Welcome to our pick of the best London exhibitions to see right now. We've roughly split the list by London regions and exhibitions outside the M25 to make it easier to navigate. Due to social distancing requirements advance booking will be required for all of the exhibitions we've listed.
Many of these reviews are based on our experience of visiting the show before lock down and therefore the nature of the experience may now have changed due to Covid related restrictions. All dates are also reflective of adjustments made due to the pandemic.
Exhibitions in Central London
LOST LIBRARIES: Step inside a library full of books that have been banned categorised by country, including well-known religious and philosophical texts, and the Hungry Caterpillar — yes, a UK school banned it for promoting over-eating. Along the outside of the structure are the names of the libraries that have been lost through history, from Alexandria to Mosul in Iraq — once the exhibition ends all of these books will be donated to the Mosul library to help rebuild its collection. It's a work that showcases the political power of books, and if you love a good book your soul will be stirred by this fantastic tribute to the knowledge held within them.
Edmund de Waal: Library of Exile at The British Museum, Room 2. 31 August - TBC, free. ★★★★★ (Wednesday - Sunday)
SEX & VIOLENCE: A hunter stumbles across some nymphs bathing, so as punishment he is turned into a stag and ripped apart by pack of hounds. That's just one painting of seven, and all are equally intense — with fleshy sensuous nudes, raw emotions and a woman being impregnated by golden rain all adding to the drama. £12 may seem like a lot to pay for seven paintings but given it's the first time this series has been re-united in nearly 500 years it's a rare opportunity to marvel at this magnificent group.
Titian: Love, Desire, Death at The National Gallery. Until 17 January, £12. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
DICKENS IN COLOUR: Picture Charles Dickens in your mind and it's hard to imagine him without that trademark beard. It's an image he carefully cultivated and Charles Dickens Museum is showing how important it was to him control the image of himself in the press. That included ensuring he was photographed in the right posture, and showing him helping fellow passengers out of a train wreck — without revealing he was travelling with his mistress. Photographer Oliver Clyde has taken small black and white photographs and converted them into large scale colour photographs so we get to see an excellent approximation of what the man looked like in colour.
Technicolour Dickens: The Living Image of Charles Dickens at Charles Dickens Museum. Until 25 April 2021, £9.50. ★★★★☆ (Friday - Sunday)
LABOUR WITHOUT THE LOVE: The gorgeous colours of these large paintings by Rex Southwick show us beautiful homes and grounds. However, they also show them being built and maintained by a labour force that will never get to live in them or enjoy the fruits of their labour. These paintings remind us of the shocking income disparities that still exist in the world we live in.
Rex Southwick: Purple Lands at Unit London. Until 29 August, free. ★★★★☆ (Monday - Friday)
GILDED CAGE: A painting shows a harem of women with a pet leopard, recognising both are as trapped and helpless as one another. This exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery highlights the recurring theme in art history of depicting women caged within ornate interiors. There are plenty of Pre-Raphaelite paintings that stick to this theme, and it's important to see them hanging next to contemporary works such as one by Maisie Broadhead where a woman's pearls wrap around her wrists and attach to a weight that extends out of the work and rests on the floor. It's important to highlight how women have often been depicted in art history, and in this show it's backed up by a whole host of impressive artworks.
The Enchanted Interior at Guildhall Art Gallery. Until 30 August, £10. ★★★★☆ (Weekends only)
A SNOWSCAPE ON FIRE: A foggy London painted by Monet. Tick. Beautiful landscapes. Tick. A Gauguin painting of a naked Tahitian woman. Tick. Everything you'd expect from an Impressionism exhibition is here. There are a few sensational paintings on display — including a Pissarro landscape where the peach sunset is reflected on the ground as if the settled snow was on a fire. Unfortunately it's outnumbered by paintings that are lovely but seldom show us anything we haven't seen in other Impressionist exhibitions before.
Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection at Royal Academy of Arts. Until 18 October, £17. ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)
ANCIENT MYTHS: Every picture tells a story, and in the case of the latest works by Toyin Ojih Odutola that is literal as they set out a narrative arc that we follow around Curve gallery space at Barbican. Each drawing acts as a storyboard as we learn about our protagonist's birth, childhood and love life. The story continues through an illicit affair, which is banned in this mythical kingdom where women are the ruling class, followed by a tribunal. What the story lacks in detail is made up for through these beautiful drawings and the immersive soundtrack.
Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory at Barbican, Curve. Until 24 January 2021, free. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
Exhibitions in south London
BOMBS AWAY: Glistening objects shine on the floor and up the stairs at Imperial War Museum. They are precisely engineered weapons of mass destruction — each one capable of killing any one of us, from a small grenade to large nuclear bombs. Rendered here in life size they look rather innocuous and in some cases rather oddly shaped — the daisy cutter may look like a clumsy design but watch a YouTube video of it and its catastrophic capability shows it to be terrifying. Artist Ai Weiwei wants to confront us with the horrific weapons our species has created to kill one another. It's a terrifying installation on the cost of war, both in lives lost and the refugee status that awaits many survivors.
Ai Weiwei: History of Bombs at IWM London. Until 24 May 2021, free. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
JARMAN'S GARDEN: The late Derek Jarman bought a fisherman's shack in the shadow of a nuclear power station in Dungeness, Kent and turned it into an idyllic retreat. This little cottage has been recreated in a lovely immersive exhibition at Garden Museum. Crunch on the pebbles before entering Jarman's world to find details of his life and his thickly layered paintings hanging within the domestic interior.
Derek Jarman: My garden's boundaries are the horizon at Garden Museum. Until 13 December, £10. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
Exhibitions in west London
ASTRONAUTS & ZOMBIES: A derelict McDonald's, a bloody train wreck and zombies all inhabit a model created by artist Cao Fei. It's part of a wide ranging exhibition that covers themes of technology, memory and consumerism. The abstract films are difficult to follow and will require someone with more patience than us to get through all three hours of it. Best stick with the augmented reality artwork by Acute Art, where an astronaut climbs out of a sink, in a trippy 15 minute experience.
Cao Fei: Blueprints at Serpentine Gallery. Until 13 September, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday - Sunday)
Exhibitions outside London
WOMEN IN WOKING: We stand inside an artwork and the lone lightbulb in the centre projects the message 'Just stay here and dream. It's safe in here' — a beautiful and comforting work by Chloe Wing. We also have a go at spinning Lucy Gregory's sculpture that's made up of a line of legs. Both works are part of an exhibition of female artists from the Ingram Collection, a fantastic collection of British art. It's lovely to see young contemporary artists alongside legendary sculptors such as Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink. An exhibition definitely worth nipping outside of the M25 to see.
Redressing the Balance: Women Artists from The Ingram Collection at The Lightbox, Woking. Until 20 September, £7.50. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday - Sunday)
SCULPTURE SMORGASBORD: It's a treat to discover there's a sculpture park with over 800 artworks just an hour's drive from London. The Sculpture Park in Farnham, Surrey is rammed full of sculpture with works at every turn from early to mid-career artists. It's a fabulous sculpture park to explore and they have a resident artist from Zimbabwe who you can see carving intricate work from a single block of stone. Not everything was to our taste but when there's so much work everyone is bound to find something they like.
The Sculpture Park, Farnham, Surrey. Opened 1 July, £10. ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)