by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
'Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy' by Johan Zoffany, 1771-2

In London, Helping Artists Get a Foot on the Ladder

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 9 June 2012


George III did not much like Joshua Reynolds or his art, which he found too avant-garde for his own conservative tastes, but between them they presided over the foundation of one of Britain's most successful institutions: the Royal Academy of Arts.

The Royal Academy, intended to provide professional art instruction, to distribute charity to artists in need and to hold an annual exhibition to raise funds, was initially bankrolled by the king, despite the monarch's disapproval of its members' choice of Reynolds as the first president. But it was envisaged from the outset that it should become self-financing as quickly as possible. The principal means of achieving this was with the annual exhibition. The first show was staged a year after its opening in 1768, and the exhibition has been held every year since - wars and other crises notwithstanding. It is still a keystone of the academy's survival since it receives no state aid.

The bronze statue of Reynolds flourishing his palette and brush in the courtyard of Burlington House greets visitors as usual to the 244th edition of the Summer Exhibition, along with Chris Wilkinson's 'From Landscape to Portrait,' a series of 11 huge silver-gray wooden frames fanning out in an arc, which also incorporates some practical outdoor seating. The show, with 1,474 works by 937 artists in the rooms of the Main Galleries, continues until Aug. 12.

'The scale of the Summer Exhibition is truly industrial,' said Tess Jaray, who was elected as a Royal Academician two years ago. As coordinator of the exhibition, she and her committee over a period of around two weeks made their selection from more than 11,000 submitted works.

'After a while you find yourself examining a stain on the floor of the tube train on the way home wondering whether to include it in the show or not,' she said.

Ms. Jaray also had the task of curating Gallery III, the largest space at the Royal Academy, with the Summer Exhibition's central show

'I asked artists to submit smaller works this year,' she said. 'Modern galleries tend to show large works, which are not necessarily better. To produce a successful small work can be more challenging than a large one - look at Vermeer, for example. I also did this to encourage younger, emerging artists to submit works, who would not normally even think at this stage in their careers of trying to get something into the Summer Exhibition. And because of this, the number of works being shown has risen from around 1,200-1,250 to nearly 1,500.'

The 449 works finally hung for Gallery III, representing artists from 30 countries, are arranged in wavelike patterns around the room and range from minutely observed figurative works to minimalist abstract ones.

'There's a huge variety of styles,' Ms. Jaray said. 'At a certain point I think young artists felt they had to work in a particular style to establish themselves, but I think they have been liberated from this. And there is no longer a conflict between figurative and abstract works. This is not an issue any more. It depends entirely on quality, on whether a work is good or not.'

Other rooms are devoted to various categories, like sculpture, architecture and prints, but there is considerable and deliberate blurring of genres. Royal Academicians are entitled to exhibit six of their own works.

Three academicians who died in the past year are afforded a valedictory appearance: Adrian Berg, John Hoyland and Leonard Rosoman. The first two have pieces in the hexagonal Central Hall, painted red this year as an homage to the 'Red Room' by Matisse. Rosoman, a pioneer in the use of acrylic paints in the 1960s, is next door in the Lecture Room with six striking pictures, one from each decade of his career.

Other artists pay a fee of £25, or $38, to submit works. But if they are accepted the prospects are attractive, since 70 percent to 80 percent of the pieces are sold every year, with the Royal Academy retaining a commission of 28 percent, much lower than fees at a commercial gallery of 50 percent or more.

This commission supports Royal Academy Schools, an independent art school offering its own diplomas. Every year, 20 students, now all postgraduates, from around the world are chosen from about 500 applicants and offered a free three-year course.

While the president and members of the Royal Academy are elected by the whole body of academicians, the professors in the semi-autonomous schools are chosen by the teaching staff and the Keeper, as the head of the schools is known. The current Keeper is Eileen Cooper, the first woman to hold the post. The appointment of the provocative British artist Tracey Emin as the new professor of drawing at the end of last year raised some eyebrows and suggests that the teaching of drawing skills is not currently a priority in the schools.

One of the strongest sections in this year's Summer Exhibition is to be found in rooms I and II, with their richly diverse offerings of contemporary prints. 'These are original pieces, often by artists for whom prints are their primary means of expression, not prints of other works,' said Chris Orr, who curated these rooms with the assistance of Peter Freeth. 'And for many people who purchase these affordable works, these will be the first artworks they are buying.'

That the exhibition this year is taking place in the Diamond Jubilee year of Queen Elizabeth II is reflected in two special shows in other spaces in Burlington House, 'The Queen's Artists' and 'The King's Artists: George III's Academy.'

The first show brings together works by academicians elected in the early years of Elizabeth II's reign, and paintings and drawings of coins and seals designed by Royal Academicians. The second show displays some major pieces, including Reynold's portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte, and the artist's famous self-portrait done for the Royal Academy around 1780. There also is a pencil portrait Reynolds made of the king, which recently surfaced at auction and is in a private collection. The monarch's antipathy toward the artist meant that Reynolds was given few sittings, hence perhaps the uncharacteristically detailed finish of this rediscovered sketch.

Also featured here are works by Mary Moser, who, with Angelica Kauffman, was an early female member of the academy. These two women are included in Johan Zoffany's witty snapshot 'Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy,' of 1771-72, in the Royal Collection. But the women appear only as portraits on the wall above the nude male models - as Zoffany's setting is a life class, which was considered unsuitable for ladies, even if they were artists. Women were subsequently excluded from the academy, a female academician not being elected again until 1922. There are now only 19 women out of 74 academicians.

Having ceased to be reliant on royal largess early in its history, the Royal Academy resisted subsequent attempts by governments in the 19th century to turn it into a state body, something that was achieved because of the substantial sums of money raised by then during the annual exhibitions.

This let the Royal Academy not only remain independent but also remodel Burlington House in the 1860s and 1880s to create the spacious galleries that still host the Summer Exhibition, as well as popular and profitable blockbuster shows like the latest one of David Hockney's landscapes, which attracted 600,000 visitors.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023