It is undeniable that London is bursting with culture. Within that culture, comes the world of art. And within that world of art, comes anything ranging from grassroot exhibitions to globally famous galleries.

private gallery viewings
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London  | Photo by Rudolf Schuba used under CC

But you don’t need a priceless Rembrandt hanging above your bed to satisfy your hunger for all things arty. What you simply need to do is head down to a free gallery, for one of their free private viewings, grab a free glass of wine, and wander around observing the free exhibition with other free-thinking individuals. It’s free, by the way.

What are private gallery viewings?

Private gallery viewings serve as a launch pad for an artist’s exhibition within a specific gallery, shortly before the official opening date. This gives the keen beans of the art world the chance to have an initial look around some of the pieces, discuss the art with others and even quiz the artists themselves.

The gallery owners also normally like to create a bit of an ambiance, with complimentary drinks and canapés, question-and-answer sessions with the artist and some soft atmospheric music. So expect a nice chilled evening.

Photo by Andrew Wilkinson used under CC

And there’s no need to worry, because despite the name, these evenings are actually generally open to the public and do not impose an entry fee. The word ‘private’ is used to give things a bit of je ne sais quoi, a bit of class, a bit of panache and pizzazz.

How to find these events

General art exhibitions take place all the time around London, but the booze-fueled private viewings normally only occur on the evening before the advertised start dates for their related exhibition.

What many people are really hoping for...
What many people are really hoping for… | Photo by Vanessa Lollipop used under CC

Understandably, galleries don’t usually like to publicise these events too much, for fear of attracting the wrong kind of crowd, so they will go one of two ways with their communication. The most common practice is to send out information regarding private viewings to their own mailing lists. So your first step is to sign up to the mailing lists of all the galleries you are interested in. Then simply RSVP in the positive when you see an evening you’d rather like to attend.

Other galleries will only talk about their events if contacted directly. So if there is a particular gallery/exhibition you are especially desperately interested in, then it is advisable to call or email them.

What to do at these events

So, you’ve made it inside, you’ve managed to get hold of a drink and maybe some cheese, and you’re standing in front of a painting. What now?

Well, stand back and take a good long look at the work in front of you. Try and relate to it. Try and translate exactly what the artist is saying. If, like me, you come up with a blank, then make a ‘hmmm’ noise, touch your fingers to your chin and stare at it extra intently for several minutes. Your peers will be very impressed…

Be confident and get talking to people. You’ll inevitably learn a great deal and maybe even get invited to other events or *fingers crossed* charm your way into the afterparty!

But if you don’t seem to be having any luck, just head back over to the wine and cheese table, looking deep in thought as you go.

These essential tips come tried and tested by, you guessed it, yours truly. My first foray into the world of “private” viewings, I headed over to the Curious Duke Gallery, 173 Whitecross Street, on the boundary between East and Central London, just off Old Street. The exhibition featured an artist called Dan Rawlings. Aaaaand as soon as I got there I realised I’d already made my first mistake—I had arrived on time; at one point it was just me, the artist, the owner of the gallery and a couple mingling about. But at least I got first dibs on the wine and orange juice. And a chance to ask some questions.

The Curious Duke Gallery
The Curious Duke Gallery | Photo by Joe Baylis

The Curious Duke is an intimate space, with a simple layout that puts more emphasis on the art itself. The focus of Dan’s art is the creation of intricate sculptures from large and sentimental forms of metal, like old tools or farm equipment. Using a blowtorch, he will transform a saw, for example, into a delicate latticework resembling a woman sitting beneath a tree. This method is also used to great effect on objects like oil cans, gas canisters, the tail fin of an airplane and even a silo.

Dan Rawlings' Komorebi. A gas canister transformed into something quite stunning. With thanks to Curious Duke Gallery.
Dan Rawlings’ Komorebi. A gas canister transformed into something quite stunning. With thanks to Curious Duke Gallery.

Something that struck a particular chord with me were the titles of the pieces, which make use of foreign words and phrases yet to be translated into English. Such examples include:

Hiraeth (Welsh) – ‘a yearning for your homeland, or romanticised past’

Toska (Russian) – ‘a sensation of spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause’

The pieces are stunning, and are made all the more intriguing by the dangerous method of producing them. I was even tempted to buy a print, so I took a quick look at the prices. Here follows my thought process…

‘Hmmm, £12.00, that’s not too bad.’
*Turns to have more of a look round, comes back to the print, has a closer look, and realises it actually says £1200*
‘Daaammn, I think I’ll be leaving that there.’

Despite this, it was a lovely evening. I learned some things and chatted to interesting people, and as a result am hoping to make it to more in the future. And there’s plenty other exhibitions out there, especially in a culture hub such as London—so go and check out a private viewing soon!

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