A long-standing favourite of the London art year, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is the world’s largest open-submission contemporary art exhibition. Members of the fêted Royal Academy compete against unknown artists to have their work displayed.
Founded in 1768 as a rival to the Society of Artists, the Royal Academy has hosted its annual summer exhibition – the world’s biggest open contemporary art exhibition – since its inception at a number of venues: Pall Mall, Somerset House, Trafalgar Square, and finally Burlington House on Piccadilly.
The process by which the paintings where chosen and hung, the Varnishing Days, private views and banquets have all changed little since the 19th century, when the exhibition ran for a month longer, from the first Monday in May to the first Monday in August.
Any artist was allowed to submit up to eight paintings to the Selection Committee, who were (and still are) famous for their fast-moving and relentless decision-making, as thousands of artworks were paraded in front of the Committee by a human chain of art-handlers, known as ‘carpenters’. Paintings were marked with an ‘A’ (accepted), ‘D’ (doubtful) or a cross (rejected). Many ‘doubtful’ paintings actually made it to the hanging stage.
Now it was the turn of the Hanging Committee, who selected the most outstanding works, which were hung ‘on the line’, at eye level, the most prestigious position. The walls were then crammed with the remaining paintings, which were positioned from floor to ceiling, with some condemned to inaccessible heights and shadowy corners. The final choices about paintings to include were made by the Hanging Committee as they worked to include as many submissions as possible.
Before the Exhibition opened to the general public, a number of social events took place, which were very much an integral part of the London Season. Varnishing Days were set aside for the exhibitors, who were allowed to put the finishing touches to their paintings. These days were a convivial chance for artists to meet, eye up each other’s work and swap notes.
From 1871 a Press Day was set aside for newspapers and periodicals, and a Royal Private View Day allowed the royal family exclusive access to the exhibition. But the real height of the Social Season was the Private View. Admission was by ticket only and attendance by the fashionable elite was de rigueur. The final event, held on the Saturday before the Exhibition opened to the public, was the Royal Academy Banquet, a men-only affair that was attended by members of the Academy, and the highest-ranking representatives of the Government, Church, universities and armed forces, as well as the worlds of art, drama, music and literature.
The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was extraordinarily popular amongst the general public in the 19th century – its peak year was 1879, when over 390,000 visitors paid a shilling to gain entrance to Burlington House. Reviews of all the major works featured in the newspapers, which also reported the speeches from the Royal Academy Banquet. Some of the paintings sold for astronomical sums.
Today the Summer Exhibition continues to attract large crowds, with over 200,000 visitors expected in 2022. Many of the historic traditions persist. A rotating committee made up of practising artists choose over 5,000 works from more than 11,000 entries. Each year an artist co-ordinator is chosen to direct the show. The final choices are made in the gallery on ‘Sanctioning Day’, when after the eight-day hanging period, the committee meets for the last time and finalises the selection. Today, exhibitions include photographic and moving images, and examples of installation and performance art.
The Varnishing Day tradition persists, but it has now become a celebration of the artists in the show, who gather in the courtyard of Burlington House and form a procession down Piccadilly, led by a steel band, before attending an artists’ blessing at St James’s Church.
If you are visiting the Summer Show or any other exhibition or gallery, observe the following rules:
• Never touch the art. Don’t even get too close to the art – you may find staff admonishing you and asking you to step back.
• Switch off your mobile and talk quietly – art galleries are not places for loud conversations.
• Be very aware of the people around you, and if you are planted firmly in front of a painting remember that other visitors will have to wait before you move on. You may want more time to look at individual artworks, but it is probably better to observe the ebb and flow of visitors and return to a painting when there is more space available.
• Do not use flash photography – it can damage artwork and is distracting for other visitors. If other visitors are taking photographs, give them plenty of space.
• If you are encumbered with coats or jackets, and especially backpacks, check them into the cloakroom. In a crowded exhibition, backpacks can be a real hazard as you’re liable to jostle other people.
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