Saturday, June 12, 2010

Stephen Fry's perspective on art, artists and viewing exhibitions

On Tuesday night, Stephen Fry gave a very amusing and insightful speech at the official opening of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

He's now reproduced it on his blog - right click Speech Given at a Dinner for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – 8th June 2010 to read it - and then come back here to read the rest of this post!

I laughed out loud at the some of the lines interspersed by more than a few chortles and nodding of head.  He makes more than a few good points about art, artists and viewing exhibitions in galleries.
I think it is a relief to know that paintings and sculptures are not crossword puzzles to be solved or allegories to be read or tests to be passed, but it still does not make it easier to walk around a public gallery without being aware of the others there and without being aware of oneself and the figure one cuts. I think that is why so many people look cross in art galleries. They are either scowling at those loud, disrespectful parties of continental schoolchildren, or they are pursing their lips at a fellow Briton they deem to be showing off or they are frowning at someone who, like a bad golfer, is ahead of them and playing through too slowly.

A Private View at the Royal Academy

 A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881
William Powell Frith
60 × 114 cm (23 5/8 × 44 7/8 in), oil on canvas
Location: Royal Academy of Arts, John Madejski Fine Rooms
(Image Source: Wikipedia

The picture he's used can be found on Wikipedia as the illustration for the article on a Private View and also for an article about the painting itself.
It depicts a group of distinguished Victorians visiting the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1881, just after the death of the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose portrait by John Everett Millais was included on a screen at the special request of Queen Victoria. It is visible in the archway at the back of the room.

The subject of the painting is the contrast between lasting historical achievements and ephemeral fads. The portrait of Disraeli represents the former, and the influence of the Aesthetic movement in dress represents the latter. Aesthetic dress is exemplified by the principal female figures in green, pink and orange clothing. Oscar Wilde, one of the main proponents of Aestheticism, is depicted at the right behind the boy in the green suit, surrounded by female admirers. Behind him, further to the right, a group of opponents glare disapprovingly at him as he speaks. Among them are the journalist G.A. Sala and the artist Philip Calderon.

At the left of the painting, Anthony Trollope is portrayed gazing at an "aesthetic" family. In the centre of the composition Frederic Leighton, President of the Academy, talks to a seated woman. William Thomson, the archbishop of York, stands beside him wearing a top hat. Lillie Langtry appears nearby in a white dress. Other famous figures of the day depicted include Robert Browning, Thomas Huxley, William Ewart Gladstone and Mary Braddon. The actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving are visible standing behind Wilde.[1]

The paintings on the wall accurately reproduce the exhibits of the year. A second portrait of Disraeli is visible on the wall behind Langtry. On the wall at the right, above Wilde's opponents, is the similarly angry-looking central figure in John Collier's Last Voyage of Henry Hudson. Millais at the extreme right is looking at Lawrence Alma-Tadema's painting Sappho and Alcaeus, accompanied by a myopic connoisseur.
Wikipedia - A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881
One wonders whether any of the Royal Academicians would ever attempt to portray modern day Private Views of the Summer Exhibition

I had planned to go to the Private View for Friends of the Royal Academy today - but am feeling rather tired from my jaunt up to Nottingham yesterday so have decided to wait.

I also don't like the Private Views at the weekends - they're always horrendously crowded - full of people who aren't letting me see the pictures! ;)


  1. Went to the Private View on Friday. Thought it the worst Summer Exhibition that I have ever seen. Very badly hung and to many very poor paintings by any standards. I thought that absolute pits was Tracey Emin's so called paintings, which would not even be considered bad graffiti.

  2. Thanks Bernie.

    It does seem to vary a lot depending on who the hanging Committee are

    Has anybody else been?

  3. Wonderful sentiments, wonderfully put. Stephen Fry is a treasure.

  4. Thanks Wally

    I'm a Stephen Fry fan and twitter follower - he does great tweets in 140 characters or less too!

  5. What a great speech, what a wordsmith is Mr Fry.


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