Here’s Why Artists Have Flocked to London Across the Ages

A collaboration with the charity Art UK brings together exceptional works from across 12 institutions.

Frank Bowling, Big Bird (1964) The Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool. The Bowling was gifted by the Contemporary Art Society in 1975 © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2024

Sotheby’s has partnered with Art UK, a charity that provides online access to every public art collection in the United Kingdom, and 12 public museums to stage an exhibition that showcases the multicultural history and diversity of the nation’s art scene throughout the centuries.

“London: An Artistic Crossroads” is a free exhibition running until July 5, held at Sotheby’s New Bond Street location in the heart of the capital. It promises to bring together an incredible selection of artists who found inspiration, refuge, patronage, and influence within the U.K., including Piet Mondrian, Francis Bacon, Frank Bowling, and Magdalene Odundo.

a painting with a dark black backdrop, with a ghostly figure in white, blue and purple in the right foreground. by Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon, Pope I (Study after Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez), (1951).
Aberdeen City Council (Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums collections). Presented in 1956 by the Contemporary Art Society. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2024.

The exhibition has been designed as a counterpart to the National Gallery’s new National Treasures program, launched to celebrate its bicentenary this year. The initiative sees 12 masterpieces from the museum travel to institutions across the country, including Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus (1601) and Diego Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus (1647–51).

In mounting this new show, Sotheby’s has effectively done the reverse, by celebrating works of art that are to be found elsewhere across the nation (although there are two notable inclusions from London), as something of an advert for the strength of collections based far from the capital. It is the inaugural event in an ongoing partnership with Art UK.

“This exhibition brings together a dozen stunning artworks primarily from museums outside London, highlighting the treasures to be found in our regional collections,” Andrew Ellis, chief executive of Art UK, said. “It powerfully illustrates how the U.K.’s rich cultural heritage draws on creators and influences emanating from well beyond our shores.”

Showcasing the important contributions of immigrants and refugees is a key component of the show, which feels particularly pertinent in the wake of Brexit and the government’s implementation of “hostile environment” policies.

a portrait of a 17th-century woman with long flowingg blond hair and a revealing bustling. She wears a golden dress and a pearl necklace. by Marcus Gheeraerts

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Frances Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (ca. 1621). © Compton Verney, photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

The oldest work on display is a portrait of Frances Howard, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (ca.1621) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. The artist was among thousands of Flemish protestants who fled persecution in the Netherlands in the late 1560s. While he arrived in London as a child, he developed a distinctly Dutch style of painting that revolutionized English portraiture. The work is traveling from Compton Verney in Warwickshire.

Johann Zoffany was a neoclassical painter who completed his training in Germany and Italy before making his home in the U.K., where he found patronage among the aristocracy. He declared, “I am an Englishman, because in that country I found protection and encouragement.” His elaborate depiction of the collector Charles Towney, surrounded by friends and his considerable collection of books and antiquities, has been loaned by Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum in Burnley, Lancashire.

a painting depicting several old-fashioned men surrounded by antique sculpture in a lavish living room. a black and white dog lies beneath a seated man. Painting by Johann Zoffany.

Johann Zoffany, Charles Townley and Friends in His Library at Park Street, Westminster (1782). © Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum, Burnley Borough Council / Bridgeman Images

More contemporary examples include Big Bird (1864) by abstractionist Frank Bowling, on loan from the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool. The artist moved to London from Guyana (then British Guiana) as a teenager and recalled his first visit to the National Gallery: “I was very struck by the British painters like John Constable, J.M.W. Turner and William Gainsborough, whose marvelous touch I was engaged by,” he said.

Bowling’s career is a prime example of the rich networks of influences that inform and enrich an arts ecosystem. He was deeply inspired by two other artists included in the show, Francis Bacon and Piet Mondrian, and was also a peer of Peter Blake, David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj (another featured artist). He has also influenced and supported subsequent generations of creative talent through his work as an educator.

“We are honored to be able to contribute to this important exhibition at Sotheby’s celebrating the major contribution that artists of African diaspora heritage have made to the British cultural landscape, and recognizing how London has had such a pivotal role in that process,” said Dr. Amanda Draper, the curator of art and exhibitions at the Victoria Gallery and Museum.

a terracotta vase with a round base, long neck and large lip, in front of a white background. By the ceramicist Magdalene Odundo.

Magdalene Odundo, Tall Bottle (2010). School of Art, Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth University.

Beyond painting, two examples of ceramics are included in the show. A bowl and a vase by Lucie Rie, who fled Nazi persecution in Vienna, has come from the Crafts Study Centre at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham. Rie is widely considered to be a trailblazer of British modernist ceramics.

Meanwhile, Tall Bottle (2010) by Magdalene Odundo has travelled from Aberystwyth University Art Museum. Odundo was brought up in Nairobi and Mombasa before studying in the U.K. and honing her craft in Nigeria and Kenya. She was celebrated with an O.B.E. in 2008.

“London: An Artistic Crossroads” runs through July 5 at Sotheby’s New Bond Street, London W1A 2AA.

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