Who doesn’t love a trip to London in the spring when culture shoots up in its full, vibrant splendour?
Gone are the winter themed shows, pantomime season and the cold weather… it’s time to ring in the changes for a trip bursting with fresh cultural life.
Here’s my selection of 12 events taking place in the capital over the next few weeks plus my top tips on interesting places which may have gone under your radar…
Going Underground – The Hidden Tunnels of Euston
I’ve always wanted to explore the abandoned, lost tunnels of London’s Tube system – and finally my dream has come true. Now you can go underground on the secret Tube network too.
Transport for London runs a dozen fascinating Tube tours of hidden places, closed sections, and obscure, disused stations.
From the closed platforms of Charing Cross to the long lost Tube station at Down Street and tunnels which provided air raid shelters during the Blitz, there is a wealth of exploration to be done in the company of expert guides.
Photos – Early Euston Station; today’s Tube platform; and the disused City and London South rail station on Drummond Street
Forty two million customers use Euston Underground station every year but few know that they are walking within metres of two disused stations as they scurry along the modern passageways.
The Hidden London Tour provides an opportunity to discover the dusty remnants of these abandoned places.
Euston: The Lost Tunnels tour starts from the front of Euston Square station from where our group of explorers were transported back in time. There’s a short presentation on the history of Euston’s train and Tube stations. Then, it’s time to explore the station’s long forgotten areas… and boy, it’s a fascinating journey below ground.
En route to Euston underground, we stopped at the disused City and London South rail station at Drummond Street which is set to disappear under construction for the HS2 rail project. I felt privileged to see it before it vanishes forever.
Back at the Tube station, we were taken through a unprepossessing brown door at the end of a platform and found ourselves back in the 1960s. This area is no longer part of the daily rush hour at Euston and has been left very much as it was nearly 60 years ago.
There’s the remnants of a former ticket office, a maze of deserted passenger corridors, and draughty, old ventilation shafts. Now surplus to modern requirements, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the old station’s working spaces.
After following one deserted tunnel, we emerged on top of a platform ventilation shaft and found ourselves walking above the current platform, crowded with commuters. It was a deeply spooky experience.
Other highlights include walls covered in 1960s adverts and film posters which remain much as they were when the tunnels were abandoned in 1966.
Despite the ravages of time, you can still make out adverts for films like “West Side Story”, “Psycho” and TV’s “Coronation Street”.
This is a trip which anyone with a fascination for transport history, time travel and abandoned places will love. Don’t miss your chance to get on track back to the past…
Where to find it: Euston’s Lost Tunnels is one of a dozen trips to various hidden areas of London’s Tube network. Ticket prices apply. Wear sensible footwear and clothes – it can be both hot and cold in the tunnels. The Transport for London website has a schedule of tour times which take approx 75 minutes.
Beyond The Streets – Saatchi Gallery
I love London’s Saatchi Gallery – it’s a great space for expansive exhibitions covering several floors and large galleries. And there’s always something bold, bright or controversial to grab the attention and headlines.
Their latest blockbuster show focuses on street art from its early days in New York through to the punk scene in Britain and the USA.
There is something for everyone in this show from musical innovators and and graffiti artists to spray can ‘disrupters’ and designers. Punk, hip hop, rap, garage and rave are just some of the styles which share the spotlight.
Over 100 international artists are featured in “Beyond The Streets” from train graffiti sprayers to muralists and poster designers. There are also large-scale installations, ‘street’ ephemera, and fashion exhibits as well as paintings, posters and photographs.
Fans of street fashion will appreciate the magnificent selection of trainers in every imaginable style.
Each section of the exhibition explores exceptional moments in the history of this artistic movement including the emergence of punk; the birth of hip-hop; and street culture’s strong influence on fashion and film.
Whilst I’d never considered myself a particular fan of street artist, I discovered that I’ve been touched in many ways by the influence of street art.
Music is where where I can appreciate that cross-over blend, from my love of the Sex Pistols and The Clash to the Ramones and Blondie.
I felt nostalgic looking at the 1970s punk posters and felt a shudder when I saw the power of Public Enemy’s musical collision with street culture.
I was surprised to see a giant photograph of Tish Murtha’s Tyneside street kids at “Muggers’ Corner” from the 1980s. This made me think about how much street art has permeated our daily lives.
There’s no escaping the fact that street art has been a huge phenomenon in the last 50 years… and the “Beyond the Streets” show is an entertaining ride.
