The best free exhibitions in London – get your culture fix and keep your money for coffee
Spring is officially here and London is, as ever, absolutely packed with things to do — whether that’s exhibitions, people, events and music.
But of course, it can all get a bit pricey. So if you want to have a great weekend seeing some of London’s best culture, but also want to save a few quid, look no further than this guide to the best art shows to see in the city, which are all absolutely free.
Not one for the squeamish: the Hunterian Museum reopened this week after a six year hiatus and a £4.6m redevelopment. A museum of anatomical specimens, that is appropriately located in the the building of the Royal College of Surgeons, expect to see body parts, bones and organs in glass jars and cabinets. “There are skulls, lips, teeth, tongues, throats, stomachs, intestines, testes, penises, and ovaries in varying states of health,” said The Standard. “Those are just the human bits.”
Named after the 18th century surgeon and anatomist William Hunter, the museum’s major update includes some much needed contextualisation, so while gawping at the growths floating in ethanol and skulls shot through with Syphilis, museum-goers now get an explanation of Hunter’s not always ethical methods, and of some of his ideas that would not be deemed acceptable today.
Hunterian Museum; hunterianmuseum.org
Edges of Sign Language
American artist Christine Sun Kim’s Edges of Sign Language, which concludes Kim’s 3-month Somerset House Studios x Goethe-Institut residency, explores “the physical space of American Sign Language (ASL)”.
Kim, who was born Deaf, posits that oral languages have currency and that sound is political, and uses American Sign Language (ASL), musical notation, written language, infographics as means to communicate and unpack this argument. Expect to see large canvases which have been employed as a way to show the spacial nature of the artist’s work.
Somerset House Studios’ Gallery 31, to May 21; somersethouse.org.uk
In Search of Silence
This one day audiovisual project from technology company 4DSOUND brings together the work of three Ukrainian photographers – Oleksandr Glyadyelov, Maksym Dondyuk, and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok – who have been documenting the devastation of Ukraine since the Russian invasion last February. The moving show, which shows the impact of the war on individuals and communities in Ukraine, is set against an “expansive soundtrack” from composer and sound artist Anton Baibakov.
Stone Nest, on May 20, 1pm-5pm; stonenest.org
Charlie Schaffer: Scalpel-like Eyes
Scalpel-like Eyes is a retrospective of Central Saint Martins and University of Brighton alum Charlie Schaffer’s post-graduation paintings. The exhibition, which brings together both paintings and drawings by the multi-award winning artist, will mark the first time that all aspects of his practice are presented together under one roof. Expect portraits, self-portraits and works from his Old Master studies, which inspire thoughts about human emotion, connection and essential and universal truths.
BWG Gallery, to May 30; brusheswithgreatness.co.uk
Pilvi Takala: On Discomfort
Finnish artist Pilvi Takala uses her work to explore, and gently push, the boundaries of behaviour and social norms. She uses video, performance and installation, and a “softly disruptive” attitude, which prompts often humorous and sometimes threatening responses in those around her. This show in south London follows her working covertly as a security guard at one of Finland’s largest shopping malls for six months.
Goldsmiths CCA, to June 4; goldsmithscca.art
Qualeasha Wood: TL;DR
In TL;DR, the first European solo exhibition of US based artist Qualeasha Wood, the artist brings together traditional craft techniques and contemporary technology to create jacquard tapestries and tuftings (a type of modern rug) which all explore racial, sexual and gender identity, particularly in relation to the Black femme body. Through these foundational themes Wood then poses questions about safety, vulnerability, fetishisation and surveillance, all of which are now intertwined with our consumption of mass media.
Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, to June 4; houldsworth.co.uk
The Ugly Duchess
Quinten Massys’s 1513 portrait is one of the best-known faces in the National Gallery. Dubbed “The Ugly Duchess”, this magnificent lady is the centrepiece of an exhibition looking at beauty and satire during the Renaissance. Finally reuniting her with her companion An Old Man — lent from a private collection — this small show explores the picture as a pioneering new form and attitudes to older women (yes, not much has changed). It also includes some fine sketches by Leonardo da Vinci.
National Gallery, to June 11; nationalgallery.org.uk
“At first glance a show about the game of chess could be considered absurd, trivial even,” explain Henry Hussey and Sophia Olver of OHSH Projects. But the thousand year old game is no laughing matter: Chess has brought together communities, families and friendships for centuries. The strategy game, this show argues, can also be used as a means of reflecting on conflict. It’s “a microcosm of society” and can be seen as means of “effectively exploring life and death”. Eight artists reflect on these ideas in Checkmate.
OHSH Projects South, Peckham Arches, to June 11; ohshprojects.com
Maki Na Kamura
Osaka-born, Berlin-based painter Maki Na Kamura presents a completely new body of work in her first London show. Na Kamura’s paintings, which are at once figurative and abstract, draw on a wide range of influences including the history of Japanese art and its impact on European painting, Italian Renaissance masters and K-Pop artists such as ATEEZ.
Michael Werner Gallery, to June 17; michaelwerner.com
Maisie Cousins: Walking Back To Happiness
Maisie Cousins’s second show at TJ Boulting explores childhood, the subconscious and lost memories through both the close up photos that have become the artist’s signature, and new work that involves AI and installations.
TJ Boulting, to June 17; tjboulting.com
A Hard Man is Good to Find!
This bold exhibition journeys through six decades of queer photography of the male physique. Including work by Cecil Beaton, Basil Clavering, Ajamu X and many more it celebrates the clandestine visual culture of male bodies, which emerged after the Second World War during a time when making and distributing such images was a criminal offence. There is no age restriction on the show but the website points out it includes nudity and sexually suggestive scenes.
