The best free exhibitions in London – get your culture fix and keep your money for coffee

·15-min read
 (Creative Courts, Yinka Ilori, photographed by Matt Alexander)
(Creative Courts, Yinka Ilori, photographed by Matt Alexander)

Spring is officially here and London is, as ever, absolutely packed with things to do — whether that’s exhibitions, people, events and music.

But of course, it can all get a bit pricey. So if you want to have a great weekend seeing some of London’s best culture, but also want to save a few quid, look no further than this guide to the best art shows to see in the city, which are all absolutely free.

Hunterian Museum

 (Hufton and Crow)
(Hufton and Crow)

Not one for the squeamish: the Hunterian Museum reopened this week after a six year hiatus and a £4.6m redevelopment. A museum of anatomical specimens, that is appropriately located in the the building of the Royal College of Surgeons, expect to see body parts, bones and organs in glass jars and cabinets. “There are skulls, lips, teeth, tongues, throats, stomachs, intestines, testes, penises, and ovaries in varying states of health,” said The Standard. “Those are just the human bits.”

Named after the 18th century surgeon and anatomist William Hunter, the museum’s major update includes some much needed contextualisation, so while gawping at the growths floating in ethanol and skulls shot through with Syphilis, museum-goers now get an explanation of Hunter’s not always ethical methods, and of some of his ideas that would not be deemed acceptable today.

Hunterian Museum; hunterianmuseum.org

Mohammed Sami: The Point 0

Mohammed Sami, Electric Issues (Marcus Leith / Courtesy of the artist, Modern Art London and Luhring Augustine New York)
Mohammed Sami, Electric Issues (Marcus Leith / Courtesy of the artist, Modern Art London and Luhring Augustine New York)

The first UK institutional solo exhibition of Baghdad-born artist Mohammed Sami contains ten new major paintings alongside work taken from the last four years of his practice. Sami explores memory – particularly in relation to conflict and time – in his work, drawing on his own experiences of creating propaganda images for Saddam Hussein, and of becoming a refugee after being granted asylum in Sweden.

Camden Art Centre, to June 10; camdenartcentre.org

Leila Al-Yousuf: Waterscapes

Relax (Courtesy the artist and indigo+madder, London.)
Relax (Courtesy the artist and indigo+madder, London.)

British artist Leila Al-Yousuf’s exhibition explores emotional states by depicting water and land scenes. Although the work might at first seem wholly abstract, they are in fact Al-Yousuf’s attempts to visualise her immediate surroundings.

indigo+madder, to June 10; indigoplusmadder.com

Tête á Tête: Cherry Aribisala and David Olatoye

 (David Olatoye / Pi Artworks)
(David Olatoye / Pi Artworks)

A dialogue between two emerging Nigerian artists, Cherry Aribisala, based in the UK, and David Olatoye, based in Nigeria, this show aims to look to the future of contemporary African art. Aribisala draws inspiration from comic books and the Pop Art Movement of the Sixties to create figurative portraits of Black subjects surrounded by recurring floral motifs, while Olatoye, is best known for his meticulously executed, stylised portraits, accentuating intimate moments with a focus on familial relationships, everyday life activities, and daydreaming.

Pi Artworks, to June 10; piartworks.com

The Ugly Duchess

Quinten Massys’s 1513 portrait is one of the best-known faces in the National Gallery. Dubbed “The Ugly Duchess”, this magnificent lady is the centrepiece of an exhibition looking at beauty and satire during the Renaissance. Finally reuniting her with her companion An Old Man — lent from a private collection — this small show explores the picture as a pioneering new form and attitudes to older women (yes, not much has changed). It also includes some fine sketches by Leonardo da Vinci.

National Gallery, to June 11; nationalgallery.org.uk

A Hard Man is Good to Find!

John Hamill by John S Barrington, c.1966 (Rupert Smith Collection)
John Hamill by John S Barrington, c.1966 (Rupert Smith Collection)

This bold exhibition journeys through six decades of queer photography of the male physique. Including work by Cecil Beaton, Basil Clavering, Ajamu X and many more it celebrates the clandestine visual culture of male bodies, which emerged after the Second World War during a time when making and distributing such images was a criminal offence. There is no age restriction on the show but the website points out it includes nudity and sexually suggestive scenes.

