London museums and galleries off the beaten track
London is full of incredible museums and galleries. If you're looking for somewhere intimate and a little unusual, check out these hidden gems located in the capital.
Whether you head south to England's first purpose-built public art gallery, north to Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris's house, east for a history lesson in home furnishing, or west to find out more about the poet John Keats, London has something to pique your interest in every corner of the city.
We lay bare a handful of hidden treasures the metropolis has to offer.
Explore our full listings for more museums, galleries and exhibitions across London.
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A delightful Georgian Grade II listed property in Islington is home to a fascinating collection of paintings and drawings by the modern Italian Futurist movement. One of the nicest ways to while away an afternoon is to visit 39a Canonbury Square, where works from Eric Estorick's fabulous collection are on display. A writer and sociologist, Estorick became a passionate collector of Italian modernism after discovering Umberto Boccioni's book Futurist Painting and Sculpture while on his honeymoon in Switzerland in 1947. Over the next 40 years Estorick devoted his life to buying Italian art, and these paintings, by many of the great modernists of the 20th century including Giacomo Balla and Amedeo Modigliani, can be seen in the collection today.
Perhaps South London's best kept secret, Dulwich Picture Gallery houses a stunning collection of masterpieces bequeathed to the nation by artist Francis Bourgeois. Designed by architect John Soane in 1811, Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first purpose-built gallery in England and today boasts an exciting exhibition programme alongside its fine collection of Old Masters, which includes work by Rembrandt, Rubens and Gainsborough. Fans of Nicolas Poussin's dark humour will certainly enjoy The Triumph of David (1631), in which revellers dance in the street while David carries the putrid head of Goliath through Jerusalem. There is also a lovely café with a locally sourced menu that takes inspiration from the exhibition programme.
From 17th-century portraits to Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces, London's Guildhall Art Gallery reveals hidden gems among its collection of 4,000 paintings. Having been almost entirely destroyed by fire during the Blitz, the gallery reopened in 1999, revealing a little-known art collection that documents London's dramatic history over 400 years. It is a fascinating and unusual display, with paintings by well-known artists like John Constable and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood exhibited together with painters once lauded, now virtually forgotten. Also on display in the basement are the extensive remains of a Roman amphitheatre uncovered during the redevelopment of the building.
Crowned Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2013, this wonderful gallery in northeast London celebrates the cultural legacy of artist, designer and utopian socialist William Morris. Set in a grand house in Walthamstow where Morris lived as a teenager, the gallery offers a fascinating study of one of the most prominent figures of the 19th century. Inside, history is brought to life through a recreation of Morris's shop on Oxford Street and rooms dedicated to his ideals. The museum also holds temporary exhibitions, with past displays by the likes of Grayson Perry and Jeremy Deller revealing just how much this Victorian thinker's visions continue to inspire artists today.
Sir John Soane’s Museum is a Georgian maze, telling the story of art and architecture through the ages from ancient Greece to 18th-century England. John Soane was one of the most brilliant architects of the Napoleonic era. Creator of monumental public buildings, most notably the bank of England, he was also an avid collector. In 1792, at the height of his fame, Soane bought a grand house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and set about transforming it into a fascinating labyrinth of art, architecture and history. The house is crammed with artefacts, including classical Greek busts, ancient Roman artefacts and, deep down in a shadowy crypt, an Egyptian sarcophagus. It is an utterly remarkable one-of-a-kind.
A hidden gem, this museum, set in Grade I listed 18th-century almshouses in Shoreditch, explores aspects of domestic life from the 1600s to the present day. A sequence of period rooms shows how London homes have been furnished over the past 400 years, showing changes in taste and usage of rooms through the centuries, from a 17th-century parlour to a 1990s loft-style apartment. Discover how homes were lit, time was told and how central heating changed the way we lived. The grounds include a series of period gardens charting different ways urban outside spaces were utilised.
The house where John Keats wrote some of his best-loved poems is a pilgrimage site for visitors from all over the world. This low, pale villa in North Hampstead was Keats's home from 1818 to 1820 and where he fell in love with Fanny Brawne, the girl next door. The museum charts his tragic life and early death at the age of 25 in Rome from tuberculosis. Mementoes of the ardent young man include drawings, paintings and original letters, together with keepsakes of Fanny’s, including her engagement ring. Voted the top poetry landmark in Britain by the Poetry Society, it is the perfect excursion for lovers of verse.
One of London’s most popular small museums, the Foundling Museum combines a great collection of British paintings and contemporary art with the social history of this once industrial city. When the shipbuilder Thomas Coram decided to tackle child poverty in 18th-century London and establish the Foundling Hospital, he was supported in his endeavours by the city’s leading artists and musicians. William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough all donated works to the hospital and the composer George Frideric Handel was a major benefactor. Today the hospital is a museum showcasing this fine collection of work together with items of historic interest from its past, including poignant mementoes and documents detailing the lives of the the abandoned children who lived there.
The more you see, the more we do.
The National Art Pass lets you enjoy free entry to hundreds of museums, galleries and historic places across the UK, while raising money to support them.