You know what’s great about the unequal distribution of wealth? Almost nothing, but if we have to find a silver lining, it’s that some people with more wealth than Croesus use it to amass collections, and what’s the point of a collection of rare and precious objects if you can’t show it off?!
And London, as one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the history of mankind – from the Renaissance of the 1600s, at least – has been the greatest beneficiary. London is absolutely crammed with remarkable, free things to see.
A combination of vanity donations and historically high inheritance taxes has gifted the UK public with a wealth of amazing art collections, and the best part is: the majority of them are free to the public! It may be that this culture arose as a means to heighten the display of wealth – asking people to pay to see your display of unsurpassed wealth looks a little grasping, doesn’t it? Far better to be so rich as to no longer care about anything so common as money. – However, the winner is us, the common folk! We get to see all the art without having to shell out for the privilege (and it’s easy to forget that keeping access to these institutions free to the public is very much not the norm).
Doubtless you will have heard of some of these galleries, but with so much to see and only so much time to do it in, if you’re planning a trip, these are the best London art galleries – and they won’t cost you a dime!
The Tate Modern, opened in 2000 in the beautifully utilitarian, Bankside Power Station, is London’s most visited attraction, with almost 6 million visitors in 2018.
The Tate Britain is better!
Originally founded as the “National Gallery of British Art”, the gallery was almost always known by the name of its found: Sir Henry Tate (who had made his fortune as a sugar merchant and wanted to buy himself a bit more cultural cache at a time when the “merchant class” were very much still tarnished by their concern with money, no matter how much of it they had).
The original building on Millbank (overlooking the Thames, just up-river from St. James’s Palace – i.e. Parliament) changed its name to Tate Britain when the Modern was established and the contemporary collection (everything from 1900 on) was moved down river to Bankside.
This divestment allowed the Tate Britain to focus on British art pre-1900 and the result is a beautifully laid out, comprehensible, concentrated series of light-filled rooms. The collection of Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite art is a joy. Singer Sargents and Turners abound.
Too many people miss the Britain. Make sure you don’t. This really is one of the very best London art galleries.
As a bonus, pay attention to the outside of the building, especially the beautiful, white Portland Stone of the western façade, still bearing the deep gouges and scars of the Blitz; and across the river, James Bond aficionados will recognise the current home of MI6, crouched on the south bank at Vauxhall.
When you’re done at the Tate Britain in Millbank, consider a walk up through lovely Pimlico and into Chelsea, where you’ll find the famous Kings Road and the Saatchi Gallery.
This is a very modern take on the philanthropic gallery model, founded in 1985 by advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, to display his own collection for the public.
The building is a delight and the collection on display (regularly refreshed) highlights the very latest in exciting new talent from all over the world. Art can’t get much more modern.
You also get to enjoy the Kings Road while you’re there! One of the nicest stretches of ‘upmarket’ London; great for people watching and window shopping.
When you first arrive in London, it’s a safe bet you’ll head to Trafalgar Square, and once there, you can’t not see the National Gallery. We’ll get to that next – of course you should head in there – but don’t miss out on the superior National Portrait Gallery!
It’s weirdly easy to miss as it’s in the same building as the National Gallery, but with its entrance away from the square, on the eastern side of the building. You’d be surprised how many people visit the National Gallery and think they’ve done the whole thing.
Don’t be fooled!
For tourism purposes, the NPG is absolutely one of the best London art galleries: here you’ll find all the original portraits you’ve seen reproduced in every art book, history book and documentary. You can walk through the lines of Kings, Queens, nobility and celebrity, tracing the changing conceptions of power, propaganda and even the individual.
OK: if you’ve done the Portrait Gallery, now you can do the National Gallery.
This is another remarkable collection of gifts and beneficences. I find it a bit impersonal, lacking the charm and cohesion of the collections at the Tate Britain and Saatchi, but there are some undeniably fantastic works you wouldn’t want to miss. Epic Turners alongside Rembrandts and Cézannes may make the collection scattershot, but many of the pieces, taken individually, are pretty great.
It’s interesting to note that, unlike many national galleries across Europe such as the Louvre or Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum which are, at their core, the “royal art collection”, here the Royal Family here have kept hold of all their arty baubles. Instead, the National Gallery is entirely founded upon donations, of either art or funds, and many of those donations specify that the Gallery never charge admission to see the works in its collection. (They will charge for special exhibits though…but stick to the collection. It’s all you really need.)
For five generations, the Wallace family (that’s the Marquesses of Hertford to plebs like you and me) collected works of art and porcelain, and at the end of the 19th century, the whole lot was bequeathed to the nation. Lucky nation!
But the Wallaces were particularly lucky too. They started their collection as the French Revolution was getting underway, when French nobility started trying to offload ancien régime boondoggles that might get them killed, and then, once the nobles had been killed and their property seized, the Republic carried on offloading the same boondoggles to keep the nation afloat. It was a French collectibles fire sale with real fire!
What the Wallaces ended up with is thought to be one of the greatest collections of French fine and decorative arts in the world. And it’s right here, viewable for free, in central London, spread throughout Hertford House. One of the best London art galleries. Very nice.
The Serpentine River is one of the few Thames tributaries to have survived in London, with at least some significant portions of it above ground – most others having been dammed, diverted, corralled, built over and lost. The Serpentine, however, had the good sense to run through the picturesque Royal Hunting Grounds that were eventually transformed into Hyde Park and St. James’s Park in the early 17th century.
And overlooking one of these manicured bends in the river in Hyde Park now sits the Serpentine Gallery. Founded in 1974 to showcase modern art, sculpture and design, the Gallery has no fixed collection, instead reinventing itself every year with featured exhibits and artists. All for free!
To add some extra pizzaz, the gallery also transforms its outdoor space every summer with a temporary pavilion designed by a guest architect, with notable contributions from Zaha Hadid, Ai Weiwei, Frank Gehry and Bjarke Ingels. Always worth a look on a sunny, summers day.
And last on my list of must see, free London Galleries is the one everyone goes to see: Tate Modern.
Am I just being contrarian by putting it last? Always a possibility, but with so many people telling you you have to go to the Tate, it’s easy for it to fall short of expectations.
Nevertheless, the building is undoubtedly impressive, and its reimagining as a gallery is superb. The enormous Turbine Hall makes for a unique and enormously impressive space for installations, but many artists struggle to fill it with something appropriately epic – after all, there aren’t too many spaces in the world where you can work on this scale. But when they do, it’s breathtaking.
The paid exhibitions are often more interesting than the permanent collection…which defeats the purpose of free galleries in London. The permanent collection is still extensive and worth a visit, but the real stand-out for me is the view from the Gallery. There are a number of viewing points, including the rooftop cafe and the viewing deck from the Switch Tower extension. The panorama looking north, back across the river to St Paul’s, taking in the Millennium, London, Blackfriars and Tower Bridges, as well as all the little points of interest you can spot, such as the Monument (to the Great Fire) and the ancient Tower of London itself.
It might not even be in my top 5 best London art galleries, but you’re not not going to go there!