Things To Do In London - Visit London's Outdoor Art Gallery
Visitors to London often head indoors when they want to see some famous art, The National Gallery and the Tate are the go-to places that every tourist has on their lists, but when time is precious, it’s really easy to multi-task in London. Some of the cultural hotspots and de-rigueur shopping is surrounded by work created by the finest artists in the world in the form of public sculpture. It’s just about knowing where to look.
If you are visiting Trafalgar Square, then take the time to walk a few yards further and visit Charles I. Located at the top of Whitehall in the shadow of Nelson’s Column is a classical-style sculpture of the king on horseback. This statue was created by a magnificent artist and craftsman, Hubert Le Sueur, who has work in the finest collections in the world.
This statue is worth seeing to consider that even sculpture can have a tumultuous life. It began with a great fanfare as it was the first large-scale bronze monument made in this country in 1633. Its manufacture not only flattered the king, but also represented Britain’s growing capabilities in engineering to the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, Charles I was not to remain in favour and after his bloody beheading at The Banqueting House, the statue was sold for scrap. Thankfully, a savvy businessman saw an opportunity. Hacking off the lower section of the foreleg, he took it to Parliament to prove the sculptures destruction. In fact, he buried the statue with a thought to the future that times might change again. When Charles II came to the throne, the sculpture was dug up and dusted off and carried on a cart through the centre of London. The scrap dealer was paid again and even the decapitated leg was re-joined.
If you are visiting The Houses of Parliament, I urge you to walk down from Charles I via Whitehall. On the way, take a left along Whitehall Place where you’ll find a sculpture to really lift the human spirit: The Royal Tank Regiment by Vivian Mallock. Her magnificent contemporary sculpture created with such eloquence shows a glimpse of the camaraderie between the men that worked together to help win the war, from inside the cramped Comet tanks, in World War II.
After the Houses of Parliament, don’t hurry away. There’s a fine view of London along the river on the corner of Westminster Bridge, and you'll find the fine form of Boadicea and her daughters. This Victorian sculpture commemorating a classical warrior is magnificent in its execution. Thorneycroft, who visitors flock to see inside the Tate Britain, does not let his audience down. His horses are wild and rearing, his women are fearless and strong. This distinguished sculptor was not paid for this incredible statue and taking umbrage, he decided not to part with it. His son eventually donated it to the council after his death – what else could you do with such a colossus?
This sculpture not only represents Boadicea's bravery, but also symbolised a desire for Britain to connect itself with a classical past, which was a Victorian obsession. The representation of a woman in public sculpture, even today, is rare which makes this piece of art even more significant. In fact, Boadicea was designed with a nod to Queen Victoria, who this part of the embankment was named after. The suggestion was that Queen Victoria was leading the country and the Commonwealth as Boadicea led her army.
If you are taking a trip on The London Eye, the County Hall building just behind it overlooks the water on the south of the river. On the corner of the bridge is the majestic Lion that is worth taking note of. Perhaps, this chap seems nothing special in sculptural terms but the formula used to make him was lost for nearly two hundred years. He is not a common stone as he might at first seem, but made from Coade stone, one of the first synthetic stones. The reason for its significance, in particular, is that it is highly robust to weathering and the urban environment and stays clean against all odds.
If you are shopping in Covent Garden, don't forget to visit Degas’ Little Dancer. Opposite the Royal Opera house, sitting on a stool, tying her shoe is a divinely slender sculpture. A humble image of a quiet moment before a performance, this small piece of art on pavement level is just as charming as any of his statues in The Musee d’Orsay or Metropolitan Museum, NY.
If you are shopping in Bond Street, you shouldn't miss The Allies: A bronze of Roosevelt and Churchill chatting together like two old friends. This sculpture by Lawrence Holopiener is loved particularly for its authentic portrayal of the friendship the two men had and gives character to the whole street.
If you are shopping on Oxford Street, then halt before entering Selfridges and look up and admire Gilbert Bayes’ masterpiece, The Queen of Time. A leading Victorian sculptor, who loved colour, he designed the jubilant queen in gold with her mermaids and mermen around her. Representing trade and commerce, she is the figurehead of Selfridges and was designed to suggest that the rest of the building is her boat full of exotic international stock.
If you are dining out in Piccadilly Circus, visit The Horses of Helios by Rudy Weller, galloping out of their fountain. They cannot but be admired in their wild abandon twinned with the drama of gushing water. This British artist also provides us with an extra surprise – if you look up at the top of the building opposite, you will see his Three Graces diving elegantly into the air and making any viewer’s heart leap with them.
When visiting the Tate Britain, take a walk across the road and over to the water before leaving. You will see one of the finest Henry Moore's on the embankment. The Locking Piece has a rich and varied patina which shows off the sculpture’s marvellous contours enabling a visitor to see just why he became a contemporary artist heavy-weight. His sculptures are so valuable and popular that loans of his art are used for diplomatic purposes to broker deals between different countries.
Public art has never had the status that gallery art enjoys though the calibre of London’s outdoor collection is outstanding. When offered the choice of seeing Henry Moore, Thornycroft or Degas in a room jostled by dozens of other tourists, or set against a majestic view of London, I know which I’d choose.