Fact-checking Bridgerton: The Royal Academy Schools and the Summer Exhibition

Published 22 July 2022

If you spotted the Royal Academy’s starring role in Netflix’s biggest series, you might be wondering what was fact and what was fiction. Thankfully, our Librarian Adam Waterton is here to debunk some myths and answer our Bridgerton questions.

  • This article contains spoilers to Season 2 of Bridgerton

    At the heart of the Royal Academy in Piccadilly is The Royal Academy Schools, Britain’s longest established art school – founded in 1769. And as well as teaching the likes of J.M.W. Turner and William Blake, we can now add a TV appearance to our hall of fame.

    The RA Schools is at the centre of a plot in Bridgerton, the hugely popular Netflix series set in Regency London (1814 to be precise), which follows the aristocratic Bridgerton family as they navigate the scandal, romance, and rumour of a social season in the ‘ton’ (that’s high society, don’t you know).

    In the second season of the show, Benedict, one of the Bridgerton brothers, is accepted into the RA Schools. Benedict’s time at the RA involves a romance with one of the Schools’ female life models – a woman named Tessa, who wants to study too, but can only enter the Academy as a model. We also see some wild parties, find out that (spoiler incoming) Benedict’s brother actually paid for his entry, and see Queen Charlotte visit what looks very much like the Summer Exhibition.

    So, after our surprise appearance, we asked our Librarian Adam Waterton for a quick history lesson on what the series got right – and wrong – about life at the Royal Academy in 1814.

    • A petition by female RA Schools students in 1883

      A petition by female RA Schools students in 1883

      “To the president and the council, we the undersigned students of the Royal Academy do hereby respectfully and earnestly petition that rearranging the schools of this institution you will reconsider the question of granting us a life class for the study of the partially draped figure. We beg to lay it before your notice that almost all of us rely on the profession we have chosen as our future means of livelihood. Therefore a class which is considered so essential to the training success of male students must be equally so to us. We venture to hope that the separation of male and female students in the upper schools of the Academy may have removed an important objection against the granting of our request.”

      © Royal Academy of Arts, London

      1. Were women really banned from studying at the Schools?

      AW: This is correct. Women were subject to an unofficial ban; while nothing in the rules and regulations of the RA Schools prohibited women from studying there, no woman artists were admitted to the RA Schools until 1860.

      The first female student was Laura Herford, who was accepted into the RA Schools on the merit of her drawings, which she had signed only with her initials and surname – the Keeper and teaching staff assuming therefore that they were the works of a male student!

      Laura Herford opened the doors for more female students: in the following decades, many more women were admitted to the RA Schools. But they were still barred from life drawing (which was key to an artist’s professional development and success) until the 1880s, when the female students clubbed together to petition the President for access to a “partially draped figure”.

    • , Photo from 'The Sphere' in the women's Large Life Room of a group of students working from a female model at the RA Schools

      Photo from 'The Sphere' in the women's Large Life Room of a group of students working from a female model at the RA Schools

      90 mm x 117 mm. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London.

      2. What was being a life model like?

      AW: Unlike art academies in Europe, the Royal Academy employed female as well as male life models from the inception of the RA Schools in 1769.

      The male models were generally chosen for their physique and were often the porters of the Academy, soldiers or boxers. When it came to female models, Regency Society frowned upon the idea of women of nobility or gentry posing nude in public. Female life model positions were often filled by working class women and sex workers.

      All the students could draw the male life models but male students under the age of 20 (unless they were married), were not permitted to draw from the naked female model. It is interesting to note that female models in the RA Schools were typically paid twice as much as their male counterparts.

    • John Hamilton Mortimer ARA, John Hamilton Mortimer, A.R.A. with Joseph Wilton, R.A., and a Student, ca. 1760-65.

      John Hamilton Mortimer ARA, John Hamilton Mortimer, A.R.A. with Joseph Wilton, R.A., and a Student, ca. 1760-65..

      Oil on canvas. 760 mm x 635 mm. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: John Hammond..

