The catalogues of the Royal Academy’s ‘Winter Exhibitions’ from their inception in 1870 to 1939 have been digitised and made available to search and browse online via the RA Collections website.
You might be surprised to find that the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, lent an astonishing 70 works to the Academy’s great 'Italian Art' show of 1930 – including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c. 1486). Or that Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), lent by the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague to the 1929 'Dutch Art' exhibition, was the cover girl for the illustrated exhibition catalogue.
But what exactly were the ‘Winter Exhibitions’? For the first hundred years of its existence, from 1769 until 1869, the Royal Academy had held only one exhibition each year: the Annual (now called Summer) Exhibition. When the RA moved to its current home, Burlington House, in 1868, it built a wonderful suite of galleries on the gardens behind the house. Rather than have them remain unused for over half the year, from 1870 the RA began staging a second exhibition each year, which it cleverly named the Winter Exhibition to distinguish it from the Summer show.
Illustrated Souvenir of the 'Exhibition of Dutch Art 1450-1900' For more images associated with this exhibition, click here Birth of the blockbuster
Where the Summer Exhibition showed contemporary art by Royal Academicians and other artists, the Winter Exhibition complemented this by displaying works by Old Masters borrowed from private collections, along with works by recently deceased British artists.
From 1870 until the First World War, the format of the Winter Exhibitions remained fairly constant, but from 1920 onwards the programme began to evolve and the RA started to organise major art-historical survey exhibitions, such as 'Flemish and Belgian Art 1300–1900' (1927), 'Italian Art 1200–1900' (1930) 'French Art 1200–1900' (1932), and retrospective exhibitions devoted to individual artists, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1923) and John Singer Sargent RA (1926). 'Italian Art' was particularly popular, receiving an average of 6,810 visitors a day. The ‘blockbuster’ exhibition had arrived.
In addition, for the first time, illustrated catalogues began to be published, in tandem with the traditional un-illustrated ‘lists of works’. As well as including reproductions of around 3000 of the works shown in the exhibitions, these illustrated catalogues contain introductory essays by renowned art historians such as Sir James G. Mann, Sir Robert Witt and Adolfo Venturi.
Many of the works lent to these exhibitions now reside in major museum and gallery collections such as those of the Tate, Louvre, Yale Center for British Art and Wallace Collection. We have added images of many of these works to the website, with embedded links taking you to pages on the owner institutions’ websites where larger images and more information can be found.
The Courtyard of the RA during the 'Exhibition of French Art 1200-1900' in 1932. For more images of the installation of the exhibition, click here
Some surprises lay in store as we began researching these loans. A search for the Mona Lisa revealed that Leonardo’s most famous painting was twice shown at the RA Winter Exhibitions! Sadly, on both occasions it was a later copy rather than the original from the Louvre that was on display. In 1886 the Earl of Wemyss lent his copy, and the version on display in 1902, lent by Earl Brownlow, was once owned by the Academy’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who firmly believed that it was the original and that the version in the Louvre was a copy.
Installing the Amitabha Buddha in the Central Hall. For a larger image and more information, click here However, whilst the Mona Lisa remained safely in Paris, the Louvre did lend an astonishing 187 works to the Academy’s major exhibition of French art in 1932. And, as can be seen in the photograph above, in those days the Courtyard in front of Burlington House was used as a car (and horse-drawn carriage) park; far more convenient than taking the tube to Green Park.
As part of the project we have incorporated numerous photographs from the Academy’s photographic archive. For instance, here (at right) are the Academy’s intrepid art handlers in 1935 installing the gigantic Amitabha Buddha in the Central Hall for the 'International Exhibition of Chinese Art'.
And below is a view of Gallery I during the Winter Exhibition of 1913 devoted to the work of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA. (Regular visitors to the Academy may recognise the seat, which still makes the occasional appearance in the galleries today.)
Photograph of Gallery I during the 'Exhibition of Works by the Late Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema R.A., O.M.', 1913. For more images, click here
So why not take a look. You might be surprised at what treasures you can discover. And do let us know what you think. We are hoping to add more RA catalogues to the web, so any feedback and comments that you have about the resource will help us to refine and improve it in the future.
The project was generously funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.