional quality, that may have not been on public view for generations. Record-setting contemporary works of art by today’s art stars are also big business for both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Check online to determine viewing times and pay attention to the descriptors – an Important or Exceptional sale denotes works or objects of the finest quality will be on offer. There’s nothing quite like the rush of an evening sale where a work greatly exceeds its high estimate – the impressive control of the auctioneer, the quiet tension in the room as the price escalates, the hammer marking the sale, and finally the round of applause is quite an experience. Christie’s South Kensington location presents many more affordable sales of objects as varied as Steiff teddy bears, violins and rare posters, with many hidden gems – definitely worth a look.