30 unmissable artworks at Tate Britain

From Blake to Bacon, we select the must-see works at the home of British art

London's ever-changing art scene may be second to none, but so too are its trusty permanent collections. To kick off a new series, Time Out's Art team select their must-see works currently on display at Tate Britain.

  • Francis Bacon

    'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c1944, © Tate

    The screaming, mutated forms that make up this most famous of Francis Bacon’s triptychs are terrifyingly grotesque – and their symbolism wasn’t lost on a London audience when they were first shown in 1945, just as the world was learning about the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. A terrible drunk, and a bit of a vicious bastard by all accounts, still Bacon was a truly brilliant painter. This is a must-see artwork in a museum filled with must-sees. EF

    Francis Bacon
  • Richard Dadd

    ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’, 1855-64, © Tate

    Detailed beyond reason – and unfinished after nine years of graft – Richard Dadd’s diminutive painting isn’t just his masterpiece: it’s the perfect summation of his predicament. A troubled genius, committed to Bethlem Royal Hospital after stabbing his father to death, Dadd here creates an escapist fantasy populated by characters from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that somehow manages to be crystalline yet claustrophobic: too much detail, too little perspective. When it comes to tipping reality into unnerving hyper-reality, Dadd really is the daddy. MC

    Richard Dadd
  • David Hockney

    'A Bigger Splash', 1967, © Tate

    In Bradford there were outside lavs but in California everyone had a swimming pool. Or so it seemed to David Hockney when he first visited the US in 1963. ‘A Bigger Splash’ ripples with the good vibrations of fun, sun, sex and freedom as seen through the hungry eyes of a first-timer. Yet the painting is filled with ingenuity – not least in the splash itself, the split-second moment which took Hockney weeks to distil in graphic form. It represents the absent subject, just as the chair on the other side of the pool stands in for the lustful viewer. There may be no bare-bummed beach boys in this particular Hockney painting, but it is nonetheless drenched with desire. MC

    David Hockney
  • Sir Stanley Spencer

    ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’,1924-27, © Tate

    Spencer’s biblical reimaginings of his hometown of Cookham are profoundly rooted in his WWI experiences. Men rise up from the graves as if going over the top, or appear crucified as if hung on the wire. If simple country people are expected to make the ultimate sacrifice in good faith, he seems to be saying, then why shouldn’t the divine reveal himself in a small Sussex town? CW

    Sir Stanley Spencer
  • Bridget Riley

    ‘Hesitate’, 1964, © Tate

    This wave of ellipses shows Riley in the first flush of op-art experimentation. It’s an altogether more hazy, impressionistic affair than the harsh zebra stripes and zig-zags she is perhaps better known for. Yet its subtle gradations of tone are no less easy on the eye, pulsing and breathing and leading you in a merry dance as you try to settle on the work’s apparently undulating surface. MC

    Bridget Riley
  • Sir Anthony Caro

    ‘Early One Morning’, 1962, © Tate

    The story is familiar: British artist goes abroad, has their socks blown off and returns reinvented. For Anthony Caro, his Pauline conversion took place during a visit to the States in 1959, where he first saw the work of tough-cookie sculptor David Smith. On his return he gave up plaster and clay, got himself a welding tool, sparked up and set to work on steel sheets and girders. But Caro was no heavy metal bruiser: despite its scale (three metres high and almost six metres long) ‘Early One Morning’ appears effortlessly nimble. Taking away the traditional plinth, Caro activates the space around the sculpture – and you, the viewer, along with it. It works its magic on every visit. MC

    Sir Anthony Caro
  • William Blake

    ‘Newton’, 1795, © Tate

    The Tate’s William Blake collection is tops, and this work, one of the most famous, also has perhaps the clearest message: Newton, the arch rationalist, uses science to measure the universe, yet misses out on all the numinous, God-created glory going on around him. One to tease those ardent Dawkins acolytes today. GC

    William Blake
  • Lucian Freud

    ‘Girl with a Kitten’, 1947, © Tate

    There’s a joke, of sorts, in the title of this unsettling early Freud painting: holding the cat is his first wife and muse (and daughter of Jacob Epstein), Kitty. The laughs, such as they are, stop there, though. Drained of colour, Freud’s painting draws attention to Kitty’s baleful expression. He makes you painfully aware of the intensity between artist and model, husband and wife. The grip is too tight, unfortunately for the cat. MC

    Lucian Freud
  • JMW Turner

    ‘Rough Sea’, c1840-50, © Tate

    Is this painting finished? Was anything Turner made during the last decade of his life finished? By this point in his career he was pleasing himself, conjuring the enormity of the ocean in just a few flicks of the wrist. Whether or not the famous anecdote about him lashing himself to the mast of a ship in a storm in order to become a better painter is true, he captured the waves and the weather better than any British artist before or since. One to whet the appetite for Tate’s ‘Late Turner: Painting Set Free’ blockbuster opening in September. MC

    JMW Turner
  • Dame Barbara Hepworth

    ‘Forms in Echelon’, 1938, © Tate

    The relationship between two forms is a recurring motif in Hepworth’s work. Made in the same year as her marriage to Ben Nicholson it’s a particularly intense work: the small monolithic duo carved out of tulipwood are contemplative, like two lovers sharing a moment. FB

    Dame Barbara Hepworth
  • Walter Sickert

    ‘Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford’, 1892, © Tate

    It’s tricky for modern viewers to look at the work of Sickert without the spectre of all those Jack the Ripper rumours looming over everything: all the reds look like blood, every sleeping figure looks like a corpse. But once you disregard the historical inaccuracies (it wasn’t him, it was the Freemasons, obvs), you’re left with beautifully moody, sombre, atmospheric paintings that few could equal – like this one of music hall singer Minnie Cunningham. EF

    Walter Sickert
  • Sir John Everett Millais

    'Ophelia', 1851–2, Tate

    Being an artist’s muse wasn’t always a glamorous job, as poor old Elizabeth Siddal discovered when she posed as the tragic Ophelia from Shakespeare’s 'Hamlet'. Over a four-month period, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais had her lie in a bath of water so he could capture the perfect atmosphere of Ophelia’s watery demise. It paid off though, as Siddal’s deathly composure set within a flowering brook is one of the most compelling, haunting and much-loved paintings in the Tate collection. It’s good to have Ophelia back after her International tour. FB

     Sir John Everett Millais
  • William Hogarth

    ‘The Painter and his Pug’, 1745, © Tate

    A kind of proto-YBA, Hogarth knew all about self-marketing, and this depiction of himself is an impressive piece of studied casualness. His Italianate cap shows he’s up to speed with Continental fashions for artists, rejecting the wig and formal coat that X-rays have revealed he originally wore in the self-portrait. It’s also nice to see what a pug looked like before the Kennel Club weirdoes starting mucking about with them. CW

    William Hogarth
  • Eileen Agar

    ‘Angel of Anarchy’, 1936-40, © Tate

    Agar’s decorated plaster head is a small piece, but you can’t help but be freaked out by its aura of menace and psychosis. Like some talismanic, ritual object, it taps into a kind of timeless savagery – not least because, despite being made in the 1930s, its Afro/steampunk/S&M aesthetic feels utterly contemporary. GC

    Eileen Agar
  • Henry Moore

    ‘Maquette for Figure on Steps’, 1956, © Tate

    In 2012, Tower Hamlets council came under fire for trying to sell a Henry Moore sculpture known affectionately as ‘Old Flo’, which had been erected on a Stepney housing estate in 1962. A precursor to Old Flo, this draped figure is a reminder of what makes him great – on both a large and small scale. The style of the figure may bring to mind his drawings of wrapped bodies in the London Underground during the Blitz, yet it is majestic and regal. It embodies hope. FB

    Henry Moore
  • Paul Nash

    ‘Landscape at Iden’, 1929, © Tate

    Although a view from Nash’s Sussex studio, this is a work about the Great War: the pruned fruit trees suggest the blasted trunks of Flanders; the logs are stacked like shells. But it also shows the influence of surrealism with its dreamlike positioning of objects and planes. You can feel Nash reframing his memories of the past through the landscape of the present and the alterations of fantasy. CW

    Paul Nash
  • John William Waterhouse

    ‘The Lady of Shalott’, 1888, © Tate

    Still drifting towards her death after all these years, Waterhouse’s auburn-haired beauty must have floated through as many adolescent daydreams as she has appeared in poster form on bedroom walls. Every art lover goes through a Lady-of-Shalott stage, and even though you may grow out of the Pre-Raphaelites and their silly confections, the doomed tale of this oarless beauty endures. MC

    John William Waterhouse
  • George Stubbs

    ‘Horse Frightened by a Lion’, c1763, © Tate

    Stubbs’s fascination with animal anatomy is lyrically expressed in this painting. But forget the eloquent gatherings of foals, idyllic depictions of country life and portraits of celebrated jockeys of the time for which he is best known. Here, Stubbs has turned his attention to the theme of predator and prey, with a dramatic rocky setting, a horse’s startled body and a lurking lion, shadowed by his dark lair. FB

    George Stubbs
  • Mark Gertler

    ‘Merry-Go-Round’, 1916, © Tate

    You won’t find this painting in many WWI centenary round-ups because Gertler, the son of working-class Austrian-Jewish immigrants, was a conscientious objector. Describing the conflict as ‘wretched, sordid butchery’, he ducked out of military service, spending the war years at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, supported by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Still, inspired by the fairground at Hampstead Heath, he managed to make one of the most famous (anti-) war paintings of his generation – a horrifying ride shared by military figures and civilians, their figures stiff and expressions hardened. Gertler had his own battles – with the bitchy bed-hopping Bloomsburyites, with depression and, later, TB. In 1939, on the outbreak of WWII, he topped himself, unable to face another war. MC

