An Exhibition of and for the nation

The Royal Academy’s summer bunfight has long ceased to be the place for new waves to emerge

Michael Prodger

In the 250 years since its foundation, the Royal Academy has led a peripatetic life. It started out in Pall Mall before moving to Somerset House; from there, in 1837, it made its way to Trafalgar Square to share premises with the National Gallery; and so eventually to Piccadilly, now refreshed and titivated with the addition of the Burlington Gardens building. What hasn’t changed, however, is the staging of the Summer Exhibition. Since its first iteration in 1769 it has been an annual feature of the British art scene and, until recently, the society scene too: in 1965 a Daily Telegraph headline recognised the changing of the old order — “Beatniks and Dowagers Crowd the Academy”.

The trouble with reflecting society, in both senses of the word, is that it shows the bad as well as the good. Today the Summer Exhibition, with its mix of the serious and the trite, of amateur and professional artists, and home-grown and big-name foreign Honorary Academicians (Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer), is less a place to make an artistic statement than a jamboree that adds to the gaiety of the nation. But there have been periods when it was simply turgid. In 1959 Hugh Casson warned that “Tradition is not a corpse to be propped up”; the Summer Exhibition, he wrote, had become “a provincial show” of “no interest” to anyone other than RAs. Forty years earlier Virginia Woolf had taken aim at its reflexive post-war nationalism: “God save the King — and all the rest of it.” Alfred Munnings, in his presidential address of 1949, showed the Academy’s reactionary side when he berated “affected . . . foolish daubers” such as Matisse and Picasso.

As part of its 250th-birthday celebrations, the RA is holding a show that traces the history of the Summer Exhibition. Two particular works in The Great Spectacle give the flavour of the role it has played in British life. The first is Thomas Rowlandson’s joyously irreverent The Exhibition ‘Stare-Case’, Somerset House, c.1800, showing a tumbled mass of exhibition-goers who have fallen in the crush to ascend the winding stairs at Somerset House. The result is a heap of disordered women, their skirts around their ears and their nether regions on display for assembled connoisseurs. The second is William Powell Frith’s A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 of 1883, where the subject is again the crowd but this time it is a decorous lot, most of whom are more interested in the presence of an expounding Oscar Wilde than in the paintings he waxes lyrical about. The picture contains the figures of Gladstone, Ellen Terry and Lord Leighton but it is nevertheless a satire: “I wanted to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste,” said Frith.
In between the two were the great days when the Summer Exhibition really mattered. It was where Constable and Turner squared off against one another on the gallery walls; where Gainsborough introduced the idea of the sentimental, informal portrait to counter the RA president Joshua Reynolds’s idealised and formal ones; where Benjamin West showed that history painting could apply to modern history too; and where Millais, Rossetti et al announced their precocious talents with a series of anonymous paintings signed simply “PRB” and went on to outrage established taste with the distinctiveness of their vision. Dickens thought that being “Pre-Raphaelly” meant plumbing “the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting”.

This greatest hits selection runs to contemporary RAs too, with the likes of Peter Blake, Yinka Shonibare and Cornelia Parker. However, while The Great Spectacle offers a fascinating respite from the visual cacophony of the current Summer Exhibition next door, it also highlights how the great annual bunfight (some 1,200 exhibits this year) has long ceased to be the place where new styles and movements are unleashed on the public. 

The mid-18th century, when the RA was founded (1768), was also when the British taste for Rembrandt reached its apogee, encouraged in part by Reynolds who wrote and lectured about him and indeed owned his A Man in Armour (Achilles) of 1655. In the 17th century Rembrandt was better known here as an etcher than a painter (John Evelyn referred to him as “the incomparable Reinbrand” and his prints were collected by Pepys), even though the first of his paintings ever to leave Holland, Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (c.1629-31), came to England and the collection of Charles I in the early 1630s.

The mania for his prints was such that Horace Walpole noted acidly that “his scratches, with the difference only of a black horse or a white one, sell for thirty guineas”. It was Rembrandt’s portraits, however, that had a deep impact on the native British school of portraitists, among them Hogarth, Thomas Hudson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Henry Raeburn, Thomas Lawrence and Reynolds himself, who all adopted elements of his colouring and chiaroscuro and sometimes simply plagiarised him.

This connection is the subject of Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master at the National Gallery of Scotland (July 7-October 14). The exhibition brings together a handsome collection of paintings, etchings and drawings from around the world including a rare full-length portrait pair of Rembrandt’s only “British” sitters. The Rev Johannes Elison and his wife Maria Bockenolle lived in Norwich where he was a minister in the Dutch Reform Church and the paintings were made in 1634 when the couple visited their son Joan in Amsterdam. Joan, who commissioned the portraits, was a wealthy merchant, hence their grandeur — though, in a homely touch, Maria kept her distinctively English broad-brimmed hat on for the sittings. Although Rembrandt mania blew itself out in the 19th century, his presence in the work of, among others, Whistler, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff, shows the longevity of the Rembrandt effect.

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