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A Ministry of the Arts, under the auspices of the Crown: This 1772 dedication leaf by Francesco Bartolozzi to Sir William Chambers’s “A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening” shows George III opposite the Royal Academy, then located at Somerset House (courtesy of Royal Academy Collections)

The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 by George III as the main public institution for the arts in London, responsible for the teaching of pretty well all the major artists of the period and for an annual public exhibition. At the time, it was the main point of access for the majority of the population to the practice of contemporary art. But, during the 1830s, it essentially turned its back on the possibility of a public, quasi-governmental role and on funding by national government and instead chose to maintain its status as a private institution run by artists.

This is, not surprisingly, still very much a live issue for the RA. It jealously guards its independence from central government; it is not beholden to the civil service, and feels passionately that this allows it to act in the interests of artistic freedom, unswayed by the temporary interests of party or the interfering tendencies of politicians.

In order to understand the significance of what happened in the 1830s and the shift in the role of the RA from being a lead organisation for the promotion of the arts in society to being perceived, at least by parliament, as a much more private fiefdom, it is necessary to go back to the 1760s, the period of the academy’s formation and the beginning of a movement that argued parliament should take an interest in the education of the public in the arts: not just in the movement which led to the establishment of the Royal Academy, but in the failed attempt on the part of John Wilkes to establish a National Gallery. In his book The King’s Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture 1760-1840 (Clarendon Press, 2005), Holger Hoock makes a revisionist case for thinking about the RA not just as a private institution, a kind of artists’ club, but instead, as an agency of public policy in the arts, responsible not just for an annual public exhibition, enriching the commercial interests of the individual artists whose work was hung, but also for the promotion of a national school of art through its teaching. George III took a deep personal interest in its foundation and some aspects of its operation represented his interest in the role of kingship having a cultural dimension. He was insistent that it should be founded with a proper legal framework for its operation. He gave advice on who should be elected as members. He bought works from its annual exhibition. And, to begin with at least, he paid many of the bills, subsidising its operation from the privy purse. It was a Royal Academy, founded by, and answerable to, the king rather than to parliament, but it was nonetheless viewed as a public institution, responsible for teaching, for initiatives in the arts, and for representing the interests of artists, including providing them with salaries, through teaching posts, and pensions. It was set up as a kind of Ministry of the Arts, but under the auspices of the Crown.

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