Photographer’s Gallery, to June 11; thephotographersgallery.org.uk

Checkmate

 (Photography by Benjamin Deakin)
(Photography by Benjamin Deakin)

“At first glance a show about the game of chess could be considered absurd, trivial even,” explain Henry Hussey and Sophia Olver of OHSH Projects. But the thousand year old game is no laughing matter: Chess has brought together communities, families and friendships for centuries. The strategy game, this show argues, can also be used as a means of reflecting on conflict. It’s “a microcosm of society” and can be seen as means of “effectively exploring life and death”. Eight artists reflect on these ideas in Checkmate.

OHSH Projects South, Peckham Arches, to June 11; ohshprojects.com

The Power of She: A Tribute to Women in the Arts

Else Fischer-Hansen, Composition, 1958 (Bowman Sculpture)
Else Fischer-Hansen, Composition, 1958 (Bowman Sculpture)

Curators Marie-Claudine Llamas (Guerin Projects) and Mica Bowman (Bowman Sculpture) present this group exhibition of the works of artists including Camille Claudel, Elizabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth, Emily Young, Hanneke Beaumont, Joanna Allen, Lily Lewis, Pauline Amos, Carla Prina, Else Fischer-Hansen, Jessica St.James and Sarah Hoadly.

The collection of works, which spans from the 18th century to the present day, provoke questions around the human condition, society and nature, while also celebrating women in the arts.

Bowman Sculpture, to June 16; bowmansculpture.com

Maki Na Kamura

Maki Na Kamura, “Camp VI” 2023 (© Maki Na Kamura. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London)
Maki Na Kamura, “Camp VI” 2023 (© Maki Na Kamura. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London)

Osaka-born, Berlin-based painter Maki Na Kamura presents a completely new body of work in her first London show. Na Kamura’s paintings, which are at once figurative and abstract, draw on a wide range of influences including the history of Japanese art and its impact on European painting, Italian Renaissance masters and K-Pop artists such as ATEEZ.

Michael Werner Gallery, to June 17; michaelwerner.com

Maisie Cousins: Walking Back To Happiness

Maisie Cousins’s second show at TJ Boulting explores childhood, the subconscious and lost memories through both the close up photos that have become the artist’s signature, and new work that involves AI and installations.

TJ Boulting, to June 17; tjboulting.com

Pop-ups: ONE AND J. Gallery, Vadehra Art Gallery

Ahnnlee Lee, Alchemy, Transmutation of Matter (details), 2023 (© ONE AND J. Gallery and the artist)
Ahnnlee Lee, Alchemy, Transmutation of Matter (details), 2023 (© ONE AND J. Gallery and the artist)

Frieze No.9 Cork Street is a space for other galleries to come and set up shop for limited periods. The summer incumbents are Seoul-based ONE AND J. Gallery, and New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery.

ONE AND J. presents Dongwook Suh, Ahnnlee Lee, and Yoonhee Choi: Acquainted with the Night, where three Korean artists explore the human experience of the night through their various artistic practices; while Vadehra presents Arpita Singh: Meeting. In Post-Modernist Singh’s solo exhibition, expect canvases, watercolours and drawings playing with the idea of “cartographical autobiographies” – imagined people and places, made to seem like they’re in motion.

No.9 Cork Street, to June 17; frieze.com/no9-cork-street

Matter As Actor

Zhan Wang, Particle No.8, 2022 (© Zhan Wang, Courtesy Lisson Gallery)
Zhan Wang, Particle No.8, 2022 (© Zhan Wang, Courtesy Lisson Gallery)

This group exhibition features artists whose work somehow embodies the changeable form of matter – be that presented as clay, rock, pigment, plastic, metal or another kind of substance. The work provokes questions about matter in relation to, and in reaction to, both humans and the wider world. The show includes work from Allora & Calzadilla, Dana Awartani, Richard Long, Otobong Nkanga, Yelena Popova and more, and spans both the Lisson Galleries, which are a two-minute walk from each other.

