Artist, collector, benefactor: the legacy of Carel Weight RA

Published 10 December 2015

New spaces at the Academy in 2018 will showcase the RA’s superb art collection. Laura Gascoigne delves into the bequest of Carel Weight RA, an artist who donated outstanding works.

  • From the Winter 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, it was decided that a condition of membership would be for each artist to donate a ‘diploma work’. At a time when Britain had no national gallery, the idea was that in this way the country’s most distinguished artists might contribute to a collection representing the best in British art.

    Almost 250 years later, the RA Collection now counts among its masterpieces J.M.W. Turner’s Dolbadarn Castle (1800) and John Constable’s The Leaping Horse (1825). But not all members have confined their generosity to a single work. In 1866 John Gibson left 57 sculptures to the Academy and threw in £32,000 in hard cash. Look up at the top floor of Burlington House and you see the literal legacy of Gibson, whose bequest paid for the addition of a second storey.

    Gibson’s was one of the most valuable bequests the RA has ever received, although in terms of numbers of works of art gifted to the collection Carel Weight surpassed him. His bequest has augmented the collection with works that go beyond the community of RA artists. A discerning collector, especially of works on paper, Weight left the Academy 141 works of art on his death in 1999. These include several drawings and prints by Camille Pissarro, acquired through his friendship with the French Impressionist’s granddaughter Orovida, as well as a Turner sketch for Ships Bearing up for Anchorage (c .1799-1802), and an undated drawing attributed to Constable, Study of a Sleeping Spaniel.

    Like most artists, Weight also exchanged works with his artist friends and his bequest includes paintings by fellow RAs Robert Buhler, Jean Cooke and Ruskin Spear, as well as by former students who became Academicians – John Bellany, Mick Rooney and Olwyn Bowey.

    Carel Weight was a benevolent genius loci of the British art scene for half a century and, as Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art from 1957 to 1973, presided over a postwar revolution led by British Pop Art pioneers David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj and Allen Jones, all of whom became Academicians. The art of this new generation was essentially urban. Weight was a generation older, but having spent much of his childhood in working-class Fulham – where his rather distant middle-class parents farmed him out during the week to a foster mother – he was an urban realist by inclination, declaring: “I like going about the slummy parts of a place.”

  • With Weight’s own work, though, the realism only went so far: his urban landscapes may be faithfully rendered, but his figures bring a surreal dimension. ‘You stand a chance of catching the attention,’ he said, ‘if, in a very realistic picture, you can get away with a piece of fantasy.’ Angels and ghosts make fleeting appearances in paintings such as The Departing Angel (1961), a contemporary take on the Annunciation set in the back garden of the artist’s house in Battersea, and one of five of Weight’s works in the collection. The angel is wearing slippers. Like his hero Stanley Spencer, Weight was practical-minded: “They’ve got a good way to go,” was his explanation of the choice of footwear. “I expect they’d have to be fairly comfortable.” But unlike the domestic details in Spencer’s paintings, those of Weight seem to offer little comfort. A sense of isolation pervades his imagery, most tellingly in his diploma work, The Silence (1965), in which a father, mother and son observe two minutes’ silence on Remembrance Sunday in their garden.

    Sadness, humour, fantasy and a pinch of drama combine with keen observation to give Weight’s paintings their peculiar flavour. It’s a piquant mix that is reflected in the art he collected, which include the witty works of Thomas Rowlandson (Gaming House, 1808) alongside melancholy pastels by Edward Stott. The pinch of drama is provided by Alphonse Legros’s etching L’Incendie (The Fire) (1875), which depicts a family escaping from a burning house – a childhood memory had left Weight with a terror of fire that inspired some of his more dramatic works – while a 1925 pencil and ink-wash sketch of the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens by Walter Sickert RA is an object lesson in observation.

    Artists’ collections have a particular value, often throwing light on the owners’ artistic development. But the RA Collection has benefited equally from major donations of art by non-artist collectors – most notably Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo (c.1504-05) bequeathed by George Beaumont in 1830.

    Funding from legacies continues to be vital to the collection’s preservation and development, and this is especially the case as the RA embarks on the redevelopment of its buildings. On completion in 2018, new dedicated gallery spaces will display highlights from those previously hidden treasures acquired through the generosity of artists and non-artists alike.

    View more works bequeathed by Carel Weight RA on the RA Collection website.
    Laura Gascoigne is a freelance art critic who writes for the Tablet and the Spectator.

    • The picture store at the RA

      The picture store at the RA

      Photo: Benedict Johnson

      Learning more about legacies

      How gifts support the RA's future

      The RA regularly hosts small events for those interested in including a gift in their will, to show how their support could help. The next event takes place on 24 February 2015 and includes an opportunity to put questions to a legal professional in an informal setting.

      If you would like to attend, please contact the RA’s Legacy Manager, Matthew Watters, on 020 7300 5677 or email

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