A chance discovery

Published 3 March 2014

A recently discovered drawing turns out to be a design by Richard Norman Shaw RA for the biscuit barrel that he presented to the Academy in 1883.

  • While going through a group of unrecorded prints and drawings at the bottom of a plan-chest a few weeks ago, my eye was caught by this unsigned, rather grubby pencil drawing of a wonderfully crisp and exuberant ornamental frieze and roundel. Since it showed no more than what would be needed to translate the ornament into three dimensions, I concluded that this must be a design for making something new rather than an unfinished sketch of something already existing. But who drew the design and what was it for? The presentation inscription running along the frieze reads: ‘Presented to the Royal Academy of Arts by R. N. …’ – a teasing clue that the answer probably lay right under my nose … but being a design, perhaps it never came to anything.

    And yet there was something familiar about the pattern of the foliage that made me sure I’d seen it somewhere else quite recently. Looking at the inscription again more closely, it was possible to detect a faintly pencilled ‘S’ after the ‘N’ … so this was for an object intended to be presented by someone with the initials ‘R.N.S.’ …

    And then suddenly, it became almost embarrassing that I’d taken so long to recognise what I was looking at, namely the original design drawing for one of the best-loved pieces in the Royal Academy’s historic silver collection – a biscuit barrel designed and presented to the Academy by the eminent Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw RA (1831-1912) in 1883.

    Nick Savage is Head of the Royal Academy’s Collections and Library.

  • About the RA Collection

    All three of these acquisitions have come into the Academy’s collection of prints and drawings thanks to the generosity of the RA Collections and Library Circle and a group of individual patrons.

    Click here to find out more about the RA Collection and Library. If you would like to come and visit, we are open from Tuesdays to Fridays. Please book an appointment first by calling 020 7300 5737 or emailing library@royalacademy.org.uk