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In Plain Sight, Wellcome Collection, 2022. Photography: Steven Pocock.
In Plain Sight, Wellcome Collection, 2022. Photography: Steven Pocock.

Free art in London

See great free art in London without splashing the cash on an admission fee

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel
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Looking at great art in London usually won't cost you penny. Pretty much every major museum is free, as is literally every single commercial gallery. That's a helluva lot of art. So wandering through sculptures, being blinded by neon or admiring some of the best photography in London is absolutely free. 'What about the really good stuff, I bet you have to pay to see that,' you're probably thinking. Nope, even some of them are free. So here's our pick of the best free art happening in London right now.

RECOMMENDED: explore our full guide to free London

Free art exhibitions in London

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Art
  • Mayfair

As hipsters were twisting their way through the early swinging sixties, a group of artists was busy changing art forever. Artists like Peter Blake and Derek Boshier were manipulating the mainstream, co-opting culture and helping to invent pop art in the wake of earlier pioneers the Independent Group. But there was a woman among them too, who up until relatively recently was just a footnote to the movement: Pauline Boty.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Art
  • Trafalgar Square

You wouldn't get away with it these days. But in the eighteenth century, you could go spend a few years in Turkey, come back with a big beard, and call yourself ‘the Turkish Painter’ like Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) did. Call it cultural appropriation or just an incredibly embarrassing gap year, but it worked. Liotard was a sensation.

 

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  • Art
  • Euston

Beauty’s a pretty big topic. Almost all of art history, up until postmodernism, dealt with it in some way, whether that’s the divine kind, the physical kind or the ooh-isn’t-that-poppy-field nice kind. But with its usual combination of art, artefact and science, the Wellcome Collection is looking at the physical kind, with diversions into gender binaries, issues of race, the cosmetics industry and what that means for beauty standards. 

The whole space is decked out in pink fabric and concrete, like a real life Juno Calypso photo (two of which show up later). It starts with a bust of Nefertiti and seventeenth century drawings of the devil attacking vain women. There are perfect-figured Roman sculptures and turn-of-the-century French corsets, copies of Vogue and a reclining marble Hermaphroditus. 

But the show gets so caught up in trying to make points that it forgets to tell a coherent story. It wants to tell you that beauty is a tool of colonialism, a perpetuator of whiteness, or used to enforce gender norms. But it doesn’t bother to explain how beauty went from Rubens to Kate Moss, or the Venus of Willendorf to Nefertiti, how different beauty standards are in Africa or Asia, or how beauty has changed, evolved, mutated. 

The points made aren’t the issue, it’s just that it feels like being stuck in an argument instead of walking through an exhibition, being lectured instead of educated. 

There are still great things here. Those unsettling Juno Calypso photos, Narcissister’s tower of her mother’s belongings, the incredible photo of the artist Cassils after sculpting their own body to heroic trans-masc proportions, terrifying beauty tools and iron bodices. 

Maybe the problem is that the exhibition is too broad. It would work as a show about the beauty industry, or about contemporary beauty standards, or about the history of beauty. But as an attempt at all three, it’s just a bit ugly.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Art
  • Trafalgar Square

It’s hard to know if Italian Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna was issuing a doom-laden warning or just a doe-eyed love letter to history. Because written into the nine sprawling canvases of his ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ (six of which are on show here while their gallery in Hampton Court Palace is being renovated) is all the glory and power of Ancient Rome, but its eventual collapse too.

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