A day at The Royal Academy of Arts in London

I recently went to The Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London to see three exhibitions. The Great Spectacle – An exhibition celebrating 250 years of The Summer Exhibition, this years Summer Exhibition itself, and last but not least ‘Landscape’ by Tacita Dean. More than enough to fill the day. It was also an opportunity to see how the newly opened gallery spaces and link between Burlington House and Burlington Gardens improved the visiting experience. Please note that all three exhibitions have now closed.


A sculpture of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of The RA.

Before going any further I should just say that this post is quite long and includes 30 images. However if you are interested in a wide variety of art, both historical and contemporary please click on the ‘read more’ link below to see the whole post.

I started my visit with The Great Spectacle, a 250 year history of The RA and its renowned Annual Exhibition which later became The Summer Exhibition. It’s remarkable to think that from 1769 there has been an exhibition every year for leading artists of their day to display paintings, drawings, sculpture and other artworks. Not even two World Wars has prevented this event taking place.

“There shall be an Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures & Designs, which shall be open to all Artists of distinguished Merit.”

As you enter a large painting by William Powell Frith hangs below the wording in the above caption. Entitled ‘A Private View at The Royal Academy’ it was painted in 1881 and exhibited in 1883. It depicts a celebrity filled image which includes, Oscar Wilde, William Gladstone, Anthony Trollope and the Academy’s President Frederic Leighton.

In the next room is a marble bust of King George III made in 1773 by Agostino Carlini RA. It was King George III who founded the Royal Academy when he signed a document known as the Instrument of the Foundation in December 1768. It was presented to him by a group of painters, sculptors and architects and they were known as Academicians. In the background hangs a painting by Thomas Gainsborough RA of Elizabeth and Mary Linley c 1772.

Arguably one of the most famous Royal Academicians is J.M.W Turner RA. His painting ‘Calais Sands at Low Water:Poissards collecting Bait’, painted in 1830, was one of the highlights of the exhibition.

‘The Light of The World’ by William Holman Hunt was exhibited in 1854 and in subsequent years it became one of the most recognised and widely produced images of the 19th Century, demonstrating how the RA Exhibition was often considered to be an advertisement or launch pad for works of art and their creator.

I particularly enjoyed the above painting by Sir Alfred Munnings PRA a Past President of the RA. Shown in 1956 this witty painting entitled ‘Does the Subject Matter?’ was intended to provoke debate about The RA’s difficult relationship with modern art.

In the last room there was a selection of artworks from more recent times. In the foreground ‘There’s a Lot of Money in Chairs’ from 1994 by Tracey Emin RA and behind it an inkjet photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans RA, titled ‘Greifbar 1’ made in 2014.

A display of posters promoting the Summer Exhibition in previous years was good to see as it demonstrated how tastes in art have changed over time.

In complete contrast to The Great Spectacle the Summer Exhibition was busy and bustling with people as they moved around to view the 1347 artworks on display. Curated by Grayson Perry CBE RA, the people and their facial expressions reacting to the art were almost as interesting as the art itself!

In the Wohl Central Hall a huge artwork by Joana Vasconcelos dominates the space. The piece called ‘Royal Valkyrie’ is described in the catalogue – handmade woollen crochet, felt appliqués, fabrics, ornaments, inflatable, power supply unit and steel cables. It was made over a five-year period between 2012 and 2017.

Below are a selection of pictures which illustrate the truly diverse nature of the works on show.

‘Vote to Love’ by Banksy was both topical and political. In the catalogue it is listed for sale at £350million, with an asterisk denoting ‘refer to sales desk’. Spray painted over a UKIP placard the price is in fact symbolic – it reflects the amount that the Leave campaign once promised would go to the UK National Health Service each week if Britain left the EU. I read another interesting fact about the inclusion of this piece of art. On his Instagram account – Banksy writes – I entered an early version of this into the RA summer exhibition under the pseudonym Bryan S Gaakman – an anagram of ‘banksy anagram’. It was refused. Then a month later I got a mail from the co-ordinator Grayson Perry asking me to submit something so I sent it again. It’s now hanging in gallery 3.’ Great stuff!!

Another piece which attracted my attention was by Beatrice Haines. The large carbon pencil work is titled ‘Science Without Religion is Lame, Religion Without Science is Blind’ also a quote by Albert Einstein.  The drawing is of Stephen Hawking reaching his hand out to Sister Hannah Benedictus. The interpretation of this artwork is open for discussion and must be considered in knowledge of the fact that Stephen Hawking was a self-confessed atheist. Sadly Hawking died earlier this year making this picture all the more poignant.