Where to see it: “Beyond the Streets” is showing at the Saatchi Gallery in Sloane Square, London. It runs until 9 May, 2023. Ticket prices apply. The nearest Tube is Sloane Square.
Magdalena Abakanowicz – “Every Tangle of Thread and Rope” – Tate Modern
Magdalena Abakanowicz’s stunning show at Tate Modern is more than just “a load of old rope”, to quote a joke that I overhead in the queue. It’s a staggeringly good display of textile art and large, woven objects.
Magdalena’s striking, large textile installations provide a showstopper of epic proportions, from a giant orange hanging clock to a gun like metallic sculpture which combines cloth and metal.
The multitude of colours is as mind blowing as the array of materials used to create the large scale pieces.
In the 1960s and 70s, Magdalena Abakanowicz started creating radical sculptures from woven fibre. They differed from many sculptures of that period because they were soft not hard – and were towering works that hung from the ceiling. These installations became known as the “Abakans”.
Many of the Abakans have been brought together in a forest-like display in the 64-metre long gallery space. Walking through this ‘woven forest’ is an uplifting and colourful experience.
In contrast, there are also works which reflect the trauma of living through the Second World War and its aftermath in Poland. A group of deep black ‘punchbags’ and ropes resembles a memorial to the war dead.
This powerful show is well worth the trip, not least because it sheds new light on a female artist with a strong voice.
Where to see it: Magdalena Abakanowicz is at the Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building until 23 May, 2023. The nearest Tube stations are Southwark, Blackfriars and St Paul’s (to cross the river foot bridge). Ticket prices apply.
Spain and the Hispanic World – Royal Academy
Spain is one of my favourite European countries for art and culture so I was looking forward to the Royal Academy’s blockbuster exhibition of Hispanic treasures.
“Spain and the Hispanic World” doesn’t disappoint and it’s particularly strong on making the connection between mainland Spain and its territories in South America and Mexico.
Discover the rich story of Spanish and Hispanic culture from the ancient world to the early 20th century through over 150 fascinating works. It’s a heady mix of art works, ornaments, beautiful objects, ceramics and even maps.
Although a little dry in places, there was enough to capture my interest especially when I hit the ‘sweet spot’ of Goya and El Greco paintings.
The exhibition culminates with Sorolla’s colourful, large-scale study for his monumental series of 14 paintings called “Vision of Spain”, a visually striking piece which demands your attention.
Not all the paintings are my cup of tea, especially the ornamental, romanticised works, but there were enough works of true genius to make my day.
Highlights include masterpieces by El Greco, Zurbarán, Velázquez and Goya to sculptures, paintings, silk textiles, ceramics, lustreware, silverwork, precious jewellery, maps, drawings, and decorative objects from Latin America.
The exhibition features the famous World Map of 1526 by Giovanni Vespucci which I could study for hours as it turns our world upside down, quite literally!
Where to find it: “Spain and the Hispanic World” is at the Royal Academy on Piccadilly in London till 10 April, 2023. The nearest Tube is Green Park and buses also stop outside. Why not combine the RA with a trip with the Burlington Arcade next door, a classy historic mall with stylish shops.
Cezanne – Tate Modern
Cezanne is one of the famous Post-Impressionist modern masters and this blockbuster at Tate Modern is nothing short of sensational.
It’s been picking up five star reviews from critics and visitors for its brilliant selection of paintings which shine fresh light on this enigmatic artist.
Until now, I’ve never really got to know the artist, despite visiting his home town of Aix-en-Provence in France and seeing his work in galleries across the world. But this show helps put his work into a bigger context.
There are the usual themes which Cezanne returns to again and again – still lives, portraits of friends and family, and the landscapes of Provence.
Mont St Victoire, the famous mountain, pops up in many of his landscapes, a beacon of light and hope. Quiet domestic scenes are beautifully realised. Apples, oranges and peaches appear in abundance in his glorious still lives.
Cezanne’s paintings of L’Estaque on the Bay of Marseille are particularly revelatory. Sunlit rocks, craggy coves and the golden roof-topped houses transport you to this French summer holiday destination.
It’s interesting to discover that L’Estaque was a place of refuge for Cezanne, an escape from the outside world and the raging Franco-Prussian war. He tried to avoid military conscription here.
It was also here that he was able to escape the wrath of his domineering father – and enjoy a secret relationship with his lover and lifetime companion, Marie-Hortense Fiquet . ‘Mrs Cezanne’ is captured in her domestic environment in several beautiful paintings.
