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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - The Hay Wain

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

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