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. 

Votes for (Some) Women

“Reasons for supporting Women’s Suffrage … Because – to sum all reasons up in one – it is for the common good of all.” – NUWSS

A hundred years ago, 6th February 1918, a campaign decades-long came to an end with the Representation of the People Act. Until then, women were allowed no say in parliamentary business and were deemed lesser creatures than their male counterparts. The determination of thousands of women turned the tables on this inequality, and this year, 2018, marks the centenary of their greatest triumph.

The campaign for the right to vote began in the United Kingdom in 1867 with a “Ladies Petition” that was presented to the government by Liberal MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Despite over 1500 signatories, the bill was immediately dismissed. However, that was only the beginning; by 1918, parliament had received over 15,000 petitions for women’s suffrage, but it was not those appeals alone that achieved one of the most celebrated successes in history.

Even before all the centenary advertising started filling magazines and bookshop windows, most people were already familiar with the term “suffragette”. Coined by the Daily Mail, these were the women who fought for their rights, however, the campaign did not begin with them. Less known is the term “suffragists”, which describes a less violent group of women who named themselves the NUWSS.

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Millicent Fawcett

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed on 14th October 1897 and united many smaller, middle-class suffrage organisations that had already begun to emerge, such as the Kensington Society, which was involved with the original Ladies Petition. Also included in the group were the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage.

Under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), the NUWSS aimed to campaign in a non-confrontational and constitutional way. This mostly involved petitions, lobbying, and writing leaflets and newspapers.

Millicent Fawcett had grown up in a wealthy family in Suffolk along with her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) who would become the first female doctor in the United Kingdom. Millicent was inspired by the drastic opinions of John Stuart Mill, whose speech on equal rights for women she witnessed at the young age of 19. Impressed by his public and practical support of women, Millicent became an advocate of his campaign.

“I cannot say I became a suffragist,” Millicent later wrote. “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government.”

It was through her connection to Mill’s politics that Millicent Fawcett, neé Garrett, met her husband, Henry Fawcett (1833-84). Henry also shared the opinion of both Millicent and Mill, however, he died of pleurisy before the campaign for women’s rights really got underway. Left a widow at the age of 38, Millicent threw herself into political campaigning and was quickly elected the president of the NUWSS.

The NUWSS held public meetings for anyone to attend and distributed leaflets to spread their opinion and encourage other women to take up the cause. The main target of the society was the Liberal Party who hoped to win the next election. Their demand was that they receive the right to vote on the same terms “as it is, or may be” granted to men.

Although women’s rights were the organisation’s main concern, the NUWSS also supported the abolition of the slave trade and set up a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer war. Essentially, their central aim was equality for all, regardless of sex and background.

 

 

 

The NUWSS’ progress was slow and some members began feeling restless, impatient and disillusioned with the lawful methods of campaigning. These women began to break away from the group to join a more radical organisation, the WSPU. Founded in Manchester in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), the Women’s Social and Political Union preferred to raise public awareness of their campaign by using militant tactics.

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Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst came from a family with a history of radical politics; furthermore, she married the lawyer Richard Pankhurst (1836-98) who had strong views about the rights of women. Richard was the author of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which allowed women the right to keep their earnings and property in their own name after marriage. Their daughters Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960) also became a vital part of the WSPU’s campaign.

The members of the WSPU are the women the Daily Mail christened “suffragettes” and they became the talk of the media for the following decade.

With the motto “Deeds not Words”, the WSPU gained notoriety with their aggressive demonstrations, many of which resulted in police intervention. Christabel and her friend Annie Kenney (1879-1953) snuck into a Liberal Party meeting and shouted their demands until forcibly removed, whereas, other suffragettes became involved in window smashing and arson. Some were even arrested for making bombs with the intent to blow up buildings. Nevertheless, the WSPU did not wish to harm other people, targetting empty properties instead.

Women refused to let being arrested hinder their campaign. Whilst detained behind bars, the suffragettes refused to eat to the point that they were seriously malnourished. In fear of being accused of murder, attendants began force-feeding the prisoners, a torturous and painful method involving tubes thrust up noses or down throats. This abusive treatment created an uproar among campaigners and other members of the public, therefore, the Cat and Mouse Act was developed.

The Prisoner’s (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913, most commonly referred to as “Cat and Mouse Act” allowed for the release of hunger-striking prisoners into the community to be nursed back to health, at which time they would be rearrested. Many suffragettes found themselves repeatedly in and out of prison during this time.

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Emily Wilding Davison

By 1913, the WSPU was at the height of its campaign. They were conducting as many violent acts as they could get away with in order to show how serious they were about receiving the same voting rights as men. One suffragette went a step further resulting in the loss of her life in honour of the women’s movement. Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) attended the Epsom Derby in June 1913, kitted with a banner stating “Votes for Women” which she intended to attach to the King’s horse as it raced by.  A teacher who had given up her career to be a suffragette, Emily stepped out onto the race course and was fatally trampled by the horse’s hooves. At the time, women proclaimed Emily to be a martyr for the cause, throwing herself to her death, however, today it is believed that her death was an unintended, unfortunate accident.

