A walking tour of London's must-see public art
By Rose de Lara
Published on 12 November 2015
From Ai Weiwei in the City to Barbara Hepworth in Battersea, we take you across London on a tour of the city's best outdoor art to see for free. Realistically, dip in and out – or it's one long hike.
Three Perpetual Chords, Conrad Shawcross RA
We begin our journey in South London. The beloved Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Divided Circle, (1969) was stolen from Dulwich Park in 2011 by suspected metal thieves. This year, Conrad Shawcross was commissioned to create a new public artwork to honour Hepworth’s original sculpture.
Described by the artist as “visual descriptions of musical chords”, Three Perpetual Chords is a series of monumental, spheroidal, cast iron sculptures. These sculptures are arranged in relation to the mathematical patterns found in music, and represent part of Shawcross’ on-going study of the harmonic scale.
Single Form, Barbara Hepworth
Thankfully, other Hepworth sculptures can be found in London. Single Form (1961) overlooks the main lake in Battersea Park. At over six metres high (making it the artist’s largest sculpture) the bronze work was dedicated to Hepworth’s friend Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations, who was killed in a plane crash in 1961. The second edition of the sculpture can be found in the UN building in New York. Hepworth preferred such works to be set in natural outdoor spaces, remarking: “no sculpture really lives until it goes back to the landscape, the trees, air and clouds … I shan’t be truly happy until this is more fulfilled.”
Howick Place, Westminster
Wind Sculpture, Yinka Shonibare RA
In Howick Place you will discover a Wind Sculpture by Yinka Shonibare RA, floating mysteriously and majestically. Adorning them with patterns from African Dutch batik fabric, Shonibare has designed his sculptures to evoke the billowing sails of trade ships, conjuring notions of cultural history and national and ethnic identities.
No sculpture really lives until it goes back to the landscape, the trees, air and clouds … I shan’t be truly happy until this is more fulfilled
Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster
The Burghers of Calais, Auguste Rodin
This magnificent sculpture is one of 12 casts (under French law no more than 12 casts of Rodin’s works may be made) found all over the world. It depicts six figures drawn from a historical account of the siege of Calais in 1347, an event of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1453). The story goes that after besieging Calais for nearly a year, King Edward III offered to spare the people of the city if six citizens of Calais surrendered themselves to him in sacrifice. The Burghers of Calais depicts these six citizens upon their departure of Calais to the King’s camp. The bronze sculpture is imbued with courage, expression, despair and anguish, as these people prepared to give their lives for their fellow citizens.
Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square
Gift Horse, Hans Haacke
Next up is the latest in a series of works created for the Fourth Plinth Commission, an initiative established in 2005. Hans Haacke has said that he never expected his proposal to be chosen, given the critical nature of his works – in this instance, critiquing the relations between the city, power, money and art. The provocative work is a bronze skeleton of a horse with a bow around its right leg. Haacke used an etching by George Stubbs RA, well known for his anatomical equestrian studies, to inform his sculpture. (You can see Stubbs' work in the RA Collection here) The bow is made up of LED lights that show live prices from London’s stock exchange.
Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain (Eros), Sir Alfred Gilbert RA
This Piccadilly Circus sculpture (notably the first sculpture ever to be cast in aluminium) was erected in 1893 to commemorate the works of Lord Shaftesbury, politician and philanthropist. It caused controversy when it was unveiled, as the nudity of the subject was deemed scandalous. The sculpture carries connotations of Eros, the god of sensual love, and was regarded as an inappropriate memorial to an infamously respectable Earl.
You can see more of Sir Alfred Gilbert RA's work in the RA Collection.
Frieze Sculpture Park 2015, Regents Park
Contradiction, Tony Cragg RA
Open until January 2016, the Frieze London Sculpture Park is set in the leafy English Gardens of Regents Park. Situated amongst magnificent works from Conrad Shawcross RA, Richard Serra, and Seung taek-Lee, Tony Cragg RA’s fluid, dynamic, white marble sculpture Contradiction is a highlight.
