Top 20 British masterpieces

From the satirical morality tales of William Hogarth to the disorientating razzle of Bridget Riley, these 20 paintings transformed the landscape of British art.

Please check with venues before visiting as these works may be on temporary loan or taken down for restoration or cleaning.


1
 

JMW Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

  • National Gallery
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

When Turner began painting, the sea had reached its greatest moment in British history. Sailing had been refined down to perfect precision, trade was booming and an empire was covering the globe. Yet, within his lifetime, this had changed and The Fighting Temeraire, reflects this. A knackered boat bound for the shipyard, it is a poignant metaphor of Britain’s decline as a sea-faring nation.


2
 

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress, 1733-34

  • Sir John Soane's Museum
  • Free entry to all

One of the greatest satirical artists in Britain, William Hogarth used his native London as a backdrop to his morality tales. A Rake's Progress is his most famous and most scabrous, charting the dissolute life of the drunk Tom Rakewell. Through a sequence of sharply observed, and riotous scenes we follow the inexorable decline of the protagonist into lunacy, as he careers from fashionable London to the mad house.


3
 

Gwen John, The Seated Woman, c1910

  • Ferens Art Gallery
  • Free entry to all

Largely neglected during her lifetime – and almost living as a recluse – Gwen John was the sister of the famous artist Augustus John, who predicted that in the future her work would be more highly regarded than his. Her subtle use of colour, the simplicity of her compositions and her delicacy of style have indeed come to be appreciated as can be seen in this simple, understated masterpiece.


4
 

George Stubbs, Horse Frightened by Lion, 1770

  • Walker Art Gallery
  • Free entry to all

George Stubbs was renowned for his animal portraits and here he uses his skills to show, through dramatic encounter, that the landscape is not always the hospitable bucolic wilderness artists would have us believe. Against the dark, forbidding landscape, Stubbs horse stands out like a bright angel, surprised by the shadowy face of a lion lurking in a cave. Here, nature is savage.


5
 

Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918

  • IWM London (Imperial War Museums)
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

Paul Nash was an official war artist in both world wars, exhibiting powerful images of shattered, blackened landscapes. His later works were inspired by the Surrealists, transforming the chaos of conflict into dream-like sequences. This picture of a scarred, muddy world is a wonderful example of Nash’s ability to take the horrors of war and combine them with a Blakeian search for the miraculous.


6
 

Joan Carlile, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, 1650–55

  • Tate Britain
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

Joan Carlile, a 17th-century artist who lived in Covent Garden, is often described as the first ever female professional portrait painter. Few examples of her pictures exist, although this could be because in the past they have been attributed to men. Portrait of an Unknown Lady was bought by Tate in 2016 and is the earliest painting by a female artist in the collection.


7
 

John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831

  • Tate Britain
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

John Constable painted the landscapes of his youth with such an effortless beauty that it is sometimes a surprise to realise they were not painted en plein air. But carefully balanced compositions tell us that Constable rearranged nature to fit his nostalgic vistas. This painting of Salisbury Cathedral reflects the artist’s fascination with weather patterns. Art Fund supported both the acquisition of the piece by Tate in 2013, and a subsequent five-year national tour.


8
 

Bridget Riley, Punjab, 1971

  • Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

Bridget Riley is best known for the style she developed in the 1960s known as Op-art, whereby unsettling optical effects are caused by disturbing arrangements of black lines on a white canvas. Her pictures seemed to swim, and vibrate with energy, like battery acid on the tongue. Since those early experiments, the artist has expanded her practice to include colour, creating dazzling arrangements like Punjab painted after a trip to India.


9
 

British School 17th century, The Cholmondeley Ladies, c1600-10

  • Tate Britain
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

One of the most intriguing and enigmatic pictures of the early 17th century is this portrait of two young women sitting in bed fully dressed and each holding an infant. They are traditionally thought to be twins, who were married and also gave birth on the same day. The painting was in the collection of Thomas Cholmondeley, but there is no record of the two women in the family’s genealogy – so the picture continues to be a mystery.


10
 

John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852

  • Laing Art Gallery
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

As a raging fire destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his family escape to the mountains. His wife, ignoring God’s instructions not to look back at the city, is turned into a pillar of salt. John Martin’s paintings were so overwhelming it was said that women swooned in front of them. This masterpiece portrays the divine and terrible power of God.


