We exist to promote art and artists – a mission we pursue through exhibitions, education and debate.
Who we are
What makes us different?
We are an Academy. We have much in common with museums and other galleries, but we have a broader role – to promote not just the appreciation and understanding of art, but also its practice.
We are artist-led. Our artists represent many different perspectives, but we all share a deep commitment to art and a strong belief in the contribution that artists make to the world.
We are an independent charity. Unlike most of our peers we do not receive revenue funding from government and so we are reliant upon the support of visitors, donors, sponsors, and the loyal Friends of the Royal Academy to continue our work.
Led by artists
Just as our founders intended, we are still led by many of the greatest artists and architects of the day.
Known as Royal Academicians, they are all practising artists who help to steer our vision and support our activities.
From teaching in the RA Schools to deciding on our exhibitions programme, they are at the heart of everything we do.
A school of contemporary fine art
Educating artists of the future
We are home to Britain’s first art school, the RA Schools.
Our three-year postgraduate course is one of the most competitive in the country, and we are proud to offer free tuition to all who study here.
The RA Schools has trained some of the UK’s finest artists, from William Blake to 2013 Turner Prize-nominee Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
Our success lies in a constantly evolving programme which attracts some of the most sought-after teaching staff, visiting artists and thinkers in the world.
Variety, excellence and originality
The diversity of our exhibitions programme sets us apart. From ancient sculptures to modern-day masterpieces and large-scale installations, we are the original home of the blockbuster.
From 2010-13, five of the world's top ten exhibitions with the highest daily attendance were held at the RA, including David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, The Real Van Gogh and Anish Kapoor RA.
As well as the household names, we love to help you discover your new favourite artists. The Sackler Wing and our Burlington Gardens galleries provide the perfect space to do this, from American painter George Bellows to one of Germany's greatest living artists, Anselm Kiefer Hon RA.
Academicians play an important role in our exhibitions, from setting the programme to presenting their own work.
What will you discover?
"There shall be an Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all Artists of distinguished Merit."
This quote, from our Instrument of Foundation, captures what the Summer Exhibition is all about: opening our galleries up to the finest artistic talents of the day, selected purely on merit.
It is the world's largest open entry exhibition, and has taken place every year since 1769.
Each year, we have thousands of entries in all styles and media. These are narrowed down by a team of Royal Academicians to around 1,000 works for the final show.
This British institution is a highlight of the social calendar. Its many traditions include a celebratory parade down Piccadilly before the doors open to the public, and the serving of restorative beef tea during the hanging.
The RA Collection
A compelling story of British art and artists
All Royal Academicians give a work to our Collection when elected, creating a treasure trove of British art. Over the decades we have amassed everything from masterpieces by Constable, historic objects like Queen Victoria’s paintbox and modern-day creations by some of our finest artists.
We're incredibly proud of our Collection, and we display works from it around our buildings. You can look forward to seeing even more of it over the coming years, as we build new spaces for its display.
Our Collection includes the first fine art library in Britain, where our staff look after thousands of historic volumes, monographs, books on British art, prints, photographs and drawings.
A new chapter in our story
It’s an exciting time for us. To celebrate our 250th anniversary in 2018, we are making major improvements to our facilities.
Over time, you will see a link built between our Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens galleries, a new 300-seat auditorium and an expanded RA Schools, giving our students more space to create. An extensive renovation of all our historic buildings will allow their original features to shine through. We're also reaching out to new audiences, both onsite and online.
We’ve called this ambitious plan the Burlington Project, and the wheels are already in motion.
Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA Portrait of Sir William Chambers RA (detail) c 1780
Oil on panel 1290 X 1032 X 40 mm © Royal Academy of Arts
A company of artists
On a winter’s day in 1768, architect Sir William Chambers visited the king, George III. He brought with him a petition signed by 36 artists and architects including himself, all of whom were seeking permission to ‘establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design’. What’s more, they also proposed an annual exhibition and a School of Design. Lucky for us, the King said yes. And so the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Academy Schools, and what you know today as the Summer Exhibition, were born. They set up home in Pall Mall, renting a gallery that was just 30 feet long.
Johan Zoffany The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy 1771-72
oil on canvas 101.1 x 147.5 cm The Royal Collection, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The first Academicians
A multicultural bunch, of the 36 founding Members, four were Italian, one was French, one Swiss, one American and one Chinese. Among the number were two women, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann.
Above, you can see Johan Zoffany’s famous portrait of the founders, set in the Life Drawing Room of Old Somerset House. It was completed in 1772 and includes our first president Sir Joshua Reynolds, seen in a black suit left of centre. Zoffany probably hoped his painting would please the King, and he was successful: the King bought it for 500 guineas, or about £65,000 in today’s money.
After Thomas Girtin Front of the Royal Academy, Strand 1795
Line engraving 125 mm © Royal Academy of Arts
In 1775, Sir William Chambers won the commission to design the new Somerset House. It would become, among other things, our new home and first official residence. The Exhibition Room was a thing of beauty, 32 feet high and situated at the top of a steep winding staircase, it was described by literary critic Joseph Baretti as “undoubtedly at the date, the finest gallery for displaying pictures so far built”.
In the 1830s, we moved to Trafalgar Square to share premises with the newly-founded National Gallery. However, with space at a premium, we were on the move again in 1867 to Burlington House, where we remain to this day. Fortunately, our President at the time, Francis Grant, drove a hard bargain and secured our new home for an annual rent of £1 for 999 years.
Benjamin West PRA Self-portrait of Benjamin West PRA 1793
Oil on panel 1015 X 1320 mm Photo R.A./John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts
An American in London
The story of our second President is a fascinating one. Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania in 1738 and grew up in a world where art was little known. But with pioneering spirit, he travelled to Europe for his education and found success in Rome.
Later arriving in England, he became a close friend of the King and his 'History Painter'. He never returned to America but is considered the founding father of the American school of painting. He was so popular that he was elected President by his fellow members with just one opposing vote. He also had a first-rate eye for talent and once comforted a down-hearted young Constable after he’d had a work rejected by the Academy with these words, “Don’t be disheartened young man, we shall hear more of you again; you must have loved nature before you could have painted this.”
After Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, 1723 - 1792 Portrait of Angelica Kauffman RA Published by John Boydell, 3 September 1780.
Engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi, RA Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London
Women at the RA
We have a somewhat chequered history when it comes to equality of the sexes. Although Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman flew the flag for women in 1768, it took another 168 years before another woman was elected as a full Academician, Laura Knight in 1936.
In 1879, the Council of the day came to the conclusion that our original Instrument of Foundation did not allow for women RAs. Eventually, they relented and passed a resolution to make women eligible, but only on the condition of restricted privileges. A few years later in 1913, we invoked the wrath of the suffragettes and a demonstration was held in the galleries. One woman slashed a portrait of Henry James by Sargent while another hacked at a painting by George Clausen. Catastrophe was also narrowly averted when one protestor attempted to start a fire in the toilets.
Joseph Parkin Mayall Sir John Everett Millais PRA c. 1884
Photogravure 166 x 219 mm Published by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington. From: F.G. Stephens (ed.), Artists at home photographed by J.P. Mayall, London 1884, pl. Photo: RA © Copyright protected
The child prodigy
The beginning of the Victorian period saw us admit our youngest ever student to the RA Schools, the ten year old John Everett Millais in 1839. He was immediately given the rather unoriginal nickname ‘The Child’.
He went on to become one of the most successful artists of the 19th century and a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Brotherhood hoped to emulate the art of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe, characterised by intricate detail, bright colours and truth to nature. Although the movement’s activity lasted little more than five years, its influence on British art continues to this day.
In 1896, Millais was elected President of the RA, but sadly, it was doomed to be a short tenure. He was in poor health at the time, and just six months after his election he was buried in Painters’ Corner of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The first blockbusters
One of our founding principles was to hold an annual exhibition that anyone could enter, and anyone could visit. Today, it’s called the Summer Exhibition and it has taken place every year since 1769, including during both World Wars.
