In this, the final chapter of our journey through London’s cultural compass points, we explore the west. Much of what we think of as ‘central’ London starts with a ‘W’ postcode and so, really, ought to qualify for inclusion. However, given (1) the sheer number of venues and (2) the fact they’re pretty well documented, we’re starting this quadrant a little further out. So without further ado, let’s make like the Village People, and go west...
Tate Britain, or The National Gallery of British Art, as it was first known, opened on the present site in 1897. It's since had seven major extensions, the most recent of which has only just completed. The ten new galleries, five refurbished galleries, new entrance and improved facilities provide a magnificent visitor experience.
A recent rehang presents the collection in chronological order, from 1540 to the present, giving a fascinating insight into the development of British art. All the big names are featured, among them pieces by JMW Turner, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and David Hockney. You can see exhibitions documenting the impact of art critic Kenneth Clark, and a major survey of British folk art, until August 2014.
South Kensington was built for culture — the main thoroughfare isn’t called ‘Exhibition Road’ for nothing. The collection of institutions for which the area is now famous was the brainchild of Prince Albert (husband of Queen Victoria) and came to be known as ‘Albertopolis’. On Albert’s recommendation, the land was purchased using profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851. Home to a number of international museums and academic institutions, the museums at South Ken are among the most visited in the world. Each building is enormous, and more than one could hope to cover in a single day.
The Natural History Museum has delighted children with the wonders of the natural world for generations. The life-size blue whale or the diplodocus skeleton in the Central Hall will, for many, be an enduring memory of their schooldays, but the museum has plenty more to offer. The newly opened Volcanoes & Earthquakes gallery explores the fragile balance of the Earth’s tectonic plates, while the aptly-titled Creepy Crawlies gallery does exactly what you’d expect. The museum stages a number of major exhibitions each year. Right now, visitors can see Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story and Sensational Butterflies, both of which run until September. As Britain’s third most popular visitor attraction (5.3 million people visited last year), it’s well worth arriving early and booking in advance.
Right next door to the NHM is Britain’s fifth most popular visitor attraction: the Science Museum. Again, this has been a firm favourite on the school trip circuit for generations. This is not the same museum many will remember from their childhood, though. Gone are the dreary shipping galleries (plural!) and in their place are modern, forward-looking exhibits devoted to the future of science. The hands-on, interactive Launchpad gallery remains a perennial favourite, but if you can drag yourself away you’ll also find brilliant displays covering human evolution, computing, space travel, electronic music and more besides. The monthly late openings reclaim the museum for adults, who can browse while enjoying a glass of wine.
On the other side of Exhibition Road, the Victoria and Albert Museum completes the triumvirate of Albertopolis’ mega-museums. The V&A is the world’s largest museum of decorative art and design. The building comprises 145 galleries spread across 51,000 sqm, but this is still only enough space to house 60,000 pieces from the collection’s two million objects. For beginners, free daily tours are available from the main entrance. It’s hard to pick highlights from such a vast and high-quality collection, but the lesser-known furniture gallery on the top floor is both quiet and a masterpiece in modern curation. Current exhibitions include William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain and The Glamour of Italian Fashion, both of which run until July.
If you’ve exhausted the delights of the museums, there are yet more reasons to visit the area. At the top of Exhibition Road, the Royal Geographical Society has a programme of excellent temporary exhibitions. Throughout June, you can see a photographic exhibition of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall — a series of coastal fortifications stretching from Norway to France. Then in July, the Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition returns once more. The quality of the entrants is always high, but the surroundings are what makes this such a treat —the photographs are displayed in the Society’s tranquil, jasmine-scented gardens.
In nearby Hyde Park, the Serpentine Galleries exhibit some of London’s most stimulating and boundary-pushing art, architecture and design. The original site is perhaps most famous for the annual Pavillion commission. This year’s designer is Chilean architect Smiljan Radic; she joins an alumni including Frank Gehry, Ai Weiwei and Rem Koolhas. You can see what she came up with from 26 June; expect a programme of events and the opportunity for an afternoon tea until it closes in October.
A five minute stroll through the park leads you to the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Designed by Zaha Hadid (the winner of the inaugural Pavillion commission in 2000), the project brought The Magazine, a former gunpowder store, into use as a public art gallery. It’s worth a visit just for the building, but if you’d like to go inside there’s an immersive video installation from Ed Atkins running until 25 August.