Photographer’s Gallery, to June 11; thephotographersgallery.org.uk
Mother Art Prize
The Procreate Project Mother Art Prize is an open-call group exhibition that features 21 artists, all of whom are mothers or parents in some form. The idea of the show is not only to support the artists, but also to draw attention to the complexities around motherhood, parenthood and artistic output. Artists in the show include Jodie Carey, Hannah Ballou, Louise Black, Yasmin Noorbakhsh, Yelena Popova, Qian Qian, Si Sapsford and Alice Sheppard Fidler.
Zabludowicz Collection, to June 25; zabludowiczcollection.com
Yinka Ilori: Parables For Happiness
Yinka Ilori draws on his British-Nigerian heritage to create his accessibility-focused art and design work. He reimagines spaces in cities – often using bright colour patterns and employing geometric shapes – by creating murals, building outdoor gallery trails, installing structures in pavilions and transforming pedestrian crossings.
Now, at the Design Museum, the artist is showcasing a range of their work and inspirations including billboard graphics, Nigerian textiles, photographs, furniture and books. Visitors can look forward to as many as 100 objects all summarizing Ilori’s design inspiration.
Design Museum, to June 25; designmuseum.org
David Adjaye: Yaawa
Ladbroke Hall is about to become one of West London’s destination art spots, as the giant space, whose restoration has involved collaborations with artists and architects including Sir David Adjaye, Sir Christopher Le Brun, Ingrid Donat, Michèle Lamy and Rick Owens, among others, opens to the public in June. Its upcoming cultural programme is set to cover music, theatre, film, dance, art and collectible design and the space will include a garden sanctuary and a restaurant.
But for those who can’t wait for the new art hub’s big launch, its new East Wing Carpenters Workshop Gallery is now open with two exhibitions. The first, titled Yaawa, will contain Adjaye’s “latest body of collectible design” while the second, Denuncia, will feature selected work by Brazilian designer Jose Zanine Caldas.
Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Ladbroke Hall, through the summer; ladbrokehall.com
Caragh Thuring: The Foothills of Pleasure
Thuring’s first career survey was presented at Hastings Contemporary earlier this year. The Foothills of Pleasure follows on from this major exhibition, presenting a selection of new large-scale paintings as well as a series of portraits of people throughout history who share Thuring’s interest in volcanoes.
Caragh grew up near Holy Loch, which was the location of a US submarine base for thirty years and a construction site for North Sea oil rigs. The artist has long been inspired by her early life in the area; a large number of her works have depicted submarines, cranes and dock sides, and often deal with topics such as industry and industrial action.
Thomas Dane Gallery, to July 15; thomasdanegallery.com
St Francis of Assisi
This blockbuster, totally free, National Gallery exhibition is at first a bit of a head scratcher. With so many “old dead white blokes” to build an exhibition around, why choose a 13th century monk? But St Francis of Assisi, the Italian Catholic friar who the current pope is named after, is one of the most famous figures in Christianity: he founded the Franciscans, is the designated patron saint of Italy and is also likely to be the most represented saint in the history of art. This means that a show of images of his depiction is actually a show about history, craftsmanship, religion and ideas.
National Gallery, to July 30; nationalgallery.org.uk
To celebrate the centenary of Richard Avedon’s birth, Mayfair photographer gallery Hamiltons is putting on a major retrospective of the American photographer’s work. Expect to see iconic images as well as rarely seen photographs which have all been selected to run with the show’s theme of Glamour – “a central pillar” to Avedon’s body of work. Avedon, who died in 2004 and is seen as one of the pioneers of modern photography, took pictures of everyone from Twiggy and Ingrid Boulting, to early American supermodel Dovima and British icon Jean Shrimpton over his six-decade career.
Hamiltons, to August 11; hamiltonsgallery.com
Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender
The first major survey of fashion designer Ashish Gupta is now open at the William Morris Gallery. It’s set to be a joyous affair: Ashish’s work has come to be known for its bright colours and sequins. More than 60 designs, selected from Gupta’s work over the past 20 years, are on display alongside gorgeous photography, and a film, from photographer Ashish Shah, who grew up in North India.
William Morris Gallery, to September 10; wmgallery.org.uk
Sarah Sze: The Waiting Room
US artist Sarah Sze has created “extraordinary, intricate sculptural environments” in this new exhibition at the former first class waiting room at Peckham Rye Station, which has stood empty for around sixty years. The American artist, who explores technology and information by using everyday objects in her work, continues this exploration in this new Art Angel (the London-based arts organisation behind Rachel Whiteread’s House and Mika Rottenberg / Mahyad Tousi’s Remote) show. Expect steel bars, projected film sequences, moving projectors and flashing images.
Peckham Rye Station, to September 16; artangel.org.uk
Gideon Mendel: Fire / Flood
Since 2007, award-winning South African photographer Gideon Mendel has been travelling around the world photographing the devastating impact of climate catastrophes, focusing on flooding and wildfires. Over the past 15 years, he’s made 20 trips to flooded areas, most recently spending time in Nigeria and Pakistan.
Mendel said: “My subjects... are showing the world the calamity that has befallen them. They are not victims in this exchange: the camera records their dignity and resilience. They bear witness to the brutal reality that the poorest people on the planet almost always suffer the most from climate change.”
The Photographers’ Gallery, to September 30; thephotographersgallery.org.uk
Rhea Dillon: An Alterable Terrain
Art Now is Tate Britain’s long-running exhibition series spotlighting rising stars in the art scene; this time, it’s Rhea Dillon’s turn to shine. The interdisciplinary artist and Central Saint Martins alum explores British and Caribbean identities using new and old sculptures which are being presented as “a conceptual fragmentation of a Black woman’s body”.
Tate Britain, to January 1, 2024; tate.org.uk