Issue Number: 115
As the Royal Academy and other galleries celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Giles Waterfield charts the Academy’s links with the Crown
The Royal Academy is marking The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a series of displays celebrating its royal links. The displays include material relating to George III’s role in the RA’s foundation in 1768, a 1964 study for a portrait of The Queen, by Peter Greenham, a former Keeper of the RA Schools, and the new coins designed for the Royal Mint by Christopher Le Brun PRA, Sir Anthony Caro RA and Tom Phillips RA.
Justin Mortimer, 'The Queen', 1998, on show at the National Portrait Gallery. The RSA © Justin Mortimer. George III was a dutiful patron of the visual arts, and his decision to establish an academy reflected his role as an Enlightenment prince. At a time when British art was struggling for recognition, it was felt to be embarrassing that the Royal Academy in France (funded by its king) had been in existence since 1648. Unfortunately, George III was short of money. His annual allowance was £800,000, which Phillip Hall notes in his book Royal Fortune (1992) was a ‘poor deal’. The King set up the RA on the basis that it would pay for itself, agreeing to underwrite it for the first few years.
George III took a great interest in his fledgling institution. He approved the election of RAs and officers (only once, when the painter Robert Smirke was proposed as Keeper, did he object). He signed each Academician’s diploma, and regularly visited the exhibitions at Somerset House (a former royal palace in which the King provided space for the Academy). When RAs were fighting between themselves, as they often did, each side rushed to the King for support.
In terms of public prestige this patronage was an early example of the Crown’s developing role as a champion of philanthropy as its political power diminished.George III’s eldest son, the future George IV, was also interested in British art and a regular guest at RA dinners and private views, but direct involvement by succeeding monarchs in Academy affairs waned. On the other hand, the increase in exhibitions in the mid-19th century for a broad new public, following the Great Exhibition of 1851, created a new element in the Crown’s relationship with the RA: loans from the Royal Collection. From 1871 Queen Victoria regularly lent to the Winter Exhibitions at the RA. Since then, the Academy has continued to benefit, not least in the recent loan of several works to the Johan Zoffany exhibition, including the magnificent Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-77).
In the twentieth century a more personal connection was revived. Members of the royal family, such as the Prince of Wales, later George V, have bought work at the Summer shows and since the late 1960s royals have been regularly represented at public events, with Princess Alexandra and Princess Anne making speeches at Academy dinners.
Today the connections remain formal but warm. The Queen still approves appointments, which are submitted to her by the President and the Secretary. Diplomas still receive the royal signature. Some members of the royal family have been more closely involved with the RA. Lady Sarah Chatto was a student at the RA Schools from 1985 to 1988, while Prince Charles has been Honorary President of the RA Trust since 1993 and, as a watercolourist, has shown work in the Summer Exhibition. It is a long-standing relationship and a happy one.
Alongside the RA’s jubilee display other galleries are celebrating the occasion. Among them ‘The Queen: Art and Image’ at the National Portrait Gallery assembles over 60 portraits of the sovereign by artists as varied as Cecil Beaton, Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter and Justin Mortimer. It demonstrates how vivid the art of portraiture remains.