On a recent trip to London, we decided to dedicate a few days to exploring the art museums of London. The vast majority of art museums in London are free – making this a low stress, low cost weekend activity.
On the north side of Trafalgar Square (the square bedecked by 4 lions with dog paws), the National Gallery has it all going on.
Festooned with art dating from the mid-13th century, here you can hobnob with the Dutch masters in one room and a few minutes later join a room of Impressionists. The gallery is both well-organized and easy to navigate making it a delight for a Friday afternoon walk about. Also worthy of a stop because of the large collection of Canaletto’s to celebrate his time painting sites in London.
Located near the Pimlico tube stop, the Tate Britain houses the works of British painters dating from 1500. The vast open central hallway behind the Art Deco-style rotunda features an impressive modern art installation.
Start the journey at the northern end of the gallery to experience the progression of British art over time. We learned that Canaletto spent 10 years in the London area painting scenes of the Thames. We also marveled at the mastery of John Singer Sargent, a British contemporary of Claude Monet.
Finally, we experienced the largest collection of artwork by native son JMW Turner, who is called the father of modern art for his loose brushstrokes and use of bright colors to portray light. The enjoyable part of the Turner collection are the pieces that Turner left unfinished that were found in his studio, which show insight into how the artist approached the subject matter. That said, his finished pieces show mastery of the light and the dark that we had not seen previously.
The Tate Modern is one of the world’s largest modern and contemporary art museums. Located just across Millennium Bridge from St. Paul’s the gallery is housed in the former Bankside Power Station, making the Tate’s tower iconic. The Turbine Hall shows the power of the former facility – steel beams stretching 100s of yards and tons of poured concrete. The newly opened Switch House (named the Blavatnik Building) features a 10th floor overlook of the Tate with London city behind it.
The collection can be equal parts fun and equal parts distressing, which is unsurprising from modern/contemporary art. It is easy to spend a few hours taking in the art and the setting.
The Courtauld Gallery
Located in the Somerset House, the Courtauld Gallery is a tiny but impressive collection of the masters of the impressionist and post-impressionist periods. While it is one of the few museums that are not free, it is well worth the modest entry fee.
The gallery strings together over two floors the works of Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Cezanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec in a way that educates the experienced art historian and newbie alike. This is not surprising considering that the Somerset House is also home base of the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Strand campus of King’s College London.