As the nation’s capital, London’s position in the visual arts has always been unique. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the aristocracy and gentry spent some of their time in London, so it naturally attracted the best portrait painters from Europe and the regions, from Van Dyck to Gainsborough. As it grew to become the largest city in Europe and to house the Royal Academy, the National Gallery, leading art auction houses and dealers, it laid down the artistic infrastructure that still makes it today one of the art centres of the world. Artists have always congregated in particular parts of the capital, from Covent Garden in the eighteenth century to the East End in the twenty-first. Several influential groups are named after London districts: Camden Town and Fitzroy Street, for example.

However artists who lived in London would also spend time travelling in Britain to explore its antiquarian ruins, and wild and picturesque landscapes – or abroad to study the old masters and foreign scenery. Naturally London itself has always been a major artistic subject too. From Canaletto to Monet, foreign artists have been attracted by London’s weather and wealth. Its spectacular growth, with the finest architecture rising alongside the worst slums, the fashionable rubbing shoulders with beggars, has inspired both social climbers and social commentators among artists.