To celebrate our 250th birthday this year, we’re highlighting 250 beautiful, odd and inspiring objects from the RA Collection across 25 themes. In this edition, curator Annette Wickham talks us through some of the more surprising objects you’ll stumble across down in the depths of the Collection, from a lock of Napoleon’s hair to a rather fancy tea set…
During the First World War, the RA School played host to a group of camouflage artists led by the marine painter Norman Wilkinson. They developed these geometric patterns, known as “Dazzle” designs, based on the idea of “visual disruption”. They were later painted on merchant ships to confuse enemy submarines.
This drawing, titled “The Thing”, is taken from a set of quirky Gothic illustrations to Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy. They were drawn by Charles Stewart, who also created illustrations for Peake’s first novel ‘Titus Groan’, but neither set was ever published. Peake was a student at the RA Schools from 1929-33.
When he wasn’t busy painting, JMW Turner was a keen angler – you’ll spot fishing in many of his paintings. He often went fishing on the River Thames with fellow Academicians, including the architect Sir John Soane and sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey.
This unique item is a plaster cast taken from the skinned body of a man named James Legg, made shortly after he was hanged for murder in 1801. It was made so that three Academicians could settle a debate about whether depictions of the crucifixion were anatomically correct by recreating the position themselves.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was elected an RA in 1879 and was soon a member of a committee set up to review the RA Schools. He apparently found the meetings he had to attend in this role a bit dull – his copy of the Schools’ Laws is covered in doodled sketches of his fellow RAs, including this close-up drawing of the ear of eminent architect Sir Richard Norman Shaw.
This jewel-like watercolour was painted by Victorian artist Anna Alma Tadema, the daughter of Lawrence Alma Tadema RA. It provides a peek inside the opulent Alma Tadema family home in Townshend Road, Regent’s Park. Anna painted this when she was 19 as a souvenir, shortly before the family moved house in 1886.
Back in the late 19th century, a Royal Academician named William Quiller Orchardson made a name for himself with paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor had died in 1821, more than a decade before Orchardson’s birth, but retained a hold over public imagination. In honour of the connection, Orchardson was given a lock of Napoleon’s hair as a gift from a friend, which he later left to the Royal Academy.
This photograph shows members of the ill-fated British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-12. Its leader, Captain Scott, is second from left. The expedition was organised from a room in Burlington Gardens, which is now part of the Royal Academy.
The Royal Academy used to have its own personalised buckets on hand around the building in case of fire. Later on, they were often filled with sand for people to stub out their cigarettes. This one shows one of the RA’s early logos.
This ornate tea caddy belonged to the RA’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Inside there are three silver mounted crystal goblets for tea and sugar, a pair of dainty sugar tongs and a set of teaspoons. The RA Collection also inherited some of Reynolds’ shoe buckles, his inkstand and a pair of his spectacles.