The great British paint-off
As the Royal Academy gears up for its annual Summer Exhibition, Mary Miers considers what makes this show so integral to its identity and offers a foretaste of what we can expect this year
Mary Miers goes behind the scenes at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition
The Summer exhibition at the Royal Academy is the grand old master of contemporary art shows. Founded in 1769, the world’s largest open-to-all group exhibition is an essential fixture in the season’s calendar, anticipated with as much excitement as the Grand National or henley Regatta. And, like any great British institution, it comes enshrined in colourful tradition.
For all its popularity, the Summer exhibition would not be what it is without its annual hammering from critics. habitual accusations of poor-quality exhibits, overhanging and dumbing-down are all grist to the mill, however, and have done nothing to dent a remarkable record of survival over 248 years. In the early 2000s, many considered the Summer exhibition fairly uncool, but, now, more professional artists are taking it seriously again and, this year, more than 200,000 visitors are expected.
Yet how many appreciate the continuing significance of this behemoth of salon shows to the august institution that founded it? The Royal Academy (RA) was established in 1768 as a self-supporting, selfgoverning body with elected members— Royal Academicians (Ras)—and, from the beginning, it had two principal objectives: the provision of ‘a well-regulated School or Academy of Design, for the use of students in the Arts, and an Annual exhibition, open to all artists of distinguished merit, where they may offer their performances to public inspection and acquire that degree of reputation and encouragement which they shall be deemed to deserve’. Both continue to flourish.
The Royal Academy Schools, whose earliest pupils included Thomas Banks, Richard Cosway, Thomas hardwick and John Flaxman, remains the only place in Britain where students can get free, top-quality art tuition. And the Summer exhibition still plays a significant role in funding it through entrance fees and sales commissions.
This year, the relationship between the two is strengthened further because eileen Cooper RA, the painter/printmaker who became the first female Keeper of the Schools in 2010, is co-ordinating the Summer exhibition. each co-ordinator brings to it their own stamp and she’s chosen a theme inspired by her career in art-school teaching. ‘I wanted to focus on graduates and to get a wider international mix—a deliberate shift,’ she says, adding that film, performance art and the spoken word will feature large.
In addition to the thousands of unsolicited submissions, the Selection/hanging Committee traditionally invites artists it would like to see represented to submit a work; RA members are also expected to exhibit. The result is an international mix of unknown,
emerging and high-profile artists, recent graduates, RAS and Honorary RAS. This year, Eileen and her committee—2017 has a strong female presence, with painter Fiona Rae, printmaker Rebecca Salter, sculptor Ann Christopher and architect Farshid Moussavi—have broadened the spectrum of age, nationality and background and recruited artists from as far afield as Chile, Australia and Africa, as well as London’s East End.
From its early days, when the RA was based in Pall Mall, the exhibition became a showcase for virtually every famous British painting produced. Works by everyone from Reynolds (the RA’S first president), Gainsborough, Turner, Benjamin West, Millais (who joined the Schools aged 11 and won the Gold Medal at 18) and Watts set the standards by which all others were judged. Strict rules applied to medium and genre: no needlework, coloured wax models, drawings copied from paintings, ‘mere transcripts of the objects of natural history’ or ‘vignette portraits, nor, generally any drawings without backgrounds’. By the time the RA moved to New Somerset House (in 1780), more than 600 paintings were being exhibited, crowding the walls from floor to ceiling.
Inevitably, there were rivalries, rows and rejections. ‘Vagaries & absurdities’ was the verdict on some of Turner’s works and Constable was often criticised;
went largely unnoticed when it was exhibited in 1821 and his Water Meadows Near
Salisbury was rejected in 1830. Having outgrown its rooms in Somerset House, the RA shared premises with the National Gallery, from 1837 to 1868, on the north side of Trafalgar Square. The first display of a British avant-garde group came with the inclusion of works by Millais and Holman Hunt in the 1849 exhibition; inscribed ‘P.R.B’ (Pre-raphaelite Brotherhood), they caused ‘considerable comment’. What the public really liked were paintings by Etty, Landseer, Mulready and Maclise and scenes of modern life, such as Frith’s The Derby
Day, which, in 1858, was so mobbed that a rail had to be erected around it. (Other exhibits that have created a public sensation include Annigoni’s portrait of The Queen: visitor numbers surged to more than 300,000 when it was exhibited in 1955 and, in 2007, Hockney’s composite Bigger
Trees Near Warter, the largest painting ever shown at a Summer Exhibition.)
The first exhibition to be held in the newly remodelled Burlington House on Piccadilly, in 1869, made a profit of £15,000. Attendances and submissions escalated through to the 1880s, but a growing body of artists was becoming dissatisfied and sought to show elsewhere. By the early 1900s, the RA’S influence as a leading cultural barometer had ebbed; increasingly, it was seen as reactionary and disapproving of progressive art. In 1935, Sickert and Stanley Spencer resigned, the former over the president’s refusal to show support for Epstein’s controversial Modernist sculptures, the latter over the rejection of his paintings The Lovers and
St Francis and the Birds, followed two years later by Augustus John, furious that Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of T. S. Eliot had been turned down.