The WSPU’s militancy came to an end, not with the success of the campaign, but with the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Emmeline Pankhurst called an end to the protests and encouraged women to support the war effort. Millicent Fawcett, although a pacifist, also asked the NUWSS to help in any way they could. Many women took on the roles the fighting men had left behind, whereas others worked in munition factories.

With the war entering its final year, women were finally granted the right to vote when the Representation of the People Act was passed on 6th February 1918. This allowed men over the age of 21 and certain women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Whilst any man could vote, women had to be householders or occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or a graduate from university. Whilst this was not equal, many women felt successful, however, certain women from the NUWSS continued campaigning until 1928 when women were granted equal voting rights with men.

Although many women were left out of the original Representation of the People Act, the country is busy celebrating the centenary of the suffragette and suffragist success. Many museums, publications, television channels and so forth are celebrating in various ways throughout the year. The following are a handful of things that are currently going on or something to look forward to:

Votes for Women at the Museum of London

 

 

Free to enter, the Museum of London has a temporary display until January 2019 commemorating the Act of 1918. It is dedicated to the hundreds of women who campaigned for the right to vote over 50 years, particularly focusing on the final decade. As well as this display, the museum has a permanent exhibition of suffragette memorabilia, including Emmeline Pankhurst’s Hunger Strike Medal, handwritten letters, banners and sashes in the suffragettes’ iconic colours (green, white and purple), weapons used for window smashing, and belts and padlocks used to chain themselves to railings.

The main aspect of the display is a powerful film reflecting on the militant campaign and how these women have inspired and shocked the world. The items on show highlight the extremes the suffragettes went to and bring the realities of the lives of these women to the fore. To emphasise that these women were real and not just stories, the museum has revealed handmade items a few campaigners put together both at home and in prison, for example, an embroidered handkerchief and Ada Flatman’s (1876-1951) scrapbook.

The museum’s gift shop contains a wide variety of suffragette items from books and postcards to hats and badges. Look out for the board game Pank-a-Squith, a replica of the original produced by the suffragettes to entertain themselves whilst in prison.

Votes for Women at the National Portrait Gallery

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Henry Fawcett; Dame Millicent Fawcett by Ford Madox Brown

Until 13th May 2018, the National Portrait Gallery is displaying a complimentary showcase highlighting Victorian pioneers of the movement as well as paintings, works on paper and photographs representing key figures in the campaign for women’s suffrage, both for and against.

With educational details, photographs and paintings are explained in order to inform visitors about the significant events from the campaign. Photos include those of Emmeline Pankhurst, documenting her speeches and arrests.

 

Voice and Vote in Westminster Hall

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From 27th June until 6th October 2018, Westminster Hall will be home to the Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition featuring unseen historic objects, photographs, and documents from Parliamentary collections. A large amount of the exhibition will involve interactive technologies to help tell the story of the women’s campaigns, protests and eventual success.

Curators have recreated historical places of the Palace of Westminster to emphasise what a woman’s experience of Parliament would have been like at the time of the suffragette movement. These include a Ladies’ Gallery with restricted views of the chamber and a loft space where women once sat to listen to the goings on in the room below.

The exhibition is free to enter, however, tickets must be booked in advance due to the limited capacity of the hall.

Processions

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On Sunday 10th June, women in the cities of London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh are invited to walk together in celebration of the suffrage movement. Wearing green, white and purple, marchers will be showing off artworks that have been produced specifically for the event. In workshops throughout the UK, women are producing colourful centenary banners and plan to turn the city streets into a river of colour during the procession.

Participants must register to take part in advance of the date of the procession.

Millicent Fawcett Statue, London

 

 

For the very first time, a female statue will stand in Parliament Square, London. In honour of her work and determination, Millicent Fawcett will be honoured forever as she takes her place amongst politicians such as Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. Designed by Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing, the statue will be surrounded by 52 photographic etchings on tiles depicting 59 key women who played a significant role in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Emmeline Pankhurst Statue, Manchester

img_1265In Manchester, her home city, Emmeline Pankhurst is also being honoured with a statue. Scheduled to be completed in December 2018, sculptor Helen Reeves has designed the bronze tribute to “stand guard as an enduring reminder of the struggle for the vote, beckoning us to keep going forward as we continue the journey towards gender equality.”

 

 

Many more celebratory events will be happening around the country. Regardless of what they are, their focus is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act. Unfortunately, most of these tend to lean more towards the suffragette influence and forget about the passive campaigns of the NUWSS. Also, many of the working class women who joined the campaign were unable to vote, either due to their age or lack of property. Nonetheless, this was the first time women could vote and, whilst it was not equal to the rights of men, it was a significant success in the emancipation of women.

The centenary has sparked debates about the importance of the suffragists and suffragettes. Some argue that women got the vote due to their war work and others claim it was to make up for the loss of lives on the battlefields. Others dispute the celebration claiming that the suffragettes were guerilla terrorists and should not be honoured for their violence, whereas, some suggest they should be pardoned. It is doubtful that the suffragettes would wish to be pardoned for their crimes, they were openly and deliberately committing them to express their views – they knew exactly what they were doing.

Regardless of these debates, the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is one of the biggest turning points in British history with similar Acts occurring at different times throughout the rest of the world. Women (and men) have every right to celebrate, reflect on how far society has come, and push forward with the determination to achieve equal rights for all.

“Once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”