MICHELIN Travel Discover the world
Home > > > > > > Art and Culture London

Leaving for Great Britain

Where to sleep?

View 923 hotels for London

Art and Culture

Enlarge map

Art and Culture


As London reinvents itself to suit the demands of the time, the architecture of the capital reflects its dynamic character. Tradition is an inherent part of the modern environment and a walk around London reveals an abundance of cultural landmarks. The extension of the city to the east and commissions for major buildings have provided architects with an opportunity to show a renewed sense of flair and innovation as old buildings are put to new uses and new architectural concepts are brought into play.

Roman influence

None of the city gates has survived but their existence is recalled in the names of the modern streets or neighbouring churches: Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate. The wall built by the Romans c. AD 200. was partially rebuilt between the 12C and the 17C. Demolition began in the 18C and by the 19C most of the wall had disappeared. The line of the old wall can be traced by excavated outcrops, usually consisting of an upper area of medieval construction resting on a Roman base (Barbican, St Alphage Church, All Hallows Church, Sir John Cass College and the Tower of London). The street known as London Wall more or less follows the line of the Roman Wall between Aldersgate and Bishopsgate; Houndsditch marks the course of the old ditch outside the wall.

The London Wall Walk (just under 2mi/3km; about 2hr) between the Museum of London and the Tower of London is well mapped out with 21 descriptive panels.


Timber was, for a long time, the cheapest material. Stone, quarried in Kent or imported from Normandy was brought upriver to the Tower of London; Portland stone was first brought to London for St Paul’s Cathedral (17C); Yorkshire stone for the Houses of Parliament (1835–60). Bricks were made locally in Kensington and Islington. In the City, roofs were for the most part thatched until the 15C or 16C and were not uniformly tiled or slated until after the Great Fire (1666).

The Norman Conquest

Edward the Confessor grew up in exile in Normandy before assuming the throne of England (1042–66), it was therefore natural for him to model his designs for Westminster Abbey on the Abbey at Jumièges as a symbol of the Church Militant.

The best examples of Norman architecture are to be found at St Bartholomew-the-Great, St John’s Chapel in the Tower of London and the extant parts of Westminster Abbey rebuilt by Edward the Confessor before the arrival of William the Conqueror.

The boldness of design and sheer scale of the Norman style are reflected in the White Tower and in Westminster Hall – the largest to be built north of the Alps (240ft/73m long).

The Tudor and Jacobean Eras

The greatest examples in the public domain are St James’s Palace and Hampton Court, which have the typical multi-storey gateway. At Hampton Court are preserved decorative chimney-stacks, internal courtyards and the great hall with its hammerbeam roof. The first such roof and the most impressive (spanning 70ft/21m) is that in the hall of the Palace of Westminster, while other examples survive in the Middle Temple Hall (Elizabethan), Charterhouse and Eltham Palace (c. 1479); decorative pendants used at Hampton Court also survive at Crosby Hall in Chelsea. Tudor brickwork with diaper patterning is visible at Charterhouse and Fulham Palace.

The Gothic Style

Gothic arrived in England from the continent in the 12C with the expansion of the Benedictine and, in the north, of the Cistercian Orders. It remained the predominant style for 400 years, evolving in three main phases.

Early English emerged as a distinctive style at Salisbury and was confirmed at Westminster (1220) where the fabric of the building was essentially conceived as a framework for traceried windows. In the 13C, Henry III assumed the role of pre-eminent patron of architecture in the country – an example continued until the reign of Henry VIII. When the king decided to remodel Westminster church to his taste, he selected the best craftsmen from home and abroad. The result is an English interpretation of French Gothic: Westminster was consolidated with flying buttresses (cloister side of the nave). The elevation consisted of a high arcade, narrow triforium and tall clerestory with rose windows. However, what is distinctively English is the window tracery, so delicate and fluid as no longer to be considered stone masonry as such; the use of polished stone column shafts; the overall richness of applied decoration and the use of iron tie-rods as an alternative to flying buttresses.

Decorated Gothic emerged in the late 13C and may be distinguished by the richness and wealth of design in geometrical and later curvilinear tracery; from the 1290s, lierne vaulting became widespread. In essence, a spirit of experimentation and variety of approach pervaded this transitional phase.

Perpendicular , which overlapped with the previous style for 50 years, inspired architects, on occasion, to abandon the quadrangular in favour of the polygonal, thereby giving greater visual play to the windows and the illusion of a more coherent space. In some cases this led to the use of timber rather than stone for roofing.

During the 15C and 16C, after the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, the Crown returned to being the leading patron leaving us three Royal chapels in south-east England, including Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey (1503–19). Otherwise, this Perpendicular phase was the great age for secular building and for parish churches. Alas many of the London churches were damaged by the Reformation and/or destroyed in the City by the Great Fire (1666).

The rebuilding that followed, to designs by Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723), marked the end of the evolution of Gothic architecture and the dawn of a different Continental influence.

Early Classicism or Palladianism

The turning point in the evolution of English architecture comes in the mid 16C when the Duke of Northumberland sent a certain John Shute to Italy “to confer with the doings of the skilful masters in architecture”. His findings, however, only superficially influenced decorative designs applied to Elizabethan country houses.

At the turn of the century, Inigo Jones (1573–1652) emerged as the first British architect with a definable personality moulded by the Renaissance Humanist ideal, by his affinity with Palladio’s work on Italian architecture IQuattro Libri dell’Architettura published in Venice in 1570, and by his visits to Venice (1601 and 1605), Padua and Rome (1613).

Important projects to survive undertaken for the Crown by Jones include the Banqueting House completed in 1622 and the Queen’s House.

Classical Baroque and the Classical Revival (17C-18C)

In the wake of Jones comes Sir Christopher Wren who is perhaps a contender for the top ten of greatest Englishmen. Wren left England only once for Paris in 1665 where he met Bernini, the famous Baroque sculptor, architect and designer from Rome. On his return to London, Wren drew up a series of designs for the rebuilding of the Old St Paul’s inspired by Lemercier’s dome at the Church of the Sorbonne. In the run up to the millennium a redesign of the area around St Paul’s was based in part on Wren’s plans, opening up a view of the cathedral from the river.

The City Churches

Although only a few of the parish churches were drawn in detail by Wren, most were planned by the Royal Surveyor, and later supplied with steeples. The most complete surviving Wren churches include St Bride’s, St Mary le Bow, St Stephen Walbrook, St Vedast, St Clement Danes and St James’s.

St Paul’s Cathedral

What is remarkable is that Wren lived long enough to see the completion of his masterpiece (1675–1710) which has provided later generations of architects with architectural inspiration and solutions to design problems.

Wren also worked on Hampton Court Palace (south and east wings), the Chelsea Hospital and the Greenwich Hospital, where he was certainly assisted by Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh (1664–1726) – both use Classical elements with boldness and imagination to dramatic effect.

The Clerk of Works who followed Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661–1736) developed his own form of English Mannerism (St Mary Woolnoth in the City; St Alfege in Greenwich; St Anne’s, Limehouse; St George-in-the-East, Stepney; St George, Bloomsbury; west towers of Westminster Abbey).


The rise of a new aristocracy, together with the Duke of Marlborough’s great military victories, provided new opportunities for patronage and travel to the Continent. During the first decades of the 18C, Colen Campbell (d. 1729) published Vitruvius Britannicus , a compilation of British buildings in the Antique manner – a veritable manifesto for Palladianism; the other two mainstays of the movement were Lord Burlington (1694–1753) and William Kent (1685–1748), who together went on to forge a powerful partnership that provided architectural designs, interior decoration and layouts for extensive gardens-cum-parks in the manner of Palladio’s Brenta villas (Chiswick Villa).

The man who bridges the gap between Wren and the new surge of Palladianism is James Gibbs (1682–1754), the architect of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Gibbs was a great follower of Wren – his St Mary-le-Strand is a stylistic and physical neighbour of Wren’s St Clement Danes up the Strand.

Georgian Elegance

The next generation of eclectic designers is dominated by two rivals: Sir William Chambers RA (1723–96) an upholder of tradition, and the more innovative Robert Adam (1728–92).

Chambers, who had travelled to the Far East, was asked to remodel Kew Gardens and embellish them with exotic temples and a pagoda. He gained particular favour with George III which allowed him to exercise his taste and judgement in such important commissions as Somerset House.

