Kate Bryan 1 1

Discovering London's Cultural Gems with Kate Bryan

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The oldest and most comprehensive portrait gallery anywhere in the world, London’s National Portrait Gallery will reopen its doors this June after a once in a lifetime refurbishment.

The much-loved institution has always been a firm favourite because its galleries of famous faces appeal to people who might not normally consider themselves art lovers. Notice how the labels lead with the sitter before the name of the artist, this place was built by the Victorians as a temple to celebrity. The refresh reveals an updated and thought-provoking look at sitters who have in many different ways contributed to the story of Britain across the centuries. It’s a vivid cultural assortment from Shakespeare to new acquisitions including Sir Lenny Henry by Morag Caister, the winner of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2022 (a TV show which I have been lucky enough one of the Judges on since its inception 10 years ago).

On my recent behind the scenes visit I was thrilled to see so many more women as well as people from diverse backgrounds both as sitters and makers. A highlight was the purposeful repositioning of the Laura Knight’s powerful Self Portrait which broke new ground in 1913 by portraying the artist contemplating a nude still life model, then something still completely taboo in an art world reckoning with women artists. In the new arrangement we approach the work at some distance and it is brilliantly curated so the architectural aspect underscores the drama and meaning of the work.


Don’t miss the fascinating free exhibition Yevonde Life and Colour which presents over 60 year’s worth of material by the pioneering artist known simply as Yevonde who in the 1930s spearheaded a new development that we all benefit from daily: colour photography. More than a technical innovation, Yevonde is so inspirational as she harnessed this new artform to create space for women in a society overwhelmingly dominated by men. As she saw it, colour photography has ‘no history, no tradition, no old masters, but only a future!” I was struck by how contemporary her work looks, blurring the boundaries of the medium and using her camera in a radical way. Her subjects were also novel – ‘the modern woman’ androgynous in appearance and strong in nature. Importantly in her lifetime she didn’t sit on the outside looking in as a misunderstood genius, her work was celebrated and she was awarded important commissions such as photographing King George IV’s royal coronation guests in 1936 and thereby breathing fresh life into an old tradition.

Next door the National Gallery is hosting two of the finest shows I have seen this year: a blockbuster, After Impressionism and, arguably a more niche show that packs just as good a punch, Saint Francis of Assisi. The free exhibition makes a fascinating case for the 13th Century Saint’s relevance in a contemporary world with an emphasis on his commitment to social issues, spiritual radicalism and love of the natural world. As well as Italian masters including Botticelli and Caravaggio, the show features contemporary depictions including Anthony Gormley, a new commission by Richard Long and even a Marvel comic. I could have spent all night looking at the El Greco, an artist who was light years ahead of his time.


After Impressionism is possibly the perfect date night exhibition and worth buying tickets for as it’s dripping with sensuous pictures and artists daring to break the mould and rethink what painting should be in the wake of Impressionism which laid strong foundations for a few decades of rule breaking. My highlight was Derain’s La Danse which was so urgent in its modernism it felt as if it could have been painted last week. I highly recommended expanding your 'Art After Dark' experience to include masterful food, if you reserve a table at Ochre for a delectable dinner you’ll receive a complimentary glass of champagne by quoting ‘Art After Dark’. With a menu expertly crafted by culinary artisans, the restaurant serves the freshest, locally sourced ingredients from around the world.

Regardless of the weather, it always feels like summer has officially arrived for me after I visit the annual art extravaganza that is the Royals Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Founded in 1769 it is the largest open submission in the world meaning any artist can apply to have their work exhibited. Amateurs, graduates, museum level superstars and everything in between all jostle for coveted wall space quite happily in a show that is endlessly original and proudly democratic. Each year a Royal Academician takes the reins with a theme. For 2023 David Remfry has borrowed Only Connect, from the famous quote in Howards End by E.M. Forster. Highlights for me include Richard Malone’s textile installation which brings to mind something oceanic, like a magnificently well dressed octopus and the room bursting with portraits including great work by Liorah Tchiprout, David Lock, Annie Kevans and Sarah Maple.

Unusually for an institutional show the works are for sale, be sure to grab the now iconic hand size sales book on your way in. Red dots line the walls as seasoned collectors and impassioned gallery goers (like me) can’t resist taking something home and prices can be as low as £100. This is a paid for exhibition with funds supporting the RA schools and we recommend you buy a ticket in advance. Whether it’s a night out with friends or a romantic date, the RA is serving complimentary pintxos with every drink purchased at the Poster Bar and the newly installed Portico Terrace on Friday as well as delicious seasonal food and drinks at The Shenkman Bar, making it the perfect destination for post-exhibition refreshments.

Additionally, as a teaser for Art of London’s upcoming Summer Season 2023: The Art of Entertainment, members of the public will discover art in the sky with colourful hanging flags lining Piccadilly from 30 May until August. Created by renowned visual artist and Royal Academician, Rana Begum RA. Rana Begum’s epic flag installation celebrates London as a dynamic multicultural city and I love the thought that it will be witnessed by millions of people passing through the city.

At the Burlington Gardens side of the RA site is a jewel of an exhibition, a free display of Catherine Opie’s work. The American artist is one of the most profound and pioneering photographers of recent decades and here the RA presents a new acquisition of five portraits Opie has made of her fellow artists: the Royal Academicians David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, Gillian Wearing and Isaac Julian, and Royal Academy Schools graduate Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. These works combine the haunting, reserved quality of traditional paintings with the contemporary psychological insight that Opie’s camera lends all her subjects.

Art After Dark is the perfect way to enhance your night in the West End. Before dropping into an exhibition, try the finest Japanese cuisine at Ginza, which offers a culinary journey through the flavours of Japan with a modern twist, from grilled wagyu beef to artisanal sushi rolls. You could even make a proper night of it by staying at the luxury 5-star Haymarket Hotel, nestled in the heart of London’s theatre district and next door to London’s famous Haymarket Theatre Royal.

Taking advantage of the long-awaited summer evenings to enjoy all that the London’s West End has to offer art wise is one of the great joys of this initiative. It’s marvellous to be ambling around taking in quieter than normal galleries - without a coat – feeling lifted by some of London’s greatest artwork.

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Published

20.06.2023 - 11 months ago

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Updates