Perhaps the show lacks a climactic ‘zinger’ of a final ‘gallery ‘room… but after room upon room of devastatingly good paintings, it hardly matters. There’s no doubt that Cezanne was consistently brilliant – and this show is a joy.
You’re left feeling that Cezanne was one of the major masters of the 19th Century, a huge influence on the artists who followed him when modernism hit full speed.
Where to find it: Cezanne is at the Tate Modern on London’s Bankside until mid March 2023. The nearest Tube stations are Southwark, Blackfriars and St Paul’s. Ticket prices apply.
Contemporary Art – Hauser and Wirth
Photo: Retrospective – Gunther Forg’s paintings.
Hauser and Wirth is one of those galleries which tends to be frequented by “those in the know” rather than those on the tourist trail. This is a pity because its two small galleries put on some brilliant shows.
Tucked away not far from the Royal Academy on Savile Row, its latest shows are both winners if you’re a fan of contemporary abstract art.
The German artist Günther Förg shows the breadth of his colourful abstract paintings in a show featuring his final works from the 2000s.
Photo: Phyllida Barlow’s colourful installations
The British artist Phyllida Barlow is featured in the second gallery at Hauser and Wirth. This small scale show now seems more like a celebration of her life since her death earlier this month.
Barlow was renowned for creating imposing installations which are menacing and playful. The works in this show reflect her fascination with inexpensive, low-grade materials such as cardboard, fabric, plywood, polystyrene, and plaster.
Her constructions are often painted in industrial or vibrant colours which make them fun and intriguing to walk around. This show is definitely worth a short detour if you’re a lover of abstract art.
Where to find it: Both shows are at Hauser and Wirth Gallery’s two galleries on Savile Row. Free entry. The nearest Tube is Green Park and there are bus stops on Regent Street nearby. Combine your visit with a look at the famous tailoring shops of Savile Row, and the Royal Academy. The Günther Förg show runs until 29 April, 2023.
Brain Forest Quipu – Turbine Hall – Tate Modern
The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern is a cavernous space which cries out for a massive super-sized art installation to make a big impact.
Its latest exhibition – Cecilia Vicuna’s “Brian Forest Quipu” – is an impressive 27 metres of ghostly cream sculptures which dangle from the ceiling at opposite ends of the Hall.
The Andean tradition of the quipu is celebrated in the work which the artist describes as “social weaving”, celebrating Chilean traditions using modest, “precarious” materials. There’s also a strong nod to the loss of traditional cultures and the impact of catastrophic climate change.
The works are accompanied by a sound ‘quipu’ which plays from within the heart of the sculpture. This would have been soothing and mesmeric if it hadn’t been for the large crowds of noisy school kids in high visibility orange jackets.
But choose a quieter time and perhaps it’ll be a meditative experience!
If anything, I could have done with an even bigger work to fill the void… but this will do nicely for now.
Where to find it: The Brain Forest can be found in the main entrance to the Tate Modern till 16 April. Entrance is free.
The Chinese in Britain – The British Museum
Photos – Early Chinese tobacconist shop; and Mr Chiu’s laundry in Manchester c/o Nick Hedges Photography.
There’s a rich seem of social history to be explored at the British Museum’s “Chinese and British” exhibition.
The Chinese in Britain is a subject which has long been overlooked in British history books. The stories of the earliest merchants and seamen in Liverpool and London’s Docklands are fascinating, reflected in documents, photos, cookery books and portraits.
There are surprising stories of migrants who made their mark in Britain. Sportsman Frank Soo was the first non-white footballer to play for England – and also served in the RAF during World War Two.
Another long forgotten story is that of the Chinese in two World Wars. The British army recruited nearly 100,000 men in China and transported them to France to dig trenches, and drive service tanks in the First World War.
One fascinating photograph shows Chinese sailors training for the Merchant Navy at the Gunnery School Liverpool during the war.
Photos: Painting of Artist Tan-Che-Qua visited London in the mid 18th Century (left); Chinese soldiers training in Liverpool (right) c/o Imperial War Museum.
The exhibition brings alive the lives and stories of the Chinese in Britain from the earliest visitors to immigrants who set up laundries and restaurants.
It’s fascinating to discover that one of the earliest Chinese visitors, sculptor Tan-Che-Qua, visited London between 1769-1772. He set up a successful business producing popular ‘clay portrait’ sculptures. Tan moved in elite circles and even met King George III.
A doll’s house model made by Polin Law gives us a bird’s eye view of her parents’ catering business in the 1970s and ’80s. You can see behind the scenes of Ming’s takeaway including the kitchens as well as the ‘front of house’ serving counter.
