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Art review: The Royal Academy’s 250th Summer Exhibition

22 June 2018

Nicholas Cranfield on a thriving tradition at the Royal Academy

John Bodkin/Dawkinscolour

Chris Orr RA, The Fauves Picnic, silkscreen

Chris Orr RA, The Fauves Picnic, silkscreen

“THERE shall be an Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture & Designs, which shall be open to all Artists of distinguished Merit.” Thus reads the Instrument of Foundation of the Royal Academy which George III signed in 1768 within weeks of being approached by the architect Sir William Chambers.

As the accompanying “The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition” makes clear, the hastily arranged agreement to form an Academy, initially by a senior group of fractious artists who were unhappy with the organisation of the newly established Society of Artists of Great Britain (1759), has continued to thrive.

Any visitor in the neighbouring Piccadilly and Regent Street, but not, oddly, Burlington Gardens itself, this summer will encounter banners (many featuring a detail from one of Joe Tilson’s atmospheric views of Venice) that proclaim that a tradition that began as a secessionist movement is celebrating 250 years.

To this day, the Academy is answerable directly to the Sovereign, and, unlike societies founded by Royal Charter, is not subject to government oversight. That freedom is currently enjoyed by more than 120 Royal Academicians. Among them are Tacita Dean, whose tripartite exhibition “Landscape”, currently at the RA, includes a film, Antigone, and Tracey Emin, whose installation of a pink neon greeting (“I want my time with you”) at St Pancras International was unveiled at breakfast on 10 April, causing commuters to ponder why a priest was wandering around the station with television crews and cameras in the wake of an artist in trainers.

© Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris   Tacita Dean, Antigone, 2018, two synchronised 35mm anamorphic colour films, optical sound, with a running time of exactly one hour: film still (detail)

RAs such as Eva Rothschild, David Hockney, Thomas Heatherwick, Timothy Hyman, David Mach, Wolfgang Tillmans, the sculptor Stephen Cox, and others are allowed to have their works shown as of right in the Summer Exhibition. That has long made the selection process a judicious one and, presumably, an occasion when old scores were settled. In 1830, John Constable’s Water-meadows near Salisbury was rejected. In 1938, the portrait of T. S. Eliot by Wyndham Lewis (Dulwich Picture Gallery), one of the highlights of “The Great Spectacle”, was not accepted.

Selection for last year’s Summer Exhibition (Arts, 14 July 2017) was co-ordinated by Eileen Cooper, whose dramatic style in Till the morning comes will be all too familiar to patrons of the current Glyndebourne Festival from the programme cover. This year, Grayson Perry has taken up his mantle (and at one point has allowed in a range of perfectly ghastly portraits of none other than . . . Grayson Perry).

The artist and Paragon/Contemporary Editions Ltd.Grayson Perry, Selfie with Political Causes, woodcut

This year’s show is the most expansive yet, and, as a display of historic posters shows, the most expensive. In 1971, entry was charged at 40p, but half price on Mondays. Those half-price days certainly first brought this then teenager there regularly with mates, and directly led me to take out a Friends’ Annual Membership as soon as I earned a crust.

Perry has been able to use the main-floor galleries, and has spilled out into the vestibule crossing space of David Chipperfield’s new access route into Burlington Gardens. He has also taken over the second-floor galleries of Burlington House which are still named after the billionaire Sackler family, targeted in one of the current opioids lawsuits in the United States, but whose pharmaceutical profits have also planted their name across institutions throughout Britain.

Bright, often raucously loud, coloured walls with a scary yellow in Gallery III, and brimming turquoise in number VII, allow the Summer Exhibition to show off the buildings at their best. Parish business meant that I was not at the Press Opening with Perry clowning about, but it would be difficult to know what to wear “to be seen”, which was always the reason that the show marked the start of the London Season.

Although I later spent two hours after lunch on Buyers’ Day in the exhibition with a friend, I needed to return the following day to do it further justice and to get to see “The Great Spectacle”. I had been fortunate to view “The Making of an Artist: The Great Tradition” in the RA Collection Gallery before its opening on 19 May. Making a full day of it, therefore, goes without saying, whatever one wears.