Adam also travelled extensively, to France, Italy and Dalmatia to explore the Classical style and to draw inspiration direct from the example of Antique domestic architecture. In interior decoration he borrowed extensively from descriptions of Pompeii and Herculaneum and from artefacts excavated from Palmyra and Greece, most especially from Greek vase painting – he developed a light touch and delicacy that, having found favour at Osterley Park and Syon House, was quickly assimilated into 18C aesthetic movements. Few Adam town houses survive intact: Home House at 20 Portman Square, the south and east sides of Fitzroy Square, single houses in St James’s Square (no 20) , Chandos Street and behind the Adelphi.

English Neoclassicism evolved into an informal reinterpretation of the Antique and affected all the decorative and applied arts. Multi-disciplined designers like Adam and Chambers were content to accommodate other revivalist styles in the form of follies, bowers and bandstands. Gothic was limited to private houses (Strawberry Hill); chinoiserie to garden pagodas (Kew); Rococo to follies or pleasure gardens (Vauxhall); the Picturesque contrived to imitate untamed Nature, as depicted in painting – dead trees were planted and “ruins” were artificially assembled in gardens.

The Regency Period (1811–1830)

The main thread of the Regency style came from pre-Revolution France, copied from picture books and interpreted by Continental craftsmen. The key figure of this phase is probably Henry Holland (1745–1806) who designed Brooks’s Club in St James’s. The period up to the death of George IV is also dominated by three men: Sir John Soane (1753–1837) whose principal legacy was the Bank of England, now largely destroyed; John Nash , favourite architect of George IV, who was responsible for laying out Regent Street, the terraces of elegant residences for Members of Parliament surrounding Regent’s Park (1810–11), for designing the grand Carlton House Terrace, Buckingham Palace (although much changed), the Brighton Pavilion and various country houses. Thomas Cubitt , quality builder and property developer, worked from George Basevi’s designs to create Belgrave Square and other large sections of Belgravia (1825), Pelham Crescent (1820–30); other squares, crescents and streets stretch from Putney and Clapham to Islington, Kensington to the Isle of Dogs.

The Victorian Age (19C)

A population explosion provoked a huge demand for urban housing that in turn necessitated a change in building practices. Materials began to be industrially manufactured (by the 1840s whole buildings were being pre-fabricated and concrete was being tested in the 1860s) and transported cheaply by rail.

The main phases may be identified as Early Victorian , characterised by earnest historicism and the use of plainish materials, High Victorian (1850s–1870s) which reacted against archaeological correctness with bright colour, contrasting materials and strong sculptural effects, and Late Victorian which reverted to smooth contours and soft textures, intricate decoration and delicate colour.

A key figure who straddles all three phases was Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811–78). He applied his confident Gothic style as easily to religious buildings (St Mary Abbotts, Kensington) as to secular developments: St Pancras Station and Hotel, Albert Memorial, Broad Sanctuary west of Westminster Abbey. His grandson Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880–1960) proved himself to be a far more sensitive and inspired product of the Late Victorian age, bequeathing such individual landmarks of the post-industrial age as Battersea Power Station (1932–4), Waterloo Bridge (1939–45) and Bankside Power Station.

London’s singlemost famous building, the Houses of Parliament, with its signature clocktower housing Big Ben, was added to the medieval Westminster Hall by Sir Charles Barry between 1840–1888.

At the same time, functional cast-iron building became an art in itself (Lewis Cubitt’s King’s Cross Station 1852, Brunel’s Paddington Station 1850).

Red-brick developments were instituted by the London County Council who drew inspiration from Philip Webb for Bethnal Green and Millbank. Another successful exponent of this practical, unfussy style was Richard Norman Shaw (1831–1912) who designed Lowther Lodge in Kensington (1873, now the Geographical Society), Swan House in Chelsea (1876) and four houses in Cadogan Square (60a, 62, 68 and 72). The interior decoration and furnishings were left to the firm of the socialist William Morris (1834–96) and as such soon became identified with the Arts and Crafts Movement .

Against the tide of mass production, came a revival of craftsmanship in architectural sculpture, stained glass, practical hand-made furniture, block-printed fabrics and wallpapers. While Alfred Waterhouse (1830–1905) designed the Natural History Museum combining naturalistic observation with fantastic imaginary beasts applied to some great Germanic Romanesque fabric, De Morgan tiles and Morris screens spurned the development of art nouveau.

A surge in church building was provoked by demand to serve the new suburbs. Perpendicular spires spiked the sky as a new interest in Gothic architecture culminated in the new designs for the Palace of Westminster. As in the 18C, fads and fashions proliferated prompting a revivalist taste for neo-Norman, neo-Early Christian and, in the mid century, for neo-Italian Romanesque.

20C and early 21C

Not until the 1920s was the neo-Gothic tradition broken when Edward Maufe provoked a change of direction by building truly modern churches : St Columba’s in Pont Street, St John’s in Peckham.

The International Style formulated by the Belgian Henry van der Velde (1863–1957) and the German Peter Behrens (1868–1940) – both painters turned designer and architect – were followed by Walter Gropius (1883–1969). They advocated quality in building and practical functionality – factories and power stations should not be dressed to look like schools or cathedrals. Meanwhile, steel-frame construction (Ritz Hotel 1904) and the use of concrete led to ever shorter building time-frames.

Distinctive modern housing is rare: 64–66 Old Church Street in Chelsea (c. 1934) by the International Modernist Mendelsohn and Chernayeff, the Sun House in Hampstead (1935) by Maxwell Fry , Highpoint One and Two in Highgate (1936–38) by the reclusive Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton, Goldfinger’s custom-built 2 Willow Road and Cheltenham Estate (Kensal Rise). Lillington Gardens, Pimlico (1960s) and Aberdeen Park in Islington (1980s) by Darbourne and Darke show that council housing need not be unattractive.

Today, important contemporary developments abound on the South Bank, in the City, Docklands, around Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, while imaginative conversions proliferate along the Thames and within London’s mainline railway stations and disused markets (Billingsgate, Spitalfields) and power stations (Bankside, Lots Road). Notable landmarks on London’s skyline include Centre Point, the South Bank Complex, Barbican, Telecom Tower, Richard Rogers ’s Lloyd’s Building, Tower 42, Chelsea Harbour, Vauxhall Cross, and 1 Canada Square – known simply as Canary Wharf. The Millennium Dome in Greenwich and the new offices of the Mayor of London in Bermondsey (City Hall) add a futuristic note to the riverside. The distinctive Swiss Re building designed by Sir Norman Foster (2002) and known to locals as “the Gherkin” continues the trend for eco-friendly buildings. Other architects are applying their skills to the 2012 Olympic Games project and to the redevelopment of the Lower Lee Valley around Stratford.

Music and Theatre

It is acknowledged that the best way to capture the spirit of a place is to take part in its cultural activities. London has a proud reputation as an eclectic capital for the performing arts and Londoners have open minds and show a refreshing willingness to share new experiences. The profusion of venues and the range and quality of the offerings attest to the vibrancy of the musical and theatrical scene. The diversity of this multicultural city is a further asset to which artists from all over the world also make a contribution.

A Musical Mosaic

London is one of the concert, opera and pop capitals of the world. Tradition and modernity are often juxtaposed to reflect diverse cultural influences at play; nowadays pop musicians and classical orchestras collaborate with great success. This significant development is a consequence of the fusion of genres, as audiences show a willingness to experiment with new musical forms. It is not unusual to mark events of national interest in a musical idiom fusing the popular and traditional styles. Opera performances are held in more accessible venues such as the arena at the Royal Albert Hall and the piazza in Covent Garden. Happy crowds enjoy the Last Night of The Proms in Hyde Park and the open-air concerts at Holland Park, Hampton Court and Kenwood. Popstars are equally at home at the Royal Albert Hall, The 02 Arena, Wembley Arena and the London Arena in Docklands; the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican host jazz, folk and world music along with a superb array of classical concerts.

The Swinging Capital

London’s dizzying musical atmosphere is characterised by four prestigious orchestras, two celebrated opera companies, a multitude of pop groups, and a wide range of musical entertainment from buskers on the pavement to lunchtime church concerts and from polished orchestral performances to professionally staged rock shows and techno raves. Jazz music has achieved high status. The creative energy of the music scene which fosters inventive new styles shows no signs of abating.

