Free Talks in London – Heaven for Intellectuals

*The following is a guest post by Andrea Kirkby

Previously on Smitten by Britain I listed my favourite free alternatives to the big London sites. Continuing my mission to show that a trip to London need not break the bank, I’ve come up with some ideas for anyone who wants a culturally-enriching London learning experience, without paying extra for it!

If you want to broaden your mind or deepen your knowledge, you’ve definitely come to the right city. There are literally hundreds of free talks you can go to in London and I only wish more people were aware of them!

The National Gallery, for instance, offers free talks based on paintings in its collection led by curators and conservators on its staff. Recent talks have included one on romanticism entitled “Rebelling against reason”, exploring the work of Turner, Delacroix and Goya as a reaction against classicism and the values of the Enlightenment; talks about individual paintings, meeting in front of Poussin’s ‘Cephalus and Aurora’ and Renoir’s ‘Dancing girl with tambourine’; and a series of ‘Introducing’ talks on particular artists (Bassano, Boucher, Jan Steen, and Hogarth).

National Gallery

The British Museum also hosts free talks and tours. The tours are not just free, you don’t even need to book – simply meet in the relevant gallery at the right time. The talks go further into detail, and are incredibly wide ranging – from scientific investigation of the origins of two crystal skulls in the collection to a history of the watch, or court life in ancient China. Even economists are catered for with a discussion of the cost of living in Roman Britain.

british museum

Generally look out for free tours at all the major museums and galleries – there will usually be a programme of regular tours either showing highlights of the collection, or focused on particular aspects.

At Conway Hall near Holborn, the Ethical Society is home to free-thinking lectures covering diverse topics. You’ll find a robust defence of atheism next to a lecture on ‘bad science’ , or a discussion of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and what he had to say about sex (broadly in favour, apparently!).

Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London.

 The British Academy has a vast number of symposia and lectures, mostly free though some require pre-registration. Topics this year include the future of academic publishing, the politics of the post-crash financial markets, and Dickens (for his bicentenary), thoughts about the nature of modern warfare, and a celebration of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and its effect on the English language. These are talks at a high level of abstraction and argument, many given by professors in their subjects – not for scaredy cats!

The British Academy

If you have a scientific bent, the Royal Society has a series of free talks for you. While ‘what’s left to explore in our solar system?’ has broad appeal, I have to say that ‘Rigidity of periodic and symmetric structures in nature and engineering’ doesn’t really float my boat – but that does give you an impression of the range of subjects covered. There’s even a lecture on scientific topics in English literature, which could be quite fascinating.

The Wellcome Collection also holds science-based talks and events which you can book online – but they are not only of interest to scientists; the current exhibition is on pilgrimage and lucky charms, and there’s a showing of a film about the French pilgrimage site of Lourdes, as well as talks about the exhibition.

And finally, the great grand-daddy of all free lecture series – Gresham College. While the Royal Society goes back to the Restoration, Gresham’s was founded in 1597, under Queen Elizabeth I, to provide free talks in the City of London. Lectures can encompass topics as diverse as sport, medicine, Cary Grant, postmodern detectives and the origins of sexual fantasies. If you don’t happen to be in London, you can also listen to many of the lectures on the Gresham College website.

Guildhall Old Library - Site of the 2011 Gresham Special Lecture

 If you wish to retire for the night somewhere civilised and very British after all that intellectual stimulation, I’d suggest the Egerton House luxury boutique hotel near Knightsbridge.

This article was brought to you in partnership with London Hotels Insight.

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