250 Years of the Summer Exhibition
“There shall be an Annual Exhibition of Paintings. Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all artists of distinguished merit”
Simultaneously seen as a “monster”, a “farrago”, a “delight” and a “triumph”, the Royal Academy is celebrating its 250th Summer Exhibition since 1769, a few months after the Academy was founded with permission of King George III on 10th December 1768. Considered to be the most democratic art exhibition in the world, the RA has gone to town with the anniversary celebration, decorating the nearby streets with flags designed by some of the Academicians: Grayson Perry, this year’s curator, Cornelia Parker, Rose Wylie and Joe Tilson.
The Summer Exhibition contains a mish-mash of artwork of all genres produced by artists working today. Although it is impossible to give it a theme – Grayson Perry has titled it Art Made Now – it is safe to say that the exhibits fall into the “contemporary” or “modern” category. Many people turn their noses up, unable to appreciate what they see because they “don’t understand it”. Nonetheless, the RA attracts thousands of visitors every summer who walk around saying things such as “that is clever” or “I like that one”, although, whether they are being serious is another matter.
“You go into the Summer Show and it’s a huge tumble-dryer of art swirling around you.”
– Grayson Perry RA
The RA Summer Exhibition was not always as varied as it is today; at the beginning, the “contemporary art” displayed is now considered traditional or masterpieces. Running concurrently with the Show is another major exhibition The Great Spectacle, which explores the history of the Summer Exhibition, or Annual Exhibition as it was originally called. The first exhibition in 1769 contained works from the founding members, including Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), Benjamin West (1738-1820) and RA President Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Only running for a month, the show attracted approximately 14,000 visitors, a phenomenal amount for a new enterprise in the 18th-century.
Typical of the Georgian era, the first few exhibitions showed examples of portraiture and histories presented in the standard style that was taught in art schools, influenced by the Renaissance. The curators of The Great Spectacle have selected the works that they believe have had the strongest impact on the Annual/Summer Exhibition over the years, to provide visitors with a “chronological walk” through the changing themes and conventions in both art and British society.
The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds was known for his full-length portraits. Although portraiture was common during the 18th and preceding centuries, Reynolds stood out for his striking poses and literary motives. For him, painting likenesses of his sitters was not just about vanity. For example, in Maria Marow Gideon and Her Brother, William, whilst Maria sits with her head turned towards the viewer, her brother strikes a nonchalant pose, his attention solely focused on his sister. In Reynold’s portrait of Joanna Leigh (1776), he shows her inscribing the name of her husband into the tree in front of her, referencing a scene from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), one of two women to be included amongst the Founding Members, the only female members to be elected until the 20th-century, also excelled at portrait painting. However, the example of her work shown in The Great Spectacle is a grand history painting titled Hector Taking Leave of Andromache (1768), which depicts a scene from Homer’s Iliad. Hector is saying goodbye to his wife and baby son, Astyanax, completely unaware that this will be his final farewell – Hector is heading off to war and will not live to see the end.
The beginning on the 19th-century saw noticeable changes in the style of artwork exhibited. In 1790, the fifteen-year-old Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) exhibited in the Annual Exhibition for the first time. Rather than painting portraits or histories, Turner preferred seascapes, often blurring the colours of the land, sea and sky. He also introduced watercolour as a respectable medium, which had previously been considered unprofessional. He received mixed reviews and critics remarked upon the small scale of his canvases that were dwarfed by the much larger paintings of the other Members. Instead of causing his work to be overlooked, the diminutive size caught people’s attention, allowing visitors to study and comment on the details: “the sun is positively shining.”
The appeal of landscape painting was a result of the many wars in which Britain was involved. The breath-taking scenes, such as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, were symbols and reminders of what the soldiers were fighting for. Unfortunately, the increase in landscape painters created tension amongst members of the RA, particularly between Turner and John Constable (1776-1837). The two artists were always in competition with each other to produce the most noteworthy painting.
Another artistic development of the early 19th-century was the arrival of “genre painting”. These revealed scenes of everyday life including those of common people, not only the upper and middle classes seen in earlier works. The walls of the Academy were soon full of dirty urchins, lowly family homes and bustling marketplaces, topics that were previously taboo amongst the well-dressed exhibition-goers. One example is the Scottish painter David Wilkie’s (1785-1841) Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch, showing a slightly inebriated crowd celebrating the decisive coalition victory of the Battle of Waterloo (1815). William Powell Frith (1819-1909) also produced a number of genre paintings. His depiction of the crowds at a private view of the Annual Exhibition is positioned at the beginning of The Great Spectacle, later, his painting Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) reveals a whole host of people of different status.
In 1840, the Royal Academy Schools admitted its youngest ever student, the eleven-year-old John Everett Millais (1829-96). Less than a decade later, his genre painting Isabella (1848-9) was displayed at the Annual Exhibition, revealing the skill and tuition he had received by the RA teachers. This painting, however, is rather significant in the timeline of the history of art due to one small segment. On the bench that Isabella is sitting on are the initials PRB. At the time, critics did not know what this stood for, yet it would soon become clear. In 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded, a group of artists who rejected the teachings of the Royal Academy believing the classical poses and compositions students were encouraged to produce were a corrupting influence. The group particularly despised Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they nicknamed “Sir Sloshua”. Ironically, Millais was elected as President of the RA in 1896, however, died of throat cancer later that year.
