Whether you’re in London on a short layover or have endless free time on your hands, appreciating the capital’s abundance of impressive national collections doesn’t have to come with a high price tag. Here are the best museums and galleries in London where you can get your art fix for free.
Tate Modern’s collection of international modern and contemporary art attracts millions of visitors every year eager to discover art movements and artistic practices documented by the permanent collection. This collection includes Pablo Picasso’s vividly powerful Weeping Woman, Salvador Dalí’s brilliantly surreal Lobster Telephone and Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals presented in a specially-lit room. Since opening, the expansive Turbine Hall has showcased some major artist commissions, including Olafur Eliasson’s mesmerising The Weather Project and Ai Weiwei’s epic Sunflower Seeds.
Overlooking the hubbub of Trafalgar Square, The National Gallery houses an impressive art collection spanning the mid-13th century to the 1900s. More than 2,300 works range from the early Renaissance through to Old Masters and important examples of Impressionism. Be sure you don’t miss the most-loved highlights such as Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Diego Veláquez’s The Rokeby Venus, and J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.
The largest decorative arts and design museum in the world, the V&A galleries give you a tour of the world through ancient sculptures, a world-famous fashion collection, antiquities from Asia and a brand new Photography Centre. The exceptional interiors of the café were designed by James Gamble, William Morris and Edward Poynter, complete with stained-glass windows, painted tiles and elaborate decorative mouldings. And the building’s Italian Renaissance facade, visible from the John Madejski Garden, is a sight to behold.
The Wallace Collection can be found in Hertford House, a grand 19th-century town house on Manchester Square. The former residence of the Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace now plays host to the family’s extraordinary collection of art and artefacts, which features exquisite examples of Urbino maiolica and Sèvres porcelain, miniatures kept in covered cases, and imperious armoury situated on the ground floor. But the star attraction is the collection of works by European artists such as François Boucher, Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Most notable is The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals and The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Camden Arts Centre is housed in the former Hampstead Central Library | Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre
Housed in the old Hampstead Central Library on Finchley Road, Camden Arts Centre began life as a local initiative, providing art classes for the community. Now it is a powerhouse of contemporary art showing ambitious exhibitions by well-known British and international artists such as Kara Walker, Rose English, Ben Rivers and Jennifer Tee. The book shop stocks a range of artists’ editions and the garden is the perfect spot for a sunny afternoon.
Whitechapel Gallery is known for hosting groundbreaking thematic exhibitions and retrospectives of formidable artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Sarah Lucas. In 1939, Picasso’s Guernica was presented at Whitechapel Gallery and over the years this space has helped introduce Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Frida Kahlo to a London audience. Today it has expanded through into the former library on Whitechapel High Street and continues to present an engaging exhibition and education programme, including the annual Whitechapel Open that champions new artists.
Situated in the leafy splendour of Kensington Gardens, the Serpentine Galleries present an innovative contemporary art exhibition programme by established and emerging international artists. The first gallery opened in 1970, in a former tea house on the south side of the Serpentine lake. In 2013, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery opened in a former gunpowder store with the late Zaha Hadid designing the futuristic restaurant extension. In addition to the hugely popular free exhibitions, which have included Marina Abramovic’s 512 Hours and Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, are the temporary architecture pavilions staged on the Serpentine Gallery lawn every summer.
Located on the former site of the Millbank Prison, Tate Britain offers one of the most comprehensive collections of historical British art from 1500 to the present day. Founded by Sir Henry Tate, of global sugar brand Tate & Lyle, the striking neoclassical gallery boasts the world’s largest collection of J.M.W. Turner paintings as well as impressive works by William Hogarth, William Blake, Angelica Kauffman, John Constable, Richard Dadd, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. The gallery is conveniently located on the River Thames, meaning visitors can take a scenic ride on the Tate Boat to its sister gallery, Tate Modern.
The National Portrait Gallery presents a who’s who of British history. Located just behind The National Gallery, this remarkable collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs, miniatures and works on paper takes visitors on a unique journey through British history featuring Tudor kings and queens all the way up to contemporary artists and actors. Some of the masters of portraiture on display include Hans Holbein, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Paula Rego.
Former adman Charles Saatchi initially opened a gallery in a disused paint factory in St John’s Wood in 1985 to show off his impressive personal art collection. However, by the early ’90s, Saatchi was championing Young British Artists (YBAs) such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin and knew he needed extra room. His gallery can now be found in the enormous neoclassical Duke of York’s HQ just off the Kings Road. Over the years, Saatchi’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist and spot the stars of the future means that the gallery’s free blockbuster art exhibitions are unmissable.
Katharina Grosse presented 'This Drove my Mother up the Wall' at SLG in 2017 | Photo: Andy Keate
The South London Gallery (SLG) began presenting art in the 19th century. Known for its cutting-edge exhibitions, installations and live art and film events, SLG showcases established British and international figures, as well as emerging artists. In 2016, Gabriel Orozco re-designed the gallery’s rear garden, and, in September 2018, SLG expanded across the road into the Fire Station, a converted Grade-II listed Victorian building that provided additional galleries, education rooms, a community kitchen and an archive space.
Just across the canal from Victoria Park, the Chisenhale Gallery made its name when it began exhibiting a range of innovative young artists in the 1990s, including Wolfgang Tillmans, Gillian Wearing and Rachel Whiteread. Keen to engage dynamic artistic practices and a diverse audience, today the team at Chisenhale continue to commission and produce exhibitions by emerging talent alongside hosting ambitious educational and mentoring programmes.
Russian artist Lazar Berson founded Ben Uri Gallery in 1915 | Courtesy of Ben Uri Gallery
It has been over 100 years since the Ben Uri Gallery began its quest to represent the artistic history of migrant identity in all its myriad forms. Originally founded in Whitechapel by immigrant Russian artist Lazar Berson, the collection is broadly focused on artists of European Jewish ancestry, including Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg and Mark Gertler. However, the scope of work in this unassuming space has grown to encompass artists from different migrant communities around the world.
In 2016, Donna Huanca’s installation 'SCAR CYMBALS' was exhibited at the Zabludowicz Collection | Photo: Thierry Bal
The Zabludowicz Collection is housed in a former Methodist chapel and has a specific focus on emerging artists. Here you’ll encounter progressive group shows, immersive video installations by artists like Rachel Maclean and duo Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin, and pioneering performative practices by artists such as Donna Huanca and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd.