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.

  • 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 even include famous names; last year, comedian Harry Hill had his portrait of Damien Hirst accepted and this year, he’s showing a David Beckham diptych.

    2. 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 (such as Jim Lambie’s staircase installation, below). This is the reason that a first-time exhibitor can quite easily find their work next to Tracey Emin’s or Grayson Perry’s. The result is a dynamic snapshot of contemporary art that year.

    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. For the first time this year, many works are also available to buy online. Read our tips for buying your first pieces of original art.

  • Summer 2015

    Co-ordinated by Michael Craig-Martin RA, 2015’s Summer Exhibition was a record-breaker, with our highest attendance in 60 years. Jim Lambie’s dazzling stair installation, ZOBOP, became a much-Instagrammed icon of the show.

  • 4. It’s curated by artists

    Each year an artist co-ordinator is chosen to direct the show. The co-ordinator 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.

    5. They make their final choices 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 they drink 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”. Below, watch Mike Leigh’s imagining of the incident in Mr. Turner.

  • Video: The Summer Exhibition in Mr. Turner

    A behind-the-scenes featurette on recreating the Summer Exhibition on film

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