If you want boats, go to Southampton, if you want horses go to Ascot, if you want someone to chunder all over your brand new loafers, Blackpool’s your destination. And, of course, if you want incredible art then head to London. Paris get in the Seine, Rome go roaming, the UK capital has some of the most ground breaking, monumental and influential art in the world, and here are some reasons you absolutely need to enjoy it here in London, because of course you won’t see these paintings in any other city (unless they’re on loan, I suppose, it’s not a watertight concept, whatever, here’s where to find it in its natural habitat).
George Stubbs’ rendering of the Marquess of Rockingham’s racehorse Whistlejacket is vast and beautiful. Approximately painted at life-size, the 1762 piece is notable for it’s lack of background, a shocking innovation in the 18th century and one which led to many theories as to why the painting wasn’t finished, though historians believe this was likely to be at the suggestion of Rockingham himself. Stubbs is probably history’s greatest equine painter and this is likely his best known work. It remained in Rockingham’s family until 1997 when it was bought for the nation by the National Gallery for £11m.
Painted in 1624 during the Dutch Golden Age, Frans Hals’ masterpiece has long been a favourite of the British public. Possibly depicting Dutch cloth merchant Tieleman Roosterman, the painting came to London care of Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, who bought it at a nineteenth century Parisian auction. Loaned to a Bethnal Green exhibition in Victorian times, the soubriquet ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ was attached to the painting by affectionate, largely working class, visitors to the public exhibition. The painting can now be found at the Wallace Collection.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was one of the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s greatest painters, and his mastery of light render him in the very top echelon of British talent. The Londoner, indeed much of his work was painted in Twickenham, painted The Fighting Temeraire as the hulk of Trafalgar veteran HMS Temeraire, now outdated and being hauled by a steam tug to the breakers yard at Rotherhithe shipbuilders. The evocative sunset painting is displayed at The Tate Britain.
An American painter growing up in Europe, John Singer Sargent’s poignant ‘Gassed’ shows the First World War as it really was. The painting depicts victims of an enemy gas attack being led over duck boards by a medical orderly, the mens bandaged eyes rendering them blind and following orders. Commissioned in 1918 as a war artist by the Ministry of Information, his war paintings were at odds with his usual sumptuous art depicting sumptuous Edwardian life. Found at the Imperial War Museum, the painting is just another reason to visit this fascinating citadel of all things wartime.
Instantly recognisable, Gainsborough’s commission of Mr and Mrs Andrews is famous both as an early example of Gainsborough’s work, but also for the enigma surrounding it. Unfinished, the sitters and painter are thought to have suffered a serious falling out during the process, with numerous phallic symbols worked into the work (there’s even said to be a crude pencil drawn willy in Mrs A’s lap), while a pair of donkeys in the background also suggest Gainsborough’s real feelings about the couple. It’s at the National Gallery in all its glory, phallic and artistic.
The last major work by Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’s subject is a barmaid at Victorian Parisian music hall the Folies-Bergère. Her detached expression suggests she’s loving her job about as much as you are right now, skiving off whatever mundane task your boss just set you to read The Handbook instead. The painting, with its weird reflection angle, has been the source of much speculation and you can enjoy it at The Courtauld Institute.
Bathers at Asnières by French artist Georges Pierre Seurat wasn’t particularly well received in his short lifetime (the artist died aged 31), being rejected for display at the Paris Salon in 1884. However, appreciation for the piece, which shows swimmers on the banks of the Seine in the industrial north of Paris, steadily increased throughout the twentieth century. Today it’s considered one of the National Gallery’s most prestigious paintings.
A late painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, we see the head of recently a executed John the Baptist placed on a platter for King Herod’s wife Salome. The painting is noted for the interplay between the main characters and the treasure, painted around 1610, is held at the National Gallery.
Head to Kenwood House to see this portrait of Rembrandt. The original selfie obsessive, Rembrandt painted over 40 portraits of himself, but this is considered one of the best and most enigmatic, art on a grand scale and framed by two large circles, though we aren’t fully sure why.
Three dancers by Picasso depicts a macabre dance between three ballerinas, which is said to represent the tragic love triangle of Ramon Pichot, Picasso’s friend who killed himself as Picasso painted Three Dancers. The other dancers are suspected to be Pichot’s wife, Germaine Gargallo with Gargallo’s boyfriend Carlos Casagemas in the middle. It’s on display at the Tate Modern.
The painting by John Everett Millais shows Ophelia, driven to madness when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet and then falls into a stream and drowns. The Shakespearian scene was painted in Ewell, Surrey to capture the stream and then Ophelia was added later back at the painter’s studio. Over four whole months pre-Raphalite muse Elizabeth Siddal (who would later marry poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti) was required to lay in a bath warmed beneath by candles to allow Millais to capture the pose perfectly. However, when the candles went out on one occasion Siddal caught a serious cold and the painter was threatened with legal action by her father until he agreed to foot the girl’ medical bills. The result in the 1852 painting was, however, clearly worth it and can be seen at the Tate Britain.
Few artists have captured London as accurately, or lampooned it so viciously, as William Hogarth. The eighteenth century satirist took society to task in a series of eight paintings known as A Rake’s Progress and which depict the spiral from respectability to madness via immorality as the rake descends through the ranks of an 18th century London ridden with vice and hypocrisy. The collection, at Sir John Soane’s museum, is a fascinating glimpse of the London Hogarth knew and experienced.