The summer exhibition at the Royal Academy, with its overstuffed galleries and motley collection of overblown portraits, twee still lifes and garish landscapes has become an event where you go to be seen rather than to see; it’s less about the art than the experience. But the first-ever public show of paintings, sculpture, architectural drawings in London, which opened on 21 April 1760, was a truly artistic sensation. For the first time, it was possible for anyone to see the best of British paintings and sculpture, for the price of a modest entrance fee. Until then, viewing great masters had been strictly limited to those who could afford to travel abroad to the galleries of Florence, Rome, Paris, or who had rich friends with a private collection.
You might ask why it took so long for British painters to get together to promote their work. But artists, like writers, being highly competitive and awfully narcissistic, are not naturally co-operative. There’s lots of quarrelling, rows and petty disputes in Charles Saumarez Smith’s account of how the fledgling Society of Artists, which organised that first exhibition, grew into the much grander and more seriously organised Royal Academy, with its regal imprimatur and an agenda that included not just organising an annual show but also establishing a ‘well regulated School or Academy of Design’.
The Society had begun to disintegrate almost before its first exhibition, riven by feuds about hanging (pictures, not people). Why has your painting been hung in a better position than mine? What do I have to do to ensure my picture is included? Sub-groups grew out of sub-groups, rather like a church in crisis, until things got so bad the Attorney General was consulted. Resolutions and resignations followed in bewildering succession until finally the King, George III, allowed himself to be named as Patron and Protector to the new Academy and the members began to behave much better, quelled into quiescence by the lure of a royal commission.
Joshua Reynolds reluctantly accepted the honour of being named as first President — he preferred the company of writers, notably Dr Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith — and disliked any duties that took him away from his studio and his dining-table. Surprisingly, perhaps, eating and drinking constituted a large part of the activities of the Academy. Apart from organising an annual exhibition, the main duties of the Academicians were to attend the annual lectures given by Reynolds and the lavish dinner that followed. From the typical menu quoted by Saumarez Smith, not a lot of creative work can have been done the following day:
The first course included fish and sauce, ham, fowls, greens, pigeon pye, roast beef, tongue and turtle, followed by duck, asparagus, geese, lamb and salad. For pudding, they had blancmange and tarts and it was all washed down with claret, Madeira, port and sherry, in no particular order.
Saumarez Smith’s book is really an excuse to bring together a group of fascinating 18th-century paintings, from Hogarth’s fabulous self-portrait with pug, which proves the adage that dog-owners come to resemble their pets, to Elias Martin’s self-explanatory ‘The Cast Room at the Royal Academy’, and Francis Cotes’s portrait of Paul Sandby, leaning out of a window, sketchbook in hand, his beautiful long fingers wielding his stick of charcoal.
But Saumarez Smith also does something else: he turns a dry-as-dust subject, the creation of a bureaucratic organisation, into a lively and good-humoured study of how to get things done amid the machinations of committee politics and delicate creative temperaments.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012