The Power of Seeing

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The name John Ruskin may be familiar to many people, however, how many can accurately say who he was, what he did and why he is important in today’s art world? In a recent exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated with a collection of 200 paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, plaster casts and so forth that demonstrated Ruskin’s stance on aesthetics, culture and society. Regarded today as one of the greatest Victorian artists, critics, educators and social thinkers who devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, the exhibition briefly delved into the mind of a polymath whose influence is still felt today.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was the only child of sherry and wine importer John James Ruskin (1785–1864), co-founder of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, and his wife Margaret (1781–1871). From an early age, Ruskin’s parents pressed their ambitions upon him, introducing him to writers, such as Byron (1788-1824), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Walter Scott (1771-1832). Whilst John Ruskin Senior was focused on intellectual knowledge, his mother, an Evangelical Christian, pressed the Bible upon her son, teaching him to repeatedly read it from beginning to end and learn lengthy passages by heart. At this time, Ruskin also began to develop a passion for geology.

Described by Ruskin in his autobiography Praeterita, he had very few friends his own age, to begin with, as a result of being homeschooled at Herne Hill, in Camberwell, South London, although, he later spent a year at a school in Peckham. It was not his education, however, that set his path for the future. When he was thirteen, Ruskin was given a book-length poem illustrated by the painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), which sparked an interest in both art and poetry.

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Portrait of John Ruskin (1875)

Whilst studying at Oxford University, where he took up residence at Christ Church in 1837, he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry and met the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Ruskin also met and became close to the future Dean of Westminster, William Buckland (1784-1856), who also had an interest in geology and palaeontology. Ruskin’s other good friends, however, were studying archaeology and medicine.

Unfortunately, Ruskin never achieved independence whilst at university because his mother was lodging nearby and his father joined him at weekends. He was also suffering from ill health and had to take a lengthy break from Oxford before returning to pass his exams with a double fourth-class degree.

Even with a degree under his belt, Ruskin was unable to escape from the clutches of his parents. From 1840 until 1842, the Ruskin family spent time abroad, mainly in Italy, where John had the opportunity to study Italian painting. After returning to England, Ruskin continued to live with his parents in Camberwell, where they were frequently visited by the likes of Turner and the watercolourist Samuel Prout (1783-1851), whose work was collected by Ruskin’s father. At this time, J.M.W. Turner’s work was under severe criticism at the Royal Academy and Ruskin was spurred to defend his childhood idol.

Ruskin passionately regarded Turner as the greatest painter of his age and was thus outraged at the critical judgment of the Royal Academy. In a book eventually published in 1843 under the anonymity of “A Graduate of Oxford”, Ruskin wrote Modern Painters I as a response to these attacks.

“Turner perceives at a glance the whole sum of visual truth open to human intelligence … The power of every picture depends on the penetration of the imagined into the TRUE nature of the thing represented, and on the utter scorn of the imagination for all shackles and fetters of mere external fact that stand in the way of its suggestiveness.”
– John Ruskin

John Ruskin held the controversial opinion that landscape artists, such as Turner, were superior to the “Old Masters” from the post-Renaissance era. He argued that these so-called Masters painted from pictorial convention, i.e. with emotion, and were not being true to nature. Ruskin maintained that an artist should observe the reality of nature and not produce imaginary scenes in a studio. Turner, on the other hand, had a better understanding of the “truth”, such as the air, the clouds, water, stones, and plants.

Inspired by Turner, Ruskin produced his own artworks, adopting the artist’s subtle use of colour. His watercolour painting of Towers of Freiburg, which was painted on a misty morning in Germany’s Black Forest, was used in the book Modern Painters as an example of “Turnerian Topography”. While in France, Ruskin painted Lanslebourg, Savoie, recording the “facts” and landscape that he saw, rather than an attractive impression.

Unlike Turner’s paintings that sometimes appear as a blur of colour, Ruskin produced many carefully observed drawings, such as The Kappellbrücke at Luzern (Lucerne) in which he has captured every element, including the angles of the bridge, the stonework on the turret and the shimmering light on the water.