A Formidable Tradition

The light airs of Tudor England (e.g. Greensleeves , attributed to Henry VIII) developed into rounds, canons and finally a golden age (1588–1630) of madrigals. Much instrumental dance music was written with variations to display the performer’s virtuosity; John Dowland excelled at solo songs accompanied by lute and viol. At the same time Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were composing religious music for the organ and voice in masses and anthems, set to the Latin and English liturgy; only in Elizabeth’s reign did a distinctive Anglican style emerge.

In the latter half of the 17C composers extended their range with Te Deums and songs and incidental music for the theatre. Henry Purcell (1659–96), who dominated his own and subsequent generations, produced the first full-length opera (Dido and Aeneas) in 1689. Italian opera then became popular and was firmly established with Rinaldo (1711) by Handel , who had arrived in England that year. Handel resided at 25 Brooke Street, Mayfair until his death in 1759 and he produced operas based on mythological subjects, which were satirised by John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera (1728), occasional pieces such as the Fireworks and Water Music and a great succession of oratorios about religious heroes: Esther, Messiah.

Mozart composed his first symphony in 1764 while residing at 180 Ebury Street; his name is perpetuated in Mozart Terrace in Pimlico. Haydn stayed in London in the 1790s when he was the greatest musical figure in Europe. Mendelssohn came to London early in the 19C and began work on the Scottish Symphony and incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream , which he completed some 20 years later.

The Modern Age

At the end of the 19C, English music began to become widely popular. The Savoy operas – libretto by WS Gilbert and music by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1875–99) appealed to a wide audience. As radio became widespread in the 1930s, the BBC began to broadcast the Promenade Concerts , which had been inaugurated in 1895 by the conductor, Henry Wood, in the Queen’s Hall and later held in the Albert Hall. The programmes, organised by the BBC, include orchestral works and opera by classical and modern composers, performed by national and visiting musicians and conductors. The promenaders make a spirited contribution to the Last Night, when traditional pieces are played (including Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance ).

The opening of the 20C also saw the appearance of a host of new British composers: Edward Elgar ( Enigma Variations 1899, Dream of Gerontius 1900), Delius, Vaughan Williams (nine symphonies) and Gustav Holst ( The Planets 1914-16). They were joined in the 1920s by Bax, Bliss and William Walton ( Belshazzar’s Feast 1931).

After the war they were reinforced by Michael Tippett ( A Child of Our Time 1941, The Midsummer Marriage 1955) and Benjamin Britten who produced a magnificent series of works – Peter Grimes 1945, Albert Herring , Let’s Make an Opera , Billy Budd , Midsummer Night’s Dream , The War Requiem and the operetta Paul Bunyan.

The second half of the 20C saw the establishment of permanent centres of opera at Covent Garden and the London Coliseum, the construction of concert halls on the South Bank and at the Barbican, the restoration of the Wigmore Hall and the birth of numerous provincial (summer) festivals.

The British Musical

From the late 1960s musicals achieved huge popularity, dominated by the talented and prolific Andrew Lloyd-Webber , who initially collaborated with Tim Rice ( Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita ) and the producer Cameron Mackintosh (Cats) . The shows, where the story is partly told in song, set the trend for spectacular staging, strong but simple melody and large casts. Other thrilling shows such as Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera have enjoyed long runs in the West End. Recent revivals have included Mary Poppins , Saturday Night Fever and Guys and Dolls .

The successful shows are staged in cities worldwide and have won a huge following. The Lion King , with music by Elton John , combines animation, music and song in a novel way, and there is a new trend towards reusing great pop music as the background for a plot with smash hits such as Mamma Mia (Abba) and We Will Rock You (Queen).


The rich legacy of the music hall tradition and the fantastic success of contemporary musicals are evidence of the happy fusion of two genres. Jazz music, which took over from the big dance bands, has a solid following and jazz clubs are flourishing with a high calibre of performers such as the saxophonist Courtney Pine.

Since the Swinging Sixties, the Britpop music scene has never been so dynamic with a proliferation of new styles, the thundering rhythmic output of famous rock and dance venues and nightclubs, the chart-topping popstars and bands and the independent groups performing in pubs and clubs.

Prestigious orchestras and celebrated artists make regular appearances at famous concert halls, opera houses, cathedrals and churches throughout London. Besides the classical repertoire, there is a drive to introduce music by modern composers to a wide public.

The London Stage

The success of the London stage has been built on a unique tradition which spans more than five centuries. Talented playwrights and actors have helped to establish the reputation of British theatre worldwide but the capital is also receptive to foreign influences and new talent is applauded by enthusiastic and knowledgeable audiences.

Today high standards and international reputations are maintained by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. Experimental theatre starts in the provinces and on London’s fringe circuit before moving to the West End. During the summer, open-air venues in Holland Park, Regent’s Park and the Globe Theatre are an unusually historical and informal way to enjoy performances, while several stately homes and parks, including Hampton Court and Kew are now hosting short seasons of open-air Shakespeare. Behind all of this, the suburbs support many smaller theatres, shared by touring productions and enthusiastic local amateur groups.

A Rich Theatrical History

During the Middle Ages plays were performed outside the city boundaries as the City of London authorities were steadfast in refusing to allow theatrical performances within their jurisdiction. The courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I at Nonsuch Palace and Hampton Court attracted contemporary dramatists and entertainers for private functions.

The first regular “public” performances were held in Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, where James Burbage founded the first English playhouse and then moved south of the river to Southwark.

The legal fraternity also provided facilities for the performance of plays, masques and revels; in the late 16C The Comedy of Errors was staged in Gray’s Inn and Twelfth Night was played beneath the hammerbeam roof of the Middle Temple Hall.

The true theatrical tradition, however, is descended from the popular genre whose most famous exponents include William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Christopher Marlowe (1564–93), Ben Jonson (1572/3–1637), Wycherley, Congreve, Sheridan, Oscar Wilde , Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter .

From Restoration Comedy to Music Hall

The social climate of the Restoration is reflected in the witty comedy of manners of William Congreve ( The Way of the World and Love for Love ). The Theatres Royal of Drury Lane, Haymarket and Covent Garden opened under royal patronage in that period. The most famous performer was Nell Gwynne, a royal favourite. The 18C was an era of great acting talent such as David Garrick, the Kembles, Sarah Siddons and Dorothea Jordan. The School for Scandal by Sheridan was a triumph. In the 19C the stage was dominated by Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean.

In the Victorian era, the growth of the urban population brought about new forms of entertainment: melodrama reflecting the popular taste for sentimentality and music hall combining song and ribald comedy. The popularity of the latter genre – the star was the glamorous singer Marie Lloyd – led to grander theatres, known as Palaces of Variety, such as the London Palladium. The Hackney Empire, Collins Music Hall in Islington and Wilton’s Music Hall in Wapping are rare survivals. Variety gave way to French-style revue combining songs and sketches. Its undisputed masters were Ivor Novello and Noel Coward , who epitomised the glamour and sophistication of the period.

A Wave of Innovation

Farce and “kitchen sink drama” were both new vogues introduced by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre which opened in 1870. Coined as the “bad boy of West End theatre,” this famous institution was the launch pad for GB Shaw (1904–09), John Osborne (Look Back in Anger 1956) and Arnold Wesker among others who dealt with current social and political issues. The innovative style of Harold Pinter , his sparse use of language and challenging political themes were in tune with the mood of the time. In 2005, Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The National Theatre Company was established to stage original works which might not be produced in the West End owing to commercial pressures. The Old Vic under Lilian Baylis had set the scene. Famous performers include many of the greatest: Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Paul Scofield, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench have won acclaim internationally. The playwrights David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn, David Storey, Edward Bond, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard have achieved pre-eminence on TV and in film as well as on the stage.

The Fringe

Alternative theatre dealing with experimental or controversial themes is performed in pubs, converted churches and small venues such as the Royal Court (Sloane Square), the King’s Head (Islington), the Bush (Shepherd’s Bush), the Gate (Notting Hill) and the Battersea Arts Centre. The Donmar and the Almeida are reputed for staging intelligent and provocative plays and for attracting famous names. The fringe is the proving ground of many leading writers, directors and actors.

