As this year's Summer Exhibition takes shape in the RA's Main Galleries, Research Curator Annette Wickham takes a look back at preparations for the Summer Exhibition in 1792.
During the early years of the Royal Academy, the way in which an artist’s work was displayed in the annual (now ‘Summer’) exhibition could make or break their career. A group of diagrams in the RA Collections shed light on some of the decisions behind the arrangement of the exhibition, demonstrating how the display was affected by the political dynamics of the institution.
Thomas Sandby RA, The Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1792: The Great Room, West Wall, April 1792. Pen and ink with wash on laid paper, 221 X 353 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.
The fourteen diagrams were drawn by Thomas Sandby, an architect and founding Member of the Academy, who was one of the five RA ‘Hang Men’ appointed for the exhibition in 1792. The ‘Hang Men’ were officially known as the Hanging Committee, or the Committee of Arrangement, and it was their job to find an appropriate place for each work of art in the show. Their nickname was very apt because it was a notoriously difficult task to do this without promoting one artist’s work at the expense of another.
Sandby possibly made these drawings to help the committee make important last-minute decisions about the hang. They record the exact placement of paintings, drawings, prints and miniatures in three different galleries shortly before the exhibition opened its doors to the public.
At this time, the Royal Academy was based at Somerset House in a suite of rooms that had been purpose-built with the needs of the exhibition in mind (now the galleries of the Courtauld Institute). The Great Room on the top floor was the largest, brightest and most prestigious space in the whole building. The architecture and the decorative scheme, devised by Sir William Chambers and other Academicians in 1780, served to emphasise this point. Having climbed to the top of the elegant, curving staircase, visitors to the exhibition were confronted by a Greek inscription above the entrance to the Great Room which declared ‘Let no Stranger to the Muses enter’.
It was highly advantageous for an artist to have their work hung in a good position in this room both for critical acclaim and, often more importantly, to enable them to sell their works and attract lucrative commissions. The Hanging Committee accordingly focused their efforts on this gallery. Half of Sandby’s fourteen drawings show the placement of paintings here, the minor differences to each suggesting that the ‘Hang Men’ were still deliberating close to the opening of the show.
After Johann Heinrich Ramberg, The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787. Line engraving, 320 X 491 mm. Engraved by Pietro Antonio Martini Published by Anthony Poggi, 1 July 1787. Photo: R.A./Prudence Cuming Associates Limited. © Copyright protected.
Depictions of the annual exhibition in the Great Room during the 18th and 19th centuries (like the print after J.H. Ramberg above) show a room crammed with paintings hung from floor to ceiling. Within this apparent disorder, however, a very well-known and particular hierarchy was in operation. The most prestigious location for paintings was always ‘on the line’. This ‘line’ can clearly be seen in Sandby’s diagrams, running horizontally along a dado rail that was about 8 or 9 feet above the ground. This ensured that paintings placed on the line could always be seen in a room that was frequently crowded with visitors, despite the RA charging an entrance fee of a shilling which one newspaper suggested was intended to keep out ‘the noxious effluvia of the vulgar herd’. Paintings hung below the line were considered to be of lesser importance but they were still easily visible to any visitor who took the trouble to get close to them. Paintings hung near the ceiling of this high room could not be seen in any detail, however, and were referred to as having been ‘skied’.
Thomas Sandby RA, The Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1792: The Great Room, East Wall, April 1792. Pen and ink with wash on laid paper, 220 X 332 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.
So how did the ‘Hang Men’ decide where each painting should go? While the placing of paintings around the periphery could be quite arbitrary, there was usually a reason behind the choice of works on the line. There were practicalities to be considered. Large paintings, for instance, generally claimed a prominent spot by necessity. However, the politics of the Academy also played a large part in this process, as can be demonstrated by Sandby’s diagrams. Recording the hang on the ‘Chimney side’ or East Wall of the Great Room, Sandby noted that the focal point above the fireplace was reserved for a painting by the American artist Benjamin West (The Triumph of Moses over Pharoah and his Host, current location unknown). Dominating the centre of the opposite wall was another large history painting by West, The Institution of the Order of the Garter (1787; Royal Collection). Visitors to the 1792 exhibition would have immediately recognised the prominence of West’s canvases as a celebration of his recent election as the second President of the Royal Academy following the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds in February 1792.
Thomas Sandby RA, The Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1792: The Great Room, North Wall, April 1792. Pen and ink with wash on laid paper, 212 X 283 mm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Other artists were also seen as Reynolds’s successors in the genre of portraiture, for instance John Hoppner and Thomas Lawrence. In 1792 both of these artists had recently received official royal appointments. Sandby’s diagram shows that the North Wall featured a conspicuous display of their portraits of members of the royal family. It is particularly remarkable that Lawrence should have had his work shown to such advantage given that he was only 23 years of age and still an Associate rather than a full Royal Academician. However, he was already a successful painter who had secured the job of Portrait Painter to the Academy’s founder, King George III. Lawrence showed ten paintings in the 1792 exhibition, eight of which found places in the Great Room. This was a clear signal that he had ‘made it’. A critic in the Morning Herald concluded that some of Lawrence’s pictures could ‘be placed by the side of the best of Sir Joshua’s, and the Artist would be entitled to exclaim...I too am a Painter’. Lawrence’s career at the Academy continued in this positive vein. In 1794 he became one of the youngest artists ever to be elected RA and he eventually succeeded West as President of the Royal Academy in 1820.
Read more about these and other works by Thomas Sandby in the Royal Academy Collections here