‘Red Bear’ by Debbie Lawson drew a lot of attention for reasons I can understand.

It is fair to say that some works left me quite bemused, if not a little mystified to the point where I started to wonder if the Fire Exit sign was also a piece of art and not a notice to be heeded in the event of an emergency!

A set of posters all called ‘Untitled’ by David Shrigley were good fun and made me smile but then I read the price – £5,400 each.

It was pleasing to see quite a number of photographs in the Sackler Galleries. This one by Paul Hart, ‘Caulton’s Cottage’ is a toned silver gelatin print from a series and book called ‘Farmed’. Paul is a photographer whose work I admire and I was pleased to read that this book is being reprinted. Time to pre-order a copy I think.

Other photographs were on display although judging by the red dots some were definitely more popular/commercial than others.

Also on display were a number of aquatint etching prints by one of my favourite artists – Norman Ackroyd RA. (above and below)

I finished my tour of the Summer Exhibition. Packed with people it was at times hard to appreciate all the artwork on display. An exhibition full of contrast and eclectic tastes. Something for everyone. Many artworks left me cold, some made me smile and a few, and only a few, would I have given wall space in my home, and that’s assuming of course I could afford the price. The Summer Exhibition has always had a broad appeal and it is this characteristic which has largely brought about its 250 years of uninterrupted success, and I am sure it will continue to do so.

Away from the main galleries there were other artworks which were hard to ignore. The statue of the Farnese Hercules (above) is a cast made in 1790 from the original sculpture which was discovered in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in 1546. The Farnese Hercules is one of the RA Casts which has a metal pin protruding from the lower abdomen on which would have been hung a fig leaf when the Academy was open for the Summer Exhibition. There was a furore in the press in 1780 when there was much criticism of the casts remaining uncovered because of ‘the shameful state of nudity, to the terror of every decent woman who enters the room’. The Morning Post, 6 May 1780.

Elsewhere and a rather bizarre installation yet still considered to be ‘art’ (?) was a water closet and roll top bath on a balcony. There was also a pedestal wash hand basin just out of the picture to the left, completing the three-piece suite.

Moving swiftly on I made my way to the last of the three exhibitions – Tacita Dean – Landscape.

Tactia Dean’s work encompasses a wide variety of media, from photography and film, to drawing and collecting. One of the largest pieces on display was the chalk on blackboard drawing titled ‘The Montafon Letter’ (shown below). The title comes from a letter recounting the events in the Austrian Valley in 1689. An avalanche buried three hundred people in a single village with a second avalanche burying the priest who had come to officiate the burying of the dead. A miraculous third avalanche then later unburied him.

There was also a remarkable display of one her collections – ‘Four, five, six, seven and Nine leaf Clove Collection’. Started when she was a child it later became a lesson in ‘how to find by not looking’. The sheer scale of this collection is hard to portray in a single photograph. I could have repeated the image below many times.

Finally a return to The Summer Exhibition and a piece by David Hockney RA. ‘Inside it Opens Up as Well’.

Visiting three exhibitions in one day, particularly when it includes the Summer Exhibition is something of a sensory overload. I left feeling quite exhausted whilst asking myself the question ‘what is art?’

The Oxford English Dictionary defines art as – The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Personally I have always liked the quote by Thomas Merton which is taken from his book ‘No Man is an Island’ – Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Strictly speaking this is not a definition but I like it all the same – in fact it features on the home page of this site.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to The Royal Academy. I have also benefited from researching some of the works mentioned in this entry. This has broadened my knowledge and understanding of both the art and their artists.

If you have made it this this far then well done! I hope you found this entry interesting, and enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed piecing it together.

Thank you for visiting my website.


6 Responses to “A day at The Royal Academy of Arts in London”

  1. Robert Parker

    Mr. F – thank you for posting all these photos, you’ve given a great tour – quite a day!
    I saw a Tacita Dean exhibition in Montreal, but a lot of this was new to me, and very interesting. “Sensory overload” is no exaggeration. “Royal Valkyrie” alone would bring me in the door – tonight, I’ll be dreaming of hot air balloons and my grandmother’s pincushion collection.


  2. westdeanie

    Interesting and informative post – enjoyed seeing the Norman Ackroyd’s in particular and great story about Banksy!


  3. BuntyMcC

    Thank you for posting your excellent photos and well-researched commentary on these three art exhibits. Overload indeed; I could have absorbed but one in a day! My daughter finds 4-leaf clovers without looking.


    • alan frost

      My pleasure. I enjoyed the research as much as the visit itself. I don’t think I have ever found a 4-leaf clover, although I seem to remember my mother was an expert just like your daughter!

      Liked by 1 person


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: