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Thomas Rowlandson, A Life Class at the Royal Academy, Somerset House

A Life Class at the Royal Academy, Somerset House, 1811

Thomas Rowlandson (1757 - 1827)

RA Collection: Art

Rowlandson's image shows the Royal Academy life class taking place at New Somerset House on the Strand where the Academy was based between 1780-1836. Royal Academy students and Royal Academicians are seated on semi-circular benches facing the model on a platform.

The life class ran for two hours every night during term-time but during the run of the Academy's annual summer exhibition it was used as a gallery to display sculpture and drawings. The class was taught by a succession of nine 'Visitors' per year. These were Royal Academicians elected by their peers to take a turn of teaching the class for a month each. The Life Room (or the School of Living Models, as it was often referred to at the time) was situated on the ground floor of what is now the Courtauld Institute Gallery and was equipped with a large central hanging lamp and reflectors - seen in Rowlandson's image - which were used to direct light towards the platform where the model sat. The walls were lined with compartments holding plaster casts of Classical and Renaissance busts, figures and ornamental reliefs.

An earlier image of the RA life class after Rowlandson (03/6172), published a few years previously in the first number of Ackermann's Microcosm of London 1808-10, is a fairly straightforward depiction showing rows of students and academicians concentrating on their drawings of a male model who sits on the raised dias before them. This image, however, demonstrates more of Rowlandson's characteristic visual satire as he mocks the keen interest some of the Academicians and students are taking in the female model. Some of the artists in the foreground are drawn almost as grotesques and seem to be intently staring at the model rather than concentrating on their work, others seated in the rows behind appear to be discussing the model and one man on the far left hand side is holding up an eye glass to inspect her. The Royal Academy departed from academic tradition in providing models of both sexes.

Rowlandson was himself a student at the Royal Academy from 1772-1778 when the life class was still in Old Somerset House. He is said to have nearly been expelled after firing a pea- shooter at the female model during the life class (see Tate Britain T0814). This characterisation of the Academicians and RA students as lechers is typical of Rowlandson's caricatures. As Patricia Phagan has pointed out “there was something compulsive in his repeated depiction of the seductive or voyeuristic relationships of grotesque old men and busty young women, or of the traitorous triangle of young wife, young lover, and old husband” (Phagan, 28). However, the satire here is fairly mild. The British Museum catalogue entry for this print, suggests that it was intended as a companion to Rowlandson's 'Dutch Academy', BMSat 8195 (1792) - an even less dignified portrayal of a life class with a female model.

It is also interesting to note that Rowlandson's depiction of the RA life class includes an artist apparently painting at an easel. It is often stated that the Royal Academy only taught drawing but this is not strictly true and painting seems to have been allowed at times in the life class particularly for RAs or more advanced students as this image suggests.

Further reading:

Patricia Phagan, Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England, London, 2011

M.Dorothy George, 'Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum', VIII, 1947, ii, p. 216

Joseph Grego, Rowlandson the Caricaturist, London 1880, Vol II, 216

Object details

A Life Class at the Royal Academy, Somerset House
Thomas Rowlandson (1757 - 1827)
Object type
Hand-coloured etching

137 mm x 218 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Given by Carel Weight RA 1966
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