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Where to see free life-changing art in London


If you’re feeling the cost of living crisis but are hesitant to sacrifice cultural pursuits, consider turning your attention to the permanent collections of some of London’s most respected institutions – the vast majority of which are just for a small donation requested upon entry. Yes, the Q&As Africa Fashion exhibition is a revelation, but the collection of Islamic art is also world class – and for a few quid you can browse. A private tour of Charleston in Sussex is a delight, but you can wander Walthamstow’s William Morris Gallery for free, with the fruits of the Arts & Crafts founder’s labors displayed in his Georgian home. And if you’re overwhelmed by the echoing expanse of the National Gallery or Tate Modern? Concentrate on one painting or room and sit for an hour – you’ll take in more than you ever could as you run through a temporary exhibit surrounded by iPhone-waving crowds. Read on Fashion‘s best recommendations, now.

Experience a Velázquez masterpiece at the National Gallery

The only surviving female nude by Baroque painter Diego Velázquez can be found in Room 30 of the National Gallery. The amazing “The Toilet of Venus”, also known as the “Rokeby Venus” (for most of the 19th century the painting hung on the walls of Rokeby Park, a grand country house in County Durham), was part of the collection of the institution since 1906. Painted in the mid-17th century, when nudity was a taboo in strictly Catholic Spain, the painting is an appealing allegory of beauty and is loaded with suggestions of censorship and agency. Velázquez’s reclining profane Venus looks at herself in the mirror held by Cupid, but her reflection is blurry, leaving the viewer frustrated. Not all feminists like the painting, though – look closely and the slashes of suffragette Mary Richardson’s ax are still faintly visible on Venus’ buttocks from her attack on the painting in 1914.


“The Rokeby Venus” by Diego Velázquez (1647-1651)

Courtesy of the National Gallery

Interact with the Impressionists at The Courtauld

There’s no shortage of world-class masterpieces at The Courtauld, but the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection is particularly sublime. Take Manet’s last major work, the perspective-bending ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ (1882), which depicts an unnamed barmaid, the bustling crowd reflected in a mirror behind her. You will also find Van Gogh’s ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’, painted a week after the artist returned from the hospital, after cutting off most of his left ear during a psychotic episode and giving it to a young woman outside a brothel in Arles. And then there is “La Loge” by Renoir, presented at the first Impressionist group exhibition in Paris, and explosive at the time. Hilariously, critics were disturbed by the woman’s lack of style.

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