By 1949, when Munnings unleashed his infamous rant against Modern art in his presidential retirement speech, the RA had reached a nadir. The institution that had formerly awarded its members pensions from exhibition fees was now also strapped for cash: it had to sell its famous da Vinci cartoon in 1962 (now in the National Gallery).
Debates between the ‘rebels’ and the ‘counter-revolutionary diehards’ continued to rage and ultra-modern exhibits were confined to a small room, however, slowly, the 1960s ushered in a more broadminded approach. Greater prominence was given to experimental work and a new generation, such as the sculptors Elisabeth Frink and Bryan Kneale, were tempted to accept membership, thus exhibiting in the annual summer shows.
A large part of the mystique of the Summer Exhibition belongs to its elaborate procedures for selecting, hanging and finishing. First, in mid May, comes the judging, always held in the main gallery. Submissions, which have to be brought in on specific dates, are paraded past the Selection Committee, its members fortified by an alcoholic ‘beef tea’ brewed to a secret recipe. Each work then receives its verdict—either it’s accepted or the President holds up a plaque marked with an X (rejected) or a D (doubtful but can stay).
Since 2014, all applications have been submitted digitally, allowing the committee to whittle down the number of works invited in to a more manageable 1,200. It’s an exercise described by one RA as ‘mind-bogglingly grim. You sit for days staring at 12,000 anonymous images, just a few seconds for each. Even if they’re quite good, it’s difficult to tell, but we do our best’.
‘It’s quite moving when the chosen works are brought into the galleries on trolleys; such
‘Like any great British institution, it comes enshrined in colourful tradition
an exciting thing to see so many fabulous pictures done by people up and down the country and from abroad,’ says Jock Mcfadyen RA, who’s been on the Hanging Committee twice. ‘It’s like trying to manage a flood; so many things pouring in. And the galleries! They’re the most beautiful in the world: toplit, elegantly proportioned, splendid in scale: they were made for these salon-style shows.’
Hanging is an intense two-week process, during which the ‘hangers’—ras often with very different approaches—are forced to bond. ‘You’re exhausted, it’s too hot, your feet hurt, you can’t find a work you want because somebody else has pinched it,’ says Eileen. ‘A lot of egos are at stake; each has his or her own gallery to curate and they become quite passionate about it. Some want to hang sparely; others—such as Gus Cummins this year—want as much of the send-in that they can possibly get.’
Inevitably, a bit of horsetrading goes on, ‘but they need to be cohesive with the overall theme and to accommodate certain works that they may not have bargained for,’ Eileen adds, emphasising the jigsaw puzzle-like nature of hanging such a huge exhibition.
The positioning of works on the walls carries its own archaic terminology. To be hung ‘on the line’—that is, at eye level with the top of the frame close to the ledge that ran round the room—was considered top; to be ‘skied’ an insult. The hanging process results in more rejections and it’s only when a picture is actually on the wall that it can be deemed to have been accepted. Sanctioning Day marks the last opportunity when anything can be changed—after this, the exhibition is set in stone.
Best known, and traditionally the most jovial fixture in the lead-up to the opening, are the Varnishing Days, instituted in 1809 for artists to touch up their paintings in situ. Turner, an almost yearly contributor during his 1799–1851 membership, is most vividly associated with this tradition, not only because of paintings by Thomas Fearnley (1837) and William Parrott (1846), and scenes in the recent film Mr Turner, but also from first-hand accounts: he would move between his exhibits, piling on ‘all the brightest pigments he could lay his hands on, emerald green, vermilion etc until they literally blazed with light and colour’.
Artists dreaded their work appearing beside his, which invariably rendered theirs monochrome by comparison, and Turner was not averse to rubbing a bit of tone into a neighbouring painting if he felt it was spoiling his own. Lord Leighton, by contrast, had his pictures varnished by a professional picture cleaner; Landseer kept his covered in a cloth throughout.
These days, the Varnishing Days are really just an excuse for a party, when artists get their first view of their work installed. June 5 this year is Non-members’ Varnishing Day, a highlight of the preopening rituals, when exhibitors process down Piccadilly for a service in St James’s Church, led by a traffic-stopping steel band. The following days leading up to the opening are abuzz with fizz and festivities, from the Annual Dinner (for RAS and figures of cultural significance) to the glamorous preview party for luminaries of the art world and celebrities.
Today, however, a more serious task is in hand: the General Assembly is meeting to elect the next Keeper. By the time the decision is announced, the main galleries will be thronging with visitors and the critics will have had their say on what Eileen promises will be ‘the most diverse Summer Exhibition yet’.
Queueing is an artform: hopefuls line up to hand in their prized works for the 245th Summer Exhibition in April 2013
Hanging the exhibition: each of the members of the Hanging Committee is responsible for curating, or co-curating, a gallery or space
Men at work: The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Summer Exhibition 1875 by Charles West Cope