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Spot the Victorian celeb: “A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881” by William Powell Frith, 1883 ( ©A Pope Family Trust, courtesy Martin Beisly )

In the 250 years since its foundation, the Royal Academy has led a peripatetic life. It started out in Pall Mall before moving to Somerset House; from there, in 1837, it made its way to Trafalgar Square to share premises with the National Gallery; and so eventually to Piccadilly, now refreshed and titivated with the addition of the Burlington Gardens building. What hasn’t changed, however, is the staging of the Summer Exhibition. Since its first iteration in 1769 it has been an annual feature of the British art scene and, until recently, the society scene too: in 1965 a Daily Telegraph headline recognised the changing of the old order — “Beatniks and Dowagers Crowd the Academy”.

The trouble with reflecting society, in both senses of the word, is that it shows the bad as well as the good. Today the Summer Exhibition, with its mix of the serious and the trite, of amateur and professional artists, and home-grown and big-name foreign Honorary Academicians (Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer), is less a place to make an artistic statement than a jamboree that adds to the gaiety of the nation. But there have been periods when it was simply turgid. In 1959 Hugh Casson warned that “Tradition is not a corpse to be propped up”; the Summer Exhibition, he wrote, had become “a provincial show” of “no interest” to anyone other than RAs. Forty years earlier Virginia Woolf had taken aim at its reflexive post-war nationalism: “God save the King — and all the rest of it.” Alfred Munnings, in his presidential address of 1949, showed the Academy’s reactionary side when he berated “affected . . . foolish daubers” such as Matisse and Picasso.

As part of its 250th-birthday celebrations, the RA is holding a show that traces the history of the Summer Exhibition. Two particular works in The Great Spectacle give the flavour of the role it has played in British life. The first is Thomas Rowlandson’s joyously irreverent The Exhibition ‘Stare-Case’, Somerset House, c.1800, showing a tumbled mass of exhibition-goers who have fallen in the crush to ascend the winding stairs at Somerset House. The result is a heap of disordered women, their skirts around their ears and their nether regions on display for assembled connoisseurs. The second is William Powell Frith’s A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 of 1883, where the subject is again the crowd but this time it is a decorous lot, most of whom are more interested in the presence of an expounding Oscar Wilde than in the paintings he waxes lyrical about. The picture contains the figures of Gladstone, Ellen Terry and Lord Leighton but it is nevertheless a satire: “I wanted to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste,” said Frith.
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July 14th, 2018
1:07 PM
It`s true the RA is a great shop/building . I`ve exhibited artwork there. It`s not true that there`s a`something for everyone` deal in the summer show. Farage,Trump and Brexit are referenced in a twee, quaint and provincial manner. President Trump and Melania are not welcome there. Theresa May and Anne Marie Waters are the only female politicians to welcome them. VoteLabourGetIslam is nowhere to be seen (all the artworks can be viewed on the RA website). Sir Alfred Munnings hated Picasso/modernism. Now all the Royal Academicians (except Gilbert&George)hate the 17.4 million people who voted Leave. Brexit is the `Picasso` they hate. Or even the `Duchamp`they hate. The summer show displays the `diversity` of the 16.1 million who voted to stay in Remainia. Brexit is better culturally than `1968`, Warhol and punk . Help us destroy the EU with ForBritain. It does seem that it`s also a case of VoteToryGetIslam. And Islamism. There`s a painting of several women in burkas standing behind a startled white woman. What`s that all about ? asks Grayson Perry on the tour video. Not exactly the Sherlock Holmes of curators is he?

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