The art to see in London's permanent collections
We've put together a guide to the must see art at the National Gallery, Tate Britain and British Museum
The top ten paintings to see at the National Gallery
The National Gallery houses some of the most important works in western art. Here you can find da Vinci, Raphael, Ingres, Degas – to name but a few. But it is all too easy to feel overwhelmed by the gallery's prestigious – and vast – collection. To help you navigate your way through the galleries, we've put together a brief list of the unmissable artworks to make a beeline for.
Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-23)
Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne is one of the most remarkable paintings in the National Gallery. It shows the moment that Bacchus (god of wine and revelry) happens upon the abandoned princess Ariadne on the Greek island of Naxos. Here, Bacchus arrives with his entourage, jumping theatrically from his leopard-pulled chariot. He will fall in love with the stranded Ariadne and immortalise her as a constellation by throwing her crown into the sky (look out for the ring of stars above her head).
For this painting, Titian used only the best materials. The blues are made using an expensive pigment called lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan and usually reserved for paintings of the Virgin Mary. Find Bacchus and Ariadne in Room 6, at the front of the gallery. If amorous couples are your thing, head to Room 58, where Botticelli's Venus and Mars resides, a work dripping with symbolism (that lance, for a start). It was probably made for a piece of bedroom furniture, and reminds us that love (Venus) can conquer war (Mars).
Henri Rousseau never studied art (he was a tax collector in Paris) but took his painting very seriously. Rousseau made around 20 jungle paintings, but Surprised! is probably the best known. It depicts a tiger stalking through the undergrowth as a lightening streaks through the sky above. Rousseau never left France, and pieced together his imagined junglescapes by studying the plants in Paris' Botanical Gardens. He was ridiculed by some, but he became somewhat of hero in avant-garde circles. Find this painting in Room 43 at the front of the gallery. There are also a number of Van Gogh paintings in this room, including his Sunflowers (currently on loan to Tate Britain).
The Fighting Temeraire (1839)
This painting's full title is The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838. JMW Turner painted it to commemorate the sense of loss felt at the decommissioning of a ship that had played a vital role in Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. 33 years later the outdated vessel is shown being towed by a modern steamship to Rotherhithe, while the sun sets symbolically in the background. Turner is, in short, painting a relic, a symbol of Britain's waning naval fleet.
Turner was a master of the seascape and when he painted this painting he was at the height of his artistic powers. Find the Fighting Temeraire in Room 34. Hanging on the wall opposite this painting, is Joseph Wright of Derby's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, a remarkable painting with such theatrical force, you'll find it almost impossible to look away.
The Ambassadors (1533)
German born painter Hans Holbein the Younger came to England looking for work and did very well for himself. He became court painter to Henry VIII, who used him to record the likenesses of his wives and prospective love matches. There are several works by Holbein in the National Gallery, but The Ambassadors is the most laden with symbolism and technical wizardry. It is teeming, in fact, with details that allude to the times, such as the broken string on the lute, that may represent religious discord.
The two gentlemen represented are Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to England in 1533, aged about 29 here, and Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur, who is shown in his 25th year. The various books and tools around the men indicate that these were two learned individuals. At the bottom of the painting (not pictured above) is a strange floating shape, a memento mori. It is a clever optical illusion, and if you stand in the right spot, to the far right of the painting, the object is revealed. If you like The Ambassadors, you may also be charmed by the Arnolfini Portrait, painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1434, which resides in Room 63.
Self-portrait at the age of 63 (1669)
About 80 self-portraits by Rembrandt survive. In his youth he often used the self-portrait as a way of showing how he wanted to be seen – confident, successful, the heir to the great masters who preceded him. He also played with his own image, making drawings of himself pulling a variety of expressions or dressing up as all sorts of historical characters. This portrait is a more sober example, painted in the year of his death.
Some see this image as a representation of the great and care-worn Rembrandt looking for meaning in his own sagging visage. Others see it more simply as a study of ageing. He loved to paint elderly faces, using thick, coagulated paint to add texture and depth to the canvas, a clever way of rendering his roughened skin and the bags under his eyes. No matter your opinion on his motives, you have to admit that the result is a moving portrayal of a man in his final days.
Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London WC2N 5DN. Leicester Square underground station is a two minute walk away.
In the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing you will find Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo only painted around 20 works and this is one of his most mysterious. An earlier version resides in the Louvre. The extent to which Leonardo was involved in painting of the National Gallery's canvas has been the subject of much academic debate.
Did you know?
During the Second World War, the gallery's collection was removed and stored in specially enlarged underground mines in Wales to protect it from air raids.
The top ten artworks to see at Tate Britain
You might be surprised to know that there are works in Tate Britain's collection dating back to the Tudors (see below). Here you will find everything from Turner to Tracy Emin. It's not easy to whittle such a varied collection down to a few essential pieces, but if you're in need of a starting point, here are some highlights.
The Cholmondeley Ladies (1540)
Tate Britain's Walk Through British Art display (which spans 15 rooms of the museum's Main Floor) houses an eclectic range of works. Hanging in the room exploring 1540, is this odd gem. This painting by an unknown artist, is traditionally thought to represent sisters. They do look alike, but have different coloured eyes, so can't be identical twins. The name in the title refers to one of the painting's owners, not the women depicted. Their identity then remains a mystery, but you have to admit, this is a charmingly eccentric image.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6)
In the room exploring the 1840s in Tate Britain's Walk Through British Art display, is this lovely work by John Singer Sargent. This painting was inspired by a trip down the Thames, in which Sargent saw Chinese lanterns hanging among trees and lilies. The two girls are Polly and Dorothy Barnard, the daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard. It is a touching depiction of childhood innocence and curiosity. Also in the same room is Sargent's dramatic portrait of the actress Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth, wearing a dress that was covered in beetle wings, so that it shimmered an iridescent green. The original dress is now housed in Small Hythe Place, in Kent.
