A walking tour of east London’s best public art

The capital is home to hundreds of works of public art, from vibrant murals to large-scale installations and sculptures — and many of the best are to be found in the city's eastern neighbourhoods.

By Maxwell Blowfield
Published 16 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 4 Feb 2021, 17:15 GMT
Couple on Seat by Lynn Chadwick is one over over 70 public artworks to be found in ...

Couple on Seat by Lynn Chadwick is one over over 70 public artworks to be found in the financial district of Canary Wharf. 

Photograph by Peter Matthews

Though postponed exhibitions and shuttered galleries have left a cultural void in our calendars, there are plenty of other ways to seek visual inspiration — namely, by discovering the art that exists on our doorstep. Here, we plot a path between seven outdoor public art installations in east London, each with a fascinating backstory. 

Walala Parade by artist Camille Walala was completed in 2020, bringing fresh forms and colour to Leyton's High Road.

Photograph by Camille Walala

1. Leyton: Walala Parade, by Camille Walala

Begin with a blaze of colour at one of London’s newest and most ambitious public artworks, completed in September 2020. French artist Camille Walala has been making urban installations around the world for a number of years, but now she’s transformed a whole street. An otherwise unremarkable parade of eight shops on Leyton’s High Road has been brightened up with her trademark blocks and stripes. It’s even more remarkable that it was community funded too and used recycled paint that will absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

2. Stratford: ArcelorMittal Orbit, by Anish Kapoor

Walk to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to experience Britain’s tallest sculpture, a looping steel giant created for the the London 2012 Summer Olympics. In non-pandemic times, it’s possible to ascend to its 374ft-high viewing platform for panoramic views across the area’s parks and waterways. The real treat is then the descent — the world’s longest tunnel slide, designed by artist Carsten Höller — which gets you back to earth via 40 seconds of hair-raising twist and turns.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit was created by Anish Kapoor for the London 2012 Summer Olympics, and has become one of the capital's most iconic landmarks. 

Photograph by Frank Da Silva

After strolling down Regent’s Canal, take a detour into the financial district of Canary Wharf to find this expressionistic sculpture by one of the UK’s most-acclaimed 20th century artists. Despite the geometric, featureless faces, this is a tender scene among the harsh glass and steel of the surrounding buildings. If you have time, keep exploring the area: it’s an art hotspot with over 70 public works to find.

4. North Greenwich: Quantum Cloud, by Antony Gormley

One stop southbound on the Jubilee Line brings you to North Greenwich, on the other side of the Thames, and to acclaimed sculptor Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud. Installed next to The O2, his tallest ever sculpture (nearly 50% taller than his famous Angel of the North) is tangle of seemingly random pieces. But look closer and the outline of the artist’s body slowly appears. For a really spectacular view, hop on the adjacent Emirates Air Line cable-car to soar above it.

Quantum Cloud is Antony Gormley's tallest ever sculpture, sitting above the water in North Greenwich. 

Photograph by Emily Lovell

Nearby is a perplexing installation that looks like it’s landed from outer space. Alex Chinneck’s upside-down electricity pylon seems to be delicately balancing on its tip but is in fact held in place by deep concrete foundations. The site used to be Europe’s largest gas works and the piece speaks of the area’s industrial past. Come back at dark to see it illuminated against a backdrop of Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers. 

6. Greenwich: Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, by Yinka Shonibare

Make your way along the Thames Path into Greenwich’s historic maritime centre, arriving, fittingly, at this scaled-down model of Nelson’s ship HMS Victory in a large glass bottle outside the National Maritime Museum. Although the artwork looks like a popular seaside souvenir, the bright African-textile sails signal an important message on cultural diversity. Originally created for the rotating commission of Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, it’s now anchored here permanently for the public’s enjoyment; a fundraising campaign saved it from becoming a Korean billionaire’s garden ornament.

Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare shows a model of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson’s ship HMS Victory in a large glass bottle outside the National Maritime Museum. 

Photograph by National Maritime Museum

End your walk with this masterpiece by the pioneering British sculptor, displayed in the west of Greenwich Park. The distinctive, semi-abstract bronze resembles a human torso, and is almost hidden amid the park’s ancient trees. Reflect on its dynamic form in this leafy oasis before basking in the park’s views of the London skyline. At sunset, that’s a work of art in its own right.

Maxwell Blowfield’s email newsletter, Maxwell Museums, covers the best of the world museums with news, reviews and interviews. 

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