London is blessed with a large selection of excellent museums and galleries. The majority of these are free. The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth is a good example of this. It is one of five Imperial War Museum locations in the UK, three of which are in London. Set up in the 1920s to commemorate the effort and sacrifice of Britain in First World War, it is now dedicated to the understanding of modern war, and confines itself to those conflicts in which Britain or the Commonwealth had some involvement.
The building is impressive, surrounded by the green lawns of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, it is about a five minute walk from Lambeth North tube station. It has ionic columns at its entrance and an impressive dome. It also has its own interesting history, in the 19th Century it was the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital, the psychiatric facility that allowed visitors to watch the inmates as public entertainment. It is this building that became the origin of the word bedlam.
The museum is arranged over five floors. The top floor is the Lord Ashcroft gallery which has a large collection of medals awarded for bravery and the stories of many people who have been presented with them. It is an interesting investigation into the definition of courage and what inspires heroic acts.
The fourth floor is dedicated to the holocaust and the rise of Nazism in the mid twentieth century. This contains a surprisingly in depth analysis of the political climate that led to the spreading of the ideology and a comprehensive presentation of its results. There is a scale model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which really gives perspective to the magnitude of the crimes. This floor needs to be approached with care, the display is moving and distressing.
The Third floor has an exhibit called Curiosities of War, which is a collection of unusual war related items. This is quirky and comparatively light. The second floor is split between conflicts after WWII and a display about espionage. The recent conflicts exhibition is thought provoking, it brings current events sharply into focus. The spy section seems lightweight, I guess it is tough to say much about state secrets without giving those secrets away. This floor also holds a real size model of an atomic bomb, it is shocking how small it is.
The two lowest floors hold the largest items, tanks, ambulances, rockets, large guns and planes….the remains of a vehicle that was once a car bomb. The descriptions of the items and the uses to which they were put is almost more interesting than viewing the items themselves.
The Hall of Remembrance, is a gallery that was proposed to be built containing artwork commissioned as a memorial to the war dead of WWI. The project ran out of money in the 1920s and was never completed. The Imperial War Museum holds all the artwork that was due to be shown in this gallery and has put it on their website in the form of a virtual gallery. This is a beautiful testimonial and well worth a visit, I have put a link here .
War is not entertainment and this will not be your jolliest day out in London. However, The Imperial War Museum is something that you really should visit when you come to the UK. It is wonderful that this city has such high quality resources and amazing that it offers them for free. The building has step free access and there is parking for Blue Badge holders, but it needs to be booked. Recommended.
The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.
The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.
Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.
A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.
It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.
Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.
The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.
Queer British Art at the Tate is a fascinating exhibition, it is more of a history of homosexuality in Britain told through artistic pieces. Some of the exhibits aren’t very queer, until you know their story, and some of the exhibits wouldn’t be artistic in themselves, until they are included in this exhibition.
Is the door of Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol art? Perhaps not, but it does fit well in this show. Is Gluck’s paining of a vase of lilac roses queer? Not unless you are aware it commemorates the beginning of her affair with the florist, Constance Spry. This is one of those shows where the notes accompanying the piece are often equally as important as the piece itself. There is a box containing 200 military buttons each of which represents an illegal sexual liaison with a man who was wearing it.
There are many fabulous pieces here including four early Hockney’s and two Francis Bacon’s. There is a glorious photo of Quentin Crisp as a young man, he was really only famous in later life and this picture shows how beautiful he was. This exhibition is full of wonderful bits of British Queer history, some of which one will never have the opportunity to see again. It has the actual card that the Marquis of Queensbury left for Oscar Wilde calling him a “posing sodomite”. This led to the court case that had him incarcerated in Reading Gaol.
There are eight rooms here, packed with interesting items, so make sure that you leave yourself time to take it all in. It is rare that this tight man would go twice to a paid exhibition, but I fully intend to return before it closes on the 1st of October.
I think you should look upon this as a historical exhibition rather than an art exhibition, but either way, I recommend it highly.
Robots begins with a brief history. It counts clocks, orreries and anatomical models as robots, which may not be in tune with how we would define a robot today. It soon moves on to items we are more likely to think of as robots, with famous examples from old film and TV; it has the one from the 1920s film metropolis. This section was surprisingly nostalgic and it was nice to see the development of the idea of a robot from the early 20th Century.
Finally we come to the newest, most interesting, and sometimes creepiest part of the show – the current, cutting edge, design in robots. The variation in looks, ability and use is amazing. There are robots here whose purpose is to play music, to act, to do repetitive tasks, to calm, to teach, and to learn. Some of these are quite cute, but there are others that are downright strange, and prove the point that there can be something particularly sinister about machines made in the human image. There are about a dozen of these new innovative robots on display and all are compelling in their own way. Some are interesting because the way that they interact and others because of the cleverness of their design.
