by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private Collection
A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith, 1882

The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Royal Academy

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 15 June 2018


Whilst the Paris Salon dominated the European art scene during the late 18th and 19th century, the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition (as it came to be called), has now long outrun its great French rival. This year the Exhibition, the world's oldest annual show of contemporary art, which has been held without interruption since 1769, is celebrating its 250th anniversary.

The event is being marked in grand style at Burlington House with 'The Great Spectacle', curated by Mark Hallett and Sarah Victoria Turner, displaying over 80 paintings, sculptures, etchings and drawings, including numerous works that delighted, wowed and divided opinion as the crowds filled the RA's galleries every year over the last two and half centuries.

The show opens with probably the single most familiar image of the show: William Powell Frith's 'A Private View at the Royal Academy' (1881), depicting the great and the good - including William Gladstone, Antony Trollope, Lord Leighton, Oscar Wilde, Ellen Terry and Lilly Langtry - packed into Gallery III, perusing the works and observing each other with a well-trained eye. Other more satirical views of the event accompany this, and later on we come upon the most amusing of all: Ronald Searle's 1958 Punch cartoon of the Private View, in which a shapely nude, depicted in one of the canvases, is standing as large as life amid the throng, still without a stitch on, studying her catalogue.

The Summer show was from the outset a social as well as an artistic event, and it not only became a vital source of income for the Academy (which it still is today) but was absolutely decisive in the way the institution developed. During the first hundred years the show was held successively in rooms on Pall Mall, in Somerset House and in the new National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. But exploding numbers of visitors to the Exhibition made it clear by the mid 19th century that the Academy needed its own premises and purpose-built galleries. In 1867 it was granted a 999-year lease of Burlington House on Piccadilly.

In the earlier years, whether a painting required a guard rail and a police presence to keep the crowds under control became an index of success. David Wilkie's 'Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch' (1822), William Powell Frith's 'Ramsgate Sands, Life at the Seaside' (1854) and his 'Derby Day' (1858) all required such measures.

The next sensation of this kind occurred after the move to Burlington House. Elizabeth Thomson's war canvas 'The Roll-Call: Calling the Role after an Engagement, Crimea' (1874) was the prime attraction in a year that brought in 332,365 visitors, and required a policeman to regulate an orderly queue to see the painting, of which a quarter of a million reproductions were later sold. The selection committee had cheered when 'The Roll Call 'was first presented to them, but when the artist stood for election to the Academy in 1879, she failed by two votes.

Of the 40 founder members of the Academy, two - Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser - were women. But it was to be a staggering 154 years before Annie Swynnerton was elected in 1922 as an Associate Member, and not until 1936 that Dame Laura Knight was made a full RA. Although 30 per cent of exhibitors in the interwar years were women, only five women were elected between 1922 and 1948. And the Academy Banquet was all male until 1967.

Yet the Summer Exhibition was a spur to innovation. The special galleries designed for the show and completed with remarkable alacrity within a year, by 1868, set a standard for the rest of the world. The first press view for art critics, 'to prevent the annoyance to which they were subjected on the day of the Private View', was instituted in 1871. Indeed, British journalistic art criticism was initially in large part the product of this event. Placing a red dot on the frame of a picture to indicate it had already been sold was used for the first time ever at the Summer Exhibition of 1865.

Sometimes the Exhibition has been the arena for promoting new trends in art but the Academicians that run it have also been extraordinarily reactionary. That in 1938 not a single vote in the Selection Committee was cast in favour of showing Wyndham Lewis's now famous portrait of T.S. Eliot (on loan here from Durban) is simply astonishing.

The decision precipitated Augustus John's departure from the Academy, as we can see from his letter of resignation on display, and avant-garde artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Francis Bacon rejected the Academy altogether. However, Pietro Annigoni's ultra-traditional 'Queen Elizabeth II' (1955), was wildly popular with visitors and often surrounded by crowds ten-deep.

The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Royal Academy; Royal Academy, London; 12 June - 19 August

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023