The Lady of Shallot (1888)
Pre-Raphaelite follower John William Waterhouse was keen on Arthurian legend. He was a little late to the Pre-Raphaelite party, and only began to hit his stride as the public was beginning to loose interest in the movement's academic style and romantic depictions of the golden age of chivalry. But that does not make his painting of The Lady of Shallot any less moving. Here we see the cursed maiden of Tennyson's poem on her way to Camelot (and to her death), knowing that her fate has been sealed by Sir Lancelot's irresistible good looks. Also look out for John Everett Millais' tragic heroine, Ophelia when you visit. (Note: Ophelia is currently on loan.)
Millbank, London SW1P 4RG. Pimlico underground station is a 10 minute walk away.
The temporary 60 Years section of Tate Britain's Walk Through British Art brings the display right up to the modern day. On until April 2020, it is showing works solely by female artists and here you can find Tracy Emin, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Bridget Riley, among others.
There are many other works that should be included here, but are not currently on display, such as Picasso's Weeping Woman, Peter Doig's Echo Lake, LS Lowry's The Pond, William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea and David Hockney's A Bigger Splash. Check the museum's website after 60 Years closes.
Did you know
Tate Britain opened its doors in 1897. The museum's facade is still pock-marked from wartime bombing raids.
Must-see works at the British Museum
When you think of the British Museum, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the Elgin Marbles, or perhaps the Rosetta Stone. But this is a place full of much smaller wonders with fascinating stories to tell, if you just know where to find them.
Mummy Portraits (c. 80 –170 BC)
The mummy portraits in the British Museum must surely be among the most moving object's in the collection. These were painted by Romans living in Egypt, which became part of the Roman Empire after Cleopatra was deposed. They are painted likenesses of the deceased made on board, which were then bound to the mummified body.
Roman paintings from this era rarely survived the ravages of time, but Egypt's hot, dry climate preserved these beautiful artworks, meaning we can gaze into the faces of people who lived 2,000 years ago. Find the mummy portraits in Room 62, on the Upper Floor. If this has whetted your appetite for Ancient Egypt do not miss out on the exquisite fresco from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, housed in Room 61.
Turquoise mosaic of a double-headed serpent (AD 1400 – 1521)
Classical Greece and Ancient Egypt get the lion's share of attention at the British Museum, but venture into the smaller rooms and you will not be disappointed. Flanked by two remarkable masks also decorated in tiny turquoise tiles, this double headed serpent was made in Mexico and possibly gifted by the Aztec royal court to Hernán Cortés, a conquistador responsible for the civilisation's downfall. The curators speculate that this serpent may have been worn as part of a headdress during rituals. Find this piece in Room 27 on the Ground Floor.
Benin Plaques (16th century)
On the museum's Lower Ground floor is a stunning collection of African art. Go down the stairs and turn right past the thrilling Moko Jumbie figures. On the far wall in the end room you will find the Benin bronzes, one of the British Museum's most important, but under celebrated treasures. Obtained by less than pleasant means when Benin City was sacked by the British, and then sold to the museum, these plaques changed the way the west perceived African art and craftsmanship. They originally adorned the Oba's (king's) palace and depict scenes of royal life and ritual.
Luohan (1115 –1234)
Venture into the British Museum's China Gallery and you will greeted by an astonishing array of works. One of the most captivating items on display is this life-sized ceramic figure of a luohan, of disciple of Buddha. 10 of these figures were discovered in caves in the Yixian region in 1912, each one sitting on a plinth designed to look like a rocky outcrop. The figures, which are celebrated for their unusually naturalistic, and individualistic portraits, were bought by museums across the world. They were not easy things to make. Each one was initially biscuit fired at between 980 and 1010 °C and then glazed before being fired again. They are considered by some to be among the most important ceramic works in the world.
Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps (late 6th century AD)
Found as part of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, which was excavated in 1939, these shoulder clasps challenged long held ideas about the Dark Ages. They were made for an Anglo Saxon king and were sewn to his cloak, with a pin that joined the two haves at the wearer's shoulder. Made from gold and inlaid cloisonné and decorated with mind-bogglingly intricate animal motifs, this item was the product of a sophisticated people with incredible skills and vast trading links. So as it turned out, the Dark Ages were not so dark after all.
Find this and other treasures from Sutton Hoo in Room 41 on the Upper Floor. If you like your history even more ancient, head to room 51, on the same floor, and take a gander at the Swimming Reindeer, a beautiful item carved from the tip of a mammoth's tusk in around 11,000 BC.
Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG. Holborn underground station is a 7 minute walk away.
Head to Rooms 7 & 8 to see the stone reliefs that once adorned King Ashurnasirpal's palace, which was situated in modern-day Iraq. The reliefs were a form a propaganda, showing the king as a mighty warrior and formiddable lion hunter.
Did you know?
The British Museum once had its very own tube station, which was closed in 1933 when Holborn station was opened. The museum also claims that the most searched for word on their website after Egypt, is Shunga. Shunga is a type of Japanese printed erotica. In 2013 the museum had an adult-only exhibition dedicated to the art form.