Our pick of the best exhibitions to see right now in London's galleries. We've split the list into areas to make it easier to navigate, with a few exhibitions outside of London. Check ahead before visiting, as many venues still require advance booking.
Exhibitions in Central London
CREATIVE COLLAGES: Peter Blake is best known for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album cover art but this collection of collages flaunts a decades-long career, from early works to one recently completed. Wrestling action figures, exotic birds, famous landmarks — Blake draws inspiration from seemingly anything. A highlight is his tribute to artist Joseph Cornell — Blake creates a collage tour of Europe for Cornell so he can be viewed travelling across the continent he was in love with but never managed to visit. A lovely tribute.
Peter Blake: Time Traveller at Waddington Custot. Until 9 September, free. ★★★★★ (Monday-Saturday)
RED SAILS: Mixing paintings with photography, a vibrant red regatta sails across the Venice lagoon. Artist Melissa McGill uses it to draw attention to the global issue of rising sea levels, as well as Venetian issues such as over-tourism and its effect on local sailing communities. Elsewhere, sounds of Venice's squares emanate from small box sculptures shaped like said squares. This is art that reflects the lives of Venetians, rather than the touristy city we normally see.
Melissa McGill: In Venice at Mazzoleni. Until 18 September, free. ★★★★☆ (Monday-Saturday, closed 2-21 August)
GHOSTS OF BOOKS: Ethereal shelves of books are made from soot; it's so delicate I'm scared of breathing near it — it's like we're looking at the ghost of a library. Nearby a gigantic bell is suspended from the ceiling but it's been silenced and will never ring. It's this absence of sound and knowledge within a silent gallery that makes us wonder what a world without either would be like. A thoughtful, haunting exhibition.
Claudio Parmiggiani at Simon Lee. Until 25 September, free. ★★★★☆ (Monday-Saturday)
WHAT THE DICKENS: An Oliver Twist themed version of giant snakes and ladders features at this exhibition focussing on one of Charles Dickens' most endearing characters. The Dickens Museum also looks at problematic depictions of Fagin, and throws in plenty of Twist memorabilia including a guinea pig version of Oliver (yes it exists). This may be a small show, but it's got a few real gems and is packed with fun.
More! Oliver Twist, Dickens and Stories of the City at Charles Dickens Museum. Until 17 October, £9.50 for adults and includes entry to the museum. ★★★☆☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
IT FIGURES: The 16 international artists in this show all paint figures, but what also unites them is the fact they're black female artists (who could always do with more representation). Mother of Mankind is an extremely varied show, with highlights including a vibrant portrait by Marcellina Akpojotor that's made from fragments of fabric; and beautifully painted figures by Bria Fernandez, where the work is made to appear unfinished, giving her subjects a sense of impermanence.
Mother of Mankind at House of Fine Art, in collaboration with and curated by ADA gallery. Until 31 August, free. ★★★★☆ (Open daily)
STARS & UNICORNS: A stunning assemblage by Cathy de Monchaux shows us a forest full of unicorns — that a large part of it is made from copper wire only adds to the magic of this large scale artwork. It's one of several pieces in this forest-themed show, which includes paintings of green vegetation and of staring up at the stars through a canopy of trees. We watch the poet Dante proceed into the darkness in an unsettling illustration by Gustave Dore, and we experience both the beauty, and the darker sides of forests.
The Forest at Parafin. Until 4 September, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
Exhibitions in North London
FOREST BATHING: Sit inside a room filled with large scale photographs of a rainforest, listen to the birdsong and rainfall while breathing in the aromas. This meditative installation is at the heart of an exhibition about tranquillity at Wellcome Collection, which also covers the spiritual side to relaxation and meditation. Upstairs, companion exhibition 'Joy' features ecstatic dancing, a periodic table of happiness and fun drawings (thumbs ups, laughing faces) by David Shrigley. It's an uplifting double header — we could have spent an hour in that forest.
Tranquillity at Wellcome Collection. Until 9 January, free. ★★★★★ (Tuesday-Saturday)
Joy at Wellcome Collection. Until 27 February, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Saturday)
BEAR ENTERTAINMENT: London's most famous bear has a family friendly exhibition where we can observe his hijinks through delightful illustrations, and sit at a breakfast table that gets messier and messier — as if Paddington's there creating the chaos. There's some interesting background about the character, and his creator Michael Bond, but little ones will probably get more out of this than accompanying adults.
Paddington: The Story of a Bear at The British Library. Until 31 October, £8. ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)
IT'S COMING HOME: Alas not football, but the art of football, in a new gallery situated next to Tottenham Hotspur's stadium. Aptly titled 'Balls', it features an egg painted like a football, and a pair of footballs hung in netting, reflecting a macho culture, in which there isn't a single openly gay man in men's league football. There are plenty of playful works here, including a disembodied leg kicking a ball and backpacks with teats on it, meaning team-mates need to suckle at each other's backs.
