The best of the permanent museum exhibitions, London
From giant squid and Renaissance chapels, there's a lot more to the best permanent museum exhibitions in London than you might think
Re-united: Constable & Turner, Royal Academy
John Constable,The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Waterloo Bridge, from Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’), 1832.
This spring, make a beeline for the Royal Academy London to see two of the greatest works by two of Britain's greatest artistic rivals on display opposite each other for the first time since 1832. Constable's The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (above) and Turner's Helvoetsluys (below), originally painted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1832, have been exceptionally re-united for a focused display in the Royal Academy's permanent Collection Gallery (12 Jan - 31 March). Decide for yourself, who should come out on top.
JMW Turner, Helvoetsluys (‘Helvoetsluys; – the City of Utrecht, 64, going to sea’, 1832.
Artemisia Gentileschi Self-Portrait, National Gallery
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, about 1615–17
In July 2017, the National Gallery acquired this recently discovered, rare self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter or Orazio Gentileschi and one of the most celebrated, but under represented female artists of the Italian Baroque. After undergoing months of extensive restoration and conservation, the oil portrait is now on public display in Central Hall of the National Gallery. In March 2019, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria will embark on a grand tour of 'unusual and unexpected' venues in the UK, including Glasgow Women's Library. National Gallery curator Letizia Treves sees the tour as an opportunity for the British public to get acquainted with Artemisia Gentileschi ahead of a major Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery in 2020, the first of its kind to be staged in the UK.
Cast Courts, Victoria & Albert Museum
After years of extensive restoration and renovation projects, the V&A has finally reopened its splendid Cast Courts to the public. Highlights of the newly renovated galleries include the awe-inspiring cast of Trajan’s Column, casts from the 16th-century Tuileries Palace, burned down by the Paris Commune in 1871, and Michelangelo’s David.
Although collecting copies and casts fell out of fashion towards the mid-twentieth century, it was one of the only means for those who could not afford to travel outside of the UK of accessing and studying foreign monuments and works of art. The V&A was at the forefront of the nineteenth-century cast collecting craze, building up one of the largest and most important collections of casts and copies in the UK. In keeping with the V&A's longtime ethos of championing education, a spanking new gallery explores the history, processes and significance of casts and copies as well as looking to their contemporary relevance and future in the digital age.
Giant Squid, Natural History Museum
One for Attenborough fans. Hidden in the Darwin centre at the Natural History Museum is a monster from the deep. Although giant squids are still thought of as myth, they do in fact exist. Sightings of giant squid are supremely rare, examples of catching one rarer still. One recently surfaced off the Falkland Islands and was taken to London. That this 8-metre long specimen, affectionately known as ‘Archie’, was caught alive, is nothing short of miraculous. Sadly Archie didn’t survive, but he still lies preserved in his tank, waiting to be discovered. Book onto a guided tour to pay him a visit.
The Jewel Tower, Houses of Parliament
Westminster Hall is famous for being the oldest surviving part of the palace of Westminster, often believed to be the only option for those seeking to transport themselves back to the early days of the mother of parliaments. But just across the road is another relic of the medieval palace, a small weather-beaten building known as the Jewel Tower. It was built in 1365 as a place for Edward III to store the crown jewels, and now boasts a model of the medieval palace and a charming tea shop on the ground floor, the ceilings bedecked with exquisite carvings from the 14th century.
Mantegna Murals, Hampton Court Palace
If you liked the Mantegna/Bellini retrospective at the National Gallery, you'll love this little Renaissance gem at Hampton Court palace. Mantegna’s vast mural, ‘The Triumph of Caesar’ is one of the last remaining pieces of Charles I’s coveted art collection still in the country. Nine large paintings depict a classical victory march, one of the finest artists of the Renaissance bringing to life an ancient empire at its height.
Islamic World Galleries, British Museum
Aside from its special exhibitions, the British Museum regularly updates its permanent collections, rotating exhibits to ensure there’s always something new to see. The newest addition are the Islamic World galleries, squeezed into two rooms in the South Wing. Here can be found the story of how a variety of different cultures became a fruitful melting pot, under the unifying umbrella of Islam. Expect a jubilant celebration of the Middle East and West Africa, with some of the most beautiful objects in the museum placed in rooms bursting with flowing arabesques and complex geometry. Highlights include a pair of ceramic Ottoman shoes, exquisitely embroidered Persian kaftans and contemporary work by artist Idris Khan.
A quick coffee break...
Pricey they can be, but the best museum cafés and restaurants are full of surprises, offering feasts both gastronomically and visually. At the National Portrait Gallery is the Portrait Restaurant and Bar, with vistas that zoom across Trafalgar Square down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament. The menu boasts sophisticated á la carte offerings of slow-cooked lamb shoulder and south coast lemon sole. Back in 1856 the V&A opened the world’s first museum-café, the décor of its three rooms a sugared extravaganza of Victorian design from William Morris, James Gamble and William Poynter. Authentic Victorian cream teas are served in the Morris room every Friday from 1pm to 7pm.
The Queen’s Window, Westminster Abbey
In a corner of Westminster Abbey lies the latest addition to its long history. In October 2018 David Hockney unveiled his take on stain-glass windows, commissioned to celebrate both the Queen’s reign. This scene, bathed in Hockney's typically luscious palette, is of a Yorkshire country road bordered by a hawthorn bush in full blossom. Viewers may be reminded of Hockney's excellent exhibition of English landscapes at the Royal Academy back in 2012.
Church of Santa Chiara, V&A
Pining for a taste of Italy? Something at the V&A may help transport you – a genuine Renaissance chapel, lifted bodily from its home in Florence in the 1860s and transported to South Kensington. Its minimalist classical design echoes Brunelleschi’s famous Pazzi Chapel, so if you want to sample Florence without the crowds and at a fraction of the price, make a bee line for Exhibition Road.
And talking of bees....
The Hive, Kew Gardens
Bees are a chatty bunch, but prefer to use vibrations rather than sound. A new installation at Kew takes these vibrations from a real hive and transplants them into this sci-fi sculpture, a model hive which turning vibrations into sound and light displays. Go at dusk to see it at its best! If you want to have a listen, touch the special 'bone conductors' to eavesdrop on some good bee vibes.
The Vaults, Royal Academy
Good news! No more traipsing through Burlington Arcade to see the RA’s contemporary exhibitions. The Royal Academy has finally opened the connecting corridor between its iconic Burlington House site and Burlington Gardens, the Victorian bastion hiding behind it. But it is much more than just a corridor. Its high-vaulted ceilings give it the sense of a sacred space. And in a way it is: the corridor displays relics from the student-days of famous Academicians, along with classical statues which inspired Blake and Turner during their tenure there.
Luckily for you they're not going anywhere, so no rush!