As well as modern landscape painters, Ruskin was inspired by the works he saw on his travels around Europe. In 1844, whilst in France with his parents, Ruskin was able to investigate the geology of the Alps as well as study the artwork at the Louvre in Paris. Finally, in 1845 at the age of 26, Ruskin travelled without his parents for the first time, taking the opportunity to explore medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and Italy. Cities such as Florence, Pisa and Venice were of great inspirational value to the young artist, however, he was dismayed at the modernisation processes, which were gradually replacing the traditional buildings.

Ruskin’s independent tour of western Europe led him to write a second volume of Modern Painters. This time, however, he concentrated on the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance, arguing that aesthetic and the divine are inextricably bound together: “the Beautiful as a gift of God”. His tour also took him in a new artistic direction; temporarily leaving painting behind, Ruskin developed a keen interest in architecture.

Bunney, John Wharlton, 1828-1882; Western Facade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice

Western Façade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice – John Wharlton Bunney

In 1847, Ruskin developed a close relationship with Euphemia “Effie” Grey (1828-97), the daughter of family friends for whom he had written the story The King of the Golden River when she was twelve years old. They married on 10th April 1848 at her home in Perth, Scotland and spent their early years together in Mayfair, London.

Although the European Revolutions of 1848 restricted the amount of travel the newlyweds could undertake, the couple eventually visited Venice in October 1849. In the meantime, Ruskin’s knowledge of architecture had been rapidly increasing and earlier that year he had travelled with his parents – Effie was not well enough to join him – to gather material for the third and fourth editions of Modern Painters.

The North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark's, Venice by John Ruskin 1819-1900

The North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark’s, Venice – Ruskin, 1851

Whilst in Venice, John and Effie’s marriage began to breakdown. Effie wished to socialise, whereas, her husband was occupied in solitary studies. Already that year he had published The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which promoted the seven virtues of secular and Protestant Gothic buildings: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory and obedience. Now, all he wanted to do was gather material for his three-volume work, The Stones of Venice and create sketches of notable buildings that he feared would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops.

“Nothing interrupts him … He is either with a black cloth over his head taking Daguerreotypes or climbing about the capitals covered with dust, or else with cobwebs just as if he had just arrived from taking a voyage with the old woman on her broomstick.”
– Effie in a letter home to her family

Despite Effie not being keen on her husband’s work, Ruskin was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was established in 1848 by John Everett Millais (1829-96), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1826-82). The group were committed to “paint[ing] from nature only” and shared Ruskin’s opinion about the “Old Masters”.

Through the poet Coventry Patmore (1823-96), a mutual friend of Ruskin and Millais, Ruskin met the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote letters to The Times to argue against their critics. Ruskin provided the Brotherhood, particularly Millais, with encouragement and patronage, and Effie became one of their models.

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John Ruskin – Millais

In 1853, Millais visited the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he studied and closely observed the landscape. In his painting of Glenfinlas, Millais added Ruskin’s portrait. Previously, Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release, 1746, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852.

Unfortunately, Effie was growing increasingly distressed about her unhappy marriage, causing her to suffer both physical and mental illnesses. She was constantly arguing with Ruskin who would rather concentrate on his studies than spend time with his wife. Effie was also fed up with his intense and overly protective parents. In an act of desperation, Effie filed for an annulment on grounds of “non-consummation” due to Ruskin’s supposed “incurable impotency”. Although Ruskin disputed the claim, the annulment was granted in July 1854. A year later, Effie married Millais.

Shortly before the end of his marriage, Ruskin had begun lecturing on architecture and painting in Edinburgh. This led to lectures at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 about how to use and acquire art. By 1869, Ruskin had become the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, delivering his inaugural lecture on his 51st birthday in 1870, at the Sheldonian Theatre.

The following year, he founded The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University. The School’s intent was to challenge the orthodox teaching and methodology of government art schools. Often, his lectures, which included themes such as myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature, were so popular, they had to be given twice.

“The teaching of Art is the teaching of all things.”
– John Ruskin

In the 1870s, Ruskin visited Sheffield where his former pupil and friend Henry Swan (1825-89) was working as an engraver. By this time, not only had Ruskin had a fairly successful career, he had amassed an impressive collection of art, minerals, books, architectural casts, ancient coins and other precious, beautiful objects. After purchasing a small cottage in the district of Walkley to store his collection, Ruskin founded the Guild of St George, a charity devoted to arts, crafts and the rural economy. The cottage was then opened as a museum and he encouraged the working class man to view artworks that were once only something the wealthy could afford to see. The majority of the items at the Two Temple Place exhibition came from this museum.