Stand-up comedy comes into its own at The Comedy Store, Jongleurs and a host of other venues. There is an atmosphere of fun, and the shows are usually of a good quality with young hopefuls trying their luck and established comics running through new routines.


A Captivating City

Not all have felt with William Dunbar “London thou art the flower of cities all” nor even with Dr Johnson that “there is in London all that life can afford,” but at some point in their careers many writers lived in London and English literature from detective stories to diaries, from novels to biographies and histories, is permeated with scenes of London. Despite their numbers there has been no regular forum for writers down the years: groups have shifted from the pubs near Blackfriars Theatre to those on Bankside and down the Borough High Street close to the Globe; to Highgate, to Chelsea and, for a charmed circle centred on Virginia Woolf , to Bloomsbury; at the turn of the century a group around Oscar Wilde , which included Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm, and artists of the day met at the Café Royal. Since many writers have begun or earned a living as journalists, the first regular haunts were the coffee houses around Fleet Street; Addison and Steel frequented the George and Vulture and subsequently Button’s at both of which they wrote copy for the Tatler and Spectator ; Dr Johnson called at many coffee houses and taverns but nearest his own house was The Cheshire Cheese where, tradition has it, many of the great conversations took place.


Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400) was a courtier and diplomat; he drew on the rich tradition of contemporary French, Latin and Italian literature to recount his Canterbury Tales about pilgrims journeying between Southwark and Canterbury. The Elizabethan Age is encapsulated in Sir Edmund Spenser ’s Faerie Queene , a long poem populated with personifications of Justice, Temperance, Holiness, Chastity, etc. The two great masters of theatre Christopher Marlowe (1564–93) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616) used free verse enriched with powerful imagery and varied syntax.

It was not until John Milton (1608–74) emerged that the poetic genre heralded the Age of the Enlightenment. Intellectually provocative, Milton carefully expressed his Puritan anti-Royalist politics in prose and his views on the Fall of Man in verse (Paradise Lost, Comus, Lycidas) . The first Poet Laureate, John Dryden (1631–1700) recorded contemporary events in his poetry, criticism, drama and translations: his clear, precise verse heralds the rational climate of the period of Alexander Pope , Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Samuel Johnson (compiler of the first Dictionary 1755).

Such Romantic poets as Blake, Burns, Wordsworth and Coleridge are great and distinctive figures but, like the Brontës, Hardy and Eliot, wrote largely outside the London scene, turning instead to spirituality, Scottish patriotism, and Nature for inspiration. The quintessence of the movement exists in the tragically short life and inspired output of John Keats (1795–1821) who came to London to study medicine. William Wordsworth mused on Westminster Bridge but lived in the Lake District; Lord Byron enjoyed high society.

For the Victorians, Imagination must reign over Reason – the Poet Laureate (1850–92) Tennyson (Morte d’Arthur) specialised in mellifluous poetry, Browning in more exclamatory verse, and Arnold in descriptions of the moral dilemmas of life deprived of religious faith. Pre-Raphaelite poets such as DG Rossetti ,his sister Christina, William Morris and Swinburne drew their subject matter from the timeless myths and legends, and from ancient ballads.

The Aesthetes of the 1890s, including Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Beerbohm and Beardsley , were greatly impressed by the philosophical writings of Henri Bergson (1859–1941) and affected by Huysmans’ Symbolist novel A Rebours (Against the Grain alluded to in Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray ). The counter-reaction this provoked was a move towards realism led by WB Yeats (1865–1939) and Rudyard Kipling whose verse was full of colloquial language, natural rhythm and vitality. The Georgian poets including TS Eliot ( Waste Land , Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats , Murder in the Cathedral ), DH Lawrence and Walter de la Mare defined the transition to Modernism: their work is haunted by the devastating effect of war – poignantly captured by the War Poets (Sassoon, Owen and Brooke).

The 1930s era of depression is recorded by WH Auden , Cecil Day Lewis , Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender : contemporaries at Oxford, their verse is direct in appeal, colloquial in language and anti-establishment in politics. Dylan Thomas (1914–53), on the other hand, explores childhood and innocence and Ted Hughes (1930–98) describes the inherent violence of Nature. Carol Ann Duffy is the current – and first female – Poet Laureate (Britain’s “official” poet).

The Lighter Touch

Truly English in quality is the light, humorous and entertaining light verse. Many of the major writers dabbled in it, but it is the likes of Edward Lear (1812–88 – Book of Nonsense ) and Lewis Carroll (1832–98 – Alice in Wonderland ) that have been the most enduring masters of nonsense and limerick. Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953 – Cautionary Tales ) and AA Milne (1882–1956 – Winnie the Pooh ) contributed their verse to Punch magazine – a venue that in the pictorial arts had already long perfected the parallel genre of caricature and cartoon. Perhaps the most typically English of the comic writers were Sir John Betjeman (1906–1984) and PG Wodehouse (1881–1975).

The Novel

“The object of a novel should be to instruct in morals while it amuses” observed Anthony Trollope . The first of a line of great novelists is Daniel Defoe (c. 1661–1731), who managed, in Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders , to describe ordinary middle-class characters in credible plots. Following Defoe comes Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), originator of the epistolary novel with Pamela and Clarissa, which explore human thought and emotion, and the popular playwright before he became a novelist, Henry Fielding (1701–54) whose Tom Jones is the story (moralistic in tone) of a man of unknown birth who goes to London to seek his fortune. At the turn of the century Oliver Goldsmith, Fanny Burney and Sir Horace Walpole found fame with single works prompting an interest in the Picturesque as well as mystery and terror – a tradition which was to inspire Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

The Romantic movement is dominated by the prolific Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), a specialist of the historical novel where characters seem powerless pawns before external political predicaments (Waverley, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe) . By contrast, Jane Austen (1775–1817) drew her six novels from personal experience – notably in matters of love and marriage; she writes with wry humour and sensitivity which give her novels an enduring popularity.

The Victorian chapter is dominated by Charles Dickens (1812–70), who animates his great catalogue of novels, set in and around London, with colourful characterisation, inventive plots, humour and pathos ( Pickwick Papers , Oliver Twist , Nicholas Nickleby , A Christmas Carol , David Copperfield , Bleak House , Little Dorrit and Great Expectations ). Published as serials, his stories quickly found a large audience and stirred contemporary Humanists to reform social conditions for children, the poor and the deprived. William Thackeray (1811–63) sets his Vanity Fair in Regency England, reproaching hypocrisy and double standards.

Writing at the turn of the century, HG Wells (1866–1946) drew on his studies at London University to create scientific romances that lead the way for the science fiction of John Wyndham (1903–69). Travel and free thought are the principal themes of a new phase in literature: EM Forster (1879–1970) explored the frailty of human nature; Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) saw herself as an artist retaliating against the narrow-mindedness of Victorian London; she is certainly one of the most discerning and psychological novelists. Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) depicts social circumstances with wit, black comedy and farce that develop to realism in the face of the threat of war – a realism that pervades the work of George Orwell (1903–50) and his haunting images in 1984 of a spiritless, futuristic age.

The 20C was marked by various versatile personalities living and working in London, who travelled abroad into their novels: Graham Greene , Kingsley Amis , Muriel Spark , Doris Lessing , Iris Murdoch , Anthony Burgess . The Waterstone’s Guide to London Writing is a comprehensive survey of books set in the city. The end of the 20C saw the emergence of novelists belonging to various ethnic minorities, in particular Indian-born Salman Rushdie whose controversial Satanic Verses divided Islamic opinion and led to a fatwa death sentence being pronounced against him.


The Tudor Era

The Renaissance master Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543) first came to London in 1526 with an introduction from the Humanist scholar Erasmus . His great draughtsmanship, penetrating eye and delicate colour suggest the artist’s concern for capturing an accurate resemblance of physique and personality – formal portraits show the master keen to emphasise the exquisite detail of a jewel, brooch, brocade, silken velvet, fur or other such mark denoting status ( The Ambassadors 1533, National Gallery). Holbein joined the court of Henry VIII and was subsequently sent abroad to paint the king’s prospective brides (Duchess of Milan ,National Gallery ) .

