Looking for a new perspective within the City streets? There’s nothing like art to make you see the familiar differently, to surprise you, challenge you, or simply evoke appreciation and wonder.
If you love the visual arts, there’s a lot to discover during a single day in the Square Mile – from the Pre-Raphaelites to Damian Hirst, William Hogarth to Antony Gormley. Hidden treasures, inspiring outdoor sculpture and world-class touring exhibitions…this is Art with a capital A.
A visit to the Barbican is a must for art-lovers – its visual arts programme embraces art, architecture, design, fashion, photography and film. Barbican Art Gallery hosts temporary exhibitions – currently Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle, the largest UK exhibition to date of this 20th century American artist (until 21 May 2023; admission fees apply). Also at the Barbican is The Curve, which is free to visit and one of the few London galleries devoted to commissioning new work.
Fans of watercolours and oils should head to Guildhall Art Gallery (free but booking advised). Its rich variety of Victorian paintings includes superb examples of the Pre-Raphaelite, Classicism and Orientalism movements; paintings of London and the City from the 17th century to today; and works by Sir Matthew Smith, one of the most significant British painters of the 20th century. Temporary exhibitions throughout the year sometimes offer a chance to glimpse rarely-seen artworks - currently on until 30 July 2023 is The Big City - London painted on a grand scale, a special opportunity to view huge masterpieces together in one space.
In Guildhall Yard two free, outdoor exhibitions are on show over summer 2023: Life and Death in the Archives (10 May - 6 June) - celebrating 900 years of Barts Hospital with photography, art and history from the collections; and CorporateQueer (24 June - 2 July) - beautiful photos and stories celebrating LGBT+ professionals in the City of London and beyond, for Pride in London.
If you’re looking for exciting new painters and sculptors, BEERS London is a gallery with a global reputation for cutting-edge contemporary art. It prides itself on internationally diverse representation and focuses on emerging and mid-career artists.
Using the City’s urban landscape as a gallery space, the annual exhibition Sculpture in the City peppers the Square Mile’s buildings and public spaces with three-dimensional artworks by emerging and internationally-renowned artists. Download the app to follow the free trail, or simply enjoy the element of surprise in turning a corner and being confronted with something like a snail-human hybrid (Jocelyn McGregor’s Earthing). The 11th edition is currently on display with the 12th edition opening in June 2023.
Keep an eye out for dozens of permanent bronze statues and memorials dotted around the City –this mix of statues and public art reveals the area’s past and comments on its present. Next to the shiny glass One New Change shopping centre stands Gavin Turk’s Nail, a 12m high bronze hammered between the ancient and the modern. Antony Gormley’s Resolution (is it a person or a cityscape?) can be found on Shoe Lane. Referencing the old 17th century Newgate Meat Market with a religious nod to nearby St Paul’s, Shepherd and Sheep by Elizabeth Frink can be seen in Paternoster Square. The Cordwainer by Alma Boyes, commemorating the shoemakers and leatherworkers of the area, sits in Watling Street, while Karin Jonzen’s Gardner Statue in Brewers Gardens honours the City’s green-fingered workers.
Art in churches
The City, with its juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary, continues to surprise with The Art of Faith – a self-guided walking trail exploring links between art and religion, taking in a dozen modern artworks within historic churches (pick up a map at the City Information Centre or download a copy here).
The City of London has the greatest concentration of historic church buildings anywhere in the country, and works by some of modern art’s biggest names can be seen within these sacred spaces. Damian Hirst’s gilded bronze Exquisite Pain is on display in St Bartholomew the Great; in the 12th century Temple Church you can see the famous East window created by Carl Edwards in 1954; Hood: Mother and Child, Henry Moore’s last major work, can be viewed in St Paul’s Cathedral, plus his controversial central altar is in St Stephen Walbrook church.
Hogarth at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, North Wing
See two little-seen William Hogarth paintings on the North Wing staircase at St Bartholomew’s, one of London’s oldest hospitals. The Good Samaritan and Christ at the Pool of Bethesda show a rare example of the artist’s attempt to paint a picture in the grand historical style. These can be viewed from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum. Make sure to visit before 1 September when the museum closes for refurbishment.
Shopping for art
Looking to take some exciting new art home with you? Red Eight Gallery at The Royal Exchange displays and sells work by some of the world’s most exciting emerging contemporary artists, alongside established names.
Just outside the Square Mile is the monthly Spitalfields Art Market in Crispin Place, where you can buy affordable art direct from up-and-coming and established artists.
An arty bite to eat
If all this art leaves you hungry, pop into The Blackfriar on Queen Victoria Street for traditional pub grub and a drink. This wedge-shaped building is an Art Nouveau Grade II listed masterpiece, full of interiors inspired by the late 19th century Arts and Crafts movement.