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Rose La Touche – Ruskin

Whilst it is not certain how the collapse of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie affected him, he remained unlucky in love for the remainder of his life. When he was nearly 40 years old, he became the private art tutor to the daughters of the Irish poet Maria La Touche. Rose La Touche (1848–1875), who was only ten at the time, caught the eye of the much older Ruskin who gradually fell in love with her. Ruskin proposed to her on her 18th birthday but she asked him to wait three years until she was 21. At the time, Ruskin was having doubts about the Christian faith, which was beginning to cause problems with the staunchly Protestant family.

Ruskin proposed a number of times to Rose but she consistently turned him down. Her final rejection occurred in 1872, however, they still met up occasionally. Sadly, Rose died at the age of 27 after suffering from a long illness. As a result, Ruskin was plunged into despair, which led to bouts of mental illness, breakdowns and hallucinations. In an attempt to help himself come to terms with Rose’s death, Ruskin turned to Spiritualism, believing it would give him to power to communicate with the dead. Gradually, desperate to believe there was life after death, Ruskin returned to Christianity.

Throughout his life, Ruskin wrote numerous books, ranging in topic from art and architecture to travel guides and literature. His last great work was his autobiography Praeterita, meaning “things of the past”, which focused on selective parts of his life, omitting many facts.

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John Ruskin, 1882

Ruskin’s final home was in the Lake District where he tried to continue to write, however, most of this work was considered irrelevant in the art world. He was also still suffering from mental health issues and was unable to continue to travel to Europe. His 80th birthday was celebrated around the country, however, Ruskin was barely aware of the proceedings. Not long after, he passed away from influenza.

The once slim lecturer with piercing blue eyes became the grumpy old man with a long beard who resembled an Old Testament prophet. Although he held strong opinions throughout his life, his later convictions were more complaints than anything insightful. As part of the Two Temple Place exhibition, the curators had pieced together Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed from the writings of John Ruskin.

Ruskin detested iron railings and bemoaned that the Houses of Parliament were “the most effeminate and effectless heap of stones ever raised by man.” The Renaissance buildings in Venice were defined as the “ribaldries of drunkenness” and, apparently, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge looked like an upsidedown table.

Other things Ruskin despised were the “doggerel sound” of Wagner’s The Meistersingers, lawyers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, being photographed and cycling. He hated railway stations and could not stand the “beastly, blockheady, loggerheady, doggish, loggish, hoggish-poggish, filthy, fool-begotten, swindler-swallowed” railways round Dieppe in Northern France. And more fool anyone who got Ruskin talking on matters such as making money or the English constitution: “The rottenest mixture of Simony, bribery, sneaking tyranny, shameless cowardice, and accomplished lying that ever the Devil chewed small to spit into God’s Paradise.”

Regardless of the ups and downs of his personal life and his strong opinions, Ruskin is renowned across the world. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times”. Ruskin also influenced people such as Gandhi (1869-1948), the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and William Morris (1834-96). Ruskin’s thoughts about the conservation of historic buildings inspired the foundation of the National Trust and many Christian socialists were inspired by his ideas.

Overall, Ruskin wrote more than 250 works, beginning with topics involving art and architecture. As he became more known for his work, he expanded to cover topics encompassing science, geology, ornithology, literary criticism, pollution, mythology, travel, economy and social reform. Alongside this, he painted and developed the idea that it was important to paint what can be physically seen rather than imagined.

Numerous areas of study, research and thought have been affected by Ruskin in one way or another. His influence is still present throughout the arts, education, economy and environment today. Although most people are oblivious to his presence, John Ruskin is embedded in contemporary culture and society. Without him, who knows what the world would be like today.

Whilst it is important to celebrate the phenomenal works of John Ruskin, the man behind the books and artwork must not be overlooked. A number of events are being held by Ruskin 200 in honour of the bicentenary of his birth. Details of events can be found on their website www.ruskin200.com

The Great Spectacle

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.

 

tumblr_m4827tfy0b1qggdq1In 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.

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The Roll Call – Elizabeth Butler, 1874

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.