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Genius & Ambition: The Alternative Royal Tour

Genius & Ambition: The Alternative Royal Tour

Inga Walton

Four years in the planning, the latest exhibition in Bendigo Art Gallery’s continuing engagement with international institutions Genius and Ambition: The Royal Academy of Arts, London 1768-1918 (until 9 June, 2014), is soon to depart these shores for Japan. It brings together nearly 100 works from the institution, including some fifty-six paintings and thirty-three works on paper. These disparate works reflect the changing preferences in taste and style, subject matter, social mores and visual fashion over the 150 year period, spanning the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras.

The Royal Academy of Arts was established through the personal Instrument of Foundation by George III (1738-1820) on 10 December, 1768, with the purpose of promoting and nurturing the arts and design in Britain through education and exhibition. The Academy emerged as an alternative to the increasingly dysfunctional Society of Artists of Great Britain (1761-91), and was fashioned on the model of the French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) founded by Louis XIV in 1648. At the time, art production in Great Britain was dominated by individual patrons, be they the Royal Family, the aristocracy, or the increasingly affluent middle classes. There was little patronage offered by church or state for either religious or grand secular works. The Academy presented a direct challenge to the unequal relationship in which artists found themselves by elevating practitioners from the status of artisan to that of an independent professional of social standing.

The Academy established three governing principals: to hold an Annual Exhibition of works by contemporary artists (modelled on the Paris Salon); to establish and maintain a free school for the professional training and instruction of students; to dispense charitable support to indigent artists and their families. Thirty-four leading painters, sculptors and architects assembled under the Academy’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), a position he held until his death; he would later succeed Alan Ramsay as Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King in 1784. Reynolds was adamant that the Academy would ensure the making of a distinguished ‘British School’, “It will be no small addition to the glory which this nation has already acquired for having given birth to eminent men in every part of science, if it should be enabled to produce, in consequence of this institution, a School of British Artists”, he opined in 1780.

New Academicians were elected by their peers, and were required to offer, ‘a picture, Bas-relief, or other specimen of his abilities, approved of by the then sitting Council of the Academy’. This became known as the ‘Diploma work’, retained by the Academy, and the new member received a diploma signed by the monarch. And it was definitely ‘his abilities’. Despite the fact that two of the Foundation Members of the Academy had been women, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Mary Moser (1744-1819), attempts to encourage the election of women were firmly resisted. After Moser’s death, no further women were elected as full members of the Academy until Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) in 1936. Throughout the 1850s pressure had been placed on the Academy to admit female students, the first of whom was unwittingly accepted in 1860; she had submitted her drawings with only her initials and surname. In 1768, the number of Royal Academicians was set at forty, and the category of Associate Royal Academician, from which an artist could progress to full membership through peer election, was limited to twenty. Engravers were recognised with the establishment of a separate category in 1853, and foreign artists were recognised in 1868 with the new class of Honorary Royal Academician conferred upon esteemed candidates.


Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A., Theory 1779-80, oil on canvas, 178 x 179 cm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.


The intention was that the Academy be financially independent, through income generated by ticket and catalogue sales to the Annual Exhibition, the profits from which would underwrite the cost of the Royal Academy Schools, and the maintenance of the Library. The Academy certainly benefitted from the royal munificence; the personal support of George III led to buildings being found to house their activities, initially at Old Somerset House from 1771. While the Annual Exhibition was held at 125 Pall Mall (1769-79), shortfalls in the Academy’s finances were underwritten by the King. He intervened again in 1780 to support purpose-built accommodation for the Academy at New Somerset House. Reynolds is represented in the exhibition by the allegorical work Theory (1779-80), the only ceiling painting he ever executed, designed for the library of their new headquarters. Theory was surrounded by paintings representing Nature, History, Allegory and Fable in the cove of the ceiling. By placing Theory at the apex of these subjects, Reynolds affirmed both the intellectual basis of his own work, and the wider aspirations to ‘High Art’ of the Royal Academy.

As the reputation of the organisation grew, further revenue was raised from investments, and from gifts and bequests, which met ongoing costs and provided funds for scholarships and prizes. By the 1830s the Academy again had to find new premises, and in 1837 the state made available the East Wing of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. It is a testament to the influence the Royal Academy enjoyed that, until 1868, the institution was housed in free accommodation provided by the Crown and subsequently by the state. Only when the Academy moved to its current home of Burlington House in Piccadilly did it pay a modest rent, and assume responsibility for maintenance of the extensive new premises.

Tensions about reforming the membership and governance of the Academy continued to simmer, particularly after government inquiries into the institution, culminating in the Royal Commission of 1863. The rise in the number of professional artists, the diversifying arts market, and rival exhibition and training bodies would continue to challenge the Royal Academy’s status as the body of national significance, particularly in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The cap on membership numbers, coupled with the perception that admission to the Annual Exhibition was controlled by a Selection Committee preoccupied by rigid, exclusive academic criteria, favouritism and commercial interests became the subject of critical comments and cartoons in the popular press. The gradual erosion of the Academy’s monopolistic position as the arbiter of taste on artistic matters was inevitable with the rise of increasing specialisation within the visual arts, the breakdown of the academic canon they helped to establish, and the proliferation of commercial art galleries.