Being part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did not prevent artists from submitting works to the Annual Exhibition. Millais’ two paintings My First Sermon and My Second Sermon were both included, which expressed two opposing attitudes about going to church. In both paintings, the little girl, Millais’ daughter Effie, is dressed in her Sunday best, seated on a pew in a church. In the first scene, Effie is fully focused and engaged with the sermon, whereas, in the second, she has fallen asleep. Previous artists would never have dared to tackle such controversial themes.
From the PRB onwards, artists became radically honest in their artwork. Rather than paint beautiful images or portraits that people wanted to see, they began painting what could actually be seen, the truth. None is more poignant than Elizabeth Butler’s (née Thompson, 1846-1933) The Roll Call showing the surviving soldiers from the Grenadier Guards during the Crimean War. Instead of smartly dressed, respectable heroes, the artist revealed the horrors of war through their collapsed, exhausted states. The Roll Call, the first of its kind, needed to be guarded by a policeman due to its popularity amongst exhibition-goers. Later, Queen Victoria insisted on purchasing the painting and it still remains part of the Royal Collection today.
It was unfortunate that there were no policemen around on 4th May 1914 to protect John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) painting of the writer Henry James (1843-1916) from being attacked with a meat cleaver. The Suffragette Mary Wood smuggled the weapon into the Summer Exhibition and slashed the painting with a cry of “votes for women”, in protest of art by men being more highly valued than those by women.
The year 1914 sparked the beginnings of turbulent times for the RA. Although the Summer Exhibitions continued through the First World War, there was a significant drop in visitors, resulting in a financial struggle for the Academy. To make matters worse, the Academy was hit by a bomb in 1917, completely destroying Gallery IX. When the war ended, the first ever poster advertising the Summer Exhibition was produced in the hopes of enticing visitors back to the gallery – it worked. Examples of posters from the past century are included in The Great Spectacle.
The end of the First World War also resulted in the right for women (aged 30 and over) to vote. Although women had been involved with the RA, two of whom were founding members, they had mostly been shunned from the Academy. In 1922, the RA elected its first female Associate Member, Annie Swynnerton (1844–1933), but it was not until 1936 when it named the first woman to be a full Member since Kauffman and Moser in 1768. Laura Knight (1877-1970) was honoured with this position and her painting Lamorna Birch and his Daughters received mixed reviews from critics.
After the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was elected Honorary Academician Extraordinary. To date, Churchill is the only person to ever hold this title. Unbeknownst to some, Churchill had submitted a couple of paintings to the Summer Exhibition under the pseudonym David Winter.
The final rooms of The Great Spectacle resemble what parts of the Summer Exhibition looks like today. Post-WWII, the Academy accepted works from a number of the new art movements that were cropping up throughout the world. Peter Blake’s (b1932) Toy Shop was the first example of Pop Art in the Exhibition, which caused many people to begin questioning what “art” meant. Also, the year 1956 introduced the first non-painter President, Charles Wheeler (1892-1974). Although a previous President, Lord Leighton (1830-96), had produced sculptures, he was primarily a painter; Wheeler, on the other hand, was solely a sculptor.
By the 1990s, the Royal Academy was seeing more contemporary art than ever before. In 1997, Tracey Emin’s (b1963) re-upholstered chair There’s a lot of money in chairs was exhibited at the Summer Exhibition, a complete contrast to the types of art shown at the original shows. Tracey Emin later became a Royal Academician as well as a number of other contemporary artists.
The final artwork in The Great Spectacle is Cornelia Parker’s (b1956) Stolen Thunder III, which certainly challenges the meaning of “art”. Since 1865, red dots have been used to indicate that an artwork has been sold; Parker photographed an example containing numerous red dots, digitally removed the artwork from the frame, and submitted the resulting photograph to the Exhibition. She then photographed her own image, complete with new red dots, and submitted that the following year. Every year since, she has presented a similar outcome; one can be seen in the current Summer Exhibition.
As Academicians, Emin, Parker and other artists, such as David Hockney (b1937), can forego the selection process and exhibit their work in the Summer Exhibition. Hockney has several wall-sized paintings on display this year, which are detectable by his very unique style.
If Sir Joshua Reynolds could see the Royal Academy now, would he be pleased? Probably not. No longer are the traditional art styles of 18th and 19th centuries submitted to the Academy. Instead of fighting to produce the best work, artists are determined to create something unique in order to stand out amongst the thousands of others. Often, it is not what an artwork looks like, it is the artist’s intention and purpose that earns it a place in the Summer Exhibition. Nonetheless, as the current President Christopher Le Brun (b1951) points out, the RA was originally established to “promote the arts of design”, therefore, since everyone today has a different perception about what makes art “art”, it is only right that a mishmash of submissions makes it to the final show.
This year’s exhibition, the extra special 250th, is the largest thus far, spreading out over several galleries. It is also one of the brightest, colourful exhibitions the RA has ever produced. Often, art exhibitions are situated in dimly lit rooms so as not to damage the artworks, however, the Summer Exhibition is so light and spacious that it could almost be outside in daylight.
Although many people turn their noses up at “modern art”, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition receives more visitors than ever before, the record being more than 230,000. Since it is the Summer Exhibition’s anniversary, it is anticipated that this year will surpass the current record of attendees, setting a precedent for the next 250 years.
Both The Great Spectacle and the Summer Exhibition are open to the public until 19th August 2018. The former costs £14 (£16 with donation) per person and the Summer Exhibition costs £16 (or £18) plus an additional £3 for a catalogue of artwork.