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July 2018

No. 1384 – Vol 160

At the Royal Academy of Arts


At the Royal Academy of Arts

This is the Royal Academy’s year. The venerable London institution has celebrated its 250th anniversary by unveiling a redevelopment that has added seventy per cent more public space, staging a Summer Exhibition that has garnered five-star reviews, mounting an exhibition, The Great Spectacle, which traces the history of the annual exhibition since its inception in 1768, and publishing a monumental multi-author history of itself and its collections.1 The celebrations were crowned in June by a knighthood for its Chief Executive, Charles Saumarez Smith, who, when he took up the post in 2007, inherited a £100 million redevelopment scheme for which no funds had been raised.

This achievement has been long in the making. It is seventeen years since the RA acquired the large building to its rear, 6 Burlington Gardens, designed by James Pennethorne in 1866 as the headquarters of the University of London. As the Museum of Mankind, it housed the British Museum’s ethnographical collections from 1970 to 1997. When the building was reopened in 2003 after a refurbishment by the Royal Academy’s then Surveyor of the Fabric, Peter Schmitt, it was obvious that a link between the two buildings would transform the way that the RA inhabited what was now a two-acre site. Yet it took no fewer than three competitions – in 2001, 2003 and 2008 – to come up with a workable scheme. In 2001 the winning architects, Michael and Patti Hopkins, proposed a link at first-floor level, an idea that was rejected because it was felt to compromise the exhibition galleries. Colin St John Wilson, who won the 2003 competition, wanted to connect the two buildings by an external route along their eastern flank. That scheme foundered owing to not only its expense but also Wilson’s death in 2007.

A major problem that these architects faced was the presence of the Royal Academy Schools between the RA and Burlington Gardens: the 2001 and 2003 schemes were designed to take the link between the buildings either above or around the Schools. A solution was at last found when Maurice Cockrill, then Keeper of the Schools, agreed to the proposal put forward by the winner of the third competition, David Chipperfield. This created an axial route from the front door of the RA to the main entrance of Burlington Gardens, bisecting the Schools, and opening them up for the first time to a degree of public access.

The result is a great corridor that takes the visitor coming from Piccadilly down from the RA’s Palladian entrance hall into a Piranesian brick-vaulted gallery lined with plaster casts of classical sculptures. Having crossed a corridor that leads at left and right into the scuffed, workaday environment of the Schools, the visitor then climbs a steep staircase to a covered concrete bridge into Burlington Gardens that provides glimpses into the narrow courtyard between the two buildings, which has been landscaped by the Belgian firm Wirtz. Burlington Gardens now houses galleries for temporary exhibitions, a lecture theatre, a room for architectural displays, a permanent gallery for the RA’s collections and a spacious bar in the first-floor Senate Room, where a 1901 painted decorative scheme has been restored by Chipperfield’s collaborator, the conservation architect Julian Harrap. This adds a final touch of sparkle to the variety of historic and contemporary spaces and finishes that makes a walk through these buildings so visually rewarding.

A setting that was widely regarded as no more than a vessel for temporary exhibitions is revealed as the home of a living community that invites visitors to meet, talk and just hang out – the essential foundation for creative endeavour. There is also an engagingly contextual element to Chipperfield’s scheme: his corridor is an arcade of the arts, which playfully echoes – and is physically parallel to – the commercial glamour of the Burlington Arcade to its east. The RA now has two faces: one looking towards Piccadilly, past the learned institutions with which it shares Burlington House, and the other facing down Cork Street, which is still, despite all the recent threats to its character, the home of the commercial art world in the West End – a world with which the RA merges, given the presence of the Pace Gallery in the west wing of Burlington Gardens.

Part of the fascination of the redevelopment – which has cost £56 million, £12.7 million of which came from the Heritage Lottery Fund – is that it prompts so many reflections on the RA’s history. It is presumably only an accident that the staircase that forms such a prominent feature of Chipperfield’s scheme recalls the equally precipitous ascent to the RA’s original exhibition galleries, in Somerset House. The centre of the new gallery for the RA’s own collections has been deliberately devised as an encapsulation of the institution’s original purpose. At its heart is Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, flanked by three of James Thornhill’s copies of the Raphael Cartoons and the copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper painted c.1515–20 by G.A. Boltraffio and others. This is, in short, the accepted canon of taste that Joshua Reynolds, first President of the RA, hoped would form the basis for a national school of art, to be fostered by the new institution.

That hope is echoed by the words on the wall panel with which The Great Spectacle concludes: ‘The Summer Exhibition has continued to renew and revitalise itself, for both artists and visitors, while maintaining the ideals set out by its eighteenth-century founders’. This pious observation is definitively undermined by this year’s exhibition, chosen by a selection committee headed by Grayson Perry, which brings to a festive climax the revitalisation of the event begun by Michael Craig- Martin in 2015 (where will it go from here?) If anyone does still visit the Summer Exhibition in order to understand the British national school of art, or the intentions of the RA’s founders, they will be confronted by displays on its bubble-gum-coloured walls that are eccentric, diverse and joyfully subversive of any concept of ‘taste’. It could be argued that there is something a bit complacent about that, but it would be grudging in the extreme to deny the visitors their fun, or to question the RA’s achievement in its anniversary redevelopment. After a century or more of defying claims that it has become irrelevant, and with financial scandals and political infighting still a relatively recent memory, the RA has at last become an institution that seems comfortable in its own skin.2


1 The Great Spectacle is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 19th August.  The Royal Academy of Arts: History and Collections, edited by Robin Simon, is published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, for the Paul Mellon Centre, in association with the Royal Academy of Arts. Both exhibition and book will be reviewed in a future issue of this Magazine.  

2 On those scandals, see Editorial: ‘The Royal Academy of Arts’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 146 (2004), p. 587.