      3. Could you really buy your way into the RA Schools?

      AW: This sounds extremely unlikely to me. I’m pretty certain it has never happened. Students were, and have always, been accepted purely on artistic merit. Entry to the RA Schools was open to anyone with a demonstrable talent for drawing or modelling, and the course was completely free of charge (as it is today!).

      To apply, you had to submit a finished drawing of an Antique statue, (or if the drawing was of a torso, it had to be accompanied by drawings of a head and a hand or foot). Sculptors had to send a model or relief of a similar subject. If the Keeper (head) of the RA Schools thought it was good enough, the student was admitted as a `Probationer’.

      They would then be given three months to prepare a further set of drawings or models in the Academy, including a skeleton and an anatomical figure. Only if these were accepted by Council (the ruling body of the Academy), as showing sufficient promise, would the student be formerly enrolled in the RA Schools.

  • The Royal Schools seem to be providing a different sort of education than what I had pictured. Or perhaps, exactly as I had pictured.

    Lord Bridgerton

    • , Royal Academy students' soirèe

      Royal Academy students' soirèe, 1885.

      RA Collection: Archive.

      4. Was it all parties and wine?

      AW: I’ve certainly never come across any record of such behaviour going on! The official histories of the RA would have us believe that the students were all conscientious, hard-working and professional.

      At this time in history, the RA Schools were the only formal art teaching academies in the UK, and so competition to gain admission would have been extremely high. I imagine that successful students would have regarded it as a great honour to have been selected.

      Once female students began to be admitted in 1860, a number of social events and clubs were created which enabled the male and female students to meet socially. We have no record though, of what they got up to at these dances, dinners and soirees.

    • Sir Martin Archer Shee PRA , Portrait of Queen Victoria (Detail)

      Sir Martin Archer Shee PRA, Portrait of Queen Victoria (Detail), 1842-1843.

      Oil on canvas. 270 cm x 177.5 cm. Royal Academy of Arts.

      5. Did Royalty really attend the Summer Exhibition?

      AW: Yes, the Prince Regent, later George IV often attended private views of the Summer Exhibition – and he was given a personal tour by the Academy’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds

      Queen Victoria also often attended private views of the Summer Exhibition, and she and Prince Albert were known to buy paintings from the exhibition.

    • J.M.W. Turner, R.A, Dolbadern Castle (detail)

      J.M.W. Turner, R.A, Dolbadern Castle (detail), 1800.

      Oil on canvas. 119.4 X 90.2 cm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London/Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

      6. What's the best Summer Exhibition story?

      AW: It was the annual Summer exhibition of 1832. Constable’s huge painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge was hung next to Turner’s seascape Helvoetsluys.

      The surface of Constable’s 6ft-wide canvas glittered with speckled sunshine and bold touches of red, green and white. Turner’s seascape, on the other hand was one of his more muted works. Not wishing to be upstaged, Turner placed a single blob of bright red paint in the sea of his own canvas, later finessing it to look like a buoy bobbing in the water.

      When Constable saw what Turner had done, he declared: “He has been here and fired a gun!”

    • So, according to Adam, Bridgerton got a few things right. But it sounds like Netflix’s depiction of the RA Schools as a boozy party spot were a little off, at least for another century or two.

      Simone Ashley (star of Bridgerton) at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition Preview Party

      Simone Ashley (star of Bridgerton) at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition Preview Party

    • RA Schools student

      The Royal Academy Schools today

      The RA Schools is the UK’s longest established art school, offering a full-time, three-year programme to 17 early career artists each year. We charge no fees.

      Lectures, group critiques, tutorials and artist talks support the production of studio work. Given the high student to tutor ratio, each student’s individual art practice is subject to in-depth and sustained discussion.

      This programme is free and we offer financial support through bursaries, contributions to the cost of some materials, alongside a student support fund. This support does not fully cover the cost of living and studying in London, and most students work part time including those who take on paid work within the RA.