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Bombs, dots and rockstars: seven stories of the Summer Exhibition

Published 5 June 2018

From frenemy feuds to a bomb through the roof, the storylines of the Summer Exhibition could make a TV drama – so no wonder it’s so often featured on screen. As ‘The Great Spectacle’ charts 250 years of this annual celebration of contemporary art, here are just a few of our favourite episodes…

    • 1. The one with a teenage Turner

      When Turner joined the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 14, he had already entered the public realm thanks to his father, who exhibited and sold his son’s works in his barber shop in Covent Garden. For his first submission to the Summer Exhibition in 1790, Turner selected a turbulent seascape, Fishermen at Sea, which set itself apart from others with its dramatic light and handling of paint. He then regularly submitted paintings at the RA throughout his life, battling with Constable for landscape supremacy. Ever the self-publicist, Turner often used Varnishing Day – traditionally when artists came into the galleries once the exhibition was hung to add the final touches to their work – as a chance to transform his canvases in front of an eager audience.

      Joseph Mallord William Turner, Calais Sands at Low Water: Poissards Collecting Bait

      Joseph Mallord William Turner, Calais Sands at Low Water: Poissards Collecting Bait, 1830.

      Oil on canvas. 66.8 x 103.8 cm. © Bury Art Museum.

    • Thomas Rowlandson , The Exhibition ‘Stare-Case,’ Somerset House (detail)

      Thomas Rowlandson, The Exhibition ‘Stare-Case,’ Somerset House (detail), c.1800.

      Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

      2. The one with crowd control

      In 1806, the 21-year-old Scottish painter, David Wilkie, showed The Village Politicians in the Summer Exhibition. This everyday scene of a group of men debating the news in a pub proved so popular that it was the first to have a barrier placed around it to protect it from the jostling crowd. Wilkie wasn’t the only one, though: in 1858, William Powell Frith’s The Derby Day drew such crowds that a policeman had to guard it. The same happened to The Roll Call in 1874, by a little-known artist called Elizabeth Thompson (later Elizabeth Butler). Both Wilkie and Frith were later elected Royal Academicians – but Butler was held back by just two votes, the nearest any woman had come to being elected since the founding Members, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser. Listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s take on the story in his Revisionist History podcast.

    • 3. The one with the dots

      Seen those red dots under artworks, indicating that they’ve been sold? Well, they first appeared in the Summer Exhibition in 1865 – and soon caught on in the art world. Cornelia Parker RA even incorporated them into her own work, Stolen Thunder (Red Spot), where she took a photo of one of the most successful prints in the 2012 show, and digitally erased the image, keeping the red spots as part of the piece.

      Cornelia Parker, Stolen Thunder III (Red Spots)

      Cornelia Parker, Stolen Thunder III (Red Spots), 2015.

      300 gsm somerset photo satin. 85.4 x 84.3 cm. Edition of 100. Private collection © Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

    • Unidentified photographer, Detail of the portrait of Henry James O.M. by J.S. Sargent R.A. after being damaged by a suffragette, May 1914.

      Unidentified photographer, Detail of the portrait of Henry James O.M. by J.S. Sargent R.A. after being damaged by a suffragette, May 1914., ca. May 1914.

      Part of the RA CollectionSilver gelatin print mounted on card. 250 mm x 283 mm.

      4. The one with the meat cleaver

      On 4 May 1914, the suffragette Mary Wood smuggled (you guessed it) a meat cleaver into the Summer Exhibition. She used it to slash John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the writer Henry James, breaking through the glass and slashing the canvas three times. Wood stated that she tried to destroy it to “show the public that they have no security for their property nor for their art treasures until women are given political freedom.” However, Wood may also have chosen this portrait, painted by an elder statesman of the artistic elite, to challenge the bastion of conservatism.

    • 5. The one that got bombed

      The Summer Exhibition has continued uninterrupted every year since 1769, even throughout both World Wars. In 1917, a bomb from a German Gotha plane dropped through the roof of Gallery IX (you can still make out the shrapnel scars in the galleries; in the Summer Exhibition, look out for them on the doorframe between Gallery IX and the Lecture Room). The Academy struggled financially as a result of the war, so in 1918, it printed its first ever Summer Exhibition poster in the hope of boosting visitor figures. We’ve had fun making them ever since. You can see a selection of our favourites in the exhibition, and you can buy one downstairs in our new Poster Bar.

      Gallery IX, Burlington House after the explosion of a German bomb in 1917
    • Philip Sayer,  Summer Exhibition

      Philip Sayer, Summer Exhibition, 2015.

      6. The one where we went “new age”

      1955: Britain had a new Queen, the ailing Winston Churchill (who regularly entered the Summer Exhibition under a pseudonym) had resigned as Prime Minister, and The Dam Busters had just been released in cinemas. That year, the BBC also decided to broadcast a TV programme for the first time inside our galleries (its modern day equivalent is on BBC2 on Sunday 10 June). The exhibition received an unusually high number of visitors, with many drawn by Pietro Annigoni’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II after her coronation; now on display in The Great Spectacle.

    • 7. The one with the rock stars

      As Pop took hold of London in the 60s and 70s, so too did it take hold of the Summer Exhibition. Having famously designed the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record sleeve in 1967, artist Peter Blake designed the poster for the 1975 Summer Exhibition. But it was 26 years later when – the likes of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst having forced a reassessment of what could be considered “art” in the RA’s Sensation exhibition in 1997 – Blake co-ordinated the Summer Exhibition. He included works by musicians Paul McCartney and Ronnie Wood, as well as Hirst and Emin.

      Peter Blake and Gordon House, Poster, Summer Exhibition 1975

      Peter Blake and Gordon House, Poster, Summer Exhibition 1975, 1975.

      Peter’s Blake’s design for the Summer Exhibition poster.

      More details.

      Royal Academy archive.

    • , Photographs of procedures for the Summer Exhibition, 1930

      Explore 250 years of the Summer Exhibition online

      The Chronicle

      In celebration of the Royal Academy’s 250th birthday and coinciding with The Great Spectacle exhibition, a new open access publication by the Paul Mellon Centre looks back at 250 years of the Summer Exhibition. Explore 250 years of stories, artworks and data, alongside lively year-by-year essays and a complete set of digitised and searchable Summer Exhibition catalogues.

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