Issue Number: 113
Artists through the centuries have donated work to the RA, creating a unique collection. Now the Government has given it a prestigious award. Ian McKeever RA explains
The Collection, Library and Archives of the Royal Academy have been awarded national Designation status, identifying them as pre-eminent in their field and recognising their international importance. Designation is a mark of excellence, not only for the collection but also for the institution since, it must demonstrate its ability to care for a collection of national importance. The award places the RA’s collections on a par with other non-national museums, such as the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Courtauld Institute. Yet even a regular visitor to the RA, seeing only the works from the Collection on display in the Fine Rooms, might be forgiven for having little sense of the range, depth and uniqueness of the Academy’s holdings.
The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c.1515, attributed to Giampietrino. ©Royal Academy of Arts, London/Photo Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.
The RA’s art collection began shortly after foundation in 1768, when it was decided that newly-elected Academicians should be required to deposit a representative example of their work in the Academy. This custom, which has continued to this day, gives the RA Collection its unique quality of being created by artists and architects – among them Henry Fuseli, Thomas Lawrence, John Soane, J.M.W. Turner, John Gilbert, and John Constable – rather than by connoisseurs and curators.
John Constable, 'Cloud Study: Horizon of Trees', 1821. ©Royal Academy of Arts, London/Photo John Hammond. These core works in the RA Collection – around 550 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper – are known as ‘Diploma Works’, since the newly-elected members receive a ‘Diploma’ signed by the monarch approving their appointment as a Royal Academician. However, these exemplary works form part of a larger collection that historically served to support the teaching needs of the RA Schools, the first professional art school in the country. In that sense it was, and still is, a study collection. Over the years, this has been enhanced by bequests, gifts and purchases of sculptures, paintings, drawings and prints. These include Gainsborough’s Romantic Landscape (c.1783), a group of 15 oil sketches made between 1808 and 1828 by Constable, the 41 drawings by Stubbs for his Anatomy of the Horse (1756-58), through to the present day with sketch books of the current President of the RA, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. The jewel in the crown is Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, of 1504-05, which is on permanent display in the Sackler Wing.
Michelangelo, 'The Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John' (The Taddei Tondo), c.1504-05. ©Royal Academy of Arts, London. Another important dimension of the RA’s holdings is the extensive body of historic books, artists’ papers, prints, photographs and drawings, preserved in its purpose-built Library, Archive and Print Room at Burlington House. It houses items ranging from one of only four known copies of a book on colour theory by the entomologist and artist Moses Harris, published around 1775, to Walter Sickert’s letter of resignation from the RA. It is a veritable treasure trove of the collective memory of the institution and of British art.
The RA Collections have always played a vital role in underpinning the Academy’s activities. The exhibition programme benefits enormously in securing loans for exhibitions by being able to reciprocate loans. An example is the Academy’s full-size copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper (c.1515) attributed to Giampietrino, which was shipped to Milan to aid conservation of the original fresco, and which now has star billing in the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci show. Equally, since the RA has its own professionally managed collections, it is viewed as a safe pair of hands in the eyes of lenders.
Only a fraction of the RA’s vast collections is on view at any one time in the Fine Rooms. By day this historic suite of rooms serves as a gallery. By night the rooms earn their keep hosting receptions, so for conservation reasons only glazed works and sculpture can be shown.
To the general public, the award of national Designation status may be little evident, yet within the professional art world it is a real boost. It also brings certain financial benefits for the RA and puts it in a strong position when applying for major grants.