Rumours of disaffection were widespread even before I had seen this year’s RA summer extravaganza (sponsored by Insight Investment). The usual complaints about the hanging and selection had doubled or trebled, not just from non-members but from the Academicians themselves, but the critic tries to keep an open mind for as long as possible. Unfortunately, my equanimity did not survive the first room.
This year, the visitor enters the exhibition via the Central Hall, where a gallimaufry of work has been hung against bright red walls. Some of it survives this shock treatment, but other exhibits are disastrously affected. Is it insensitivity or spite that accounts for the hanging of two early masterpieces by John Hoyland against this destructive red? All the subtlety of the colour relationships in these beautiful 1970s paintings is lost, and their potency sabotaged.
Hoyland, a previous professor of painting at the Academy, was often outspoken and no doubt made enemies. But he died last year, and this is his last appearance in the Summer Exhibition. He can no longer answer back and this display is supposed to be a tribute to him. The Academy is shamed by such treatment of one of its most distinguished members.
Thankfully, there are other paintings in this hellish room that are less damaged by the unsympathetic wall colour. The work of Adrian Berg, another recently deceased painter, survives rather better, and the inspired dribbles of his garden and park paintings, predominantly green and blue, tackle the eye with sustained but harmonious complexity.
Three strongly figurative acrylics by John Wragg hold their own, as does a charming group of oils by the nonagenarian husband-and-wife team of Bernard Dunstan and Diana Armfield. Leonard McComb’s polished bronze sculpture of a naked young man holds the floor well, though rather overcome with reflections. Ian Davenport’s big stripe and puddle painting punches its way through the din. And somehow a large sensitive painting by Philippa Stjernsward, called ‘Pink City’, can also be seen and thoroughly appreciated.
Gallery III, the main Academy space, comes next, but instead of using this magisterial room for big paintings, it has been flooded with smaller works which set up a barrage on the eyes and the mind and is no pleasure to contemplate. The only way to deal with this is by separating out a group of works and examining them closely, if you can manage to ignore the surrounding clamour and conflict. Take, for instance, the group around Clyde Hopkins’s succinct abstract ‘Along the Ridge’. Nearby there’s the brilliant blue and silver ‘Trees at Sunrise, Provence’ by Len McComb, and a typically original Jeffery Camp figure entitled ‘Sprung Poser’. Below is Jeff Gibbons’s witty declarative oil ‘A Line Drawing’, and to one side the intriguing structures of Virginia Verran. In the same area is Richard Kenton Webb’s ‘Listen — Orangeness’, and not far off the calm lucidities of ‘Yonder’, a diptych by Jane Harris.
Others I noted in Gallery III were Mick Rooney’s engrossing myths, a quartet of Basil Beattie abstracts with a tanker in a lemon sunset by Francis Tinsley hanging above, a dripping grid by Alexis Harding, a tiny blue Beetle car by Robert Dukes, a subtly coloured construction by Neil Jeffries, another moment of calm in David Tindle’s tempera ‘Table’, and a different kind of battle in ‘Archangel’ by Gus Cummins. However, viewing this room is far more gruelling than usual: a pity, as there’s some good work buried beneath the waves. It’s a relief to move through into Gallery II, which, with Gallery I, has this year been given over to prints.
A large bronze by Ivor Abrahams, ‘Sabine Group (After Giambologna)’, sits in the middle of Gallery II and around it is a pretty lacklustre group of stuff enlivened by fine things by Barbara Rae (screenprints), Paula Rego (unique hand-coloured etchings), Stephen Chambers (screenprints) and Gillian Ayres (fabulous woodcuts). There’s also a romantic lithograph by the RA’s new president Christopher Le Brun and a rather pointless tower of eight etchings by Catherine Yass. In Gallery I, more of the same, though I enjoyed Hilary Daltry’s woodcut of nine clementines, the column of Joe Tilson’s Carborundum and screenprints, the jaggly etched lines of Tooney Phillips’s ‘Untitled’ and the welcome touch of humour in Glen Baxter’s three-plate polymer gravure (whatever that is). Eileen Cooper’s work is reassuringly good, and Michael Sandle’s aquatints are as always provocative and inventive. John Carter’s controlled geometries chime well with Jean Macalpine’s lush photographic prints.
The Large Weston Room is restfully minimal in comparison, and contains a large Anselm Kiefer called ‘Sampson’ featuring a rifle, with Hebron above and Gaza below. Also in this room are two very beautiful landscapes by Patrick George, one of the most underrated of British painters, next to Tess Jaray’s serried flights of screened triangles, and a trio of bold images by Humphrey Ocean, of which I most enjoyed ‘Shed’. No small paintings in the Small Weston Room this year, just a film by Jayne Parker, which failed to hold my attention.
Back across Gallery III now to Gallery IV, which houses, among other things, a lovely large mixed media painting by Barbara Rae, entitled ‘Dark Yesnaby’. There’s a little Alan Davie ‘Jain’ study and two powerful Jock McFadyen paintings, of which I preferred the whizzy ‘Buffalo Grill’. I also liked ‘Portrait of Sir Terry Frost’ by Neil Shawcross and Frances Walker’s triptych ‘Andvord Bay, Antarctica’. Gallery V contains a couple of evocative garden paintings by Anthony Eyton, Graham Crowley’s bright boat ‘Red Drift No 3’, and a big vibrant acrylic painting by the architect Will Alsop. A Brian Kneale sculpture in black enamelled stainless steel called ‘Shadow’ leans its curves with great elegance.
Gallery VI is the architecture room, full of folded forms and cut-away models. I liked the slice of life in the insect hotel, by Arup Associates, the fibre-optic hedgehog (a neuron pod for Queen Mary University by Will Alsop) and Leonard Manasseh’s drawings. But this room really deserves a review of its own to do it justice.
The sculpture rooms that follow, Galleries VII and VIII, do little justice to any of their exhibits, though the works on the walls tend to fare better than the jumble of plinthed and grounded pieces. In Gallery VII, Anthony Caro contributes a group of life drawings, and Phyllida Barlow’s bold acrylic studies also stand out. In Gallery VIII, a large Nigel Hall acrylic and charcoal drawing has almost a whole wall to itself, and looks superb. Notice also the group of Ken Draper pieces, like cauldrons of dreams, including his first free-standing sculpture for years.
By this point, energy and enthusiasm are rapidly waning. Gallery IX is notable for a remarkable suite of 20 etchings by Stephen Chambers and a pelucid Humphrey Ocean painting. The Lecture Room is immensely depressing despite a table-top of colourful Phillip King sculptures, an impressive Allen Jones oil and montage called ‘Tirez’ and a wall of paintings in tribute to Leonard Rosoman, who died in February. Note also the ink on paper ‘Grecian Head’ by Mark Shields. Gallery X, the last room, is also pretty dire, redeemed by a big colourful Le Brun oil, and intriguing paintings by Gary Hume and Dexter Dalwood. And so, chastened, out into the sunlight or showers of the real world: I wish I could say I’d enjoyed the experience more.
Apollo magazine is hosting a panel discussion entitled ‘Collecting Today’ at Masterpiece London on 29 June at 7 p.m. The event, hosted by Susan Moore, explores current trends in art collecting. For tickets, which admit two to the event, email email@example.com. Available on a first come, first served basis.