Why Sotheby's is bringing 12 masterpieces to London – from Bacon to Freud

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For centuries, London has been the city for creatives and is a leading centre of the art world. It holds some of the best institutions internationally, ranging from libraries to museums, private collections to public galleries, as well as of course being the birthplace of the auction house as we know it.

The nation more widely has long been a cultural melting pot and source of inspiration for artists. To celebrate, Sotheby’s has come together with Art UK and twelve institutions across the country to stage a one-off, month-long public exhibition. The show – which is free to see – turns the focus to twelve exceptional works by twelve artists, all born outside of the UK, whose work was somehow transformed by their time here.

Summer for Sotheby’s has always meant a chance to do something a little outside of the box. Last autumn, a group of us came together to start thinking about how 2024 could be marked differently.

Who better to seek inspiration from than the National Gallery, who is celebrating its bicentenary by sending twelve remarkable pieces from its own collection to elsewhere in the country. Inspired by this, our exhibition seeks to do exactly the opposite, bringing twelve works from UK institutions to London.

André Zlattinger
André Zlattinger

With less than a year to plan, we were presented with many challenges, not least sweet-talking museums across the country to loan works with only a few months’ notice as opposed to a couple of years! Brought from all four corners of the United Kingdom, from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth, Norwich to Exeter, we feel incredibly honoured to be handling these works from such esteemed public collections.

Our chosen twelve have been created by some of the greatest artists of the last 500 years who passed through and worked in the UK. The earliest of these is a vivacious portrait by Flemish artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, one of the most sought-after portraitists in all of England during the 17th century – I’m sure you’ll all agree that not only was the sitter a great beauty, but she was a force of nature.

There is by a vibrant painting of the Thames by André Derain, who was only 25 when he was encouraged to make the journey to London from Paris by his dealer. The painting forms part of a seminal series comprising views of the city that rivalled those of Claude Monet himself. On loan from the Tate is an all-time classic by Piet Mondrian who, out of fear of German invasion and encouraged by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, left Paris for our very own Hampstead in 1938.

We are also lucky enough to be exhibiting three works by the iconic ‘London School of painters’; Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach – both German refugees – and Francis Bacon, who left rural Ireland at the age of 16 to move to London. Plus, two studio ceramics, the first by Dame Lucie Rie who fled to London in 1938, and the second by Dame Madelene Odundo, who was brought up in Nairobi and Mobassa before moving to London in 1971.

What is our purpose? Simply to celebrate London as a global centre of the arts, a rich multicultural city which is of huge creative importance in the past and in the present. We hope to fly the flag for London through the stories of these artists and inspire future generations of international artists to look to London as a great city of inspiration.

André Zlattinger is deputy chairman, UK of Sotheby’s