From the late 19th century, we began to hold international loan exhibitions. One in particular that went down in history was our Italian Art exhibition in 1930. The galleries were flooded with masterpieces, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Raphael’s La Donna Velata and Donatello’s David – but it didn’t pass without controversy. Highly politicised, it was attended by Mussolini as a way of furthering the cause of Fascism.
Sir Edwin Lutyens PRA and Royal Academy Planning Committee Proposed re-modelling of Hyde Park Corner, London: bird's-eye perspective 1942
Carbon pencil, pen & ink and coloured crayons 533 x 837 mm Drawn by an artist in the Office of Philip Dalton Hepworth. Photo: RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London
Our doors remained open during World War Two, just as they had during the First World War, but our President at the time, Edwin Lutyens, had some radical ideas about how London should be rebuilt after the conflict. Some of the schemes proposed in the RA Planning Committee’s London Replanned report, included a road bridge across the Thames that would obliterate Charing Cross Station, an enormous roundabout behind St Martin-in-the-Fields and the demolition of the existing Opera House in Covent Garden to make way for a new music and dramatic centre.
Lutyens’ ideas may have been unpopular with most, but our next President, Alfred Munnings, didn’t do much better in endearing himself to his colleagues or the public...
Edwin Whitney-Smith Bust of Sir Alfred Munnings PRA 1946
578 x 533 mm Bronze on wooden base. Photo: RA / Neil Greentree © Royal Academy of Arts, London
Famous last words
Alfred Munnings took office in 1944. He became infamous when during one RA dinner, he drunkenly began to berate modern art and aspects of the Academy itself. After slating Picasso, he moved on to London County Council, who he criticised for exhibiting modern sculpture in Battersea Park, and the Tate for showing Matisse. To make matters worse, the whole tirade was being broadcast live by the BBC.
Munnings had already decided to resign before he made the speech – and made sure he went out with a bang.
Sir Hugh Casson PRA Why not be a Friend c. 1980
Drawing printed on letterhead paper Photo: Royal Academy of Arts
Making new Friends
The 1970s saw a period of renewal, with the election of one of our most enterprising Presidents, Sir Hugh Casson. Casson had always been one to embrace change and in 1948, he had been appointed Director of Architecture at the Festival of Britain. Relishing the challenge, he set out to celebrate peace and modernity through working with other young architects, 39-year-old Leslie Martin for example, who designed the modernist Royal Festival Hall. Casson’s role in the Festival of Britain was a huge success and he was knighted in 1952.
As President of the RA, he began our Friends of the RA membership scheme in 1977, the first of its kind in Europe. Our Friends now number over 90,000. They come to all our exhibitions for free, enjoy all day access to the Keeper’s House, are invited to special events and are sent RA Magazine three times a year. They're some of our most loyal supporters: we’d be lost without them.
Sackler Galleries CROP
Photo: Dennis Gilbert
A new view of the RA
In 1991, we opened The Sackler Wing, designed by Royal Academicians Norman Foster and Spencer de Grey.
With its sleek glass staircase and light-filled atrium, The Sackler Wing introduced elegant new gallery spaces to replace the Victorian Diploma Galleries and is a sensitive union of old and new. The landing before you enter these galleries is also where you will find Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, his only marble sculpture in the UK and one of the most treasured works in our Collection.
Foster himself has spoken of how the design of our Sackler Wing helped lay the groundwork for later projects, including the Great Court at the British Museum, demonstrating "a clear philosophy about how you make modern intervention in historical structures” and create “a meaningful relationship between old and new".
Schools Project Space
An Academy for the 21st century
In 1998, we bought 6 Burlington Gardens, a beautiful listed building originally built for the University of London in the 19th century.
In 2012, we re-launched Burlington Gardens as a new home for art and architecture, with plans to physically link it with our Piccadilly Galleries in time for our 250th anniversary in 2018. Since the re-launch shows have featured the work of Richard Rogers RA, Mariko Mori and RA Schools’ students. In the not-too-distant future, you will also find a 300-seat auditorium for lectures, our first dedicated learning centre and totally refurbished gallery spaces, one of which will be devoted to our Collection. Watch this space!