Front of the Royal Academy, Strand, 2 February 1795
After Thomas Girtin (1775 - 1802)
RA Collection: Art
This unassuming topographical engraving, recording the appearance of the Strand front of New Somerset House in 1795 at the time of its occupation by the Royal Academy, is one of a large number of similarly ephemeral items in the RA Prints and Drawings Collection relating to the history of the Academy and its successive London homes. Much of this rich potpourri of images and information was not accumulated by the institution itself however, but is pasted in various 'extra-illustrated' sets of the RA Exhibition catalogues compiled by J.H. Anderdon, Edward Basil Jupp, and other 19th-century enthusiasts of RA history. Most prominent and knowledgeable among these was William Sandby, the Academy's first official historian, who gave its Library the seven-volume extra-illustrated copy of his book The History of the Royal Academy of Arts (1862), in which this view of the Academy's second home is to be found.
As is typical of the habitual 'extra-illustrator' Sandby was not concerned with the origins of the material that fed his habit, nor, if the need arose, felt any compunction in folding or, worse still, trimming prints to fit their new abode. Often this results in the loss of information about who originally produced and published a print and for what purpose. Although our little view of the Academy in the 1790s has not suffered this particular indignity, its true identity would have remained in obscurity but for the invaluable help of the index to Bernard Adams's wonderful book London illustrated 1604-1851 (London: Library Association, 1983). Here one learns not only that it was originally published in the 4th number of Charles Taylor's short-lived magazine The Temple of Taste, but also that it belongs to a series of 21 similar views of London landmarks in identical roundel format commissioned for that magazine from an artist too young and obscure to merit naming on the published prints. The fact that this artist was none other than Thomas Girtin - of whom J.M.W. Turner is supposed to have said 'Had Tom Girtin lived, I should have starved' - and who, in stark contrast to his friend, so dismally failed to reach even the first rung of the Academy ladder, gives this image a whole new poignancy.
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