A giant leap
Time to call on Constable, et al.
It will be less obviously an exhibition space and feel more like a campus
King George III is associated predominantly, in the popular imagination, with madness. At home, he was belittled historically as “Farmer George”, the agrarian-minded monarch with a lack of interest in politics, and for losing the American colonies. However, he left the UK with a striking cultural legacy that celebrates its 250th anniversary this year: the Royal Academy of Arts.
Founded in 1768 by a personal mandate from the King to promote art and architecture through exhibition and education, the Royal Academy differs from other galleries and art schools in that it’s the nation’s only independent, privately funded institution; as such, it has a place at the vanguard of British art and yet occupies a curious position in the country’s cultural landscape. Despite some modernising voices from within, and some distinctly contemporary exhibitions over the past 20 years or so (Charles Saatchi’s Sensation rather drop-kicked the Academy into the 21st century in 1997), it has something of a reputation for being fairly traditional.
Current developments, however, as part of “RA250”, look set to dispel this image in favour of one that is rather broader. Indeed, Tim Marlow, the artistic director of the RA, who joined four years ago from Hoxton’s avant garde White Cube gallery, envisages the institution becoming a more holistic cultural offering. “It will be less obviously just an exhibition space and will feel more like a campus, stretching from Mayfair to Piccadilly. I hope the public will be more aware of the myriad activities – projects, debates, installations – that go on and which will be enhanced by the plans,” he said.
The RA250 plans – which were revealed in May at a cost of £56m – comprise a wide programme of events, lectures and exhibitions,
as well as its most ambitious building project to date.
joining the buildings
Since 1867, Burlington House has been home to the RA. Seventeen years ago, the institution purchased the building immediately behind, 6 Burlington Gardens, which had once housed the Museum of Mankind. Since then, the new addition has been used to host temporary exhibitions. More recently, Sir David Chipperfield RA was awarded the brief to draw up plans to join the two buildings. “Our new development will not only unite our two buildings it will, in effect, create a new Burlington Arcade between Mayfair and Piccadilly, open throughout the day, with the experience of art throughout,” explained the painter, sculptor and printmaker Christopher Le Brun, who has been president of the RA since 2011.
The facade of 6 Burlington Gardens will be maintained but, behind the scenes, the scheme will allow the RA to add more gallery spaces and include the new Clore Learning Centre and the 250-capacity, double-height Benjamin West lecture theatre. The latter two innovations are designed to enhance the Academy’s educational offering, in accordance with its founding principles, and bolster the offering of the RA Schools, the oldest art educational institution in the country.
The plans are, of course, roundly endorsed by Le Brun and Marlow, who both point to Chipperfield’s work with, among other places, the well-received Neues Museum in Berlin. Le Brun praises Chipperfield’s “great sensitivity in joining the old with the new” and that “it essentially restores the generosity and clarity of Sir James Pennethorne’s original conception [of Burlington Gardens]”, while Marlow describes Chipperfield as “the best museum architect of his generation, who isn’t imposing his own style but working within a context in an imaginative and powerful way”.
But while popular with most RA architects, there have been dissenting voices, who are critical of the need for a central corridor between the two buildings, largely because it bisects the historic RA Schools – the oldest art school in the country. Dismissing comparisons with the Burlington Arcade as “a false analogy and misguided”, pointing out that the the latter was purpose-built, Peter Schmitt, who was surveyor to the fabric for 15 years, argues that, “both buildings are actually designed as destination venues with their own front entrances, with their rear service yards back to back”.
At his retirement dinner, he lamented the scheme thus: “I feel like Jacob wrestling all night with the angel, as portrayed by Epstein... from which Jacob emerged, limping. I feel this way, when I contemplate the eventuality that these two great listed buildings, formed in mannerly Palladianism, but out of
England’s natural affinity to monastic Gothic, may emerge, linked together with their bum ends, like mating insects. How uneasily this sits with all who live and work in her.”
