When we think of the Royal Academy, we imagine a place of grandeur, tradition and of course – outrageous scandal through its 250 year-long history. As the only privately funded British institution that offers free arts tutelage for all, the Royal Academy holds a special place in our hearts. This oldest art school in the land also has a starry line-up of alumni and presidents including Joshua Reynolds (wrly called ‘Sloshua Reynolds’), Edward John Poynter, Frederic Leighton and currently, Christopher Le Brun to its name.
But what secrets lie behind the curtain of pomp and circumstance? Set up by King George III in 1768, the Royal Academy has seen its fair share of public outcry. In honour of its illustrious 250th birthday in 2018, when a bumper crop of exhibitions is planned to fill the shiny new building designed by David Chipperfield, let’s take a look back at some of the Royal Academy’s greatest moments.
The battle ground of great artist rivalries
Probably the most famous stories surrounding the Royal Academy are the tussles that have broken out on varnishing day – originally the time that artists would put the finishing touches on their works submitted to the annual Summer Exhibition. On one particular occasion, two giants of British art squared up to each other across the marbled floors of the academy. The notoriously eccentric J.W.M. Turner saw John Constable’s colourful and monumental scene of Waterloo Bridge beside his own meagre offering and began to pace back and forth like a blood hound. With a flick of the brush like the jab of a rapier, Turner placed a daub of brilliant vermillion at the heart of his painting’s grey seas, making Constable’s work that had taken him over 13 years to complete seem positively dull. Such was the scandal that another Royal Academician described it as like a gun going off.
How not to flog a Leonardo
Even the Royal Academy, that bastion of high culture, has found itself in dire straights over money troubles in the past. Back in 1962 the President at the time, Sir Charles Wheeler, decided it was time to take drastic measures and announced that the small sketch of the Virgin on the Rocks would be put up for auction. Curiously it was the art critic Richard Cork, then aged 14, that first rounded up the cavalry and demanded the cartoon be rescued for the nation. And you’ll still find it still lurking somewhere in the Royal Academy library vaults today…
Connoisseurship gone awry
Plenty of artists have faced the backlash of misplaced taste at the hands of the Royal Academy. Take the horse painter Arthur Munnings whose presidency was described as ‘truly disastrous’. He was so violently opposed to Modern Art that he tried to get Stanley Spencer arrested on account of his obscene painting, tossed a sculpture by Jacop Epstein onto the rubbish pile and deplored the work of a young upstart called Pablo Picasso. So it seems, even the mightiest of connoisseurs can make errors of judgement.
Anything but ordinary please
Once a battleground for stuffy middle of the road artistic types, the Royal Academy of the 21st century is quickly changing its image and embracing a new generation of contemporary artists. Leading the charge is Cornelia Parker, Tacita Dean, Anish Kapoor and Grayson Perry: the vocal transvestite potter that rebranded the face of ceramics. Perry can always be relied upon to arrive at the annual Royal Academy Summer Party dressed to the nines and ready to give the newspapers their front page.
Speaking of the Summer Party…
Lifestyles of the rich and famous
Each year the Royal Academy celebrates the opening of the Summer Exhibition with a party so glamorous it would make Donatella Versace blush. From artists and critics to supermodels and Hollywood’s finest, Burlington House is positively overrun with the great and the good of British society, set to appear in Tatler the next morning. Last year, under the watchful eye of Grayson Perry, Princess Eugenie rubbed shoulders with Amber Le Bon while Charles XCX provided music from the decks.
As the Royal Academy heads into a new era, we’ll have to wait and see how the institution will keep a cool head and manage to balance the old guard of tradition with the ambition of daring young artists. But if we’re lucky, there’ll be some good old fashioned scandal along the way.