London draws the art lovers

Attracted to Rothko? Compelled by Capa? Take a weekend break in the City

By Anthea Gerrie, October 23, 2008
The Thames, with the distinctive outline of the Tate Modern — home of the Rothko exhibition —  at the centre.

The Thames, with the distinctive outline of the Tate Modern — home of the Rothko exhibition — at the centre.

Two blockbuster shows of rarely seen work by major Jewish artists provide a compelling reason to travel to the heart of London between now and Chanucah. That's not the familiar and easy-to-reach West End, but the ancient heart of the city, including a significant stretch south of the river which remains a mystery to many North Londoners, let alone out-of-towners. 

However, the entire south-central bank of the Thames from Waterloo to Tower Bridge has now become too happening a cultural centre for any serious lover of art and theatre to ignore. Happily, given that it's a schlep even for suburban Londoners, hoteliers and restaurateurs are making SE1 more comfortable and hospitable by the month.
Tate Modern, housed in an enormous former power station just east of Blackfriars, is one of the world's premier showcases of 20th- and 21st-century art, thanks to a superb permanent collection. 

However, Mark Rothko's huge, brooding abstract canvasses, originally painted for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, make the gallery even more of a must-see than usual. The Tate already had a few of these paintings - they arrived in 1970 on the day news came through of Rothko's suicide - but now the series has been doubled by a loan from Japan to create the art show of the year.

Meanwhile, a couple of Jewish war photographers - whose great works of the '40s pre-date Rothko's Seagram murals, as they're known, by 20 years - take pride of place from this month at the Barbican.  Hungarian-born Robert Capa documented the Arab-Israeli conflict which followed independence, though the raison d'etre of this particular show are his striking images of the Spanish Civil War. A long overdue showing is also being given in the same show to his fellow war photographer, and lover, Gerda Taro.
Neither gallery is that easy to reach, but there is plenty to detain the visitor who makes the effort to get to either venue. Tate Modern has both a smart restaurant and a well-priced brasserie at street level, both with riverside views, ditto an excellent espresso bar, and one of the best museum shops in London.

A few minutes further east, London Bridge has become an attraction in itself, thanks to the London Dungeon Museum beneath the station arches and Hays Galleria, a large, elegant, open-air shopping and dining complex which makes the most of the river.

Tucked within the station complex - and also within easy walking distance of the fascinating Fashion and Textile Museum set up by Zandra Rhodes, which reopens today October with a retrospective of ‘70s designer Bill Gibb - is the Jewish-owned London Bridge Hotel. 

Stay over on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday to catch next morning's Borough Market, a cultural attraction in its own right, and think about taking in a show - from April to early October - at the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare is replayed by a first-rate ensemble in similar conditions to when the bard's plays were first performed.  

Keep walking east to the Design Museum at Shad Thames in the shadow of Tower Bridge, currently fielding wonderful illustrations by swinging Sixties graphic designer Alan Aldridge, who created album covers for the Rolling Stones, The Who and Elton John.  This is also foodie territory; it would be a shame to leave without a nibble at Pont de la Tour, the Conran gastro-dome which has a casual brasserie as well as a fine dining restaurant.

Across the river in EC1, The Barbican fields notable theatrical and musical performances as well a free ground-floor art gallery with changing exhibitions, and a cinema for those who want to make a day and night out of a visit. It's close to other City-based museums which often get overlooked, like the Charles Dickens Museum at his former home in Doughty Street, and Sir John Soane's collections at the rather grander mansion where the architect lived in Lincoln's Inn Fields.  This eclectic museum offers a special candlelit opening on the first Tuesday evening of every month which would make a super finale to an afternoon spent art-gazing in the City.

Hitherto there has been a paucity of hotels in the areas where these great cultural resources are situated, Southwark and the City respectively. But all that is changing fast with the development of the fabulous south bank riverwalk and the riverbus which connects all the major attractions along the Thames, making an event out of a London trip.

It's also possible to walk directly from Southwark into the City via the new, only slightly wobbly Millennium Bridge, which connects Tate Modern to St Paul's.

Park Plaza Hotels is a company (also Jewish owned) which has recently reclaimed the riverbank for tourists, with one hotel on the Albert Embankment, another near County Hall, offering views of the London Eye. The latter is particularly convenient being within a three-minute walk of Waterloo Station, and a 10-minute stroll from the National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall and Hayward Gallery for those keen on a two-day cultural break.

Very stylish it is, too, with an expansive buffet breakfast in a bright restaurant - less dispiriting than the wake-up meal experience in many London hotels. There's a fitness suite, too, with steam and sauna and, given the quality of the rooms, the hotel is a steal at less than £100 at weekends when business travellers are gone and City-based hotels tend to give the leisure market a break.

Malmaison already gets the leisure crowd, so there are not quite such bargain-basement rates for its super-stylish rooms right on top of the Barbican, but it is a real pleasure to perch in one of London's quiet old Clerkenwell squares and watch the City quietly waking up, and the weekend rate is still heavily discounted. Those who know the chain will be aware of its unique, baroque decorative style and the extras it offers, like a buzzy bar for a safe taste of London nightlife, and take-home-size bottles of decent toiletries.
City-dwelling at a much lower price is available down the road at the Barbican branch of Citadines, an "apart'hotel" set-up which offers the possibility of self-catering - not at all a bad idea in these credit-crunched days given the eye-watering cost of having, otherwise, to eat out three times a day in London. This property makes up in location and amenities for what it lacks in ambience. With a fully-equipped kitchen (with a dishwasher), free wi-fi and on-site launderette, it brings the capital within affordable reach of a family wanting a cultural weekend.

Visitors arriving from the north at Euston will be glad to know there is now a really stylish hostelry just steps away from the station. The Ambassador has had a major makeover and now fields delightful, really contemporary rooms and an award-nominated, pleasingly affordable restaurant, Number Twelve. Being rather more central than Southwark- and City-based hotels, this is a more convenient base for visiting the work of that other great Jewish artist, Lucian Freud, on show in Bury Street St James's, and the new gallery Charles Saatchi opened this month at the Duke of York's HQ, King's Road, Chelsea, currently showing out-there new Chinese art.

Last updated: 5:30pm, November 18 2008