Any post in this category can do no more than mention a short personal selection of favourite London art galleries and museums, so this is mine. As a Devonian who spent the best part of two years as a student in London some two decades ago, and has always enjoyed visiting London at least twice almost every year since then, I've always found them one of the main attractions of the city. As regards personal tastes and interests, I love conventional paintings and history, and what follows are a dozen reflecting an unashamed bias towards those fields. But perhaps you'll find one or two little-known surprises among them. [Unless stated otherwise, admission is free to permanent collections, though a charge is often made for temporary exhibitions]. The NATIONAL GALLERY (Trafalgar Square, WC2, underground Leicester Sq, Charing Cross) has to be at the top of my list. The national collection of Western European painting from the late 13th to the early 20th century is a must. Whether your taste is for Renaissance, Spanish or Dutch 17th century, or French Impressionists, you’ll come face to face with a wealth of pictures which you probably know already as reproductions, but coming face to face with the originals for the first time really is an experience. If you have a moment or two, try and see the basement collections as well, containing less famous works – there are some little gems there too. Almost adjacent is the NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY (St Martin’s Place, WC2). Founded to form a collection of the likenesses of famous men and women, its walls contain likenesses in one media or another from the great, the good and the tiresome, from King Henry IV and Sir Thomas More to Branson, Posh and Becks. (Haven't put you off, I trust). I used to think this gallery was of limited appeal to anyone not sharing my love of history, but the modern rooms have thrown their coverage wide open as regards contempor
ary popular culture, so it’s much more all-embracing than it was a few years ago. The WALLACE COLLECTION (Manchester Square, W1, underground Bond St) is a few minutes from the north of Oxford Street. Formerly a private collection belonging to the Hertford family, this compact collection of Old Masters (Rubens, Hals, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Cuyp), and less well-known but still superb C19 paintings (Bonington, Bonheur, Sully), Sévres porcelain, sculpture, furniture and armour is a little treat. As regards sheer quality if not quantity of C17-C18 pictures, it runs the National Gallery a pretty close second. APSLEY HOUSE, WELLINGTON MUSEUM (149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner, W1, underground Hyde Park), is the former home of the Duke of Wellington. Often referred to by its old name of No. 1, London’, it has over 3000 objects on display. Among the 200 paintings are masterpieces by Correggio (‘Agony in the Garden’ was the Duke’s favourite), Brueghel Velasques and Rubens. There are also contemporary medals, his death mask, travelling cutlery, his toothbrush (yes), and caricatures a-plenty, among them some insulting ones of Napoleon. £4.50 adults, £3 concessions, senior citizens, benefits, children free, Waterloo Day (18 June) free to all. TATE BRITAIN, the ‘old’ Tate Gallery (Millbank, SW1, underground Pimlico) houses the national collection of British art from late Tudor times to the present, in all media. A few classics from the golden age of British painting, by Constable, Gaimnsborough, Turner et al, are at Trafalgar Square, but this is the venue for the lesser-known works by those artists plus general Victorian pictures (a particular favourite of mine), Pre-Raphaelites, British Impressionists, Camden Town Group et al. The adjacent Clore Gallery houses the Turner Bequest, a collection left to the nation by the artists on condition that it was not dispersed, and finally went on display in 1987.
