London’s top art galleries


By Sophy Grimshaw

Photography by Dave Parry.

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September 2017

From portraits by the Old Masters to modern masterpieces, London’s permanent collections house some of the world’s most significant artworks. But where do you start if you’re short of time? Local arts journalist Sophy Grimshaw picks six must-sees to make a beeline for at the capital’s best exhibition spaces.

1. Tate Modern

Open since 2001 – when it promptly broke records to become the world’s most visited art gallery – this free public gallery is a temple to contemporary art in a former power station on the Thames’ South Bank. It debuted a swish new silhouette following a major extension by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, including a viewing platform. Below ground, meanwhile, is The Tanks: the only performance art dedicated space in a major gallery in the world. Temporary exhibitions are ticketed, apart from the always-intriguing Turbine Hall, which hosted everything from an indoor ‘sun’ installation by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson to Doris Salcedo’s giant crack in the floor.

If you only see one thing: Picasso’s Weeping Woman

Where? Bankside, London, SE1 9TG (tate.org.uk)

Nearest Tubes: Southwark, Borough or Waterloo

Stepping off the street and into the grand courtyard of The Royal Academy is guaranteed to lift the spirits – there’s always a healthy programme of temporary exhibitions, from the Old Masters to contemporary superstars such as Anish Kapoor.

2. National Gallery

Home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of Western European paintings from the 13th to 20th centuries, this Trafalgar Square institution has masterpieces by all the big hitters, including da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet and Van Gogh. In spring 2017, Gallery B opened on the ground floor – the first new gallery space to open here for 26 years.

If you only see one thing: Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers

Where? Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN (nationalgallery.org.uk)

Nearest Tubes: Charing Cross, Leicester Square and Embankment

  • The National Gallery is home to over 2,300 paintings from the mid-13th century to 1900.

    Top tip… 

    If you’re really short on time, try one of the gallery’s 10-minute talks, where a member of gallery staff gives a quick run down on one painting. Every Monday to Friday at 16:00 (admission is free).

  • Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery © Chris Collicot.

    See it for yourself… 

    Dulwich Picture Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 17:00. Nearest train station: North Dulwich or West Dulwich.

  • Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003 ©Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley, Tate.

    Sweet success

    The first Tate gallery came into existence in 1897 due to the generosity of sugar magnate Henry Tate, who donated his collection of 65 contemporary paintings and £80,000 to the government. Fun fact: his company also introduced sugar cubes to the UK in 1872.

3. The Royal Academy

Stepping off the street and into the grand courtyard of this artist-created institution on Piccadilly is guaranteed to lift the spirits. As well as the famed Summer Exhibition, which is the world’s largest open-entry art show, there’s always a healthy programme of temporary exhibitions, ranging from the Old Masters to contemporary art superstars such as Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor.

If you only see one thing: Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo

Where? Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD (royalacademy.org.uk)

Nearest Tubes: Green Park and Piccadilly Circus

4. The National Portrait Gallery

Everyone from William Shakespeare to Kate Moss has their likeness represented in one medium or another at the National Portrait Gallery, which has the world’s most extensive collection of portraits. Its temporary exhibitions, such as the annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, draw crowds but the vast and varied permanent collection is always worth a visit. Every Thursday and Friday night from 18:00 to 21:00, there’s Late Shift, a chance to see the exhibitions and hit the bar, as well as a programme of talks, live music, films and performance.

If you only see one thing: Lucian Freud’s Girl In Bed 

Where? St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE (npg.org.uk)

Nearest Tubes: Charing Cross, Leicester Square and Embankment

  • Tate Britain – the original and oldest of London’s Tate galleries ©Lucy Dawkins, Tate.

    Did you know… ?

    Tate Britain’s Clore Gallery is home to the world’s largest collection of Turner’s paintings. See them for yourself: it’s open daily, Monday to Sunday, from 10:00 to 18:00. Nearest Tube: Pimlico. 

5. Tate Britain

Billed as ‘the home of British art from 1500 to the present day’, Tate Britain, on London’s Millbank, is the original and oldest of the Tate galleries. It’s gained renewed vigor in recent years thanks to £45m renovations and a critically acclaimed rehang of some of the collection in chronological order, creating the BP Walk Through British Art. From the paintings of Constable, Turner and Francis Bacon to the sculpture work of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, many of the greatest British artworks can be found here, complemented by landmark temporary exhibitions.

If you only see one thing: John Everett Millais’ Ophelia 

Where? Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG (tate.org.uk)

Nearest Tube: Pimlico

6. Dulwich Picture Gallery

Situated in leafy south London, this grand gallery of Old Masters was the country’s first purpose-built public art gallery when it opened in 1811. The permanent collection includes works by Rembrandt, Poussin, Rubens and Canaletto, while the temporary exhibitions have a more contemporary feel, encompassing everyone from Moomins creator Tove Jansson to rock and roller Patti Smith.

If you only see one thing: Canaletto’s A View of Old Walton

Where? Gallery Road, London, SE21 7AD (dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk)

Nearest station: West Dulwich (National Rail)