The Swiss painter and draughtsman Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) (1741-1825) is best known for his evocative work The Nightmare (1781), exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year. It became the first contemporary work to form the basis of an entire sub-genre of ‘mock sublime’ in English political caricature, and from 1792 in French caricature. The work remains a great favourite of Gothic enthusiasts, and was given particular emphasis by director Ken Russell in his film Gothic (1986), where the scene was recreated with actress Natasha Richardson playing Mary Shelley.


Henry Fuseli, R.A. [Johann Heinrich Füssli], ‘Thor battering the Midgard Serpent’ (1790), oil on canvas, 133 x 94.6 cm. Photographer: John Hammond. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.


Showing his preference for supernatural subjects, Fuseli’s Diploma work, the dramatic Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent (1790), was accepted the same year. Fuseli’s source was Paul Henry Mallet’s Introduction à l’Histoire de Dannemarc (1755), which includes a translation of the prose version of the ancient Icelandic mythic cycle the Edda. In Norse mythology, the serpent Jörmungandr is the middle child of the Jötunn (giantess) Angrboða and Loki. Odin took Loki’s children by Angrboða, daughter Hel, and the wolf Fenrir, tossing Jörmungandr into the great ocean that encircled Midgard. The serpent grew so large that he was able to surround the earth and grasp his own tail, an Ouroboros. Fuseli’s painting depicts the episode when Thor and the giant Hymir (Eymer) go fishing far out to sea, and Thor strikes the head off Hymir’s largest ox to use as his bait. Overseen by the crouching figure of Odin in the sky, and watched by the incredulous figure of Hymir at the stern, Thor prepares to deploy his hammer against the enraged Jörmungandr.

In tackling the subject of the heroic male nude in action, Fuseli was, “attending to the most conservative stipulations regarding academic artistic practice, which gave priority to skills in the treatment of such figures”, in the words of Dr. Martin Myrone. Fuseli’s Thor has also been interpreted as an allegory of the revolutionary forces in contemporary events in France. Fuseli had no formal artistic training and began his career as a writer; he was always insecure about his technical limitations. His acquaintance with Sir Joshua Reynolds dated back to at least 1768, when Reynolds advised him to concentrate on the visual arts. Despite his personal eccentricities, Fuseli went on to become a pillar of the establishment; he was appointed Professor of Painting to the Academy in 1799. Four years afterwards he was chosen as Keeper, who supervised the day-to-day life of the institution, and resigned his professorship; but he resumed it in 1810, and continued to hold both offices until his death. He oversaw the education of a generation of artists, including some unlikely figures such as Sirs David Wilkie (1785-1841) and Edwin (Henry) Landseer (1802-73), and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851).


Sir Edwin (Henry) Landseer, R.A., The Faithful Hound c.1830, oil on canvas, 68.4 x 91.2 x 3 cm. Photographer: John Hammond. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.


Four fine works by Fuseli’s pupil John Constable (1776-1837) belie the fact that he did not become a member of ‘the establishment’ until towards the end of his career, when he was finally elected to the Royal Academy in 1829. Landscape painting had emerged as a dominant genre from the founding of the organisation, and continued to generate an intense debate about the meaning of ‘truth to nature’. Constable’s Diploma work, A Boat Passing a Lock (1826), of a vessel ascending the River Stour in Suffolk, will be of particular interest to local audiences. The National Gallery of Victoria has the earlier Study of A Boat Passing a Lock (c.1823-1826), one of the favourites of the 19th Century European Paintings Gallery. NGV also holds the small oil on paper on cardboard work Clouds (1822), Constable had commenced studies of clouds the previous year in an attempt to capture their physical characteristics, of which Cloud Study: Horizon of Trees, 27 September 1821 (1821) is an evocative example. The impact of continuing industrialisation and urbanisation encroaching on the British landscape meant that nostalgia for simpler times and works celebrating a lost rural idyll remained popular.

Other popular exhibition subject matter was derived from literature, mythology, and a romantic interpretation of the past. History painting and scenes drawn from the Bible, like The Tribute Money (1782) by the American-born painter John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), offered artists impressive subjects of widespread public appeal, and reflected the Academy’s desire to promulgate art made in the ‘Grand Manner’. Artists like Sir Edward (John) Poynter (1836-1919) with The Fortune Teller (1877), and The Way to the Temple (1882) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) turned to the decadence of the classical world, taking their inspiration from its fanciful religious festivals and ancient rights. Edwin Landseer’s The Faithful Hound (c. 1830) even manages to combine his widely acknowledged expertise in animal painting with the history genre. A loyal dog howls piteously before the lifeless body of his armour-clad master and dead horse, who have fallen in some unspecified conflict of the sword-wielding variety.