I confess I have never yet been to TATE MODERN (Bankside, SE3), but several other members have posted separate ops on dooyoo about it. The BRITISH MUSEUM (Great Russell Street, WC1, underground Holborn, Russell Sq, Tottenham Ct Rd) houses various archaeological collections from prehistoric, Celtic and Roman Britain, ancient Rome and Greece (including the controversial Elgin Marbles), and the Sutton Hoo ship treasure, plus a fine collection of coins, medals, prints and drawings. It’s also home to the British Library, and though access to the reading room is granted only to serious researchers (and requires considerable notice, not to say red tape), various historic manuscripts including the illuminated Lindisfarne gospels and Magna Carta are on display. Warning - don’t try and do it all in one visit, or you’ll get indigestion. Restrict yourself to one or two specific subject fields at a time, and promise yourself a further visit for something else. The BETHNAL GREEN MUSEUM OF CHILDHOOD (Cambridge Heath Road, E2, underground Bethnal Green) and GEFFRYE MUSEUM (Kingsland Road, E2, underground Liverpool St, Old St) are both a little way east. The former is a branch of the Victoria & Albert, and is basically a museum of children’s toys and childhood objects. The exhibits include dolls’ houses throughout the ages, games (everything from cards and lotto to dominoes), early C19 building bricks, jigsaws, ‘moral games of chance with no corrupting influences’, puppets, optical toys and devices like cinematograph sets and magic lanterns, teddy bears and trains. There are also items to show the social side of childhood like clothing, swaddling accessories, christening mugs and spoons, prams, teething rings and even breast pumps. The Geffrye, on which I posted a full opinion recently, is a relatively small but wonderful museum of English furniture and interiors from early Stuart times to the present d
ay, consisting largely of a series of rooms decorated and furnished in period styles from a particular era. Both these museums have active programmes of children’s activities and are particularly suitable for family visits. The KENWOOD BEQUEST, IVEAGH HOUSE (Hampstead Lane, NW3, underground Golders Green) has a small but select display of Old Masters from Van Dyck, Reynolds, Rembrandt and Romney and others. It’s definitely a case of quality rather than quantity, and in my view is worth visiting alone for two masterpieces, Vermeer’s ‘The Guitar Player’, and Gainsborough’s ‘Mary, Countess Howe’. The VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM (Cromwell Road, SW7, underground South Kensington) is the national collection of fine and applied art of all countries, periods and styles, including Oriental Art. There are British miniatures and watercolours, the Raphael Cartoon court, and a dress collection covering fashion from Stuart times to the present day. £5 adults, under-18, students, concessions free, after 4.30 p.m. free to all. For those of a more scientific mind, the NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM and SCIENCE MUSEUM are both adjacent on the opposite side of the road. The NATIONAL POSTAL MUSEUM (King Edward St, EC1, underground Barbican, St Paul’s) is of more specialised interest, but for anyone who has ever had at least a passing interest in stamps and postal history, this has a breathtaking display of British and overseas stamps, rarities, and essays for rejected designs, something which has always fascinated me. The displays of old post office equipment, including early letter boxes and franking machines, are also fascinating. The MUSEUM OF LONDON (London Wall, EC2, underground Barbican, St Paul’s, Moorgate) has a lively account of London life from prehistoric times to the present, with reconstructed interiors and street scenes, displays of original domestic artefacts and items found in a
rchaeological digs. The highlight has to be a working model illustrating the Great Fire of 1666, accompanied by readings from Pepys’ eyewitness account. £5 adults, £3 concessions, free 16 and under, disabilities etc., tickets valid one year. Like this list? If not, why not print it out for reference, and check each venue’s website through Google or another search engine for more details. If you live outside London and are visiting on a day trip, most are within easy reach from the centre of the city. I won’t name a favourite, as they are all among the best in their fields. Expect the larger ones to be busy, but if they weren’t busy, they wouldn’t be popular – or worth visiting!
The South bank is a complex of quite outstanding ugliness, found as the name suggests on the south bank of the River Thames. With it’s harsh concrete brutalism, the building is frequently derided by conservatives as the embodiment of all that is wrong with modern architecture. Although it’s not all that modern now, being an extension of the 1951 Festival of Britain and long-term home of London’s biggest arts complex: housing the Royal National Theatre, National Film Theatre, Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery and my favourite place, the Museum of the Moving Image. While commentators frequently debate the wisdom of having the country’s important cultural centres located in what looks like a massive public car park, usually complete with teenage skateboarders. Although the South Bank is a place of unobvious charm its now, ironically, a valuable part of our architectural heritage. It’s an almost perfect example of the 1950/60s ultra modern style and at a time when these places are frequently demolished as eyesores, it’s one of the few public buildings of its kind left. Apart from it’s aesthetics, the South Bank has a serious design problem, being the most irritating building to use on a practical level. The maze of separate buildings, split level surfaces, connecting walkways and circular staircases often make you feel like you’re trapped in a giant Escher drawing. It’s all too easy to get lost and even when you can see where you want to go, it’s somehow impossible to actually get there. The South Bank’s current state of disrepair makes it look even worse. A critic recently described it as being a mess of "weather-stained concrete, rain-swept walkways, urine-soaked stairs", a damning though not inaccurate description. Personally, I think it’s a building in the wrong location. The South Bank’s stark white lines would look attractive against clear blue ski
es and in perpetual sunshine. (And the mainly open air complex is not an unpleasant place to be in summer.) But forty something years of British riverside weather haven’t been kind to a porous material like concrete and now it’s riddled with damp, moss, mould and most worrying, large cracks. Since the 1980s politicians have been debating what to do about it with discussions about demolition and moving out. But now with the current urban regeneration of the whole south bank area and additions like the Millennium Wheel and Tate Modern within walking distance, renovation seems like a more likely scenario