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How royal is the Royal Academy?

Published 19 May 2018

Now we didn’t exactly plan to open the new Royal Academy on the same day as Meghan and Harry’s royal wedding, but since it’s happening…

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

    Her Majesty the Queen visited the Royal Academy on 20 March this year to mark the redevelopment of its Burlington Gardens building. In doing so she acknowledged a relationship that has continued since the reign of George III, who signed the Instrument of Foundation for the Academy on 10 December 1768.

    The King wrote his name at the foot of a plan for an art school and annual exhibition. Despite royal approval, this was not a legal document. For centuries a Royal Charter was the only way a body could become incorporated by law and it is highly unusual that an institution such as the RA should lack a charter. This absence is bound up with the fate of the Academy’s predecessor, the Society of Artists of Great Britain. Formed in 1759 to organise exhibitions of contemporary art, the Society was granted a charter in 1765, but immediately fell into constitutional discord. A senior group of artists had seceded from the Society in 1768 and made a direct approach to the King, to secure his signature on their hastily written Instrument for a new Academy.

    The Royal Academy was created by George III’s personal will and costs were to be covered by the Privy Purse. It was a private project, a hobby even. In 1771 the artists complained that their Pall Mall quarters were too cramped and so the King provided space in an abandoned palace on the Thames, the old Somerset House. The RA had no lease, it paid no rent, and so was dependent on the will of the King.

  • Any society incorporated by a Royal Charter is subject to government oversight. By avoiding a charter and nurturing a personal relationship to the Sovereign, the RA guaranteed an independence which it cherishes to this day. The RA was free to adapt to circumstances, if it obtained the sanction of George III, who checked every election and major decision, sometimes exercising his veto. Though many of the King’s successors have not paid such close attention to Academy affairs, the tradition of preparing documents for the Sovereign continues. The RA is deeply characterised by this rather unusual relationship to the Crown and when offered the possibility of being granted a charter in the 1860s, it declined. The Queen remains the RA’s “Patron, Protector and Supporter”, a phrase used in the Instrument of Foundation, and so, to the question, “How royal is the RA?”, the answer is, “Very royal indeed”.

  • Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opens Burlington Gardens, March 2018

    Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opens Burlington Gardens, March 2018

    Photo by Thomas Alexander