Issue Number: 116
Giles Waterfield hails an illuminating account of the early days of the Royal Academy
It took less than a month, in late 1768, to found the Royal Academy of Arts. Within two weeks of a delegation of artists calling on George III, they had set up the new body under royal patronage but without permanent state funding (the King stopped paying the Academy’s bills in 1780). The RA would dignify the position of artist, create Britain’s first official school of art, and organise annual summer exhibitions of contemporary work by its members and outsiders. Its remit has not changed much since.
In this elegant book, Charles Saumarez Smith, the Academy’s Secretary and Chief Executive, tells the story of its foundation. He traces the complex activities of the London art world in the 1750s and 1760s, with the creation of the RA’s predecessors, notably the Society of Artists of Great Britain, an exhibiting institution which for a while absorbed many leading artists but did not have permanent premises. This was a time when British artists were striving to establish their worth, and the Academy was seen as a means of achieving this objective.
Johan Zoffany, 'Dr. William Hunter Teaching Anatomy at the Royal Academy', c.1772. Royal College of Physicians, London. ©Royal College of Physicians, London.
Saumarez Smith gives a detailed account of the early days, including short biographies of the early Academicians – several of whom were not British, unsurprisingly in view of the many foreign artists living in London and the scarcity of native talent. He chronicles the attempts to persuade the initially reluctant Joshua Reynolds to accept the Presidency, and the efforts of the new institution to find a suitable home. It eventually moved into Old Somerset House, soon to be demolished in favour of the present Somerset House, designed by William Chambers, a founding RA and the Academy’s first Treasurer. There the Academy occupied the purpose-built rooms now used by the Courtauld Institute Galleries. His study of the first students in the Academy schools reveals what a mixed group they were, and not always notable for their talent.
Saumarez Smith writes with verve and enthusiasm, evoking the period with curious anecdotes and pungent quotations. For anyone interested in the RA’s history, this is essential reading.
Simon Wilson assesses two books on Britain’s art lovers and their houses
The London Olympics have revealed to a slightly surprised and wholly delighted British nation that it is, after all, quite good at sport. Two new books, The British as Art Collectors and Great Houses of London, reveal how good Britain has been and still is, both at the rather more intellectual sport of collecting art, and at building beautiful houses and galleries to put it in. Indeed, British architects, including many RAs, have proved superb at building sports arenas too – witness Zaha Hadid RA’s Olympic Acquatics Centre and Michael Hopkins RA’s Velodrome – a triumph in more ways than one.
Venus and Cupid with a Lute-Player, 1555-65, by Titian, from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
The books share an author, James Stourton, Chairman of Sotheby’s, who in The British as Art Collectors is joined by the great expert on collecting and patronage, Charles Sebag-Montefiore. This brilliant book is both scholarly and accessible, telling a riveting story. An early milestone is the arrival of Hans Holbein at the court of Henry VIII in 1526 and the book continues, via the great age of the Grand Tour, when Titian’s fabulous Venus was brought here by Viscount Fitzwilliam, to the likes of Charles Saatchi and Andrew Lloyd Webber today. In between are many extraordinary personalities, who accumulated enormous artistic treasure, much of which, in spite of dispersals, still remains in the public and private collections of the nation.
I was lucky enough to be a student at the Courtauld Institute when it was still in Home House in Portman Square in London, one of the most beautiful Robert Adam interiors anywhere. It is rightly one of the 40 buildings featured in Great Houses of London. They also include such public monuments as the Duke of Wellington’s Apsley House, where visitors are unforgettably greeted by Canova’s gigantic nude statue of Napoleon. But the true fascination resides in the less well-known interiors. I had no idea that the Clermont Club building at 44 Berkeley Square was a ‘miniature palace, a terraced house taken to its extremity of grandeur’, created by William Kent (architect of Burlington House). Although its focus is inevitably on the 18th century, the book commendably embraces William Burges’s hidden Gothic revival gem in Kensington, Tower House, and its neighbouring Leighton House, exotic home of Lord Leighton PRA and, of course, now a museum.