Six Great British exhibitions

Published 18 March 2015

With election fever hotting up, we take a look at six exhibitions exploring British cultural life.

1. Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, Compton Verney

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With trade dwindling in Venice as the War of the Austrian Succession too hold, Canaletto decided to move to Britain where he had a loyal clientele. Over the course of his nine-year stay the national landscape was transformed; newfound wealth gave rise to a series of landmark architectural and engineering projects which included the construction of new housing, churches and bridges. This exhibition brings together a series of works dating between 1746 and 1755, in which the painter captures the country in its flourishing glory (until 7 June).

2. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, British Library

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To mark 800 years since the sealing of this landmark document, the British Library hosts the largest ever exhibition devoted to the Magna Carta. From the slippers of the Archbishop to the teeth of King John, as well as commemorative memorabilia and two original pages of the charter, a wealth of material is issued to illustrate the use – and abuse – of its power. Also displayed are government papers proposing to give an original 1215 Magna Carta manuscript to the USA for support in the Second World War (until 1 September).

3. Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions, National Portrait Gallery

Free to all

Arthur Wellesey's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo is regarded as his greatest feat, enshrining his status as a national hero and legendary military leader. This exhibition charts the role of visual culture in creating his heroic persona, particularly how the duke exploited portraiture to shape the way he was represented in both his public and personal life. Examples include Thomas Lawrence’s iconic 1815 portrait – the basis of the design of the British five pound note from 1971 to 1991 – and a daguerreotype portrait taken on Wellesley’s 75th birthday, loaned from the current Duke of Wellington's own collection (until 7 June).

4. Great British Drawings, Ashmolean Museum

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More than 100 works – many of which are shown for the first time in public – trace the history of drawing in Britain. They range from examples by Flemish artists working in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries, to British artists' experiments in modernism after the First World War. Among those featured are JMW Turner, Rossetti, Millais, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and LS Lowry (26 March-31 August).

5. Milk Snatcher: The Margaret Thatcher Drawings, The Bowes Museum

Free with National Art Pass

Gerald Scarfe captured the Iron Lady in satirical cartoon over a period of 22 years – from her days as a member of the Shadow Cabinet to her leadership of the Conservative Party and her tenure as Prime Minister, as well as her political decline. He pulled no punches, portraying Thatcher as equally cunning, ruthless, mean spirited, vain, terrifying, sharp and sexy. Brought together for this display at The Bowes Museum, Scarfe's cartoons highlight key moments in British social history, such as the Winter of Discontent, the miners’ strike and the Falklands War (until 31 May).

6. History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain, Hayward Gallery

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In the lead up to the 2015 general election, the Hayward Gallery has invited seven artists – Richard Wentworth, John Akomfrah, Jane and Louise Wilson, Hannah Starkey, Roger Hiorns and Simon Fujiwara – to each curate a ‘chapter’ of this exhibition, reflecting on British cultural life from 1945 to the present day. Objects on display range from Modern British artworks by Barbara Hepworth and LS Lowry, to pebbles collected on the beach by Henry Moore, as well as brooms used to sweep the streets after the 2011 London riots, newspaper reports on mad cow disease and empty Waitrose food packaging (until 26 April).

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