Sir Albert Richardson, PRA, The Starecase at the Royal Academy, preliminary study, 1962.

Pencil and watercolour on wove paper laid on card. 57.8 x 64.5 cm. (Given in honour of MaryAnne Stevens by Diane A.Nixon, Bart & Nini Tiernan, Loyd Grossman, Rosemary Lomax-Simpson, and Lowell & Rowena Libson 15.10.13) Photo credit: © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

History returns

Three new acquisitions for the RA Collection

By Annette Wickham

Published 14 February 2014

A slice of history has recently returned to the Royal Academy after over 200 years, in the form of an intriguing drawing by John Flaxman RA.

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Annette Wickham

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  • Flaxman became the Academy’s first Professor of Sculpture in 1810 and used this drawing – of a famous sculpture known as the Braschi Venus – as an illustration to one of his very first lectures in 1811.

    The Braschi Venus has its own interesting back story. Discovered in a vineyard near Rome in 1776, it is actually a Roman copy of a lost original by the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles. The original is generally understood as a forerunner of the more famous Venus de Medici. Flaxman lived in Rome for several years and was able to see the sculpture and make drawings of it while he was there.

    His drawing of the Braschi Venus [below] was originally shown in what is now the Courtauld Gallery (back when the RA was based at Somerset House) and was clearly intended to be viewed from a distance: the drawing has been produced in a much broader style than the elegant line drawings for which Flaxman is better known.

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    John Flaxman RA, The Braschi Venus, 1811.

    Brown wash over pencil on cream wove paper. 73.80 x 63.80 cm. (Purchased by Lowell Libson Ltd. 25/4/2013) Photo credit: © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • Flaxman’s drawing was followed in October last year by two watercolours from the 1960s that also give an insight into the history of the RA. Starecase at the Royal Academy [below right] and its preparatory sketch [below left] are both by the architect and President of the RA, Albert Richardson, and show a crowd of visitors surging up the stairs of Burlington House, probably on the opening night of one of the exhibitions.

    The subject and the deliberate misspelling of the title are a light-hearted nod to the work of Georgian satirist Thomas Rowlandson, whose well-known engraving Exhibition Starecase (c.1800) pokes fun at the Academy by suggesting that art was perhaps not the only attraction on show at its exhibitions. Richardson’s interest in Rowlandson’s work is hardly surprising given his great passion for the eighteenth century: his home, Avenue House in Ampthill, Bedforshire, was lit by candlelight and filled with eighteenth century artefacts, while the man himself enjoyed nothing more than to be carried around the nearby streets in a sedan chair.

    Richardson’s version is much less bawdy than its predecessor, but it effortlessly conjures up the lively, slightly chaotic, atmosphere of exhibition opening night – something I’m sure the Academy’s Members and curators understand only too well!

    Annette Wickham is the RA's Curator of Works on Paper.

  • About the RA Collection

    All three of these acquisitions have come into the Academy’s collection of prints and drawings thanks to the generosity of the RA Collections and Library Circle and a group of individual patrons.

    Click here to find out more about the RA Collection and Library. If you would like to come and visit, we are open from Tuesdays to Fridays. Please book an appointment first by calling 020 7300 5737 or emailing library@royalacademy.org.uk

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