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Five Unmissable Artworks to See For Free in London

8 February 2019 | Emma Wright

You can find masterpieces on the walls of many of London's museums and galleries. If, though, you A. don't have ten years to spend checking every single one of them out and B. don't have ten million quid to spend on exhibition tickets, here’s a selection of unmissable masterpieces you can see without spending a single penny.

1. Mark Rothko - Four Seasons mural series
When Rothko presented his Four Seasons mural series to the Tate Gallery in 1969, he requested for the art works a room of their own. And rightly so, as the artworks have since been described as ‘the treasure of Tate Modern’. The paintings are darker in colour and mood than his previous works and Rothko wanted them to be deeply contemplated, away from distractions. The works were originally commissioned in the late 1950s for a restaurant in New York, but recognising that a restaurant might not be the ideal location for them, Rothko withdrew from the commission, eventually giving the works to the Tate, and the paintings arrived in London on the morning of his death.
 
2. George Stubbs - Whistlejacket
Similarly - from the floor grilles to the décor - the National Gallery’s Sackler Room is a beacon of nineteenth century styling, and complements the works within. On entering, an art fan can barely believe Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed, Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’s’ An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, John Constable’s The Hay Wain, and George Stubbs’s Whistlejacket all within a few metres of each other. Subbs’s Whistlejacket is the unmissable painting here. Whistlejacket was one of the best-known racehorses of the day. It was his owner, the second Marquess of Rockingham who commissioned Stubbs’s painting. The colossal painting depicts the image of a single horse standing alone for one of the first times in history. The void that should contain landscape or people speaks volumes in its simplicity. The painting is all at once a thorough record of Whistlejacket, a perceptive capturing of the spirit of the animal, and a wildly innovative use of canvas.

3. Willam Scrots - Edward VI
Handily, unmissable masterpiece number three resides just around the corner, in the National Portrait Gallery - and it's one of the finest examples of optical illusion known to this day. Willam Scrots’s Edward VI uses anamorphosis, a technique created to display the ability of the artist and entertain the viewer. The image of Edward is incomprehensible until viewed from the right - it may have been produced as an amusement for the young prince, as Scrots was court painter to Henry VIII in succession to Hans Holbein.
 
4. Unknown - A man stabbing a woman with a knife
The Wellcome Collection is a short tube ride up the Northern line from Charing Cross, where you'll have visited the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, and it holds one of the most bizarre collections you can find in London. Enter the room of the 'Medicine Man’, and behind all natures of medical equipment, sexual devices and torture implements you’ll find a number of artworks including such twisted delights as ‘Sequah on Clapham Common’ (an education on quack doctor culture) and ‘A Toothdrawer concealing the dental key from the patient’ (a study of the horrifying dental practice employed into the 1900s). A true summation of the collection, A man stabbing a woman with a knife shocks - it's not exactly a subject much recorded through history.
 
5. Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino - The Raphael Cartoons
Your final must-see is through the atrium of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and to the left. The Raphael Cartoons were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 and are overwhelming in size and skill. Raphael has been widely regarded as one of the greatest painters in history and the Raphael Cartoons have been some of the most famous and imitated paintings in the world. Their magnificence is understandable: they're full-scale designs for tapestries later made to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Perfect examples of High Renaissance art works, the space is definitely worthy of their display: the Raphael Gallery is enormous and dimmed, and the room is always silent.
 
 

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