Kings Place, Kings Cross
Sitting Couple on a Bench, Lynn Chadwick RA
As part of Pangolin Gallery’s exhibition, Conjunction, Lynn Chadwick RA’s bronze sculpture, Sitting Couple on a Bench, has been installed by Kings Place. Well known for his geometric, semi-abstract work, Chadwick’s grand, monumental bodies sit calmly overlooking Regent’s Canal.
Conjunction: Lynn Chadwick & Geoffrey Clarke, Pangolin Gallery, London. Until 28 November.
Victoria Miro, Wharf Road
Narcissus Garden, Yayoi Kusama
A walk heading East along Regent’s Canal will bring you to Victoria Miro Gallery. Hundreds of stainless steel mirrored spheres float across the gallery garden’s pond, in what Kusama has termed a "kinetic carpet". The piece continues her obsession with proliferating and repetitive circle motifs. When the work was originally installed at the 33rd Venice Biennale, Kusama began selling the individual spheres for $2 each, until Biennale organisers put a stop to the initiative. Now permanently homed here, the installation is mesmerizing and peaceful.
St Mary Axe (The Gherkin)
Forever, Ai Weiwei Hon RA
While Ai Weiwei takes over our galleries, you can also see this striking assemblage in the middle of the city, where hundreds of proliferating stainless steel bicycle frames emanate into sculptural form. Forever is a brand of mass-produced bicycle in Shanghai, the kind that Ai used when he was growing up – but one whose use is quickly diminishing, as cars gradually take over. These bicycles have made up an ongoing series of sculptures, as Ai remarks: “I thought they would be a good public sculpture because people relate to bikes. They’re designated for the body and operated with your body. There are few things today that are like that.”
The sculpture is part of the fifth edition of Sculpture in the City 2015 – a trail in itself if you're keen to stay in the City.
Broadgate Circle, Liverpool Street
Fulcrum, Richard Serra
Monumental and starkly industrial, this freestanding 55-foot sculpture towers above city workers on their lunch break in Broadgate Circle. Serra has long been intrigued by urban sites, and by the viewer’s experience in and around his sculptures. This is a minimalist masterpiece you mustn’t miss.
A bullet from a shooting star, Alex Chinneck
You might be a little weary now, so perhaps hop on the tube to our next stop – Greenwich. Alex Chinneck creates extraordinary installations in unexpected, everyday spaces. As part of this year’s London Design Festival, the artist behind the levitating building in Covent Garden and the melting wax house in Southwark, created this sculpture – which resembles an upside-down electricity pylon balanced on its tip. Seemingly defying gravity, the 35-metre steel structure sits surreally in an industrial wasteland against a backdrop of the river and Canary Wharf.
Quantum Cloud, Antony Gormley RA
Quantum Cloud is part of The Line – another newly established sculpture walk that follows the Meridian through east London between the O2 Arena and Queen Elizabeth Park. Taller than The Angel of the North, Quantum Cloud is a matrix of tretrahedal units of steel, influenced by the work of quantum physicist Basil Hiley, and created using “fractal growth” software. Commissioned for this specific site, the sculpture was completed in 1999, and now the adjacent Emirates Airline cable car provides the perfect opportunity to view the work.
You need to journey round the object, and through it… it requires real participation from the public
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford
ArcelorMittal Orbit, Anish Kapoor RA
Finally, now a permanent fixture on east London's skyline, the 155 metres tall "Helter Skelter" is the UK’s largest sculpture; a somewhat divisive reminder of 2012's Olympic summer, for which Anish Kapoor RA and Cecil Balmond created it. Kapoor said of the sculpture: “I wanted the sensation of instability, something that was continually in movement… It is an object that cannot be perceived as having a singular image, from any one perspective. You need to journey round the object, and through it… it requires real participation from the public”.
The ArcelorMittal Orbit's Helter Skelter nickname is also about to become all the more appropriate, as in Spring 2016 the world’s longest and tallest slide is due to open, wrapping around the sculpture. Until then, you can enjoy the view from the observation deck and end our tour reflecting on London's expanding, sculptural horizon.