Lisson Gallery Bell St and Lisson St, to June 24; lissongallery.com

Mother Art Prize

Jodie Carey, Sea, 2018 (Peter Mallet Photography)
Jodie Carey, Sea, 2018 (Peter Mallet Photography)

The Procreate Project Mother Art Prize is an open-call group exhibition that features 21 artists, all of whom are mothers or parents in some form. The idea of the show is not only to support the artists, but also to draw attention to the complexities around motherhood, parenthood and artistic output. Artists in the show include Jodie Carey, Hannah Ballou, Louise Black, Yasmin Noorbakhsh, Yelena Popova, Qian Qian, Si Sapsford and Alice Sheppard Fidler.

Zabludowicz Collection, to June 25; zabludowiczcollection.com

Yinka Ilori: Parables For Happiness

 (Creative Courts, Yinka Ilori, photographed by Matt Alexander)
(Creative Courts, Yinka Ilori, photographed by Matt Alexander)

Yinka Ilori draws on his British-Nigerian heritage to create his accessibility-focused art and design work. He reimagines spaces in cities – often using bright colour patterns and employing geometric shapes – by creating murals, building outdoor gallery trails, installing structures in pavilions and transforming pedestrian crossings.

Now, at the Design Museum, the artist is showcasing a range of their work and inspirations including billboard graphics, Nigerian textiles, photographs, furniture and books. Visitors can look forward to as many as 100 objects all summarizing Ilori’s design inspiration.

Design Museum, to June 25; designmuseum.org

Callum Innes

Callum Innes, Untitled Lamp Black / Deep Purple Dioxazine, 2023 (Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London)
Callum Innes, Untitled Lamp Black / Deep Purple Dioxazine, 2023 (Courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London)

A collection of Edinburgh-born artist Callum Innes’ signature Exposed Paintings are on show along with a selection of brand-new works. The artist often presents work as a series, so that each piece builds upon the next, and feeds into each other. Here, his oil paintings, which seem both solid and permeable, provoke questions around presence and absence by using sections of solid black shapes alongside watery coloured shapes.

Frith Street Gallery, to July 1; frithstreetgallery.com

Charles Avery: The Nothing of the Day

 (Charles Avery, Untitled (Eel Seller), 2022)
(Charles Avery, Untitled (Eel Seller), 2022)

Since 2004, Scottish artist Charles Avery has become known for his lively drawings sprouting from the idea of a parallel realm, The Island, a fictional alternative to life on Earth. Some things are similar – humans, for example, look like humans – while some things, like giant eels, are not.

His work is steeped in philosophy – every text, drawing, installation and sculpture made for or about The Island has been done so on purpose, to provoke ideas, pose solutions or ask questions. But they also work as stand-alone, colourful, beautiful pieces of art. Expect iridescent eels and images of dancers, rebels and terrorists.

GRIMM, to July 8; grimmgallery.com

Florence Peake: Enactment

Florence Peake, Factual Actual II, 2020 (Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery London and Rome. Copyright The Artist.)
Florence Peake, Factual Actual II, 2020 (Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery London and Rome. Copyright The Artist.)

New installations, sculptures, canvases, and works on paper that continue multi-disciplinary artist Florence Peake’s research into the possibilities of painting, and complements her major solo exhibition at Southwark Park Galleries, running to July 2. Her exhilarating work, which includes striking immersive performances, is rooted in the body and at once sensual and witty, political, and intimate.

Richard Saltoun Gallery, to July 8; richardsaltoun.com

David Adjaye: Yaawa

Courtesy Carpenters Workshop Gallery (David Adjaye)
Courtesy Carpenters Workshop Gallery (David Adjaye)

Ladbroke Hall is about to become one of West London’s destination art spots, as the giant space, whose restoration has involved collaborations with artists and architects including Sir David Adjaye, Sir Christopher Le Brun, Ingrid Donat, Michèle Lamy and Rick Owens, among others, opens to the public in June. Its upcoming cultural programme is set to cover music, theatre, film, dance, art and collectible design and the space will include a garden sanctuary and a restaurant.

But for those who can’t wait for the new art hub’s big launch, its new East Wing Carpenters Workshop Gallery is now open with two exhibitions. The first, titled Yaawa, will contain Adjaye’s “latest body of collectible design” while the second, Denuncia, will feature selected work by Brazilian designer Jose Zanine Caldas.

Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Ladbroke Hall, through the summer; ladbrokehall.com

Frank Auerbach: Twenty Self-Portraits

Frank Auerbach, ‘Self Portrait V’, 2022, acrylic on board, 20 x 20 inches (© Franke Auerbach 2022)
Frank Auerbach, ‘Self Portrait V’, 2022, acrylic on board, 20 x 20 inches (© Franke Auerbach 2022)

This exhibition of one of the very last of the School of London set is all there in the name. Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert presents a series of self-portraits – nine of which are paintings, and 11 of which are works on paper – by the 92-year-old German-British painter.

Auerbach is better known for his landscapes of North London and portraits of others, making this selection rare indeed. The exhibition is the first time that new works from Auerbach are being exhibited since 2015.

Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, to July 14; hh-h.com

Caragh Thuring: The Foothills of Pleasure

 (© Caragh Thuring. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery. Photo: Todd - White Art Photography)
(© Caragh Thuring. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery. Photo: Todd - White Art Photography)

Thuring’s first career survey was presented at Hastings Contemporary earlier this year. The Foothills of Pleasure follows on from this major exhibition, presenting a selection of new large-scale paintings as well as a series of portraits of people throughout history who share Thuring’s interest in volcanoes.

Caragh grew up near Holy Loch, which was the location of a US submarine base for thirty years and a construction site for North Sea oil rigs. The artist has long been inspired by her early life in the area; a large number of her works have depicted submarines, cranes and dock sides, and often deal with topics such as industry and industrial action.

Thomas Dane Gallery, to July 15; thomasdanegallery.com

Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth, EHN 1, CERN, Saint Genis-Pouilly, 2021 (© Thomas Struth)
Thomas Struth, EHN 1, CERN, Saint Genis-Pouilly, 2021 (© Thomas Struth)

In this fascinating exhibition, German photographer Thomas Struth presents photos of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and one of the world’s leading scientific research centres. The photographs form part of his Nature and Politics project, and are being shown here in the UK for the first time. The mind-blowing images of the extraordinary research site look hyper-unreal as Struth’s lens seems to draw out colours and shapes from the manmade structures, coloured wires, metal surfaces, computers and retired machines.

Galerie Max Hetzler, to July 29; maxhetzler.com

Lee Ufan and Claude Viallat: Encounter

Lee Ufan, Correspondence, 1992 (© Lee Ufan / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy Pace Gallery)
Lee Ufan, Correspondence, 1992 (© Lee Ufan / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy Pace Gallery)

Both born in 1936, Lee Ufan and Claude Viallat have dedicated nearly seven decades to their practices and founded major artistic movements: Mono-ha in Japan and Supports/Surfaces in France, respectively. This show brings together these two giants of abstraction, and their shared interest in materials, time and non-traditional art-making.

Pace Gallery, to July 29; pacegallery.com

St Francis of Assisi

 (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art / photo: Allen Phillips)
(Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art / photo: Allen Phillips)

This blockbuster, totally free, National Gallery exhibition is at first a bit of a head scratcher. With so many “old dead white blokes” to build an exhibition around, why choose a 13th century monk? But St Francis of Assisi, the Italian Catholic friar who the current pope is named after, is one of the most famous figures in Christianity: he founded the Franciscans, is the designated patron saint of Italy and is also likely to be the most represented saint in the history of art. This means that a show of images of his depiction is actually a show about history, craftsmanship, religion and ideas.

National Gallery, to July 30; nationalgallery.org.uk

Hardcore

White Bread, 2021 by KING COBRA (documented as Doreen Lynette Garner) (Courtesy the artist and JTT, New York. Photo: Katie Morrison / Sadie Coles HQ, London.)
White Bread, 2021 by KING COBRA (documented as Doreen Lynette Garner) (Courtesy the artist and JTT, New York. Photo: Katie Morrison / Sadie Coles HQ, London.)

This group show is all about sex, as you may have gathered from the title. The power dynamics of sex, the diverse nature of intimacy, and our reaction to it. In the cancel culture era, these artists unapologetically test the parameters of the human experience, provoke reaction, thought and important discussion around essential human questions. Featuring the likes of Carolee Schneemann, Joan Semmel, Cindy Sherman, Monica Bonvicini, Maryam Hoseini, Tishan Hsu and more.