Chelsea has always had a distinctive art scene focused on the King’s Road, but the new neighbour in 2008 put the area firmly on the art map. The 6,500 sqm Saatchi Gallery now attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year. Since opening, it has hosted 15 of the 20 most visited exhibitions in London. True to the passion of its founder and namesake, the gallery shows work by young, emerging artists, both from the UK and around the world. There is only one permanent exhibit: Richard Wilson’s 20:50, a pool of engine oil that fills the basement. All other exhibitions are temporary and (unlike many other large London art galleries) free of charge. You can see exciting new work from Africa and Latin America in Pangaea, which runs until end of August.
Along the King’s Road, a number of much smaller galleries complement a trip to Saatchi. Michael Hoppen Gallery shows only photography, including a floor devoted entirely to contemporary work. It will exhibit work by pioneering photographer Dr Harold Edgerton throughout June and July. Nearby Little Black Gallery also specialises in photography, with a particular focus on erotica. Noted erotic photographer Bob Carlos Clarke has a dedicated room; his slightly creepy Living Dolls exhibition runs until 21 June.
The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising can be a bit of a hard sell to some. After all, the packaging is what we throw away to get to the good stuff within, and don’t we all fast-forward through the adverts nowadays? Once inside, though, the magic takes hold and you get lost among all the shiny wrappers. Based largely on the collection of one man, the 12,000 artefacts chart the development of branding and advertising from Victorian times to the present day. The highlight of any visit is the ‘I remember those!’ moment, when you round a corner and discover something that instantly takes you back to your childhood (oh hi, Opal Fruits!). The jubilation quickly gives way to misery, though, when you realise how many decades your childhood is from the present day…
Just across the river from the Houses of Parliament is a little cluster of museums that make for a rather lovely day out. The Florence Nightingale Museum is in the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital. It gives an insight into the life of the world’s most famous nurse, including her work during the Crimean War and the legacy she created for nursing today. The permanent collection includes Nightingale’s lamp, her medical equipment and even her pet owl, Athena (now stuffed, not altogether successfully). A temporary exhibition commemorating nursing during the First World War runs until October.
A short walk along the river gets you to the Garden Museum, formerly the Museum of Garden History. The museum building used to be the abandoned St Mary’s Church, rescued from demolition in 2008. What used to be the churchyard is now a beautiful garden, in which the remains of the Tradescant family are buried. The Tradescants were pioneering 17th century plant hunters, and the garden design is in keeping with the fashions of their time. While the museum houses a small permanent display of garden tools and artefacts, most of the space is used for temporary exhibitions and regular talks and lectures. Alan Titchmarsh: 50 Years of Gardening is on until the end of August.
Wandsworth’s De Morgan Collection houses oil paintings and ceramics by William and Evelyn de Morgan, leading lights in the Arts and Crafts movement. The not-so-subtly-titled Men In Pants, a selection of Evelyn’s life drawings from her time at the Slade School of Art, is on display until the end of June. Go now, because this small museum is due to close at the end of the month until it can find a new home.
The London Borough of Hounslow has a number of historical gems. Boston Manor House is a beautiful Jacobean mansion, while Gunnersbury Park houses a local history museum set in attractive parkland. Hogarth’s House maintains a permanent display of the celebrated artist’s prints, giving visitors an insight into his life and work. The jewel in Hounslow’s crown, though, is surely Chiswick House. The neo-palladian villa is set in beautiful historic grounds and was recently the subject of a £12 million facelift. Both the building and its gardens were designed by renowned Georgian architect William Kent, himself the subject of a major exhibition at the V&A which runs until July. Don’t miss out on one of Kent’s most striking — and ostentatious — designs: the ceiling of the Blue Velvet Room, a masterpiece in Italianate high camp.
Our final stop on our trip out west is the Pitzhanger Manor Gallery and House: ‘Ealing’s flagship cultural venue’. The building was designed (and, for a time, occupied) by Bank of England architect Sir John Soane. Having been owned by Ealing Council since 1901, the building has been used as a library and civil partnership venue, as well as exhibition space. A major programme of restoration and refurbishment is underway to restore the building to its former glory, and it recently won a £4.4 million Heritage Lottery Grant.
As ever, this is our selection of the highlights of West London. There wasn’t time to mention the London Sewing Machine Museum or the London Motorcycle Museum. Why not leave a comment to tell us what else we’ve missed?
Also in this series
By Rob Kidd.