Literary Review, 06 October 2012
The Company of Artists:
The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London
by Charles Saumarez Smith
Modern Art Press, £25.00, Pp192
When, in 1768, Joshua Reynolds was offered the presidency of the new Royal Academy, he first consulted with his close friends, Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke.
From the perspective of the Olympic-plagued, Boris-bothered London of the twenty-first century, such information is painful. One wonders at the depth of one’s misfortune at not having been alive in London in the mid-eighteenth century when career advice could be had from Johnson and Burke; or, more importantly, when one could have watched the foundation of an institution like the Royal Academy.
Grandly embracing its own courtyard on Piccadilly, the RA is a counter-cultural miracle. Unlike almost any comparable institution, it receives no public money and it still does what it always did – teaches, informs and encourages – on the basis of its original constitution. Not that it is stuffy. Indeed, it has a record of patronising the most contemporary and contentious art – none other than Tracey Emin is currently professor of drawing. Certainly it has often gone too far down this road – and many others – but something always pulls it back and that something was invented in the eighteenth century.
In this short, neat, thorough and readable history, Charles Saumarez Smith, current secretary and chief executive of the RA, has attempted to identify that unique quality. Since he took his job, he says, he has been “intensely interested” in what happened at a meeting on Monday 28th November 1768 between four artists and King George III. Led by the architect William Chambers, who had seen the workings of academies in Italy and France, this group wanted to persuade the King to back their own project for an academy in London.
This at once establishes the primary dynamic of the story. Britain was in the process of becoming a scientific, technological and economic superpower and, just as, at a comparable moment, New York had claimed the cultural crown from Paris in the fifties, so London felt it was time to assert its burgeoning confidence with an institution that would claim the crowns of Venice or Florence. A song called The Triumph of the Arts was written to celebrate this claim.
The time, not distant far, shall come,
When England’s tasteful youth no more
Shall wander to Italia’s classic shore…
The King was, of course, agreeable, but perhaps sceptical. Artists being artists, several blanks had been fired in this campaign. Attempts had been made to establish arts academies, all were to fail. What was different about this one was a certain inspired pedantry. It was established with a phenomenally clever and detailed constitution that managed to give power to the artists while containing their fissiparous natures. The dark arts of celebrity chasing and PR were also involved. Reynolds was needed as president and George was the key that would unlock the doors of the highest society.
Saumarez Smith goes in for some inspired pedantry of his own in describing this process. Many pages are taken up with paragraphs on the original members and students. This does nothing for narrative pace but a great deal for local colour. It is a revelation, for example, to know that “a Gascon “marine painter” named Dominic Serres was a founding member if only because of his epic journey from a Benedictine monastery to South America and, via mastership of a trading vessel in the Caribbean and the Marshalsea Prison, to a small shop in Piccadilly where he ‘exposed’ his pictures. A sketch of Serres by Paul Sandby suggests the experiences left him somewhat the worse for wear.
The list of students tells another story. Old and young, rich and poor, their selection betrays a humane and democratic concern for nurturing talent wherever it may be found. There was, for example, 17-year-old Charles Reuben Riley, the son of a trooper in the Horse guards, and, at the opposite end of the social scale there was 27-year-old Pierre Etienne Falconet, whose father was Catherine the Great’s sculptor. The choices were practical, not pompous, and that flexible liberality may well be one of the keys to the Academy’s continuing ability to survive the shock of the new with its foundations intact.
Perhaps, in this context, the date of its founding becomes ever more important. The RA preceded romanticism by less than half a century. Its establishment was a severe, classical project. Reynolds, in particular, was always crustily insistent that “improvement in art was a matter of hard work and not idle inspiration.” The romantics, of course, tended to think otherwise, as do so many of our hands-off postmodern conceptualists. They do not want to be tethered by the bonds of traditional rules and insights.
In rare personal moments, one senses that Saumarez Smith is closer to Reynolds than to the conceptualists.
“As David Hockney has recently reminded us,” he writes, “art is as much about looking and description as it is about independent expression and ideas.”
But he is never prescriptive and, wisely, he does not come to any simple answers about why the RA in particular should have endured. Monday 28th November was just a good day in a great century in the right city to petition the King. The ducks were all in a row, the moment had come. A miracle ensued.
Independent of the state and, to some extent, the whims of rich collectors, the RA endures as, like the American Constitution, a testament to the enlightened genius of the eighteenth century. Saumarez Smith is smitten, as you will be after reading this touching and passionate love letter.