Balls at OOF Gallery. Until 21 November, free. ★★★★☆ (Thursday-Monday)
Exhibitions in South London
MOVING OUT: The news stories on migration often look at people coming to the UK but what about those who've left? A new display at this wonderful museum looks at people who've moved elsewhere over the last 400 years — from the Mayflower Pilgrims fleeing persecution, to the shameful deportation of Windrushers. There are lesser known stories too, such as Welsh emigrants who went to South America to form their own "little Wales beyond Wales". The exhibition is creatively designed with departure boards and trollies carrying suitcases to give the place the feel of an airport.
Departures at Migration Museum. Until 31 December, free. ★★★★☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
HUNKS OF METAL: A giant metal sculpture appears to be squeezing two yellow segments as if they're in the grip of an industrial python. In the next door gallery another abstract metal 'beast' is caged, and could break free at any moment. These imposing sculptures are the highlights in a show where not all the works are as effective, specifically the smaller ones featuring animals.
Liu Wei: Nudita at White Cube, Bermondsey. Until 5 September, free. ★★★☆☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
MIND MAZE: Ever felt like all the jumbled thoughts in your head were like a jungle? Illustrator Manjit Thapp thought the same, and created a jungle-esque maze where you get to navigate through her thoughts and emotions. It's a beautiful installation that's also deeply personal to the artist — the plants and animals reflecting her South Asian heritage.
Manjit Thapp: My Head is a Jungle at Now Gallery. Until 31 October, free. ★★★★☆ (Tuesday-Sunday)
COLOUR & PUPPETS: It's always great to discover a new side to an artist you already knew. Those familiar with Sophie Taeuber-Arp may be familiar with her abstract colourful geometric forms — and this show contains plenty of those. But there's also furniture, tapestries and some wonderful angular marionettes. While the exhibition itself may not have too many standout works, I came out with a much greater appreciation for Taeuber-Arp's practice.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp at Tate Modern. Until 17 October, £16. ★★★☆☆ (Open daily)
Exhibitions in East London
SCHOOL DOODLES: Who was guilty of drawing on school desks? Me too. Artist Oscar Murillo taps into this juvenile creativity by sending raw canvases around the world to be placed across school desks — with children given carte blanche to scrawl over them. Over 40,000 are now stacked up in the gym of the artist's old school. You can visit the exhibition and request a leaf through pretty much any country — Senegal, Mexico, India or right here in the UK — that take your fancy. An expression of raw creativity from our youngest minds.
Oscar Murillo: Frequencies - an Artangel project at Cardinal Pole Catholic School. Until 30 August, free. ★★★★☆ (Thursday-Sunday)
Exhibitions in West London
WALKING THE STREETS: Julian Opie's simple walking figures — both carved in metal and animated in LEDs — can be spotted across London and have now sauntered over to Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing. We also get a chance to explore a recreation of a few streets and watch a video that takes us through those streets, though it's not clear how this links to the venue. While this show is not far removed from the type of work we've seen from Opie before, there's enough to make for a collection of eye catching works. The LED crows outside in the park are fun too, especially when local dogs run at them, then get confused when they don't fly away.
Julian Opie at Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery. Until 24 October, £7.70. ★★★☆☆ (Wednesday-Sunday)
Exhibitions outside London
GETTING PERSONAL: If you're strolling in the grounds of Blenheim Palace you may be accosted by a stranger who tells you a story. Inside the palace you may spot a couple kissing passionately on the floor — enough to set off your British sensibility alarms. This is the work of performance artist Tino Sehgal; the idea being to disrupt your visit with a memorable interaction that throws you off-routine in a challenging and rewarding way. The artist keeps all photos of these performances under wraps, so that it comes as a surprise to each visitor, who will get a unique experience.
Tino Sehgal at Blenheim Park and Gardens. Until 15 August, £18.50. ★★★★☆ (open daily)
BOMBS, BIRDS & ART: An old Ministry of Defence testing ground on the Suffolk coast makes for a post apocalyptic setting for art installations. They include sculpture within an abandoned bunker, local sounds in a black octagonal radar tower and a soundtrack to listen to as you walk across the expansive shingle beach. The art is often secondary to the fantastic setting, which is worth the trip on its own. Be warned though: it's a long trek by public transport, including a train, cab and short boat ride.
Afterness is an Artangel and National Trust project on Orford Ness, Suffolk. Until 31 October, free. ★★★☆☆ (open selected dates)
BODIES, LIMBS, NATURE & A GUN: A giant half-dissected pregnant woman by Damien Hirst stands tall among a field of sheep. A giant column of limbs by Rachel Kneebone creates a sense of reverence in an old chapel. And a major exhibition by Joana Vasconcelos takes objects of domesticity like telephones, and shapes them into a giant gun to challenge gender norms. These are some highlights of four exhibitions across Yorkshire Sculpture Park's grounds and galleries. There's also new semi-permanent pavilion by Heather Peak and Ivan Morison called Silence; it's made of all-natural materials that will decay over 10 years so you can sit inside and contemplate your connection with the natural world, inside a work that's slowly becoming a part of it.
Rachel Kneebone: 399 days is on until 24 April 2022, Silence: Alone in a World of Wounds is now open to all visitors, Joana Vasconcelos: Beyond is on until 9 January 2022, Damien Hirst sculptures are on display until 1 April 2022. Entrance to all Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibitions is £6. ★★★★☆ (open daily).