My only complaint is that it’s a small show, but hopefully visitors will be inspired to find out about more about the vibrant Chinese community and its history.
Where to find it: “Chinese and British” is at the British Museum and it runs until 23 April, 2023. Free of charge.
The nearest Tube station is the nearby Kings Cross/St Pancras.
Maria Bartuszova – Tate Modern
I’d never heard of the Czech artist Maria Bartuszova until I discovered this engaging exhibition at Tate Modern. It spans 30 years of her sculptural work from the 1960s to the 1990s.
It could almost be subtitled “The Mysterious Production of Eggs” (to quote musician Andrew Bird’s album title) with many of the pure white plaster sculptures depicting eggs in various stages of their evolution.
There are also works featuring beautiful dew drops, shells, balloons and pieces drawing on nature, some using plaster, others in aluminium or bronze.
Walking through the galleries is a very soothing and meditative experience. The works are so sensual and tactile that you want to touch them, but obviously you can’t!
There are also examples of her outdoor and monumental works. My favourite was an outdoor scene featuring a tree with a ‘mass’ of eggs hanging from it (see above). It was commissioned for a crematorium as a celebration of life and a reflection on death.
This is an incredibly moving exhibition which is strangely haunting, powerful and beautiful.
Where to see it: Maria Bartuszova is at Tate Modern on Bankside until 25 June, 2023. Ticket prices apply.
Photos – Maria Bartuszova at work and her sculptures inspired by nature.
The Burnt City – Punchdrunk – Woolwich
Experience immersive theatre company Punchdrunk at their dramatic best as they take you into the “Burnt City”. This ‘promenade’ show is guaranteed to provide a sensory overload as you’re transported into the Greek classical story.
Set during the aftermath of the Trojan Wars, the action takes place across multiple sound stages and a maze of rooms. This is theatre like you’ve never seen before… a labyrinth of spaces which you can explore and immerse yourself in. There’s even a desert, a palace and a nightclub.
Before the show, explore the historic quarter at Woolwich Arsenal which is rich in history including a garrison and the original historic site of Arsenal FC. Look out for the steel men sculpture called “Assembly” by Peter Burke by the river.
Where to see: Take the Elizabeth Line to Woolwich Arsenal and head for the historic Royal Arsenal quarter. Punchdrunk is located at 1 Cartridge Place within the Royal Arsenal complex. Admission price. There are several charming pubs, bars and restaurants for a pre-theatre meal and drinks nearby.
Night Out… Granary Square – King’s Cross and Regent’s Canal
Granary Square is London’s latest leisure playground with specialist shopping, restaurants and bars. This traffic-free, pedestrianised area is a chilled-out oasis with community spaces, exhibitions, public art and fountains.
Situated in the once rundown area at the back of King’s Cross Station, it benefits from its quiet location alongside the towpath of the Regent Canal lined with walkways and a colourful collection of narrowboats.
There’s a lively events programme throughout the year with seasonal film screenings, art exhibitions and weekend markets.
There are plenty of distractions and attractions nearby including the London Canal Museum and Camley Nature Park Reserve
For me, one of the best things is that it’s a pedestrian zone so you can escape from the hustle and bustle of London’s traffic fumes and noise.
A personal favourite is the run-through, illuminated fountains whilst many of the old buildings around the old Coal Drops have been converted into bars and eating places.
Nearby why not drop into the German Gymnasium (close to Kings’ Cross), a brilliant building with a fantastic history. It was London’s first purpose-built gym when it was built in 1865 and also hosted long-forgotten sports such as Indian club swinging and broadsword training. The venue hosted the indoor events for the London Olympics in 1866.
Today it’s been converted into an elegant bar and restaurant which specialises in German food, beers and drinks. I can strongly recommend the traditional Wiener Schnitzel washed down with a dry white German wine!
The stunning David Hockney “Bigger and Closer” exhibition is now running till 4 June at The Lighthouse at Coal Drops Yard, Kings Cross.
This visually striking show uses vast walls, screens and a revolutionary sound system to enable visitors to experience the world through Hockney’s eyes.
Hockney’s voice is in our ears as we watch him experimenting with perspective, using photography, recording the joy of spring on his iPad, and demonstrating how paint can convey the hugeness of the Grand Canyon.
I haven’t seen the exhibition yet but it’s top of my cultural ‘to do’ list for late Spring in London.
Categories: Exhibitions, London, Travel, UK
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