sat 25/05/2019

The Company of Strangers: How the Royal Academy Was Founded | reviews, news & interviews

The Company of Strangers: How the Royal Academy Was Founded

The Company of Strangers: How the Royal Academy Was Founded

Charles Saumarez Smith introduces his new book about the founding of a national institution

Johann Zoffany's 'The Academicians of the Royal Academy', 1771-2

Since becoming Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts almost exactly five years ago, I have become increasingly interested in why it was established. In particular, I almost inevitably got interested in the so-called Laws which govern its operation as a binding constitution.  

When I started in post, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the then President, told me to sleep with the Laws under my pillow. At the time, I thought it was a joke. But, as time went by, I realised that he was deadly serious. At every meeting of the so-called General Assembly, which is when the Academicians gather together to discuss issues of common concern and to elect new members, the Laws are cited. Nothing can be done unless the Laws permit it. The procedure of election, the system whereby members serve on Council, the fact that the President is elected every year, everything operates according to the Laws. I found it hard to remember them. Indeed, I spent one summer holiday rewriting them because there was a requirement to eradicate the universal presumption in the way the Laws had been written that all Academicians were men. This may just have been an aspect of 18th-century legalese since, as it happens, two of the original Academicians were women, but it was, not surprisingly, regarded as offensive by the considerable number of Academicians who are now women. But having rewritten them, I still could not remember them. (Charles Saumarez Smith by Mariana Cook pictured below.)

What particularly intrigued me was that once or twice I was taken on one side and told, first, that the Laws were written by Samuel Johnson and, second, that they were the model for the American constitution. I now realise that neither are totally untrue. Samuel Johnson was, indeed, a close friend of Joshua Reynolds (Self-portrait, below left). They went on an expedition together to the west country in the late summer of 1762. In 1764, Joshua Reynolds established a weekly club, which met upstairs at the Turk’s Head Tavern and included not only Johnson and Reynolds, but also the political philosopher and writer on art, Edmund Burke, and the poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith. So, it is just possible that when the constitution of one or other of the artists’ societies which preceded the Royal Academy was being discussed, Johnson and Burke were consulted. And it is not absurd to think that there are strong elements of 18th-century constitutional theory in the way the Laws were written, given the separation of powers between the President, the Keeper and the Treasurer and the constitutional ambiguity as to whether the real seat of power with the Council or General Assembly.

So it was that, on my summer holiday last year, I sat down to work out in more detail how it was that the original Laws of the Royal Academy came to be written.

I wrote down first how it was that four men, including the architect William Chambers, turned up at St James’s Palace during the afternoon of Monday 28th November 1768 to see George III about the idea of establishing a Royal Academy. He supported the project. But he must have encouraged them to come back with a written constitution to avoid the pitfalls of the other artists’ societies which had quickly come to grief because of disagreements as to how they should operate. Chambers came back on Wednesday 7th December, 1768 with what was described subsequently as "a Sketch of a Plan". I now think that this was a deliberate understatement and that, in fact, he must have had the broad outline of the so-called Instrument of Foundation which was agreed and signed by the King only three days later, on Saturday 10th December 1768. Maybe the King made a few changes and recommendations. Others will have been consulted. But the majority of the ideas contained in the document had probably been in existence since the early 1750s when artists first started to consider establishing an academy.  

At the heart of the project were three big ideas. The first concerned the benefits of establishing a society which could represent the professional interests of artists and improve their public standing under the auspices of the King. Before the Royal Academy existed, artists worked as individuals, striving to do as well as they could, but without the support and public esteem which the Royal Academy was expected to give them. Many of them had been to Italy and France where they met other artists under the auspices of the academies which existed in European cities. They subscribed to a belief that art should be treated not just as a trade, but as a way of communicating ideas about literature and history. The Academy allowed Reynolds to give his discourses, in which every year he would stand up as President and give a talk on aspects of art practice, which was then published and read throughout Europe.

The second big idea was the aspiration for the work of artists to be seen in public exhibitions. It is almost impossible now to remember that there was a time when art was confined to churches, private houses, palaces and public buildings. There was no place for the public easily to see new art. Artists thought there should be. They started holding exhibitions under the auspices of the newly established Society of Artists in 1760. The first exhibition attracted 1,000 visitors a day, not far short of the numbers who are attracted to the Royal Academy’s annual summer exhibition today. So, they wanted the Academy to satisfy the public hunger for art

The third big idea was a belief that it was the responsibility of the older generation of artists to give instruction to the young. There had been many previous attempts to establish small-scale private art schools, the Society of Arts offered prizes to young artists, and artists used to meet in order to improve their drawing skills at the so-called St Martin’s Lane Academy. But there had been nothing to match the authority of the teaching which was to be offered by the art school set up by the Royal Academy. It provided a robust discipline to the teaching of drawing, including prizes and examinations. The great majority of artists of the next generation, including Constable, Blake and Turner, all studied at the Royal Academy Schools.

In writing about the early history of the Royal Academy, I felt that I learned a great deal about what led to its establishment, the set of ideas and beliefs which motivated the four men who went to see the King on that cold day in November 1768. The ideals were essentially those of the 18th-century Enlightenment, a belief that collective action could lead to improvements in society and that by working together artists could encourage a more serious approach to the practice of art.  

I have also found it interesting how the three founding ideals — the belief in the high status of art, in the benefits of public exhibitions, and in the importance of a coherent system of teaching — remain absolutely legitimate today.

Its ideals were essentially those of the 18th-century Enlightenment, a belief that collective action could lead to improvements in society

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