11
 

Samuel Palmer, The Magic Apple Tree, c1830

  • Fitzwilliam Museum
  • Free entry to all

This idyllic painting of a pastoral scene where man and nature are in a close harmonious relationship was made by Samuel Palmer while he was living in the Kent countryside. He had moved there with the hope that the clean air might improve his health. The bountiful apple tree, sleeping sheep and glowing wheat fields suggest a luminous paradise, a heaven on earth.


12
 

LS Lowry, Winter in Pendlebury, 1943

  • Swindon Museum and Art Gallery
  • Free entry to all

The Manchester-born painter was famed for his urban and industrial scenes of nearby Salford. He chose to work outside of the mainstream tradition, painting factory chimneys, slag heaps and working people in a deliberately naïve style. The spare poetry in this quiet scene of a snowy street in Pendlebury, reveals Lowry’s ability to find beauty in the most unassuming places.


13
 

Benjamin West, The Death of Nelson, 1859-64

  • Walker Art Gallery
  • Free entry to all

This painting of the much admired admiral during the last moments of his life is tremendously theatrical. The artist, Benjamin West, understood that he was painting a myth in the making, carefully setting the scene as a fitting epitaph for a national hero. Unveiled only months after the Battle of Trafalgar, crowds flocked to see the painting and it became a huge success.


14
 

Lucian Freud, Small Naked Portrait,1973-74

  • Ashmolean Museum
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

This strange, small portrait of a sleeping girl is remarkably alive thanks to the odd posture and the vitality with which the artist has applied the paint. Lucian Freud paints flesh like no other, focusing on the small, inconsistencies of skin tone. He lingers on the aspects we take for granted, like the reddened hand against the white breast and the dusty sole of the right foot.


15
 

David Hockney, Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, 1966

  • Walker Art Gallery
  • Free entry to all

In 1964 David Hockney moved to Los Angeles where, inspired by the sunny climate and relaxed lifestyle, he made a series of paintings of swimming pools. This one focuses on a single naked figure. The bright colours suggest dry heat while the blue water is cool and refreshing. For Hockney, painting is about the pleasure of looking and here he also invites the viewer to imagine the contrast between the sensations of hot and cold.


16
 

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1855-56

  • Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
  • Free entry to exhibitions with a National Art Pass

The doomed boy poet who took his life by drinking arsenic captured the imagination of Henry Wallis who empathised with the tale of neglected artistic genius. Here the painter portrays Chatterton heroically spread across the bed of his London garret. Dying flowers on the window sill are a metaphor for the brevity of life, while the sun rises over the heartless commercial city, the setting of his destruction.


17
 

Stanley Spencer, Hilda with her Hair Down, 1931

  • Stanley Spencer Gallery
  • Free entry with National Art Pass

From the moment he first laid eyes on his future wife in 1919, Stanley Spencer was immediately attracted to her dark reddish hair. In a letter he wrote to Hilda dated June 1930 – five years after they had married and while she was away giving birth to their daughter – he said: 'I would so love to do a drawing of you with your hair down; not because I think it suits you, although it gives you one special look I love, but because it would be such fun to do'. He made this sketch the following year, while they were living in Burghclere and he was working on his murals in the chapel. The resulting piece is one of Spencer's best known and most beautiful drawings of Hilda.


18
 

Leonora Carrington, The Old Maids, 1947

  • Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
  • 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass

One of the finest painters of the Surrealist movement is Leonora Carrington, the English debutant who eloped with Max Ernst and later escaped to Mexico City where she lived until her death in 2011. A great experimenter, her wondrous paintings are a fantastical combination of Hieronymus Bosch, neo-Gothic and Catholicism. This uncanny painting is typical of the artist, who combined the strange with the familiar, often setting her scenes in domestic interiors to heighten the tense atmosphere.


19
 

Gillian Ayres, A Midsummer Night, 1990

  • Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
  • Free entry to exhibitions with National Art Pass

This painting was inspired by a trip Gillian Ayres took to India in the 1980s where she encountered artists applying paint with their hands. The richly textured surface, vivid colours and dynamic patterns reflect the expressive power of paint. Bright stars and gold crescents evoke the buzzing energy of a long hot summer night and the vibrancy of the street.


20
 

English school, The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, c1590

  • Queen's House
  • Free enry to all

Once owned by Sir Francis Drake, the painting commemorates the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. A masterpiece of the English Renaissance, it encapsulates the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the Elizabethan era and has been used as the inspiration for countless portrayals of Elizabeth I. After it was offered for sale by Drake's descendants in 2016, Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich ran a successful public appeal to acquire the portrait for the Queen's House collection.


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