    Mark Gertler
  • Percy Wyndham Lewis

    ‘Workshop’, c1914-15, © Tate

    The British take on modernism was unsurprisingly brutal. Lewis was a founding member of the Vorticists, who in the years leading up to WWI decided to launch an attack on traditional views of harmony and aesthetics. The result was aggressive works like this, filled with sharp angles that throw man into stark contrast with machine. The group eventually fizzled as members became gripped by the horrors of war. EF

    Percy Wyndham Lewis
  • Gilbert & George

    ‘In the Bush’, 1972, © Tate

    Watch! As a besuited Gilbert & George gingerly pace about a distant spinney of trees. Listen! To a dubbed-on BBC soundtrack of birds tweeting. Gasp! As nothing much else happens for the film’s entire 16-minute duration. Casually toying with viewer expectations, this early video is the ultimate in dapper, deadpan wit. GC

    Gilbert & George
  • Aubrey Beardsley

    ‘Caprice. Verso: Masked Woman with a White Mouse’, c1894, © Tate

    Beardsley’s only surviving works in oil (one on the front, one on the back) were painted two years before André Breton was even born, and they make you wonder if he’d lived a bit longer whether he might have got to surrealism first. The dreamlike setting and sinister red-costumed dwarf of ‘Caprice’ recall a kind of Venetian masque, while ‘Masked Woman...’ is even more peculiar, especially since it suggests Beardsley might never have actually seen a mouse. CW

    Aubrey Beardsley
  • Howard Hodgkin

    ‘Clean Sheets’, 1979-84, © Tate

    The missing link between Turner and Vuillard, Hodgkin does luminous intimism like no-one else. He’s also one of the best picture-titlers in the business, conjuring moments of lust, heartache and indiscretion in titles that bob around in the mind as your eye floats over his endlessly suggestive lozenges and blobs of colour. Here, he tells us the sheets are clean. But for how long? MC

    Howard Hodgkin
  • Graham Sutherland

    ‘Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods’, 1940, © Tate

    Just what is that ambiguous shape in the centre of the painting? Some sort of lurching, prehistoric monster? A moldering knot of meat? A branching road in the distance? Sutherland’s powerful, surrealist depiction of a fallen tree is an open invitation to let your imagination run wild. GC

    Graham Sutherland
  • John Singer Sargent

    ‘W Graham Robertson’, 1894, © Tate

    Sargent managed to combine technical genius as a painter with a whimsical, fin-de-siècle loucheness. The awkward composition and odd highlights of the jade-handled cane and sprawling poodle implicitly invest Robertson with an intriguing bohemian originality, despite the fact that Sargent was an in-demand society portraitist – and presumably not cheap. CW

    John Singer Sargent
  • Sir Eduardo Paolozzi

    ‘Konsul’, 1962, © Tate

    Machines and circuitry were frequently an inspiration for Paolozzi – but this sculpture, in particular, quite takes you aback. It’s so blatant, so jarringly straightforward in the way it’s constructed from casts of crates and other containers, that it feels somehow primitive: a sort of friendly, clunky robot, silent and watchful. GC

    Sir Eduardo Paolozzi
  • Gavin Turk

    ‘Cavey’, 1991-97, © Tate

    Is this the high point of YBA self-publicity? For his final degree show at Royal College of Art, Turk exhibited his own personally fashioned ‘historical blue plaque’ on the gallery wall – and nothing else. It was a jab at the art establishment and the education system: the examiners refused to award him his postgraduate degree. Turk had the last laugh, though, anticipating his own notoriety at the tender age of 24. FB

    Gavin Turk
  • Nigel Henderson

    ‘Peter Samuels’, 1951, © Tate

    Henderson’s portrait of a deprived Bethnal Green child pretty much epitomises the sentiment that Britain ‘won the war and lost the peace’. Uncompromising in its social criticism, the photo still retains a warmth and wit, from Samuels’s extravagantly casual pose, to the brilliantly rudimentary chalk graffiti on the wall. A kind of slum Nigel Molesworth, if you will. CW

    Nigel Henderson
  • Susan Hiller

    ‘Dedicated to the Unknown Artists’, 1972-76, © Tate

    In 1840, the first postcard reportedly made its way through the British postal service. Hiller not only celebrates the creators of the seaside picture postcard by cataloguing over 300 images of waves crashing against the British coastline, but also highlights the poignant and intimate experience of sending, writing and receiving this disappearing form of communication. FB

    Susan Hiller
  • Richard Long

    ‘A Line Made by Walking’, 1967, © Tate

    Yeah, OK, it’s just a photograph of a line in the grass – but the power of Long’s art comes from the making, not always the product itself. Here, Long has turned a walk through the country into a piece of art. His repeated treading of the same space has indented nature itself. Not permanently, but just enough to leave a mark. EF

    Richard Long

Francis Bacon

'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c1944, © Tate

The screaming, mutated forms that make up this most famous of Francis Bacon’s triptychs are terrifyingly grotesque – and their symbolism wasn’t lost on a London audience when they were first shown in 1945, just as the world was learning about the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. A terrible drunk, and a bit of a vicious bastard by all accounts, still Bacon was a truly brilliant painter. This is a must-see artwork in a museum filled with must-sees. EF

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