A gi­ant leap

Time to call on Con­sta­ble, et al.

The Field - - Content - writ­ten BY et­tie Neil-gal­lacher

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.

col­lec­tions gallery

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

words and pho­tographs BY tar­quin Milling­ton-drake

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

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