Society and the Great Spectacle

2018 is the anniversary of two big spectacles. It is the 50th anniversary of May ’68 and the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. The first has been co-opted like most things. Those hoping to book a place on the latter this year best be careful or instead of 250th Summer Exhibition, they might book The Great Exhibition: 25 Years of the Summer Exhibition.


The show presents the 250 history of the Summer Exhibition and it is an uneven history. It began strongly in the Georgian period. The first room has its obligatory Reynolds, Gainbourough and Lawrence. Did portraiture get any better? Poised between a naturalism and classicism the Georgian portraitists revealed those universal truths of art in the particular. Their sitters were predominantly white and rich. Some of their patrons would have made their money from the colonies and from slavery. The portraits are soulful, easy and refined.

The high tide of the Summer Exhibition is in this early period dominated by Turner, Constable and Girton. Painting rural scenes just as industry changed many of these landscapes, their art has resonated with many art lovers ever since.


The exhibition breaks somewhere at this point, or depending on your tastes, just after the pre-Raphelites. After this the exhibition becomes first a social history during the later Victorian period and then in the Edwardian period an apologia for privilege.

In the Georgian time, the Summer Exhibition was a society event by the victorian period, this had become stilted. Compare Rowlandson’s print of tumbling beauties with the crinolined belles of Frith’s A Private View of the Royal Academy

The Edwardian period saw the first glimmerings of high modernism, but this was not allowed into the exhibition. What was let in instead where classicising images or problem paintings, posing moral dilemmas for the audience. This is exemplified in the exhibition by Collier’s The Prodigal Daughter.  As an elite institution, the Summer Exhibition was targeted by terrorists. In 1914 Mary Wood attacked the painting of Henry James by John Singer Sargent with a meat cleaver.

The later rooms contain the odd piece by a well known artist but it is the artistic equivalent of a disco record. Their hearts are not really in it. The odd masterpiece floats by like so much flotsam.


History of the spectacle

The exhibition is at its best as a history. The most interesting pieces are those which stirred passions: Wilkie’s Village Politicians or The Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo Dispatch, Frith’s Ramsgate Sands or Elizabeth Thompson’s The Roll Call, all tell us something about the society which produced them.

And yet, history is always as much about the present moment as it is about the past. Here, history is not contextualised. I say history but key events of the last 250 years of British History are not mentioned (just for starters empire, slavery, rise of capitalism, over-pollution, parliamentary change).

The show is predominantly male, white and privileged. The odd woman creeps in. Angelica Kauffmann, a founder of the RA, has a prominent position in one of the first rooms, but she is one of the rare women. The RA became an institution of privilege. Although membership was open to all, it was a hard struggle for women to get recognition.

It is what is not said that is most telling. Not just the artists whose work was not exhibited, but those who were excluded from the exhibition and the Royal Academy. Those for whom art was barred. In some areas the RA has done work on this but they obviously felt that the Summer Exhibition was too strong a brand to ‘damage’ with  critique.


Is the show is worth seeing? It contains some stunning art work, but lacks context. A much braver show would have examined those works of art which weren’t exhibited, for whatever reasons.

On this occasion I would instead recommend visiting Tate Britain or Manchester Art Gallery. Both museums have examined what it means to be a museum specialising in art created and collected during the colonial period. More work needs to be done, but to shy away from this work – like the RA has done in this exhibition – is no longer acceptable.


The Professor’s Dream, 1848 by Charles Robert Cockerell RA