From dawn to dusk at the New RA

Published 7 December 2018

With new spaces to encounter art – and places to eat or drink in between – you can easily spend a whole day at the Academy. RA Magazine sent its new deputy editor Sarah Handelman to discover how to do it well

  • Go in through the new front door

    In London you’re unlikely to find a front door to rival Burlington House on Piccadilly or be greeted by a more formidable host than the bronze statue of the Academy’s founder Joshua Reynolds PRA in the courtyard. But there is something satisfying about encountering the RA from its new rear entrance, on Burlington Gardens. Here you’re met by some equally impressive, veteran hosts – 22 great thinkers, from Linnaeus to Bacon, commemorated in statues on the restored façade.

  • Before art, hydration

    When you have had enough outdoor art, head inside to check out the RA’s new spaces from a perch in the Poster Bar, which owes its name to the Academy’s distinguished history of exhibition poster design. With its marble-topped counters, bistro chairs and exhibition posters adorning the wall – 50, in fact, all reissued to celebrate the RA’s 250th birthday – you’ll feel as if you’re inside a proper Italian coffee bar. It’s open from 8am, but even at 10am my partner cannot resist ordering some panzanella along with his espresso doppio.

  • Coffee in the Poster Bar

    Coffee in the Poster Bar

    © Sarah Handelman / Royal Academy of Arts

  • Onward and upward

    Once sufficiently caffeinated, head to the first floor from Burlington Gardens and explore the RA’s new exhibition spaces. I brought my husband to catch Tacita Dean’s exhibition in the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries. The vaulted ceilings lent a transcendental mood to our encounter with The Montafon Letter,(right) the artist’s work on blackboard depicting a huge mountain ridge (later I bought a print of the work from Personal Shopping, but I’m still looking for a wall big enough to accommodate it). This enfilade of daylit spaces offers a more meditative experience than the buzzing atmosphere of the Main Galleries.

  • Tacita Dean, The Montafon Letter

    Tacita Dean, The Montafon Letter, 2017 (detail).

    Chalk on blackboard. 366 x 732 cm. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland © Courtesy the artist; Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

  • Lunch that’s (almost) too pretty to eat

    The one danger about my new job is sharing a roof with Senate Room, the RA’s smart new restaurant. Located in The Dorfman Senate Rooms, upstairs in Burlington Gardens, it has been tempting me away from my lunch in the staff fridge. The cuisine draws on the elegant Italianate surroundings (think high ceilings, grand windows, original features and piles of Sicilian lemons) to serve the best of the South. We settle into the set lunch menu of crostini, creamy buffalo mozzarella and cured meats. By dessert – light-as-air tiramisu (for him) and summery prosecco jelly (for me) – I begin to regret that I have to write about this place; I’d like the chic velvet banquette for myself, thank you.

  • Crostini at Senate Room

    Crostini at Senate Room

    © Sarah Handelman / Royal Academy of Arts

  • Take ten with the Taddei Tondo

    After eating our way through Italy, we’re ready to explore the Collection Gallery – the first dedicated space for displaying the Academy’s holdings, which includes paintings by Academicians such as John Constable, as well as works acquired on Grand Tours of Italy. Among these is the Taddei Tondo, resident at the RA since 1829 and still the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in a UK collection. The Tondo depicts John the Baptist as an infant, presenting a goldfinch to the young Christ, who recoils into his mother’s arms, as if rejecting his fate. In its new home, the Tondo can receive the attention it warrants as you try to fathom just how exactly “the divine one” carved a scene of such exquisite vulnerability from a material as tough as stone.

  • The Collection Gallery

    The Collection Gallery

    © Sarah Handelman / Royal Academy of Arts

  • Get your hands dirty

    As the 19th-century French writer Maurice Stendhal said, contemplating such sublime beauty can give one, “what in Berlin they call nerves”. For a change of scene, head to the Clore Learning Centre, where on weekends and school holidays families can make art together. With the Clore’s huge windows and pale wood floors, it feels like a place where great art – and artists – are made.

  • Head over to the bridge and beyond

    Every year my three best girlfriends and I see the Summer Exhibition, and so today I send my husband packing and welcome the besties, leading them through the ground-floor expansion designed by David Chipperfield RA. We pick our favourite Grayson Perry fan art in the new Ronald and Rita McAulay Gallery, before walking along the Weston Bridge to Burlington House, where we stop at the floor-to-ceiling window to take in an otherwise unknown view of the RA’s array of buildings. We continue on to the first public project space for the RA Schools, the Weston Studios and then to one of my favourite spots in the Academy’s new spaces: the intersection of the RA Schools corridor and The Julia and Hans Rausing Hall, with a dramatic display of casts from the RA’s early years of teaching.

  • View from the Weston Bridge

    View from the Weston Bridge

    © Sarah Handelman / Royal Academy of Arts

  • Go on – imbibe

    After a cake break in the reopened RA Café, we join the crowd for the Summer Exhibition, which feels livelier than ever. But seeing 1,300 artworks makes thirsty work and the garden of the Keeper’s House offers welcome respite. In summer this lush oasis, designed by Tom Stuart Smith, provides dappled relief, while the adjacent Shenkman Bar feels like it could be the cosy answer to cooler nights. But with the mid-summer heatwave going nowhere fast we grab a table, order a round of Aperol Spritz and get shuffling – we came for the art but we’re staying to play Continental Rummy.

  • Enjoying an Aperol Spritz in the Keeper’s House Garden

    Enjoying an Aperol Spritz in the Keeper’s House Garden

    © Sarah Handelman / Royal Academy of Arts

  • Tuck in for round two

    For a Friday supper or mid-week aperitivo, Senate Room is the best way to unwind (I told you I was hooked). A pal meets me on the velvet banquette, and so ensues a long overdue catch-up over drinks and a generous board of antipasti. The cocktails are refreshed takes on Italian classics, combining familiar flavours with surprises. I recommend the White Peach and Chamomile Bellini (quenching, not too sweet) or the La Duchessa, a herbal twist on a gin sour made with lavender bitters and a bergamot liqueur recipe dating from the 1800s.

    The sign of a good meal (and good company) is staying late enough to be chucked out. With the taste of pecorino on our tongues we amble down the grand staircase and out into the evening to say goodnight. It’s time to get home anyway – I’ve got work in the morning.

  • Sarah Handelman is Deputy Editor of RA Magazine.

    From the Autumn 2018 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Plan your visit: RA exhibitions are open 10am–6pm (Fri, 10pm). For eating and drinking the RA is open from 8am (Poster Bar) until 11.30pm (The Keeper’s House). For the full list of restaurants and their opening times see our Eating and Drinking page