Hans Eworth who came from Antwerp in 1549, fused his own style ( Sir John Luttrell , Courtauld Institute Galleries) with that of Holbein, in order to be promoted to court painter by Mary I and influence the likes of British-born Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547–1619) who rose to become the most eminent Elizabethan portraitist in about 1570. Having been apprenticed to a goldsmith, Hilliard’s jewel-like precise style was eminently suited to miniature painting (works in the Wallace Collection, V&A and Tate Britain). His greatest disciple and later rival was Isaac Oliver (d. 1617).

The Stuarts

Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, Charles I and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham emerge as three great patrons of the age. Religious troubles continued to provoke restlessness on the Continent, and artists were obliged to seek patrons where they could. Van Somer settled in London in 1616 and quickly found favour at the court ( Queen Anne of Denmark, 1617, Royal Collection). Daniel Mytens came to England c 1618 from The Hague bringing a new sense of confidence both in his bold style of painting and the stances given to his subjects; he was appointed Painter to Charles I in 1625. He, together with London-born Cornelius Johnson (1593–1661), a master of technique, was superseded in popularity by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) whose full-length official portraits project an air of gracious ease and elegance. Van Dyck’s Baroque compositions are a symphony of colour and texture – shimmering silk set against a matt complexion, heavily draped curtains contrasting with solid objects that represent a distinctive attribute pertinent to the sitter. His portraits of the English royal family set a benchmark for future generations perpetuated through Dobson, Lely, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, and Lawrence. ( Charles I in Three Positions Royal Collection, Charles I on Horseback ,National Gallery) .

“The most excellent painter England hath yet bred,” William Dobson (1610–46), was born in London and grew up to become a staunch Cavalier (Royalist). His natural style, influenced by Italian art, is less refined than Van Dyck’s whom he succeeded as court painter ( Endymion Porter Tate Britain).

Sir Peter Lely (1618–1680) was born in Germany of Dutch parentage. His early works (1640s) in England are narrative religious pieces. At the Restoration he became Principal Painter to Charles II (1661) and produced stylised portraits celebrating the image of languorous Beauty ( Windsor Beauties at Hampton Court) or the masculine Admiralty ( Flagmen at Greenwich): one honouring virtue, the other victory in the Second Dutch War. His “history” pictures meanwhile satisfied a less prudish market depicting the same modish voluptuous ladies ( Sleeping Nymphs at Dulwich) in more sensual poses.

The reign of James II saw the appointment of a new Principal Painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646/9–1723). Official portraits in the style of Lely are dignified if not beautiful in the Classical sense; well executed, they conform to a taste for formality and noble bearing (42 portraits known as the Kit-Cat series showing the head and one hand.

Decorative Schemes

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) evolved his highly energetic Baroque style from studying works by Titian, Raphael, Velázquez and epitomised the best of contemporary Continental art. In 1635, he completed the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a complex allegorical painting commissioned by Charles I. The impact on the English court of this bold political celebration of Charles’s kingship should not be underestimated, nor should his influence on subsequent court painters be dismissed.

Lesser decorative schemes for stairways and ceilings were undertaken by foreign artists, paid by the square foot: Antonio Verrio , a Neapolitan, is registered in the service of the Crown from 1676 until 1688 at Windsor, St James’s Palace and Whitehall. Louis Laguerre was trained in the Classical French tradition before coming to England at the behest of the Duke of Montagu, who was building Montagu House in Bloomsbury. Pellegrini , a follower of Ricci, was invited to England by the Earl of Manchester; he later became a founding member of the Royal Academy. The Venetian Sebastiano Ricci was responsible for the dome painting at Chelsea Hospital and a pair of large mythological paintings that hang in Burlington House. The great skill of these craftsmen, their ability to suggest luminosity and movement on a grand scale have secured their reputation as well as that of Sir James Thornhill (1675/6–1734), the British Baroque master of decorative painting who followed their example when engaged on such important commissions as the Painted Hall at Greenwich, the Prince’s Apartments at Hampton Court and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Taste veered away from this French art in the manner of Lebrun only when the Neoclassical designer William Kent clinched the commission to decorate Kensington Palace.


William van de Velde was an official war artist employed by the Dutch navy to document battles against the British fleet. Works at the National Maritime Museum Collection, Greenwich confirm his ability to record precise detail – a quality that endeared him to the British authorities who persuaded him to work for them; It is, however, his son William who left the more lasting impression on the evolution of British marine painting; he painted tranquil riverside views as well as warships at sea. Other Dutch painters recorded such social events as hunting scenes and the construction of major buildings; this generated a taste in sporting pictures, still-life paintings with game and flowers, topographical landscapes: genres that were to flourish throughout the 18C.


The Age of Enlightenment promoted connoisseurship in the Italian art of the Renaissance and Classical art from Antiquity either from travel to the continent to study the styles at first hand or from drawings, engravings and folios; another, less intellectual but no less accomplished influence, came from Versailles in the form of a highly decorative French Baroque. Taste was a matter for stimulating debate much as were the politics of the day; preference for a particular style, therefore, varied from patron to patron.

In 1757 Edmund Burke published his treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful . The Sublime was defined as an artistic effect that could provoke the greatest emotional feeling. The influence and impact of this work was considerable, both in Burke’s own life time and on subsequent generations.

William Hogarth (1697–1764). Apprenticed as an engraver, Hogarth became popular through his “conversation” pieces like The Beggar’s Opera . In his treatise The Analysis of Beauty (1753) he upholds the importance of a national style at a time when foreign artists were achieving greater success; he propounded theories on naturalism, observing that figures conform to standard expressions, gestures and stances appropriate to age; he advocated the use of the serpentine line as a basis of artistic harmony and beauty in composition (inscribed on his palette in his self-portrait in Tate Britain).

Perhaps Hogarth’s greatest follower was Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), a fine caricaturist and supreme draughtsman; he produced pictures drawn from low-life and populist subjects. His talent is Rococo in its freshness, although the humour and wit are undoubtedly English.

George Lambert (1700–65) is widely regarded as “the father of British oil landscape”, although his pictures were often executed in collaboration with a figure painter (Hogarth) or a marine painter (Scott).

Richard Wilson (c. 1713–82) was given a classical education by his father. When he arrived in London in the 1740s he came as a portrait painter, although early landscapes survive from 1746. In 1750 he is recorded working in and around Rome, forging a new style in the tradition of Claude and Vernet: i idyllic landscapes composed of clumped trees, buildings, paths and rivers, and populated with figures (usually drawn from Classical literature or mythology). On his return to England, the Roman Campania gently gave way to views of his own green and pleasant land.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), a key figure in the development of British painting, was the son of an educated Devon family, a respected figure associated with the circles of Dr Johnson, David Garrick, Goldsmith and Burke. He drew inspiration from Van Dyck and the Old Master paintings known in England by engravings (Rembrandt self-portrait) or from posing his sitters according to Classical statues from Antiquity (Apollo Belvedere). The years 1752–54 he spent in Rome and studied High Renaissance Art. Returning to London via Venice, he resolved to merge the taste for the Italian “Grand Style” with the demand for “face-painting” at home. In 1768 he was rewarded with the Presidentship of the new Royal Academy and during his tenure outlined the way a British School of History might be forged. His history portraits endorsed his theories ( Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen – The Montgomery Sisters in Tate Britain) and provoked a shift in fashion towards simple Neoclassical “nightdresses” rather than billowing gowns of damask.

At his death the position of Painter to the King was taken by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830). Lawrence was commissioned by the Prince Regent, later George IV, to paint portraits of all the leading men who had opposed Napoleon; a large collection of sovereigns and statesmen are now hung in Windsor Castle.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) developed his own very natural style while painting landscapes and “fancy pictures” for his personal pleasure. After residing several years in Suffolk, in Ipswich and in Bath (1759) he settled in London (1774) in the wake of Fashionable Society. In Bath, his portraits became more assured, full-length, life-size and set in arcadian gardens. His landscapes meanwhile echo the Dutch style of Hobbema and Ruisdael. The rich palette used for his wooded country scenes, meanwhile, is evidently drawn from Rubens: these small pictures seem to exude naturalism although the composition is carefully contrived. Gainsborough’s textured rendering of foliage heralds Constable, while his skilled technique in capturing haze and flickering light foreshadows Turner.

