The best paintings of London

Kathleen Bondar 29 November 2021

London has been the source of inspiration for artists across the ages. From fog hanging over the Thames to bustling junctions, here are some of the most remarkable paintings of the capital 

London has proved a worthy muse for many great artists over the centuries from Canaletto’s majestic paintings of the Thames in the 1700s to the upcoming RA exhibition of Jock McFadyen’s contemporary city life (Jock McFadyen RA: Tourist without a Guidebook, Royal Academy of Arts, 5 February - 10 April 2022).  

The city has served as a history of art overview and the list of artists in this canon is illustrious. 

Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto (1697 -1768), came to London in the mid-1700s. His paintings of the great sights are sweeping almost overwhelming in detail and mastery. The Thames and the City (1746-7) places St Paul’s Cathedral off-centre allowing the great church a commanding view of the Thames.

It’s clearly a working river dotted with hundreds of ships and little boats, unimaginable today. Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames (1752) at the National Maritime Museum demonstrates the crowded river from another aspect.

One of Britain’s most celebrated painters, described by John Ruskin as the ‘father of modern art’ and subsequently the namesake of the Turner Prize, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 -1851) used his unique style to capture London in several compositions.

"Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth"

Like Canaletto, he was taken by the sweep of the Thames, and like Constable, he captured London from a distance: London from Greenwich Park (1809); View of Richmond Hill and Bridge (1808). In The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834-5), the heat of the fire depicted with rapid brush strokes is palpable.

Born in Suffolk and known for his bucolic, landscape paintings John Constable (1776-1837) moved to Hampstead in 1816. From this once rural location, now fully enveloped as part of the capital, Constable painted experimental sky and cloud studies.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge Seen from Whitehall Stairs (1817) combines Constable’s familiar cumulus clouds with his skill in painting grand architecture. A series of prints including Vignette: Hampstead Heath (1829) and an oil entitled Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow (1836) is on view as part of the Late Constable exhibition at the Royal Academy until 13 February 2022.

Claude Monet, (1840 -1926) a French Impressionist, renowned for his paintings of waterlilies was a leading landscape painter. When he visited London in the 1870s, he was enthralled by the works of Constable and Turner. Houses of Parliament (1899-1901) is a soft and gently coloured interpretation of London as if seen through a foggy haze.

The Thames below Westminster (1871) is an earlier work and can be found in the main collection at The National Gallery. With silhouette figures (which inspired Lowry) in the foreground, London is depicted through a mist of smoke. London was renowned for its “pea-soupers” which Monet appreciated as an artist, saying ‘Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth.’  

 

Fellow Impressionist Camille Pissarro (1830 -1903) favoured the London suburbs as a subject. The Avenue, Sydenham (1871) is one of 12 pictures that Pissarro painted while in self-imposed exile in London. Like Fox Hill, Upper Norwood (1870), the area looks almost rural to the contemporary eye.  Both paintings hang at the National Gallery.

In Charing Cross Bridge (1890) Pissarro’s pointillism begins to look less like dots and more like enlarged pads. In the 1890s, he lived on Kew Green where he painted eleven canvasses of the subject. Cricket is still played on the Green and the view across the bridge of the water tower (now a Museum of Water and Steam) is increasingly encroached by the Brentford Project and large, smart apartments.

Stephen Lowry (L.S. Lowry 1887 -1976) captured the bustle of London in Piccadilly Circus, London (1960). The colourful painting has Lowry’s hallmark stick figures bent forward in a rush to or from work whilst red London buses queue in a standstill amongst the traffic.

The billboards are as large and dominant as today’s neon displays. The whole scene, if a little dated, is recognisable sixty years later. The painting was purchased by a private buyer for £5.6m at Christie’s in 2012. For the public, The Lowry in Salford offers the largest collection of the Northern artist’s work available for view.

Hailing from the ‘School of London’ painters (a group of artists working in London in the seventies including RB Kitaj, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon), Leon Kossoff (1926 -2019) was a British figurative painter. Born in Islington Kossoff looked to his surroundings of North, West and East London, painting scenes of the streets, stations and constructions sites populated by working people.

The titles of his paintings are to the point: Willesden Junction, Morning in October (1971); Booking Hall Kilburn (1987). City scenes such as Demolition of YMCA Building (1971), Dalston Junction (1973) and King’s Cross Stormy Day (2004) lend to Kossoff’s scratchy, diagonal paintwork.

John Virtue (born 1947) became a National Gallery Associate Artist in 2003 and spent his residency on the roof of the gallery painting large, dark canvasses.

Treading a fine line between figurative and abstract painting Virtue’s signature monochromatic cityscapes are conceived as if before a thunderstorm. From his vantage point he painted the Gherkin, the NatWest Tower and St. Paul's Cathedral. Citing Turner as his inspiration, Virtue’s works are simply titled Landscape and numbered chronologically.

Jock McFadyen’s London is a far cry from the grandiose vistas of Canaletto and the gentle scenes of Pissarro’s suburbs. Originally from Scotland, McFadyen (born 1950) prefers a franker view of London’s grimmer side: a seedy nightclub next to a parade of closed shops in Goodfellas (2001), a boarded-up industrial site in Tate Moss (2010) and an anonymous council estate in Pink Flats (2006).

 

Bank (1999) cleverly plays with the idea of art within art, depicting graffiti on the underground, the iconic tube logo included. Despite an edgy feel, these oil paintings can be curiously playful with a splash of colour and in Night Bus (2020) bizarre abstract figures.

Read more: The dazzling beauty of abandoned cinemas

Read more: 5 pioneering Black British artists

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter