See these works up close
The Making of an Artist: Learning to draw
Many of the works featured above are on display in the Vaults, which lie hidden beneath the Royal Academy’s Main Galleries. This free display traces a path of artistic teaching at the Royal Academy, from the past to the present, including a display on the life of John Millais RA and a giant cast of the Farnese Hercules.
To celebrate our 250th birthday, we’re highlighting 250 beautiful, odd and inspiring objects from the RA Collection in 25 themes. With a free display exploring how artists have traditionally learnt to draw, in this edition we head into the Royal Academy’s historic schools…
In 1769 the Royal Academy founded an art school to provide professional training for aspiring painters, sculptors and architects. All students began by drawing plaster casts of Classical sculptures. This watercolour by Edward Francis Burney shows students at work in the Academy Schools which were then based at Somerset House in the Strand (now the galleries of the Courtauld Institute).
Design – what we now call drawing – was traditionally considered to be the foundation of all the visual arts and was a crucial part of an artist’s training. This image represents design as a seated woman drawing the Belvedere Torso. It is one of four oval paintings produced by Angelica Kauffman for the Royal Academy in 1780 depicting the ‘Elements of Art’ – design, colour, invention and composition.
Sir John Everett Millais became famous as one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 – but he made history before that as the youngest ever student to enrol at the RA Schools in 1840, at the age of just 11. This is one of the drawings he made at the RA depicting a cast of 'the Pancrastinae' (or 'the Wrestlers') group. The original sculpture is in the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.
Instead of identity cards, the RA gave its students ivory discs, or "bones". This one belonged to the painter George Philip Reinagle and showed that he was a member of the RA Schools. The discs also gave students free entry to the Summer Exhibition. They were introduced in 1800 after a committee found the RA Schools to be full of "confusion and disorder". Far from the case today, of course...
After an RA student had perfected the technique of drawing plaster casts, they were then allowed to attend the life class, or "School of Living Models" as it was also known. This print by Thomas Rowlandson shows the class taking place at Somerset House. At this time all the students were male but – in a departure from academic tradition – the models were of both sexes. In order to attend when the female model was sitting, however, students had to be over the age of 20… or married.
The Irish painter, James Barry, probably drew this figure when he was a teacher (or 'Visitor', as it was then known) in charge of the RA life class in the 1790s. There is a drawing of a very similar model by JMW Turner – a student at the RA at this time, who may have been drawing in Barry’s class – in the Tate collection.
The RA Schools admitted women from 1860 onwards – but it was not until the 1890s that they were allowed to attend life drawing classes. Winifred Broughton Edge drew this detailed study in July 1917. At this time, most of the students were women, as the men had been called up to fight in the First World War. The women were also involved with war work, assisting the Red Cross or painting camouflage designs, and attended their RA classes on alternate days.
This press photograph shows female sculpture students working from a male life model in the RA Schools. On the right, a student uses dividers to check that the torso of her sculpture is in correct proportion to the model’s body. The model wears a discreet thong – an improvement on the 1890s, when men sitting for classes of women had to wear bathing trunks with a length of fabric wrapped modestly around them.
It wasn’t all hard work. In between learning to draw, paint, sculpt and design, RA students always knew how to throw a party. This photo shows a dance – apparently in fancy dress – in full swing in the Schools Corridor in 1952. We can neither confirm nor deny the occurence of such parties today.
The RA Schools is the longest established art school in the country. Students no longer follow the traditional curriculum of drawing plaster casts, but many of the these remain in place, along with other art school accoutrements, creating a unique atmosphere. Some students have responded to this, including Liane Lang who produced the photographic series 'Casts' in 2006-'07 featuring latex figures interacting with casts from the RA Collection.