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Edward Francis Burney, The Antique School at Old Somerset House
Edward Francis Burney, The Antique School at Old Somerset House

The Antique School at Old Somerset House, 1779

Edward Francis Burney (1760 - 1848)

RA Collection: Art

This drawing is one of a pair by Edward Francis Burney (1760-1848) in the RA Collection which together provide a glimpse of daily life at the Royal Academy during the 18th century. Both portray students of the RA Schools drawing casts of Classical and Renaissance sculptures in the 'Antique School'. Skilful draughtsmanship was essential for aspiring artists at this time and students at the Academy spent up to three years drawing casts before they progressed to life drawing. Most of the casts shown in the drawings are from Greek and Roman sculptures, revered for their combination of naturalism and ideal beauty.

The Royal Academy occupied several London premises before moving to Burlington House in 1868. Teaching originally took place at premises in Pall Mall, then at Old Somerset House on the Strand before the Academy as a whole was given apartments in New Somerset House and later in the National Gallery building at Trafalgar Square. According to an inscription on the back of the sheet, this drawing shows students at work in Old Somerset House, crammed with copies of statues like the Apollo Belvedere (centre left). In the right-hand corner of the room is Leonardo da Vinci's famous cartoon for 'The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne' (also known as 'The Burlington House Cartoon', c.1499-1500; National Gallery). However, as Old Somerset House was being demolished from 1776 onwards, it is possible that this scene in fact shows the RA Schools operating from a different building altogether, another part of the Somerset House complex or it may have been drawn from memory. By 1779, Academy was getting ready to move into its apartments in New Somerset House.

The students depicted here sit at benches absorbed in their work while their teacher, the figure wearing a blue coat (probably the first Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, George Michael Moser), offers advice and corrections. The artist, Edward Burney was himself a student at the Academy from 1777 and went on to become a popular illustrator and history painter.

This work is supported by The Tavolozza Foundation

Object details

The Antique School at Old Somerset House
Edward Francis Burney (1760 - 1848)
Object type
Pen and ink with watercolour wash on laid paper

335 mm x 485 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Purchased from Colnaghi and Company in 5th July 1960

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