Sadie Coles HQ Kingly St, to August 5; sadiecoles.com

Avedon: Glamorous

To celebrate the centenary of Richard Avedon’s birth, Mayfair photographer gallery Hamiltons is putting on a major retrospective of the American photographer’s work. Expect to see iconic images as well as rarely seen photographs which have all been selected to run with the show’s theme of Glamour – “a central pillar” to Avedon’s body of work. Avedon, who died in 2004 and is seen as one of the pioneers of modern photography, took pictures of everyone from Twiggy and Ingrid Boulting, to early American supermodel Dovima and British icon Jean Shrimpton over his six-decade career.

Hamiltons, to August 11; hamiltonsgallery.com

To Bend the Ear of the Outer World: Conversations on contemporary abstract painting

 (Image: Graphic Thought Facility)
(Image: Graphic Thought Facility)

This giant group exhibition brings together over forty new and recent works from artists from the Americas, the UK, and Germany. Guest curated by prominent American art historian Gary Garrels, the exhibition stretches across both of the Gagosian’s London showrooms, which are a two-minute walk from each other. Expect an exploration of abstract painting, and what that means to Garrels, with work from artists including Tomma Abts, Tauba Auerbach, Cecily Brown, Richard Hoblock, Gerhard Richter, Pat Steir, Christopher Wool, and John Zurier.

Gagosian Davies St and Grosvenor Hill, to August 25; gagosian.com

Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender

 (Ashish, Spring Summer 2023 © Ashish Shah)
(Ashish, Spring Summer 2023 © Ashish Shah)

The first major survey of fashion designer Ashish Gupta is now open at the William Morris Gallery. It’s set to be a joyous affair: Ashish’s work has come to be known for its bright colours and sequins. More than 60 designs, selected from Gupta’s work over the past 20 years, are on display alongside gorgeous photography, and a film, from photographer Ashish Shah, who grew up in North India.

William Morris Gallery, to September 10; wmgallery.org.uk

Sarah Sze: The Waiting Room

 (Thierry Bal)
(Thierry Bal)

US artist Sarah Sze has created “extraordinary, intricate sculptural environments” in this new exhibition at the former first class waiting room at Peckham Rye Station, which has stood empty for around sixty years. The American artist, who explores technology and information by using everyday objects in her work, continues this exploration in this new Art Angel (the London-based arts organisation behind Rachel Whiteread’s House and Mika Rottenberg / Mahyad Tousi’s Remote) show. Expect steel bars, projected film sequences, moving projectors and flashing images.

Peckham Rye Station, to September 16; artangel.org.uk

Gideon Mendel: Fire / Flood

 (© Gideon Mendel)
(© Gideon Mendel)

Since 2007, award-winning South African photographer Gideon Mendel has been travelling around the world photographing the devastating impact of climate catastrophes, focusing on flooding and wildfires. Over the past 15 years, he’s made 20 trips to flooded areas, most recently spending time in Nigeria and Pakistan.

Mendel said: “My subjects... are showing the world the calamity that has befallen them. They are not victims in this exchange: the camera records their dignity and resilience. They bear witness to the brutal reality that the poorest people on the planet almost always suffer the most from climate change.”

The Photographers’ Gallery, to September 30; thephotographersgallery.org.uk

Rhea Dillon: An Alterable Terrain

An Unholy Trinity (the) Imaginary, Symbolic and Real, 2022. (Courtesy the artist and Soft Opening, London. Photography: Theo Christelis)
An Unholy Trinity (the) Imaginary, Symbolic and Real, 2022. (Courtesy the artist and Soft Opening, London. Photography: Theo Christelis)

Art Now is Tate Britain’s long-running exhibition series spotlighting rising stars in the art scene; this time, it’s Rhea Dillon’s turn to shine. The interdisciplinary artist and Central Saint Martins alum explores British and Caribbean identities using new and old sculptures which are being presented as “a conceptual fragmentation of a Black woman’s body”.

Tate Britain, to January 1, 2024; tate.org.uk