Tickets are £13.50 for an adult and £40.50 for a family of four. This is without donation, I think it is cheeky to add a donation on automatically when charging for entry, either add it onto the price or leave the donation to our conscience. I enjoyed this exhibition, it took me about an hour to go through. Any longer than an hour and my attention begins to wander, so it was the perfect length.
Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World is the opening exhibit to the new Design Museum in High Street Kensington. It is actually 11 different installations exploring issues that define our world in the 21st Century. As you would imagine, with so many totally unconnected exhibits, some work better than others and some are more interesting than others.
I like the curious robot that comes and stares at you when you look at it. It feels quite aggressive and two separate parents who thought their child would love it, had to deal with them running away in tears after it came right up to their face.
The installation about Grindr and how it changed lives in the 21st Century is worthy, but it is also a bit dry and dull, which is not something I would have expected to report on an exhibit on that subject.
The Mongolian Yurt is nice, one can sit inside and watch a video about how the city of Ulaan Baator is growing very quickly. There is an installation about Death Masks. These death masks are pretty and quite creepy. They are made in plastic with a 3D printer. There are 5 different fictional people with 3 masks each, depicting different states, I don’t know why they have done it, but they are interesting to look at.
The video about dolphins and go seems plain weird, half of it is pictures of sea and boats from a dolphins point of view, and half is of a computer playing the game go. I may have got that wrong, I found it hard to understand, possibly because the point of it just went right over my head. The exhibit of videos playing in a corrugated shack about the Bolivian ghettos are thought provoking.
I like the 2 very different ones about recycling clothing. One was about recycling clothing in rural China and the other about a machine that sorts discarded clothes by colour.
My favourite is the living room furnished with an item from every country in the EU, the view from the “window” is quite chilling.
The price of entry to Fear and Love is £14, quite high considering the mixed standard of installations, but there is a free permanent exhibition on the third floor, which is excellent and certainly worth a visit. So, although there are things here that will make you stare and think Why?, there is also a wide variety of subjects on display and everyone is likely to have at least something that will delight them.
There are a lot of pieces of art in this exhibition, and many pieces that I haven’t seen before. Picasso was prolific, he had a very long productive span and it is interesting to see pieces here from each part of it.
His portraits are representative of his career in general, in that some of them appear disposable, some are sublime, but all are interesting. Some are interesting because they show his amazing technique, others because they give us insight into the character of the model and some because they shed light on his own disposition.
There are probably close to 100 portraits here. A cubist bust of Fernande Olivier is technically wonderful, a childlike painting of his daughter, Maya, at 2 is moving. A metal 2 dimensional bust of Jaqueline is clever and inventive.
There are many portraits of Olga, his wife, showing varying aspects of their relationship. The most famous of these is probably “Woman in a Hat” painted towards the end of their marriage which manages to be both beautiful and cruel.
There is also a doctored photograph of Esther Williams that is misogynistic and insulting.
I left the exhibition thinking that I really like Picasso the artist, but I doubt that I would have liked him in person.
Perhaps, this is what made him a great artist – he was able to display to us how he felt, but did not care how we felt about him.
It is a show that I would consider returning to, but £17.50 (without the expected £2 donation) a time, would discourage repeat visits. However, I felt it worth the money overall. The National Portrait Gallery is free (expected £2 donation) for general entry and is packed with lovely stuff.
The pictures at the head and foot of this article are self-portraits, at 15 and at 90.
The Royal Academy of Arts’ gallery is on Piccadilly, it is directly across the road from Fortnum & Mason.
The Academy was founded in 1768 by King George III. They have many varied exhibitions throughout the year. These include single artist exhibitions, for example, Hockney and Ai Wei Wei have been on so far this year. There are also themed shows containing many different artists. “Painting the Modern Garden” included works by Kandinsky, Monet and Matisse. Next years “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932” will have Chagall, Rodchenko and Eisenstein among others.
The highlight of their year is the Summer Exhibition, on open submission exhibition, to showcase the talent of emerging and established artists. The first one was in 1769 and it has run every one of the 248 years since. This is a huge and wide ranging exhibition usually holding over 1000 pieces, of every shape, size and medium. Most of the works are for sale differing in price from a hundred pounds to hundreds of thousands.
The gallery is nominally free, but most of the exhibitions are charged, so choose what you wish to see.
The Summer Exhibition is good value, although I take off the voluntary donation and only buy one list of works for the whole party, the cost of these is automatically added unless you ask for them to be removed.
The Royal Academy is self funded so do as your conscience sees fit! Personally, I don’t feel too guilty as they charge 30% commission on any work sold.