A new documentary celebrates the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, the world-famous gallery and art school and, it turns out, rather eccentric private members’ club. It’s not the oldest royally endowed art academy in the world – Spain’s San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts was established in 1744 – but it can count Thomas Gainsborough, JMW Turner and Grayson Perry among its previous and current members. As the Academy unveils a major makeover, here’s our guide to a remarkable cultural institution…
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An ear for art
George III – the king who lost America to George Washington and went mad – founded the Royal Academy in 1768 to “promote the arts in Britain”. Joshua Reynolds, whose statue stands in the forecourt, was the founding president of the Academy and, so far, the only one to employ an ear trumpet.
Who’s in, who’s out, who turned it down
Tracey Emin is a member, but Damien Hirst turned the Academy down – even when Emin asked him personally: “I rang Damien up and he said, ‘I couldn’t.’” The great landscape painter John Constable struggled for years to get in. He was made an associate in 1819, but didn’t receive full membership until 1829, when he was 52.
Oaths and protests
A new member is elected – or not – by the Academicians in an open ballot, so you can see who did (or didn’t) vote for you. New members must take an oath and sign a “roll of obligation”, promising to “employ our utmost Endeavours, to promote the Honor [sic] and Interest of the Establishment”. In 1799, Irish painter James Barry was expelled because he made “improper digressions” in his lectures (and had previously supported the Americans in the War of Independence). His name on the roll was crossed out; George III’s authorising signature is alongside the marks.
The only other expulsion was Brendan Neiland in 2005, when he was accused of mismanaging an RA bank account. Sir Peter Blake, the hugely influential pop artist, resigned in protest. After taking the oath, new Academicians receive medals, with a different colour ribbon depending on their discipline: painter, architect, sculptor or printmaker. There are 80 current Academicians; 26 are women.
Two men, one vote
The artists Gilbert & George, who regard themselves as “a single artistic entity”, were elected as one member in 2017 – which means they only get one vote in RA membership elections.
Since 1769, the Summer Exhibition has been held every year and is open to all artists, who can submit up to two works; Academicians can enter as many as six. Varnishing Day was once a chance for artists to put the finishing touches to their work before the exhibition opened – now it is noteworthy for the very long lunch members enjoy in the main gallery
Audience with the Queen
Every two years the president of the RA must go to Buckingham Palace and give the monarch a personal report on the Academy’s fortunes.
The Royal Academy’s permanent holdings include 940 paintings, 350 sculptures and a collection of human remains. The greatest treasure is Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, created in 1504. The marble sculpture shows the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ and John the Baptist. There are two cracks in the marble, and it is kept behind protective glass.
A priceless collection that didn’t cost a penny
The RA’s collection – including works by Gainsborough, Constable, Turner and Reynolds – is based upon 250 years of diploma works, a piece of art that every new member, or RA Elect, must donate to the Academy before receiving a diploma and thereby becoming an Academician proper. The diplomas are printed using the same copper plate used since 1769, and signed by the current sovereign.
The infamous drunken rant
It took four decades for the RA’s reputation to recover from an outrageous speech given by then president Sir Alfred Munnings at the Academy’s annual dinner in 1949, broadcast live on BBC radio. He had been sitting next to Winston Churchill, who quite possibly egged him on. In the speech, Munnings, clearly the worse for wear, mocked modern art and said that Churchill had asked him, “If I saw Picasso coming down the street, would you join me in kicking him in the something, something?” The answer? “Yesh!”
The oldest art school
The Royal Academy is also the oldest art school in the United Kingdom. Referred to as “the Schools”, even though there is just one, it was set up in 1769 with an intake of 77 students; it now offers postgraduate degrees. It was the first ever institution in Britain to offer art education to the public.
The new-look Royal Academy
With the opening on 19th May of the new bridge designed by Royal Academician David Chipperfield, the Academy’s Burlington House and Burlington Gardens will be joined together above ground for the first time. Chipperfield’s bridge is part of a £56 million redevelopment, part funded with a £12.7 million National Lottery Fund grant. The redevelopment will double the size of the Academy’s public spaces, adding new galleries, a lecture theatre and cafés.
The Academy has a priceless collection of antique silverware, some of which dates back to the 1770s, kept in a vault below the building. The tradition has now fizzled out, but new Academicians often used to present the RA with a piece of silver, as well as their diploma work. As artistic fortunes can waver, the collection includes several teaspoons.
The red-collar guards
The RA has its own guards-cum-guides. The Red Collars are the public face of the Academy, meeting and greeting all visitors, from the Queen downwards. They wear the same uniform – with its signature red collar – as workers at Buckingham Palace. In the past they have posed as life models for Academicians.
Saved by Da Vinci
In 1962, the Academy was in dire financial straits, and decided to sell one of its greatest treasures: a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of the Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. There were fears that it would be taken overseas by a foreign buyer – but a public campaign raised enoughs funds to buy it for the nation, and it’s now on display at the National Gallery. Today an important source of income for the RA is the 100,000-plus Friends of the Academy, who each pay £60–£180 a year, bringing in an annual revenue of more than £11 million.
The Private Life of the Royal Academy is on Saturday 12th May at 9pm on BBC2