The Summer Exhibition has always been popular since it was first established in rooms in Pall Mall and then, from 1780 until 1837, at Somerset House. Season tickets used to be available, in smart little bill-fold pocket books in the 1870s until the 1890s. As many visitors now might be interested only in the arts of the contemporary, and might entertain no wish to return to other exhibitions during the rest of the year, it might be good to reintroduce them.

A Pope Family Trust, courtesy Martin BeislyWilliam Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, 1883, oil on canvas

Edward Burney depicted the east wall of the 1784 exhibition, centred on Benjamin West’s vast canvas, Moses Receiving the Law, which was intended for the altar at Windsor Castle but was handed back by George IV and sold to Parliament in 1829. A fold-out map of the hang in 1851 helped visitors to find their way.

In 1858, when the Academy had moved to Trafalgar Square, William Payne captured something of the crowded galleries, and W. P. Frith painted those who came to the 113th anniversary show in 1881, including the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, Archbishop William Thomson of York, and the artists Lord Leighton and Millais. As Benjamin Disraeli had recently died, Frith included a posthumous portrait of him as if it was a portrait painting on display.

The Lancastrian artist Thomas Cole (1801-48) was born in Bolton but emigrated to the US at the age of 18, when his family’s income failed with the modernisation of the textile mills. When he returned to England on a trip to Europe, he met J. M. W. Turner, who did not impress him as a man, and visited the Summer Exhibition.

What he saw there, and what he learned of Turner and of Constable (11 of whose delightful landscape oil sketches line a wall in the RA Collection Gallery) informed his own style. He became the father of American landscape art, living in the Catskill Mountains and forming the so-called Hudson River School, a development that is carefully charted in the small exhibition “Eden to Empire” at the National Gallery (until 7 October), which has come from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Perry and his collaborative team have selected 1347 works, dispersed sporadically across the whole campus, as it were, of the Burlington estate, of the house on Piccadilly and the former back garden. Chipperfield’s introduction of a bridge between both buildings includes some of the original stone treads of the original garden staircase.

© Courtesy of the artistTess Jaray RA, Predella (Wide), acrylic on canvas

The most expensive work selected is a spray-painted UKIP placard from the now notorious EU-membership referendum of 23 June 2016. Over the letters “e” and “a”, Banksy has painted a red heart-shaped balloon that has been patched up with sticking plasters. It is offered for £350 million. Voting to Leave may cost much more than that every day, but the false promise of the weekly amount to be made available to the NHS will, like the 30pieces of silver, denote a betrayal that will remain long in the public conscience.

Ken Howard’s return to Venice is always welcome. Here he has also made an excursion inland to Udine, where he catches La Loggia in a similar misty light. The Cornish-based artist Tim Hall has painted the 85-year-old artist in his studio, an affectionate figure dressed in white T-shirt and shorts, as if defying his age.

Tony Bevan’s Table Top is suggestive of the clutter that makes a distant hill become a reality as we approach it. A similar composition, Horizon, opens his current show of a dozen works at Ben Brown, 12 Brook’s Mews (until 15 September), which include a shift towards the more architectural. The four paintings of a skylight in his familiar acrylic and charcoal almost appear as if they are studies of the destroyed roof of Gallery IX after a German air raid in 1917. I suspect that they are, rather, from a 19th-century warehouse in south-east London.

The architectural models, some for an unbuilt world and others, like those of the new lantern staircase tower at Westminster Abbey, make an exciting visual playground but, as always, they are too cramped in Gallery VI to be seen or appreciated fully. Now that there is so much more space available in the run of buildings, might it be possible for them to be shown elsewhere in future years?

The American Honorary RA Ed Ruscha, who is showing his “Course of Empire” at the National Gallery, alongside the Thomas Cole, is seen here with a cast bronze sculpted torque Wen out for cigrets n never came back almost immediately above Anthony Murphy’s architectural debris of An old flame (Correction), which looks as if some of the plaster coving from Gallery VIII had fallen to the ground.

The future of the RA and of its buildings has rarely looked so secure.

The Summer Exhibition 2018 and “The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition” run until 19 August, and “Tacita Dean: Landscape” runs until 12 August, at the Royal Academy, Burlington House and Burlington Gardens, Piccadilly, London W1. Phone 020 7300 8000 (8090 for tickets).


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