The accession of Queen Victoria to the throne ushered in the beginning of a great age of travel and exploration, such wanderlust gave rise to the ‘ethnographic’ genre painting, which conjured up exotic worlds and strange customs in the Middle East, North Africa and India. Many artists were soon seeking out these destinations in order to more accurately depict aspects of archaeology and architecture, ethnic dress, and local customs. The intrepid Scottish painter David Roberts (1796-1864) was the first independent British artist to travel and work extensively in the Near East, undertaking tours of the region (1838-40) including Cairo, Nubia and Syria. The Gateway to the Great Temple at Baalbec (1841) in Lebanon was visited by Roberts in 1839, and was typical of his flair for bringing impressive ancient monuments and the ‘lands of the Bible’ home to an appreciative British audience. John Frederick Lewis (1804-76) specialised in Oriental and Mediterranean scenes and lived in Cairo between 1841 and 1850, adopting local dress and inhabiting a grand Ottoman house. He made numerous sketches that he turned into paintings even after his return to England in 1851, such as The Door of a Café In Cairo (1865), full of ‘authentic’ detail and typical objects from the bazaar in the foreground. Also in Egypt in 1858, and again in 1870, was Frederick Goodall (1822-1904) who travelled with Bedouin tribesmen in order to provide accurate renderings within his paintings such as The Song of the Nubian Slave (1863).


John Callcott Horsley, R.A, A Pleasant Corner 1865, oil on canvas. Photography: Prudence Cuming Associates, London. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.


The popularity of paintings depicting ‘everyday life’, including those of a more sentimental or moralising tone, were immensely popular with the Academy’s middle-class audience. Richard Redgrave (1804-88), who worked first as a designer, produced a number of works which addressed the plight of female workers prone to exploitation, such as governesses and seamstresses. The Outcast (1851) offers the dramatic and seemingly heartless spectacle of a young woman clutching her illegitimate child in the doorway of the family home. Amidst the distress of other family members, she is expelled from the house into the snowy night by her stern father, a sum of money and an incriminating letter lie on the floor. A far more placid, and somewhat cloying view of the domestic sphere is offered by John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903) in A Pleasant Corner (1865). A genteel, well dressed, and doe-eyed young woman sits reading a book by the fire in the inglenook of the dining room. Initially influenced by the seventeenth-century Dutch tradition, David Wilkie’s Boys Digging For Rats (1812) shows the type of carefully posed and expressive low-life, humorous subjects at which he excelled, and which was grudgingly accepted by the Academy.

In the adjacent space are assembled some thirty significant works by Australian artists such as Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902), Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Sir John Campbell Longstaff (1861-1941), Rupert (Charles Wulsten) Bunny (1864-1947), Sir Arthur (Ernest) Streeton (1867-1943), Harold Parker (1873-1962), Agnes Goodsir (1864-1939), and Sir William Dobell (1899-1970). That so many Australian works were once shown at the Royal Academy demonstrates its reputation as a proving ground for aspiring talent, one which conveyed a certain social and professional recognition within an international context.

Travelling scholarships and stipends saw Australian artists leaving for Europe to take up further study and gain both experience and the necessary polish. Those who were selected to exhibit at Burlington House conformed to the expected ‘academic style’ which, if well received, had the potential to lead to lucrative commissions and a greater profile.

The Irish painter George Frederick Folingsby (1828-91) had his work The First Lesson (1869) hung at the Royal Academy, and his reputation as a figure painter preceded him when he arrived in Melbourne in 1879. Folingsby was appointed as the first Director of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1882, and set about reorganising the painting school. George (Washington Thomas) Lambert (1873-1930) established a strong reputation as a portrait artist with works like Miss Thea Proctor (1903), his first work to be accepted for the Royal Academy exhibition. Lambert was an official Australian war artist during World War I, and spent much time in London; he was elected an Associate Member of the Academy (ARA) in 1922.

The most successful of the Australian expatriate artists was Sir (Edgar) Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931), who made numerous forays to London and Paris in pursuit of commission work from 1882 onwards, and whose international profile substantially outshone his peers. In 1893 he was awarded an honourable mention at the Old Salon in Paris for his life-size figure Circe (1893). However, when it was shown at the 1894 Royal Academy summer exhibition it caused a sensation, with its pedestal (depicting intertwined bodies) concealed for the sake of modesty. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1909, achieving full membership in 1922, the first Australian artist to have that distinction. By the time the Academy accepted Mackennal’s Diploma work, the less controversial The Dawn of a New Age (1924), he was already a highly successful and sought after sculptor. The pinnacle of his career came in 1921 when Mackennal became the first Australian artist to be knighted, by George V, for whom he had designed the Coronation Medal (1910), the profile portrait for the new coinage, the design for the King’s head on British postage stamps (1911), and military honours (1914-18).

The exhibition (minus the Australian content) then travels to four venues in Japan until mid-2015, starting at the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art,1 – 31 August, 2014

Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street, Bendigo (VIC)

Royal Academy of Arts


Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.

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