Royal Academy show to look back at 250 years of Summer Exhibitions

The Great Spectacle, to be held in London in 2018, will illustrate controversies and disputes of art world since 1768

The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, as traditional a British summer fixture as Wimbledon, the Derby and underwhelming weather, will next year be bigger than ever before and accompanied by an exhibition charting its history.

The RA said it is planning an exhibition called The Great Spectacle which will run alongside what is the largest open submission art exhibition in the world.

Next year will be a mammoth one for the RA. Celebrating 250 years, it will open a major redevelopment linking for the first time its buildings in London, Burlington House on Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens.

Tim Marlow, the RA’s artistic director, said the Summer Exhibition was “an immoveable feast and a national treasure” so it had to be a central part of what would be “a big programme of historical reflection ... who we are, where we came from and obviously where we are going to go.”

The plan is to have the Summer Exhibition in more galleries than usual and a parallel Great Spectacle show telling its history.

Tim Marlow of the Royal Academy of Arts.
Tim Marlow of the Royal Academy of Arts. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

“There are great moments and there are forgotten moments, so to look back over the history of the Summer Exhibition in relation to British taste and the art historical narratives of British art is really interesting,” said Marlow.

What stories the exhibition will tell remains to be seen and may depend on still to be agreed loans.

Probably the most famous Summer Exhibition story shines light on the rivalry between two of Britain’s greatest painters, Turner and Constable, who clashed on what is known as varnishing day when academicians gather to put finishing touches to their works.

In May 1832 Constable, with immense pride, showed off his painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a huge work he had, on and off, been working on for more than a decade.

Next to it the serene seascape offered by Turner, of Dutch ships in a gale, Helvoetsluys, seemed underwhelming in comparison.

Turner, loving the competition and refusing to be outdone, went to get his brush and palette and ostentatiously added a blob of blazing red in the middle, instantly transforming it. “He has been here and fired a gun,” wrote a cheesed-off Constable.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge by John Constable, 1776-1837.
The Opening of Waterloo Bridge by John Constable, 1776-1837. Photograph: Alamy

Marlow said the exhibition would not shy away from perhaps better-forgotten moments in the RA’s summer show history.

Chief among those is the bibulous after-dinner speech given in 1949 by RA president Sir Alfred Munnings, the respected sporting painter, when he declared that if he saw Picasso walking down the street, he’d kick him up the backside.

Toe-curlingly, he continued: “I find myself a president of a body of men who are what I call shilly-shallying. They feel there is something in this so-called modern art … Well, I myself would rather have – excuse me, my Lord Archbishop – a damned bad failure, a bad, muddy old picture where somebody has tried … to set down what they have seen than all this affected juggling, this following of, what shall we call it, the School of Paris?

“Not so long ago I spoke in this room to the students, and … I said to those students, ‘if you paint a tree, for God’s sake try and make it look like a tree, and if you paint a sky, try and make it look like a sky.”

Lord and Lady Mildmay of Flete, with their Children, Helen and Anthony, with a View towards Ermington in Devonshire, by Sir Alfred Munnings, 1878-1959.
Lord and Lady Mildmay of Flete, with their Children, Helen and Anthony, with a View towards Ermington in Devonshire, by Sir Alfred Munnings, 1878-1959. Photograph: Christie's/PA

Marlow would not be drawn on what will be in the Great Spectacle exhibition, which is being curated by Mark Hallett and Sarah Turner of the Paul Mellon Centre. More details are expected in September.

The Summer Exhibition has, of course, changed dramatically over the years. In the Georgian age it was a stage for artists to both shine and shock and for a long time it was the only place people could see major exhibitions of quality.

It is still an open competition attracting around 12,000 entries of, it is fair to say, varying quality.

“It is highly democratic,” said Marlow. “It is the only exhibition I can think of where some of the greatest artists in the world can show alongside amateurs who submit and get their work selected.”

It is also hugely popular, last year attracting more than 230,000 visitors who stayed, on average, for two and a half hours. “There is a very deep engagement; people do get very immersed in it.”

Marlow said the Summer Exhibition plans for 2018, first revealed in the Art Newspaper, would be a big deal. “It will be the first and probably the only time in the Academy’s recent and future history when the entire campus is devoted to one grand project.”


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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