George Stubbs (1724–1806) began as a portrait painter while studying anatomy in York. He visited Rome in 1754 in order to prove that the study of art was secondary to the observation of Nature; there he witnessed a horse being devoured by a lion, a scene that was to provide inspiration for later works. On his return to England, he applied himself to the study of the skeleton and musculature of the horse by minute observation, dissection and from Renaissance drawings with a view to publishing his Anatomy of a Horse in 1766. Stubbs painted in oils, but preferred to use enamels because of their assured durability, even if the medium demanded an exacting and meticulous technique.



John Constable (1776–1834) developed his personal style and technique from observation and experimentation; his landscapes suggest topographical accuracy (Salisbury Cathedral, Hampstead Heath) when in fact realism has been compromised for the sake of art: trees, perspective or other such elements are contrived to better the overall composition, which in turn is unified by chiaroscuro (patches of light and shade). Constable refused to depend upon formal patronage and therefore was able to explore a new relationship between man and the landscape, contradicting the 18C view of Nature as a force to appease and tame rather than accept and admire for its own sake. He considered how to convey the atmosphere of a pastoral landscape ( The Haywain , National Gallery) by comparison with the fear and dread of a storm at sea; it is interesting to note how, from 1828, after the death of his wife Maria, Constable seemed to betray a fascination for sombre skies and disturbed seas . He conveyed in landscape as much drama as any grand gesture or emotion in “high art”.

He arrived at his theories by sketching from nature – in oil, a medium which took time to dry and therefore intensified his awareness of fleeting effects of light, ephemeral phenomena like rainbows and transient cloud patterns and formations. As his work met with little success, he resolved to compete in terms of size and embarked upon a series of “six-footers” (Flatford Mill in Tate Britain) for which he was forced to make scale sketches. In 1816 he settled permanently in London, spending the summer months in Hampstead and capturing scenes of kite flying high on the Heath. In 1824 he was awarded gold medals for two pictures exhibited at the Paris Salon ( The Haywain ,National Gallery ; View on the Stour ) , which provoked great interest from the members of the Barbizon School of outdoor painters and artists associated with the Romantic Movement, notably Delacroix.

Watercolour is a medium that found particular favour with English artists looking to capture changing qualities of light or the distance through rolling green fields to a far horizon and blue sky; for travellers on the Grand Tour it provided an efficient way of recording atmospheric details to complement topographical pencil drawings or thumb nail sketches (hence John Ruskin ’s near-obsessional realism).

Unlike Continental predecessors, the English artists used opaque white paper which, if left blank, provided bright highlights. The leading watercolourists include Paul Sandby (1725–1809), JR Cozens (1752–97), JMW Turner and Thomas Girtin (1775–1802).

Drawings and Illustration

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) explored the realms of the imagination, dreams and nightmares, full of drama and extravagant movement, stylised form in vivid if horrifying detail (Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers) ; in 1787 he met the visionary poet William Blake (1757–1827), whose spirit contradicts the Age of Reason and heralds the advent of Romanticism. A large collection of Blake’s works on paper is to be found at Tate Britain.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) showed precocious talent at painting topographical watercolours: by 1790 his work was hanging at the RA; six years later his Fishermen at Sea demonstrated his ability to handle oil and to show man in a natural world that was full of light, moving water and changing sky. Subsequent paintings confirmed his preoccupation with the same themes: Snowstorm, Shipwreck 1805 ; Snowstorm, Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps. Meanwhile he continued to produce atmospheric studies of landscape ( London from Greenwich , 1809).

He went to France and Switzerland and made several trips to Italy (1819–40) cataloguing his impressions as he went. In his sketchbooks Turner managed to suggest reflected sunlight, its blinding brilliance, its translucence and somehow its transience (Norham Castle, Sunrise) . In 1842 his Romantic predisposition to experience “atmosphere” at first hand was pushed to extremes: the drama captured in Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth resulted from the artist insisting on being strapped to the mast of a ship pitching at sea in squally weather.

Turner also studied the work of Claude, the first artist really to attempt to paint the sun at dusk setting over rippling water.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The initials PRB began to suffix Rossetti’s signature in 1849 following discussions between the coterie of RA School artists WH Hunt (1827–1910), DG Rossetti (1828–82) and his brother William, JE Millais (1829–96), Collinson, the sculptor Woolner and Stephens. The Pre-Raphaelites considered the 15C Renaissance paintings by Raphael to be already too sophisticated and therefore sought to develop a style that might have predated Raphael: elaborate symbolism charged with poetic allusion, strong colour heightened by natural light and meticulous detail. Their success came with Ruskin’s defence of their art before harsh criticism from Charles Dickens (especially directed at Millais’ The Carpenter’s Shop , Tate Britain). During the early 1850s, the group was dissolved.

Associated in style but independent of the Brotherhood is Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98), a fine technician with an excellent sense of style and visual appeal honed by travels in Italy with Ruskin for whom he executed a number of studies of Tintoretto (1862); the influences of Mantegna and Botticelli are also apparent in his flat and linear designs for tapestries and stained-glass windows. In a similar vein is the Aesthetic Movement immortalised by Oscar Wilde in his Portrait of Dorian Gray , and represented by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–96), Albert Moore (1841–1893) and Whistler.

Foreign Artists

The American JA McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) trained as a Navy cartographer, hence his etching skills, before going to Paris to study painting. In 1859 he moved to London and earned notoriety for falling out with a patron over the so-called Peacock Room décor (now in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: www.asia.si.edu), and later with Ruskin who accused the painter of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” when he exhibited Nocturne in Black and Gold (now in Detroit). Having been influenced by Courbet, Fantin-Latour, Degas and Manet during his life in Paris, Whistler introduced new perspectives to Victorian England, notably in the form of Japanese art.

Born of American expatriate parents in Italy, JS Sargent (1856–1925) settled in London to paint his vivid portraits and capture the elegance of Edwardian High Society with all its brilliance.

French Impressionism came to England in the form of a large exhibition put on in London in 1883: the Impressionists used pure pigments to capture the effects of bright sunlight on coloured forms; vibrancy was achieved by contrasting complementary shades; texture and movement were suggested by bold brushstrokes. Simple family scenes, informal portraiture and landscape provided them with engaging subject matter. The portrayal of circus performers and cabaret entertainers for what they are was explored by Degas, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec, in turn they provided subjects for Walter Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley. As for Monet, he immortalised on canvas some of London’s landmarks.

In 1886 the New English Art Club was founded to provide a platform for artists ostracised by the Royal Academy: Philip Wilson Steer (1860–1942) and Walter Sickert (1860–1942) went on to set up an alternative exhibition entitled London Impressionists , at the Goupil Gallery.


In 1910, the critic and painter Roger Fry organised a major show of modern French art: “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” comprised 21 works by Cézanne , 37 by Gauguin , 20 by Van Gogh and others by Manet , Matisse and Picasso . In 1912 he organised the “Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition”, dedicated to Cubist art and large compositions by Matisse.

Augustus John ’s reputation as a leader in modern British art hinged on The Smiling Woman , a portrait of his mistress exhibited in 1909; a famous series of contemporary luminaries followed.

Sickert conformed with the philosophy of Impressionism which he assimilated while living in Paris. In 1910 he produced a series of works depicting the Old Bedford Music Hall, its performers, stage and audience with sympathy (Ennui, La Hollandaise); in 1911 he founded the Camden Town Group which attracted Robert Bevan, Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman, Charles Ginner. Bold colour, strong outlines and broad brushstrokes were dedicated to depicting the urban landscape.

The Bloomsbury Group collected together writers and artists: the biographer Lytton Strachey, the economist Maynard Keynes, the novelist Virginia Woolf, her publisher husband Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, Henry Tonks, Marc Gertler and the members of the Omega Workshop . Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant all used bright colour to delineate bold form in the manner of Matisse; by 1914 they were experimenting with abstraction.

The Vorticists , led by Wyndham Lewis responded to Cubism and the dynamics of Futurism in painting and sculpture.Jessica Desmorr, Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska were later joined in spirit by David Bomberg. Strong axes, parallel lines, harsh angles, stepped geometric forms, lurid colours proliferate, mesmerising the eye.

Pure Abstraction , which inspired Nicholson , Moore, Hepworth and Nash, explored form in relation to landscape. In 1936 the International Surrealist Exhibition was held in London, a high point in London’s avant-garde artistic circles.

Among post-war artists are Graham Sutherland, painter of religious themes, landscapes and portraits as well as scenes of urban devastation; Sir Stanley Spencer whose visionary Biblical scenes are set in familiar surroundings and who explored eroticism as a means of exorcising the violence of war. Peter Blake, David Hockney and Bridget Riley were the exuberant exponents of Pop Art while the disturbing portraits and figures of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud evoke a darker outlook.

Tate Modern, Whitchapel Gallery, Saatchi Gallery put on shows by artists such as Gilbert and George, Paula Rego, Beryl Cooke, Julian Opie, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Rachel Whiteread among others, exploring new idioms – collages, installations, conceptual and performance art which challenge preconceptions and at times provoke strong reactions.

The success of the Young British Artists group is measured by the popularity of the White Cube Gallery, Jerwood Space, Lux Gallery, the Wapping Project and the South London Gallery, as well as alternative and artist-run spaces exhibiting contemporary art, their exhibitions and the controversial annual Turner Prize attracting much media interest which in turn is successful in drawing a young public.

Stuckism was founded in 1999 by Charles Thomson and Billy Childish in reaction to contemporary Postmodernism and in favour of a return to some form of figurative painting. Since then it has developed into an international art movement.

Decorative Arts


Antique English furniture has long enjoyed favour. Distinctive types have evolved to suit changes in lifestyle and tastes in dress. Influences have been exerted by waves of craftsmen seeking refuge from Holland or France, and by the arrival of foreign pieces from Japan, China, India or other far corners of the Empire. The most complete display is to be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum , while most of the large houses provide period contexts in which original fixtures, fittings and furnishings may be appreciated (Ham, Osterley, Kenwood, Fenton).

The height of English furniture-making came in the 18C when oak was replaced by imported mahogany and later by tropical satinwood, before a return was made to native walnut. These new woods were embellished with carving and enrichments of brass in the form of inlays and gilded mounts, hardwood veneers and marquetry.

A handful of names dominates English furniture of the period. Thomas Chippendale (1718–79), imported uncompleted furniture from France which his workshops then finished off (1769). His reputation as the pre-eminent cabinetmaker of his day was secured by his publication of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754). Perhaps the most original Chippendale designs were made for the great Neoclassical houses designed or remodelled by Robert Adam and his contemporaries, by the second Thomas Chippendale (1749–1822) who went on to produce an anglicised version of Louis XVI and archetypal Regency furniture. John Linnell (1729–96) began as a carver but soon expanded his workshops in Berkeley Square to include cabinet-making and upholstery. His reputation was secured by his association with William Kent, Robert Adam and Henry Holland (mirrors and chairs). The partnership of William Vile (1700–67) and John Cobb (1751–1778) produced the most outstanding pieces, certainly better crafted than Chippendale if less original.

George Hepplewhite (d. 1786) achieved widespread recognition two years after his death when The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide was published. This codified 300 designs for Neoclassical interiors, epitomising Adam’s principles of uniting elegance with utility. It became the standard handbook for country gentlemen commissioning furniture from artisans. Hepplewhite pieces are considered as country furniture, simple, rational, extremely elegant and stylish: bow-fronted and serpentine chests of drawers, oval, heart-shaped and shield-back chairs with straight or tapered legs; Prince of Wales’ feathers and wheat-ear central splats.

Post-Hepplewhite but pre-Regency comes Thomas Sheraton (1751–1806) whose rectilinear designs dominate the 1790s, a perfect foil to Adam’s intricate yet restrained interior stuccowork. His designs are recorded in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1791–94). He particularly exploits the grain and textures of wood with contrasting inlays, relief panels and highly polished surfaces. Inspiration is drawn from Louis XVI furniture, notably for such subjects as small, rather feminine work tables, beautiful sideboards, secretaires and full-height bookcases.

The Goliath of Victorian taste is undoubtedly William Morris (1834–96) whose firm of Art Decorators at Merton Abbey supplied the full gamut of furnishings: furniture – mostly designed by Philip Webb, textiles, wallpapers, carpets, curtains, tapestries often in collaboration with Burne-Jones, tiles, candlesticks and brassware. Many designs were collated by Morris himself who drew his inspiration from historic patterns found in churches, paintings or book illumination and natural forms. Some Arts and Crafts work, which was based on craftsmanship and pre-industrial techniques, is on show at the William Morris Gallery.

In the following generation, Sir Ambrose Heal (1872–1959) designed simple solid oak furniture, sometimes inlaid with pewter and ebony, in collaboration with Charles Voysey. He supplied middle-class homes with inexpensive alternatives to flimsy reproduction or expensive Arts and Crafts furniture – a niche-market now supplied by Conran and Habitat.


Tin-glazed Earthenware

The Lambeth Potteries , founded c 1601, are famous for their dark blue earthenware with a raised white ornamentation known as Lambeth delft .

The leading factory in the early 17C was the Southwark Potteries , founded by a Dutchman Christian Wilhelm in 1618. In 1628 he secured a 14-year monopoly for producing blue and white pieces fashioned in imitation of Chinese Ming.


The Bow Factory (identified by a variety of marks – incised, impressed or painted in underglazed blue and/or red), together with that at Chelsea were the first porcelain factories in England. It was founded by an Irish painter, Thomas Frye, with a glass merchant, Edward Heylyn, in the East End (Stratford Langthorne). In 1744 it registered a patent for wares crafted from a white clay (unaker) imported from America. In 1748 Frye also patented the use of bone ash to make bone-china , softer than hard-paste and cheaper to manufacture. Early pieces include plain white figures; later on, receptacles were decorated with sprigs of flowers and foliage or painted in underglazed blue or enamelled with colour (Kakiemon quail pattern) or transfers.

The earliest pieces identified with the Chelsea Factory (incised with a triangle) are dated 1745, most modelled on shapes then current for silver plate. The name “soft-paste” derives from the texture and translucence of the material, similar to white glass. After the first manager Charles Gouyon departed, the concern was headed by Nicholas Sprimont, a silversmith of Flemish Huguenot origin (raised anchor period 1749–52 followed by the red anchor period 1752–58 and the gold anchor period 1758–69). From 1750–70 the factory enjoyed great commercial prosperity, owing to the high technical quality of the product and the adoption of new colours, including a red tint known as claret: influence shifts from Meissen prototypes – attractive, animated figures, Sir Hans Sloane’s botanical specimen plants – to a taste for French Sèvres. Despite the flavour of Continental Rococo, the highly varied Chelsea wares (vegetable tureens, fruit containers, vases, chandeliers, figurines, busts, flasks, etc.) are somehow very English, their style of painted decoration being highly naturalistic.


Gold and Silver

English gold and silversmiths were already known for their work in the Middle Ages, and by 1180 they had formed a guild in London. In the Elizabethan period the pieces produced showed a bold and elegant line which gave way to greater austerity in the reign of James I. The 17C was an extravagant period for London silver which was particularly influenced by Dutch Baroque. Under Charles II the French style predominated as highly skilled Huguenots (Protestant Calvinists) were expelled from France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (18 October 1685).

Under Queen Anne, in the early 18C, Dutch silver design ceded to more sophisticatedly ornate designs – cut card work, strap design, cast ornaments with scrolls, escutcheons, boss beading, repoussé and chasing. The rocaille style of Paul de Lamerie (1688–1741) was followed by more sober designs produced by William Kent (1684–1748) and others working within the delicate Adam style.

Important collections of silver plate (functional receptacles made of metal: tableware, church vessels, commemorative pieces, etc.) are on view at the Tower of London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Apsley House, the Courtauld Institute Galleries, Bank of England, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the various military museums. Significant private collections, to which public access is restricted, survive at the Mansion House and in the halls of the City guild and livery companies.


London offers many fine examples of decorative gates, railings, balconies and balustrades ranging from the work of masters such as Jean Tijou (active 1689–1712) at Hampton Court to the modern design of the Queen Elizabeth Gates in Hyde Park .

Many City churches contain elaborate wrought-iron sword rests that date from the Elizabethan period (16C) when it was customary to provide a pew for the Lord Mayor of London in his own parish church furnished with a sword rest where he could deposit the Sword of State during the service.

In the 19C, design and iron casting complemented each other in the production of street furniture : the Egyptian-inspired bench ends along the Victoria Embankment by Cleopatra’s Needle; the cannon ball and barrel bollards marking the Clink in Southwark; the beautiful dolphin lamp standards of 1870 which line the Albert Embankment; the pair of George III lamp-posts in Marlborough Road in St James’s. The gold-crowned bracket lanterns at St James’s Palace, made of wrought rather than cast metal, are of earlier date.

Many of the city’s iron railings were melted down for munitions during World War II; the discussion still continues about whether to replace them.

The first pillar boxes in London, 15 years after the introduction of the penny post in 1840, were erected in Fleet Street, the Strand, Pall Mall, Piccadilly, Grosvenor Place and Rutland Gate; they were rectangular with a solid round ball crowning the pyramidal roof. Subsequent hexagonal, circular, fluted, conical designs followed, flat-roofed, crowned or plain, most emblazoned with the royal cipher. A few hexagonal boxes (1866–79) survive, as do some from the 1880s “anonymous” series which the Post Office forgot to mark with its name. Pillar boxes were promoted by the writer Anthony Trollope, who was a Post Office official, and were first painted red in 1874.


From the Middle Ages until the 17C brass tomb plates were very popular, and a variety are still to be found in several London churches. The design was engraved with a triangular-headed graving tool and the groove was sometimes filled with enamel, or black or coloured wax. A study of these brasses shows how fashions in dress changed over the centuries: warriors clothed in chain mail from head to foot were followed by knights in armour wearing a helmet. The appearance of wives of such nobles range from the veiled simplicity of the 14C, via the rich dress and complicated headdress of the 15C, the plainer style of the Tudor period, to the ribbons and embroidery of Elizabeth’s reign. In the 16C the brasses of the great churchmen were removed. In their place were rich merchants, with short hair, clean-shaven in the 15C and bearded in the Elizabethan period. Brass-rubbing is organised at All Hallows-by-the-Tower, St Martin-in-the-Fields and Westminster Abbey.

The long-standing tradition and patronage of fine craftsmanship and design in London is maintained today by the Chelsea Craft Fair and the Goldsmith’s show at the Guildhall where international buyers come to explore ideas that will launch new trends worldwide.


The quick pace of change in popular culture has a powerful impact on all forms of art. Sculpture is no longer restricted to traditional materials and a young generation of artists has the freedom to experiment with new forms which elicit a mixed public response. As more public spaces are created in the city, monumental sculpture becomes an interesting feature of the cityscape.

In sculpture the evolution from Gothic tomb effigies to modern abstract form begins with William Torel , citizen and goldsmith of London, who modelled Henry III and Eleanor of Castile (1291–92), and the visiting (1511–20) early Renaissance Florentine Torrigiano , who cast the gilt bronze figures of Henry VII (in the Victoria & Albert), his queen, Elizabeth, and mother, Margaret, Duchess of Richmond. After the Reformation, contact with Italy was suspended, dominant influences were therefore imported from France and Flanders.

Actual portraiture appears in the 17C in the works of, among others, Nicholas Stone (John Donne), the French Huguenot Le Sueur (bronzes of Charles I and James I) and Grinling Gibbons (statues of Charles II and James II). Gibbons is better known and celebrated as a woodcarver of genius and great delicacy, who often signed his work with a peapod.

In the 18C, as a Classical style began to appeal to graduates of the Grand Tour, the Flemings, Michael Rysbrack and Peter Scheemakers, the Frenchman François Roubiliac, the Englishmen John Bacon, John Flaxman and Nollekens executed hundreds of figures until the genre became stylised and empty in the 19C. Many examples of their work are to be found in the nave and north transept of Westminster Abbey.

Vigour began to return in the 20C in portraiture and religious sculptures with works by Jacob Epstein , in human, near abstract and abstract themes by Henry Moore , and pure abstract by Barbara Hepworth . In the 1930s after Dada and Surrealism had swept through Paris touching all forms of artistic consciousness, a number of painters, sculptors and architects emigrated, while others settled in Hampstead which hosted a new move towards pure abstraction: Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson.

In addition to a large collection of mainly military dignitaries whose statues guard the streets of London, some fine contemporary sculpture adorns the open spaces created by modern town planning: the Horses of Helios , the Sun God, with the three Graces above, by Rudi Weller (corner of the Haymarket and Piccadilly Circus); Boy with a Dolphin in bronze by David Wynne (north end of Albert Bridge in Chelsea and outside the Tower Hotel in Wapping); Fulcrum by Richard Serra (Broadgate); a Dancer (Bow Street opposite the Royal Opera House); Horse by Shirley Pace (The Circle, Bermondsey); The Navigators by David Kemp (Hays Galleria, Southwark). Modern works temporarily displayed next to traditional statues in Trafalgar Square: Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger, Regardless of History by Bill Woodrow and Plinth (Untitled) by Rachel Whiteread, have aroused much public interest. The sleek lines of the Millennium Bridge, built with the collaboration of the architect Sir Norman Foster, the sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and the engineering firm Ove Arup, break new ground as an engineering masterpiece and an artistic achievement.


1926 – The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog tells the story of the unsolved Whitechapel Murders of 1888; directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

1929 – Blackmail , directed by Alfred Hitchcock is considered as the first British talkie (non-so;emt film). High Treason creates a futurist vision of London in the 1940s; directed by M Elvey.

1941 – Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is evocatively set by Hollywood in London; directed by Victor Fleming.

1942 – Mrs Miniver , with Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson, filmed in America, portrays London during the war; directed by William Wyler.

1945 – Brief Encounter , directed by David Lean, filmed at the Denham Studios.

1946 – Great Expectations was carefully filmed in London after the war under the directorship of David Lean.

1948 – Oliver Twist with stage sets recreated by David Lean from Gustave Doré’s illustrations to London (1870).

1949 – Passport to Pimlico , is a British comedy filmed, in fact, in Lambeth; directed by H Cornelius.

1953 – Genevieve is the name of a 1906 Darracq car that takes part in the famous London to Brighton veteran car run – made by Ealing Studios; directed by H Cornelius.

1955 – The Lady Killers , set in Barnsbury, captures the Copenhagen Tunnels outside King’s Cross on celluloid.

Witness for the Prosecution , another Hitchcock, was set among the legal fraternity in and around the Royal Courts of Justice.

1964 – My Fair Lady , made by the Warner Studios in California, recreates an evocative if sentimental interpretation of the London class divisions, with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, costumes by Cecil Beaton after Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion ; directed by George Cukor.

1966 – Blow-Up , set in the 1960s, a photographer on a fashion shoot accidentally witnesses a murder with David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles – the quintessential London movie; directed by Antonioni (featuring Maryon Park, Woolwich).

1966 – Alfie tracks Jack-the-lad, south-London-born Michael Caine and the easy life; directed by Lewis Gilbert.

1971 – A Clockwork Orange , Stanley Kubrick’s banned cult film is about the terrors of anarchy, sequences filmed at Thamesmead.

1979 – The Long Good Friday charts the decline of the Docklands; directed by John Mackenzie.

1980 – The Elephant Man is a provocative story set in Victorian England, directed by David Lynch, starring John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud.

1985 – My Beautiful Launderette explores racial tensions in south London; directed by Stephen Frears.

1988 – A Fish called Wanda starring John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis in and around London Town and Docklands; directed by Charles Crichton.

1992 – Chaplin recreates the life of Charlie Chaplin in south London in the 1880s, directed by Richard Attenborough.

1994 – Madness of King George , Nigel Hawthorne in Alan Bennett’s play about the mad monarch. Supported by Helen Mirren; directed by Nicholas Hytner.

1995 – Richard III , with a cast led by Ian McKellen exploits several London landmarks (Battersea and Bankside Power Stations, St Pancras).

1999 – Notting Hill , a romantic comedy with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant set around Portobello Road; directed by Roger Mitchell.

2005 – The Libertine , Johnny Depp’s portrait of the debauched 2nd Earl of Rochester in Restoration London.

2005 – Mrs Henderson Presents , Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins star in this portrait of the Windmill Theatre in WWII.

2007Cassandra’s Dream , Woody Allen’s story of two working class brothers (Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor) who commit murder to preserve their selfish life­styles.

2008 – RocknRolla, director Guy Ritchie’s stylistic slice of London’s criminal underworld.

2009 – London River, moving story set in the wake of the 2005 London terrorist attacks. Starring Brenda Blethyn.

Top of page