Resident Londoner Alexandra Davey takes us on a virtual tour of her artistic hot spots, London’s lesser trodden paths to aesthetic heaven – and all with student friendly entrance fees (translation: free).

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Whilst the saying ‘duller than Dulwich’ implies this London suburb doesn’t have much to offer, the detour out of town is well worth it: Dulwich plays host to England’s first ever purpose-built public

art gallery, fit to burst with a collection that could only be described as a St Andrews Art History student’s academic dream. Featuring works by heavyweights such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Landseer, Constable, Rubens, Watteau, Canaletto and more, better still, the gallery boasts a resume of exciting exhibitions that branch out from the classical and into the comparatively contemporary realm.

Just closing is Norman Rockwell’s America, charting the career of one of America’s most prolific and – until more recently, under appreciated – illustrators of the 20th century. Most startling was the floor-to-ceiling display of the 323 covers of the Saturday Evening Post turned out over the course of his career, which chronicled the ups-and-downs of what it was to be an American citizen in a tumultuous time. Next up for Dulwich: an exhibition comparing the work of Cy Twombly and Poussin, opening on June 29th. With era-hopping mash-ups like that, who said Dulwich was dull?

The Saatchi

The great thing about the Saatchi gallery is that it’s the perfect cultural quick fix: nestled in Duke of York Square, just off King’s Road, and with free entrance, it’s the perfect supplement to a day of shopping. Plus, with its history of media controversy and penchant for exhibiting relative unknowns, visitors are always guaranteed a level of entertainment and thought-provocation.

My recent whirlwind trip provided just that. British Art Now, the Saatchi’s latest offering, featuring young British artists, might have lacked any obvious coherence to the unknowing eye (I visited without any knowledge of what I was going to see), but it did present the unexpected: comedy.  Whether intended or not, there is something semi-hilarious about the melding of a mountain goat and a goat-sized concrete manifestation of a bottle of Christian Dior’s ‘J’adore’. But Steven Bishop’s taxidermy sculptures were amongst my favourite pieces on show, and stood out against an array of abstract, modernist daubings.  Also memorable were Jonathan Wateridge’s large scale oil paintings, featuring the stuff of boys’ action-adventure fantasies: ‘Jungle Scene with Plane Wreck’ looked like an artistic rendering of a scene from Lost, and the group portraits of Sandinistas and Astronauts were similarly macho.  Strangely classical in amongst a sea of conceptual canvases, my companion grumbled that the only place he saw ‘Astronauts’ as having any resonance was ‘in NASA’s boardroom.’ But this is partly what is so refreshing about the Saatchi and its work of unknowns: it’s like a lucky dip. You never quite know what you’re going to get, or how good it’s going to be, and this is partly what makes the experience so stimulating and exciting. And where else are you going to find such good taxidermy in central London? Newspeak: British Art Now Part II runs until the 30th of April 2011.

Somerset House Embankment Galleries

Somerset House is known for being a cultural hub: it is home to the Courtauld Institute, and come Christmas time, transforms into London’s answer to New York’s Rockefeller ice rink.  Year round, it entertains a number of exhibitions that serve as the perfect starting points for those whose aesthetic interests branch more into the mainstream.

John Makepeace: Pair of Zebra Cabinets

In recent months, the Embankment Gallery has played host to a Maison Martin Margiela retrospective and a showcase entitled Dior Illustrated: Rene Gruau and the Line of Beauty. In both cases, the exhibitions utilize space creatively; for example, making use of projected videos and presentations documenting how these fashion figureheads have influenced others in order to explore the blurring boundaries between the commercial worlds of fashion and art.  In both cases, as well as appreciating the art, these exhibitions are a perfect opportunity for fashion lovers to get up close to couture that would sadly be rather out of reach of the mere mortals’ grasp.

The gallery definitely has its finger on the pulse of what’s hot (it is the home of London Fashion Week, after all), and whilst it is not always fashion-focused, it usually is fascinating. Coming this summer are Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ‘Zodiac Heads’, which will take pride of place in the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court after a stint in New York.  Until the 15th of April, you can catch renowned furniture designer John Makepeace’s first ever solo exhibition – because who doesn’t love a cabinet disguised as a zebra?

Alexandra Davey