Schmitt resurrected and developed an idea first proposed by Eric Parry RA when invitations for the linking of the two buildings were first proposed, which involved a side link on the East Yard and would thus have maintained the integrity of the Schools. Indeed, there was both contemporaneous support for this idea from Sir Colin St John Wilson RA as well as historic justification; Nick Savage, the former librarian who is currently writing a book on the history of the buildings of the RA, concedes “the apparent logicality” of linking the two buildings on a common central axis but reminds us that as long ago as 1869 it was intended that the Schools would have their own entrance on the East Yard – Chipperfield’s next project.
Controversy aside, there are consistencies in the RA’S offering that seem set in stone, the annual Summer Exhibition perhaps being one of the most popular and populist. This year, it has been curated by a team headed by ceramicist Grayson Perry RA. Alongside him, Piers Gough RA will curate the architecture gallery. When the Royal Academy was founded, one of its key objectives was to establish an annual exhibition, open to all artists of merit, that could be visited by the public. The first Summer Exhibition took place in 1769; it has been held every year since without exception. From around 5,000 artists, there are 10,000 entries and this year there will be 1,200 works on display, both inside and outside the building.
But as part of the RA250 programme of events, alongside the Summer Exhibition will be the Great Spectacle, which tells
the story of the former chronologically, through a series of interlinked gallery displays. George Stubbs and Alfred Munnings both have works included. The narrative takes the form of a retrospective through works by several founder members, as well as Royal Academicians from Thomas Lawrence and Sir Frederic Leighton to Zaha Hadid and Wolfgang Tillmans.
According to a spokesman for the Academy, the focus is “on moments in which the Summer Exhibition made an especially significant impact within the British and European art world, and on pictures that experienced particular success or failure within the exhibition space”. Highlights include John Constable’s The Leaping Horse, exhibited in 1825; John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the author Henry James, which was famously slashed by the suffragette Mary Wood in the Summer Exhibition 1914; and Sir Winston Churchill’s Winter Sunshine, Chartwell, submitted in 1947 under the pseudonym David Winter.
A more permanent, though changing, addition to the RA will be the new Collections Gallery, which will provide in excess of 250 metres square of exhibition space. This will allow the RA to display for the first time works that it has accumulated over the centuries, many of them Diploma Works donated upon accession to the Academy. While the display will change, the first has been curated by Le Brun himself, who clearly has a rich repository from which to draw the initial exhibition. “I decided to tell the story of the origins of the Academy where the collection has an abundance of masterpieces from 1768 to about 1828. The hang includes Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence, Kauffman, as well as historic copies of Leonardo and Raphael used for teaching in the Schools alongside the Michelangelo Tondo. The narrative shows the rapid development of British art from 18th century Neoclassicism to the great geniuses of Romanticism, Turner and Constable,” he revealed.
But what are all these changes designed to achieve? The idea of a more holistic cultural offering is somewhat abstract, and must surely translate into increased footfall. Marlow points out that the RA250 programme isn’t entirely representative of the style of exhibitions that he plans to deliver: “What we’re programming in 2018 has to be taken out of the equation because it’s retrospective, celebrating two-and-a-half centuries of the Academy,” he explains. But he “want[s] to make the contemporary more central here,” saying that the success of recent exhibitions such as Ai Weiwei and Abstract Expressionism show that there is demand for it. But old timers who lapped up Charles I and Matisse recently needn’t be too alarmed; Marlow assures that “we won’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.
It will allow the RA to display works it has accumulated over the centuries
Above left: the Royal Academy’s north-facing entrance onto Burlington Gardens, Piccadilly Above, top: the Clore Learning CentreAbove: the Benjamin West Lecture Theatre
Top: the RA Collections Gallery in 2018Above, left: admiring sculptures in The Vaults, where it is now possible to catch a glimpse of the art school at work. Above: Constable’s The Leaping Horse, which appeared in the Summer Exhibition of 1825
The new Weston Bridge, between Burlington House and Burlington Gardens, links Piccadilly and Mayfair