School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts - Museums Association

School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts

The highs and lows of the Royal Academy of Arts are neatly traced in this book through a wonderful mix of information, anecdotes and gossip, says Timothy Mason
Timothy Mason
'Please accept my resignation,' telegrammed Groucho Marx unforgettably. 'I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.' I've never felt very club-able, by which I mean membership thereof, rather than hit over the head with the same (though others may have found me eminently eligible for the latter). Not for me the leather armchairs, the hushed tones, the requirement to wear a tie (even if it's a rat's tail of a thing, loaned for the duration by a disdainful porter).

All right, there have been changes. Women are now admitted to most clubs and the newspapers in the Reading Room are not limited to the Times and Daily Telegraph, but the memories, and those ties, linger on. Truth be known, no one has ever put me up for a membership, but if they did, I like to think that, even with the attraction of savouries on the menu, I'd take the line of the artist Richard Hamilton.

Turning down an invitation from Hugh Casson to allow his name to go forward for election to the Royal Academy, Hamilton wrote: 'There doesn't appear to be any point in my joining the club, though there's a good enough reason to continue to enjoy the comforting feeling of being outside it.'

Like any club that has survived almost 250 years, the Royal Academy of Arts has seen its share of rows, resignations, expulsions, back-biting and intrigue, as well as its successes, and James Fenton's somewhat sprawling 'unofficial' history records them with gusto. 'Unofficial' because in commissioning School of Genius, the academicians wanted an outsider's view. Certainly that's what they got, but whether it was quite what they wanted
is another matter.

This elegant-looking book was designed by Philip Lewis and is superbly illustrated. The quality of its production undoubtedly owes much to the support of the businessman and academy benefactor John Madejski and the Monument Trust. But it is no vanity-press, coffee-table publication. This is very much a warts-and-all biography.

The academy's history has been something of a rollercoaster.

It began auspiciously. Thirty-six artists and architects, including two women (Angelica Kauffman and her less well-known contemporary, the still-life artist Mary Moser), four Italians, a Swiss (Moser's father) and the Chinese artist Tan Chitqua, a Cantonese portrait-modeller, came together under Royal patronage - an 18th-century model of social inclusion.

As Johann Zoffany's familiar group portrait shows, this was something of a dream team - including Joshua Reynolds (the academy's first president), Zoffany himself, the American artist Benjamin West (Reynolds's successor), Richard Wilson, Paul Sandby and Thomas Gainsborough, although the latter was absent from Zoffany's collage. William Hunter was the academy's first professor of anatomy, and Oliver Goldsmith, its professor of history.

In the excellent introductory chapter - for me the book's highlight - Fenton sketches the switchback ride that followed: the debates over the academy's independence, the tensions between academicians, and between academicians and staff, selling off the 'family silver', notably the highly controversial sale of the Leonardo Cartoon in 1962, and the extraordinary attacks on modern art, which dominated the academy in the years before and after the second world war.

The 1935 failure to support Jacob Epstein when his sculptures were removed from the facade of what is now Zimbabwe House on London's Strand severely damaged the academy's standing among artists. Alfred Munnings' drunken presidential speech in which he criticised 'shilly-shallying' academicians who 'feel there is something in this so-called modern art' and went on to attack Picasso and Matisse, confirmed the academy's 'vision of itself as a bastion against modern art'.

It was not surprising that many of the 20th-century dream team - Moore, Hepworth, Nicholson, Sutherland, Piper, Bacon and Hodgkin, for example - stood apart (or were made to stand apart) from the Royal Academy. Despite including two women artists in its founding membership, it wasn't until 1922 that Annie Swynnerton was elected as the academy's first woman associate, 43 years after its council had attempted to convince itself that its founding document did not allow women members.

Fenton's a tireless researcher and School of Genius, a title presumably chosen tongue firmly in cheek, bulges at the seams with information, anecdotes and gossip. At times he doesn't know where to stop; like an eager hound, he allows himself to be easily diverted and then fails to be ruthless with his findings.

As a result, there are chapters where I wanted less; for example, of the long extracts from Ruskin's Academy Notes on individual paintings in the annual exhibitions during the 1850s. Conversely, there are times when he leaves ideas hanging frustratingly in the air.
Since the low point in its reputation in the middle of the last century, successive academy presidents have sought to repair the damage. For almost 30 years, they have been aided by the indefatigable Norman Rosenthal, the exhibitions secretary, who has created a programme that has helped to give the academy a public face far beyond the summer exhibitions.

But the big question remains - does the Royal Academy have a 21st-century purpose? Fenton comes to no firm conclusion, beyond that 'it should remain a society dedicated to the promotion of contemporary art'. That is a matter for the academicians, but if it was up to the rest of us, I cannot help thinking that if we didn't have an academy, we'd invent it. Perhaps we are a club-able race.

Timothy Mason is an arts and heritage consultant

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