Foundation of the Royal Academy

This page describes the events leading up to the foundation of the Royal Academy, its progress in early years, and what its functions are today. A separate page lists the Presidents of the Royal Academy.

The first academy of painting and drawing from life in Britain was set up in 1711 by Kneller, a leading painter of the time of Queen Anne. Kneller himself was governor of the academy, based in Great Queen Street, London, until 1716, at which time Thornhill, his great rival, took over the body. In 1720 arguments within the academy lead to Thornhill splitting off to start a new school in Covent Garden, and his son in law, William Hogarth, took the remaining members of the academy to a new site in St Martin's Lane. It was this academy, under Hogarth, that thrived, and formulated the plan for a British academy for all the arts.

The Dilettanti Society, founded in 1734 from a group of wealthy art amateurs, also became interested in the concept of a British academy, and in 1755 they held discussions with Hogarth's St Martin's Lane Academy in an effort to set up such an institution. However, the Dilettanti Society felt the best way would be for themselves to be in charge of the proposed institution, and to choose the President, and the St Martin's Academy could not agree to this.

Another new body, the Society of Artists - set up to exhibit its members pictures - by the early 1760s had attracted membership of many prominent artists - Hogarth himself, and the two great portrait painters of the time, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. In 1765 the Society of Artists were given a Royal Charter, and by this time all the well-known artists working in Britain had become members, and the Society had a good income from entrance fees to its exhibitions. All that was needed was a school for students, and this could become the long-demanded British academy of the arts.

Unfortunately, there was great rivalry within the society, with quarrels over who got the most advantageous placings for their pictures at the exhibitions, and over tickets to private views. Worst was a fight for the presidency of the Society - both Reynolds and Gainsborough distanced themselves from the unseemly proceedings, and two architects, Sir William Chambers and James Paine, vied for the control. Paine won, eventually becoming President in 1770. Chambers vowed revenge, and decided to form a new artistic body, of such importance that it would become pre-eminent over all others. As former architectural tutor to the King, Chambers had the best connections, and his formal proposal for a Royal Academy was accepted by the King in 1768. In 1769 the Royal Academy came into existence.

The new Royal Academy was to contain a maximum 40 Academicians (RA), to which group a new member could be elected only after the death of an existing member. Associates (ARA) to the number of 20 were also elected, and it became the rule that new Academicians were elected from existing ARAs. The officers of the Academy included a President (PRA), a Council of eight members, a Secretary, Librarian, Keeper and others. Professors in painting, architecture, perspective and anatomy were appointed, soon joined by Professors in Sculpture, Chemistry and others, to support the educational activities of the Academy. The Academy Schools were set up, to teach without charge to students, and included drawing from life, later painting from old masters, and painting from life. Students could win travelling scholarships to pursue their studies abroad. The Academy also gave to artists in need.

Where was the money to come from? The King provided initial funding for the Academy to set up in Pall Mall, but the bulk of the money, allowing the Academy to be financially independent, were the fees from exhibitions. The cramped Pall Mall quarters provided by the King were abandoned for new apartments in Somerset House in 1780, and the Academy remained there until 1836.

Although William Chambers had been the instigator of the new Royal Academy, it was decided that an eminent painter should be the first President of the body, and Reynolds.htm was chosen. His rival, Gainsborough, interested himself much less in the Academy, and used it only to exhibit his pictures. A good place to see paintings by several of the first Academicians in stately home surroundings is the Iveagh Bequest in Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath.

The new National Gallery was completed in 1836, and the Royal Academy vacated Somerset House to move there, occupying the East Wing. By 1850 the Government were proposing that the Academy move elsewhere due to pressure on space as the national collection of pictures grew, but the Academy resisted - the President at the time was Eastlake, who became Director of the National Gallery concurrently, and it must have been convenient for him to have both organisations occupying the same building. In the early 1860s it was mooted that the paintings could be taken away, perhaps to the South Kensington Museum, and the Academy could have the whole of the Trafalgar Square building. However, in 1868, a hundred years after its formation, it was in fact the Royal Academy that moved out, to Burlington House in Piccadilly, where it still remains. Soon after this, the number of ARAs rose to a minimum of 30.

The Royal Academy has had a profound influence on British art since its inception. Most relevantly to these pages, the Pre-Raphaelites were founded in opposition to the ideas of the Academy, and especially to its first President, Reynolds. As well, the Chantrey Bequest, administered by the Academy, bought many great Victorian paintings for the nation. Other important efforts have been the vigorous protection of City churches against redevelopment. Most of all, in promoting the Summer Exhibitions showing current work, and in its other exhibitions of old masters, foreign pictures, etc, the Academy remains one of the great venues in Britain for the display of fine arts. Since its inception, new ARAs and RAs have had to deposit a work of art with the Academy (a Diploma work) and therefore the Academy also has a fine collection of British art of its own.

It has become fashionable to argue that the Royal Academy is an irrelevance in the modern world, but I would strongly disagree with this. The Summer Exhibition is the unmissable event of the artistic year in Britain, and the best place to see a huge variety of modern art. It is conservative, but only inasmuch as works chosen for exhibition must show evidence of skill and effort in their production. The Academy still fights for good taste and supports artists, and the Academy Schools take about 60 students, in painting or sculpture. For those who believe in skill in art, in art that still has some linkage with that produced historically, the Royal Academy is a great institution that deserves support.

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Presidents of the Royal Academy // Background Information // List of Artists