The best contemporary British public art

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 22.03.2019

Of course Britain has more than its fair share of world-class art galleries and exhibitions, but sometimes it's more interesting to find artwork out and about in public spaces. Here's a few of our favourite al fresco pieces, drawn from travel bible Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.

The Angel of the North, Gateshead

Quite simply the most famous, iconic and loved of recent public artworks, Antony Gormley’s The Angel of the North (1998) has done more than any other to spark an interest in public art, and to change the perception of an area. From a small figure in the distance, it looms up as you drive closer, its sheer size – 70ft high, with a 90ft span – is still surprising, however many pictures you’ve seen.


antony-gormley- another-time-folkestone-triennial -kent-uk-shutterstock_726237808

Antony Gormley- Another Time Folkestone Triennial 2017 © Flyby Photography/Shutterstock

Yes, Folkestone. This seaside town is now home to dozens of imaginative artworks thanks to the inaugural Folkestone Triennial which took place in summer 2008. After the festival ended, several works remained scattered around town in often unexpected places. These include Nathan Coley’s Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens, a light-up sign of the Talking Heads’ lyric, and a tongue-in-cheek comment on sleepy seaside towns; Mark Wallinger’s sombre Folk Stones, 19,240 numbered pebbles set in the ground near the seafront, commemorating the men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 (many would have departed from Folkestone); and Tracy Emin’s Baby Things, tiny bronzes of abandoned baby clothes dotted around the city (the first is under a bench in the train station) – it would be easy to miss them.

Scallop, Aldeburgh


© Richard Bowden/Shutterstock

An elegant coming together of artwork, location and memorial, Suffolk-born Maggi Hambling’s tactile, steel Scallop (2003), in a dramatic setting on the beach, is her tribute to the composer Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh. “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, a line from his opera Peter Grimes, is pierced through the steel, so the sky can be seen beyond.

The Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square


© george green/Shutterstock

The most famous public art space in London is more a result of accident than design – an empty plinth in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square, constructed in 1841 for an equestrian statue that was never built. In 1998 the Royal Society of Arts commissioned the first pieces of temporary art to feature on it, starting with Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo: Behold the Man. Since then there have been several similar commissions – most famously Antony Gormley’s One and Other, when he gave the space over to thousands of members of the public for an hour each. More recently Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010) reflected playfully on the history of the square. Always controversial, rarely dull, long may they refrain from finding a permanent occupant for the plinth. Find out more online.

The Singing, Ringing Tree, Burnley


© Sue Burton PhotographyLtd/Shutterstock

One of four artworks commissioned in the Pennines in Lancashire, and collectively called the “Panopticons”. Each one is situated at a high point, so that they pinpoint views over the Pennine landscape. Tonkin Liu’s The Singing, Ringing Tree (2006) resembles a windswept tree made of pipes, but sounds like something altogether more unworldly – as the wind blows through the pipes, a haunting, atmospheric sound is produced.

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