The Royal Academy invented the blockbuster exhibition,’ says artist Christopher Le Brun. He should know. As the 26th President of the venerable institution, he is leading the original home of the public art exhibition as it celebrates its 250th birthday this year. Preceding the National Gallery (1824) and the Tate (1897), when the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) was founded in 1768, it provided artists with an exhibition space where they could show and sell their art for the first time in Britain.
In December of that year, architect William Chambers visited King George III and presented a petition signed by 36 artists and architects, including himself and portrait painters Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, asking to ‘establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design’ and proposing an annual exhibition and free art school. With royal backing, they set up home in Pall Mall, renting a 30-foot gallery so they could hold public exhibitions. ‘They needed the King’s permission to speak directly to the public,’ says Le Brun. Until that moment, art had been the preserve of aristocracy and artists had been reliant on commissions, mostly portraiture, from noblemen. Now they could present it to a much broader audience. ‘They wanted to raise the status of art and to paint landscapes,’ Le Brun adds. Reynolds was voted the academy’s first President.
From Joshua Reynolds to Grayson Perry
Today, the RA holds true to its founding principles – it is still independent, it is still run by artists and architects, it still has a free art school and still holds an exhibition open to all artists every summer. Its home today is Piccadilly’s Burlington House and Burlington Gardens. Past Presidents have included Frederic, Lord Leighton, John Everet Millais, Alfred Munnings and Hugh Casson. John Constable and JMW Turner both played a big part at the RA in their day. In recent years it has been the turn of David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry.
In two and a half centuries, the RA has swelled its collection to 46,000 items and held countless blockbuster shows. Headline-grabbing events include Exhibition of Italian Art 1200-1900, attended by Mussolini in 1930, Charles Saatchi’s controversial Britart show Sensation in 1997, the magnificent Monet exhibition in 1999 and David Hockney’s landscapes in 2012. From Anselm Kiefer to Anthony van Dyck, the RA’s diverse programme covers cutting-edge modern as well as monumental historical art.
The RA has just wrapped up an exhibition on the incredible art collection of Charles I. Next it will be focusing on its Summer Exhibition, which has been held every year since 1769 and is one of the longest running exhibitions in the world. When Christopher Le Brun first encountered the RA as a young artist in the 1970s, he was not impressed. It was ‘rather sleepy’ and shunned by artists including Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. ‘Commercial art galleries and the Tate were where all the excitement was,’ he says.
A New Spirit
But in 1981, when one of his artworks was shown in A New Spirit in Painting, which showcased modern works in a bold move by the RA and Exhibitions Secretary Norman Rosenthal, his interest was piqued. ‘I saw a wonderful space making a real difference to art of its time,’ says Le Brun. ‘I could see the RA had the potential to have a huge influence on the art world.’
When Le Brun was elected an Academician in 1996 he encouraged his peers, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Richard Deacon to come on board. ‘The quality of the Academicians became better as more members joined,’ says Le Brun. Sensation was held the following year and several of the Young British Artists involved went on to become Academicians too, namely Gary Hume, Tracey Emin and Fiona Rae. ‘Today the RA is a very good representation of the British art world,’ says Le Brun, who became President in 2011.
And the RA is set to become even more accessible and far-reaching. To celebrate its anniversary, a transformed campus will shortly be unveiled at Burlington House with new exhibition galleries, a lecture theatre and a series of free art and architecture displays across the site. Designed by English architect David Chipperfield, the redevelopment links Burlington House and Burlington Gardens, creating more space in which to hold exhibitions and to display pieces from the collection. Le Brun has overseen the curation of the new Collection Gallery, which will present The Making of an Artist: The Great Tradition, focusing on the first 60 years of the RA, with 30 works dating from 1768 to 1828.
‘I thought it was important to show the origins of the RA to give the contemporary work a proper context and show that the founding principles are still relevant and have meaning,’ says Le Brun. ‘The period was an exciting and important time in British art as it developed very quickly. It went from neoclassical to a love of nature. From the enlightenment aesthetics with paintings dominated by male figures, to the English Romantics and paintings of clouds, light and colour.’
The Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo and the RA’s almost full-size 16th-century copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper that has lived at Magdalen College, Oxford for the last 25 years, both used for teaching, will be in there. So too will Constable’s The Leaping Horse and James Thornhill’s copies of the cartoons for Raphael’s Vatican tapestries, which were duplicated by students in the RA schools as part of their training. Copying Old Masters was actively encouraged by Reynolds. ‘I’m particularly fond of Gainsborough’s self-portrait. It is very informal – as if he just took his brush and painted it one day. It isn’t grand but it is true,’ says Le Brun. ‘Most pieces have been in storage or on long loan to other galleries – it’s an exciting time.’
Many of the works in the new gallery will be permanent but other pieces from the collection will be displayed over time. The RA’s collection is not all about artworks, either, as past Academicians have left personal items to it over the centuries – Turner’s fishing rod, Reynolds’ shoe buckles and a cast of Leighton’s hands.
‘It feels like we are now rededicating the place to the next 250 years,’ says Le Brun. ‘The founding members would be astonished at how we’ve survived and how we’ve kept our independence, and also the extent, reach and influence of the RA today.’