Hughie O‘Donoghue on celebrating Varnishing Day through collaboration

Published 2 September 2020

Hughie O’Donoghue RA discusses a new collaborative artwork – produced by Royal Academicians to raise funds for the Academy during this critical time.

  • The seminal moment in what is arguably the greatest work of English art, the embroidery known as the Tapestry of Queen Matilda, or the Bayeux Tapestry, comes when William Duke of Normandy raises the visor on his helmet during the Battle of Hastings. William’s purpose was to show the Norman army that he was still “in the game”.

    The times we are living in call for a similar spirit, as well as lateral thinking. In late April, with the RA closed, it was announced that, for the first time in its history, the Summer Exhibition would not take place in summer. Myself, David Mach RA and Francis Atterbury from the publisher Hurtwood developed an idea for a collaborative work of art by Royal Academicians to mark what would have been the Summer Exhibition Varnishing Day. This is the date when exhibiting artists gather at the gallery in advance of the opening, historically making finishing touches to works and applying varnish.

    We hoped that on that day, 1 June, as many Academicians who wished would make an artwork, to be shared with Friends in a portfolio that would raise money for the RA. This would be a positive act in a period of uncertainty, in anticipation of a time when we could lift our own visors and face coverings, with the RA as an institution also remaining firmly in the game. Yinka Shonibare’s vivid and optimistic image from the day symbolises this: we are Still Dancing, albeit with face masks.

    Varnishing Day: A Moment in Time is the result: a multiple collective artwork that documents what the Membership were doing, thinking and making on that day when they would normally be celebrating the start of the Summer Exhibition. It is something like a visual diary, but instead of it being a year in one individual’s life, it speaks of one day in the lives of the richly varied artists and architects of the RA.

    • The portfolio is democratic and non-hierarchical, a real work of art that brings credit to the institution. It was necessarily organised by word of mouth, with much of the contact being made by David Mach as he sat on his studio roof, spending many hours phoning other Members. In its beautiful bespoke box, the final portfolio includes a cornucopia of 100 contributions by RAs – a taking of the temperature of British art at a crucial time.

      The project was also conceived as a gesture to our Friends, who are so important to the Academy. We wanted to offer something to them that could not be found elsewhere, at a price as economic as could be reasonably achieved. The portfolio is available exclusively to Friends of the RA at the price of £195.

      So to give you a taster, here we reproduce some of the works from the portfolio made on that significant day: Michael Craig-Martin’s icon for the moment; Tracey Emin’s fluid drawing, A Feeling Inside; Wolfgang Tillmans’ beautifully coloured 1.6.20 Test; varnishing day portfolio Yinka Shonibare’s vibrant Still Dancing; a mesmerisingly complex architectural image by Farshid Moussavi; Emma Stibbon’s inviting Open Road; and Grayson Perry’s intense, humorous, graphic observations of the times.

      Tracey Emin RA, A Feeling Inside

      Tracey Emin RA, A Feeling Inside.

      Gouache on paper. 12.1 x 15.2 cm.

  • All sales support our institution, which is now in real need. The Membership understands how badly hit the RA has been by the crisis, how we have been losing money at an alarming rate due to the restrictions on visitor numbers and our enterprises.

    “The RA is a unique institution built on three pillars: the Royal Academicians, the staff, and Friends and Patrons,” wrote Clive Humby, the Chair of the Friends scheme, when we corresponded about the project. “The portfolio is a way of connecting the Academicians and the Friends, and by buying a portfolio, Friends can help the Academy weather the current storm and can have a piece of RA history to cherish.” Thank you to all of you who are continuing to support this great institution.

    Hughie O’Donoghue RA is a painter. His exhibition ‘Night Cargo’ is at the Festival Gallery, Galway International Arts Festival, until 26 Sep.

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    Varnishing Day: A Moment in Time

    Watch as the Royal Academicians discuss the concept behind their collaborative artwork, Varnishing Day: A Moment in Time.

    • Varnishing Day: A Moment in Time

      Made exclusively for the Friends of the Royal Academy, Varnishing Day: A Moment in Time features the work of 100 Royal Academicians.

      Conceived by Hughie O’Donoghue RA and David Mach RA, with the assistance of Ian Ritchie RA, this beautiful portfolio includes work from some of the heavyweights in British art – Tracey Emin RA, Grayson Perry RA, Yinka Shonibare RA and Farshid Moussavi RA.

      The Portfolio is available exclusively to Friends and the only way to access it is by joining as a Friend of the RA.

      Varnishing day port folio