Una Stubbs called it correctly. “This is so uniquely British. I can’t imagine it happening anywhere else in the world.” The object of her desire is the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition – specifically the gloriously entitled Non Members Varnishing Day, when the successful artists, august and amateur, get to see their paintings hung for the very first time.
The day takes its name from the old preexhibition ritual practised by the likes of JMW Turner, when the final flourishes were added to paintings. Today, there’s no whiff of lacquer, just the scent of achievement.
Stubbs’s portrait of Grayson Perry hangs in a gallery adjoining one displaying a huge Perry tapestry. Her entry was one of around 400 selected from 12,000 public submissions – the judges have no idea of the identity of the artist when making their choice – with the rest of the exhibition made up of invited contributions.
“It is so exciting to be here among this buzz of people – ordinary amateur painters like me rubbing shoulders with some of the greats of the art establishment,” says Stubbs. “It is a real privilege and I am genuinely very excited.”
Last year her paintings of fellow Sherlock stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman also made the cut. How did she commit Grayson Perry to canvas this year? “Oh, I am a big fan of his, so I have an image in my head. I tend to paint it and repaint it until I’ve got it right. The bin is always full! This took about ten attempts.”
And what would former screen dad Alf Garnett make of his “girl” on show at the exhibtion, which opened on 8 June? “Oh, he’d absolutely love it. He’d be proud as punch, down the pub bragging to all his friends, ‘Look what my girl’s done’…”
“I started painting about three and a half years ago, just as a hobby,” says retired HR officer Jean Samtula, 65, from Letchworth in Hertfordshire, whose story symbolises the egalitarian principles of the exhibition. “I had never lifted a brush before that. I went to a class and really just fell in love with it. Now I paint in the kitchen among all the pots and pans.”
So why Simon Cowell? “I like him. He seems to me to be a nice man and I love his smile. I think he has an interesting face.”
And her joy at being accepted into the exhibition? “I can’t say it’s a dream come true because I could never have dreamt this would happen. It’s amazing and such an honour. I am very proud of myself.”
Harry Hill’s portrait of artist Damien Hirst is on the lid of an old cheese box. “I like the idea of making something from nothing, although I’m not happy about being [hung] below Simon Cowell — not happy with that billing at all.” He laughs out loud.
Hill says he’s painted for more than 20 years and has submitted entries to the Summer Exhibition on a number of occasions — his portrait of Hirst being only his second success.
“For me this is like a big ego puff. If you’re an amateur you’re never going to get your own exhibition, so this is a big deal. I’ve met a lot of celebrities over the years but the people I admire most are artists, because it must be the toughest way to earn a living. It’s the highest calling in a way, isn’t it — that and drummer!”
The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2
Radio Times Reader Event
Avoid the crowds at our private view of the 2015 Summer Exhibition
Radio Times is offering readers the chance to attend an exclusive private viewing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Tuesday 4 August for just £22. Offering a snapshot of contemporary art, the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition is one of the most significant events in the art calendar. The sheer variety of work presented each year is what makes the exhibition so special, with sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, video and installation all on show, created by anyone from emerging amateur artists to the biggest names in contemporary art and architecture. At the RT private viewing you can explore the artwork at your leisure, avoiding the crowds.
YOUR EVENING AT THE RA
7pm Receive a list of works and a complimentary glass of wine in the galleries.
7.15pm A welcome talk by Radio Times executive editor Tom Loxley.
7.30pm Talk by an RA expert.
7.30—9.00pm Your private view of the entire exhibition, with a chance to speak with an RA expert and RT’s Tom Loxley.
The RA shop will be open all evening with a ten per cent discount for guests.
To book call 020 7300 5635* and quote Radio Times, or visit roy.ac/radiotimes
Summer Exhibition 2015 is sponsored by Insight Investment