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Nine things to know about the Summer Exhibition

Published 3 June 2016

An invitation to artists everywhere, a story that goes back to Turner – and a top secret tea recipe. Here’s what you need to know about a weird and wonderful art tradition, that this year is celebrating its 250th birthday with the help of Grayson Perry!

  • 1. It’s open to all artists

    The RA was founded to champion the practice of art, with one of its promises an open invitation to the public to submit work for an annual show. It’s happened every year since 1769 – lending it plenty of weird traditions and legendary incidents (read on for an in-gallery showdown between Turner and Constable). Entrants have even included famous names; from Winston Churchill (who exhibited under a pseudonym) to more recently, comedian Harry Hill. This year, our 250th Summer Exhibition is co-ordinated by Grayson Perry RA, and this was his call-out to artists everywhere:

    “Fellow artists! 2018 marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, so the Summer Exhibition will celebrate a quarter of a millennium of artistic innovation. As coordinator, I have decided that the theme of the show will be ‘Art Made Now’. I want to champion the democracy of the exhibition and show off the diversity of art being made in this moment, so I encourage you to submit works that you have made in 2017/18. I am also planning a special ‘Room of Fun’ in a newly built part of the Academy, so the committee may well look favourably on artworks that we find amusing.”

    2. It’s curated by a committee of artists

    Each year an artist co-ordinator is chosen to direct the show – this year Grayson Perry RA – who then meets with a committee of Academicians to review all 13,000 entries and to discuss plans for the show, with artists each taking responsibility for different rooms. This year, to celebrate our 250th, the show is spilling out of our main galleries across our newly expanded cultural campus.

    3. The work is for sale

    The Summer Exhibition has always been an opportunity for artists to sell their work. In today’s show, the artist remains the seller of the work and the RA takes a 30% commission. The proceeds go towards the RA Schools, where tuition is free for our 17 post-graduates students each year. Many works are also available to buy online. Read our tips for buying your first pieces of original art.

  • Video: The Summer Exhibition in 60 seconds

    A quick taster of 250 years of the Summer Exhibition…

  • 4. Leading artists exhibit too

    Alongside the selected entries, our Royal Academicians – the artists and architects elected to run the RA – can choose to put in up to six works each year, with other artists also commissioned to create work for the show. This is the reason that a first-time exhibitor can quite easily find their entry next to work by the likes of Grayson Perry or Tracey Emin. The result is a dynamic snapshot of art made now.

    5. The final choices are made in the gallery

    After several rounds of judging, the committee make their final selections for inclusion inside the gallery, as they try out pieces on the wall during the eight-day hang. The exhibition is finalised on “Sanctioning Day” when the committee meets for the last time – after this, no changes can be made.

    6 …and the committee drinks beef tea

    One of the committee’s great privileges (we write this having never tasted it, of course) is the mysterious “beef tea” that they’re offered during the eight-day hang. The recipe remains secret.

  • 7. Note the tradition of Varnishing Day

    Historically, artists would visit the galleries to add final touches to their work in situ. Today, Varnishing Day remains a part of the Summer tradition, but it’s now mostly a day to celebrate the artists in the show – if a slightly weird one. Before visiting the show, the artists gather in the courtyard, form a procession down Piccadilly led by a steel band, then attend an artists’ blessing at St. James’s church. Watch a video of it taking place.

    8. Things got political

    Visitors to the Summer Exhibition will be aware that there is always a lot to see. But it’s more restrained than it once was; in the 18th century, pictures were hung frame-to-frame – and there was serious competition for the prime spots. History painting and portraits by the celebrated artists of the day sat just above eye level, with smaller pieces below and others by lesser-known artists “skied” above. Petulance of the below nature was not uncommon.

    9. There was a Turner-Constable showdown

    It was Varnishing Day in 1832. Constable was busy putting the final strokes on The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, when his great rival entered the room. Observing that his own calm seascape, Helvoetsluys, looked pale in comparison, Turner marched up to his painting and added a red buoy in the middle of the canvas. Constable was devastated. He said that Turner had been in and “fired a gun”. Mike Leigh imagined the incident in his 2014 film, Mr. Turner.

    • Grayson Perry RA hanging the 2018 Summer Exhibition

      See the 250th Summer Exhibition

      Co-ordinated by Grayson Perry

      This summer, Grayson Perry RA coordinates the biggest, brightest and most colourful Summer Exhibition yet, in our 250th annual celebration of “art made now”. There’ll be a monumental sculpture in our courtyard and artworks in an array of mediums throughout our galleries, handpicked by a committee led by Grayson Perry RA. With over 1,200 works on display, you’ll see art you love, art you hate, art that leaves you thinking and art that puts a smile on your face.

    • William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Academy, 1881

      The Great Spectacle

      250 Years of the Summer Exhibition

      As well as celebrating the art of today, we’re also looking back at some of the important moments in the history of the Academy and its shows in The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition. See some of the art that’s captured the interest of millions of visitors, in a cultural phenomenon that’s spanned the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, two world wars and the rise of the Young British Artists.


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