Saturday, June 09, 2012

Review: 244th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy

Last Friday I went to the Friends Private View of the 244th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.  It has a much fresher feel this year - the layout has changed and the overall visual impact is much better.  It's certainly the first time in a while that I feel like I want to go back and take another look when the crowds have thinned out from the frenzy of the PV days.

I'm sorry I can't show you any images of what this year's exhibition looks like - but none have been supplied by the RA.  The only images available of the galleries are from last year's exhibition - which is a real shame - particularly as the look of the exhibition has changed so much this year.  This is the Telegraph's slideshow of works on display

[UPDATE:  I've now received images of the exhibition and these are now included below]

Courtyard of Burlington House and the entrance to the RA's Summer Exhibition
Sculpture: From Landscape to Portrait (£180,000) by Chris Wilkinson RA
engineered timber, stainless steel and concrete
I've been in two minds about this exhibition for some time.  While it's undeniably the largest art exhibition each year in the UK, I think it can include an awful lot of what I regard as complete tosh - and can also look quite dreadful at times.  In my head the visual metaphor is a lumbering juggernaut.
I know many artists feel very ambivalent about entering over the years.  The slimmer the chance of getting accepted the less likely that good artists will go to the expense of putting forward their art - unless they have "connections".
“When I was a young artist, I wouldn’t have considered it. In the early 1980s I was invited to submit work and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t respond. It simply didn’t fit my ideas of where the art world lay.”
RA President Christopher Le Brun - quoted in FT article Open to ideas By Jackie Wullschlager
Jackie Wullschlager, Head Art Critic at the Financial Times, was this year invited to judge the Wollaston Prize and made the following comment
What the Turner has, though, and the Summer Exhibition lacks, is youth. I and my fellow judges spent a day at Burlington House, each independently drawing up lists of candidates, then arguing out a longlist of nine, later compressed to a shortlist of four. No artist we considered was under the age of 40. Only two on our longlist – painter Ian Davenport, film-maker Jayne Parker – were under 60.......
FT article Open to ideas By Jackie Wullschlager
I have to say I'm not surprised.  It would certainly account for the impression I've gained of the entry over the years.
As a critic particularly interested in painting, I follow the careers of scores of young professional artists under 40. Not one submitted work to the Summer Exhibition. And in decades of seeing the show, I have never discovered a new artist, never encountered an emerging name for whom Burlington House was the springboard to later success.
FT article Open to ideas By Jackie Wullschlager
I absolutely and totally concur with this view.  The other thing about the Summer Exhibition is that it aims to showcase the work of established and emerging artists and yet at times I've felt in the past that the RA's collective egos and agendas have taken over the show.  I'm always amazed how I rarely see artists who are winning prizes elsewhere - and how many of the artists who do get exhibited I never ever see anywhere else.

The issue to my mind is how the RA can rebrand the exhibition and persuade artists that it's not just a way of extracting lots of money from the masses to finance the expensive hang of expensive work by the RAs.

I think this year might just possibly prove to be the start of a sea change.

It all seems to depend on which RAs form the exhibition committee and who gets chosen to hang each room.  This year the List of Works is completely opaque on this topic - although there are narratives within each room as to who chose the works.  I expect to see basics like this in the list of works or on the website.  It's a critical piece of information for assessing the show [now provided to me by the RA)

This year's Summer Exhibition Committee for 2012 is chaired by the Royal Academy’s President, Christopher Le Brun and the following Academicians curated the following galleries:
  • Tess Jaray RA Central Hall, Large Weston Room & Gallery III - the grandest space in Burlington House.  She also co-ordinated the whole exhibition and seems to be the person who has led the charge to change the show.
Containing a large quantity of smaller paintings, the gallery demonstrates that work of a more modest scale can be as powerful as larger work. As a former teacher at the Slade School of Art, Jaray is mindful of providing a forum for established and younger artists to show their work to the public
RA Press Release
  • Peter Freeth RA (Engraver) and Chris Orr RA (Engraver) - curated Galleries I & II, which contain the Fine Art Prints in the exhibition.  These rooms looked splendid
  • Barbara Rae RA (Painter) curated Galleries IV & V and created a gallery of Scottish and Irish artists
  • Chris Wilkinson RA and Eva Jiricna RA have curated Gallery VI, the architecture gallery of the Summer Exhibition.  (That's his huge sculpture in the courtyard of Burlington House - see above)
  • Alison Wilding RA (Sculptor) curated Galleries VII & VIII and was responsible for the major change in the exhibition of the smaller items of sculpture
  • Stephen Chambers RA (Printmaker) curated  Galleries IX & X - I particularly liked the hang in Gallery IX
  • Humphrey Ocean RA (Painter) and Mali Morris RA - curated the Lecture Room
View of the Central Hall
Summer Exhibition 2012
Photo courtesy John Bodkin
The major changes for 2012 that I spotted are as follows:
  • The entrance to the exhibition is now via the Central Hall which has been painted red and looks absolutely amazing. My jaw dropped as I entered and stayed dropped as I walked through to Gallery III.  I don't think I've been quite so surprised by a Summer Exhibition in years!
  • The smaller paintings which used to be squeezed into (and more often squeezed out of) the Small Weston room have broken out and now occupy the largest gallery in the exhibition - Gallery III.  It has been home to the huge monstrosities for too long - and this year there are none.  This is where the Co-ordinator of the Exhibition has put her stamp on the 'look' of the exhibition.  A huge number of smaller paintings are arranged around the room in a wave.  It looks effective - and the gallery had far more people in it than I can remember seeing at a Friends PV for some time.  
Installation View of Gallery III
Summer Exhibition 2012
Photo courtesy John Bodkin
  • The Small Weston Room is instead used for a video installation by Jayne Parker.  I only stuck my head round the door to look at this but haven't as yet viewed it.  The huge success of the video work within the hugely popular Hockney exhibition makes me think we'll begin to see more film in the future exhibitions.  
  • The Print Rooms now occupy Galleries I and II instead of the Large Weston room and look stunning.  As always the red dots are accumulating on the walls.  I even saw one (of a bird) which seemed to have sold its entire print run of 100
  • There are no really large paintings (or ego trips as I used to think of them).  For those wondering what I'm talking about I mean paintings which were so big that they used to occupy the best part of a wall.
  • The smaller pieces of Sculpture are arranged together in the centre of the room in such a way one might be forgiven for thinking that one's at a car boot sale.  However in an odd sort of way, crowding the small pieces together makes you look at them more closely.  It's such a pity there's no image available of what this arrangement looks like.
  • The work of some of the Academicians is beginning to look a tad tired and old (aka repetitive) - and that seems to be reflected in where it has been hung this year.  Come to think of it, there seem to be fewer works by Academicians this year - or maybe they've just responded to the call to send in smaller works and I can't tell the difference between their work and that of other emerging artists?  It's somehow as if the reputations have shrunk with the size of their works.  Which, in a way, is a good thing as it challenges the Academicians to come up with good and innovative work for their annual exhibition.
  • The Summer Exhibition includes displays of work by Academicians who have died in the past year. Works on view are by:
    A House Collapsing on Two Firemen,
    Shoe Lane, London, EC4 (1940)
    by Leonard Rosoman
    Collection: Imperial War Museum
    • John Hoyland (1934 – 2011) painter died July 2011 (Obituaries: GuardianTelegraph)
    • Adrian Berg (1929 – 2011) painter died October 2011- his painting of Sheffield park in the Central Hall looks absolutely stunning (Obituaries Telegraph, Guardian, RA Magazine Blog)
    • Leonard Rosoman (1913 – 2012) painter died February 2012 - I was really sad that this will be the last year I see Rosoman's work.  I very much admired his way of looking at the world and his talent and skill in drawing and always made a point of looking out for his work which I always found interesting every year. You see his work every time you visit the restaurant at the RA as he painted the murals - and was also responsible for recent paintings of the members in Council (Obituaries:  Guardian, Telegraph, Independent and Blitzwalkers)
Leonard Rosoman, who has died aged 98, was the last of the official artists of the Second World War and later won acclaim as an illustrator, painter and teacher; his most famous student was the artist David Hockney.Telegraph Obituary - Leonard Rosoman
The Prizes

Each year, the Summer Exhibition recognises artists of exceptional merit by awarding a total of
£70,000 prize money donated by commercial sponsors.

However I haven't got a clue who won the prizes as, Wollaston prize aside (to be announced on the BBC Culture Show Special, June 15), I didn't make a note of the names on the prize announcements on the wall thinking there would be an announcement on the website - but no such luck!  I tried searching online - so what you see below is the result of that search and I'm now waiting for names from the RA. [names of prizewinners have now been supplied and I've inserted them below plus found the links to their websites so you can see the sort of work they produce]
  • The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award (£25,000 for the most distinguished work in the exhibition) SHORTLIST - 
    • Tim Head, Cat no 812 Libra, inkjet print
    • Anselm Kiefer Hon RA, Cat 824, Samson, oil, acrylic, steel, pastel and charcoal on canvas
    • Sean Scully, Cat no 863, Doric Grey, oil on linen
    • David Nash RA, Cat no 1269, Hump with a Hole, charred oak - a major exhibition of work by David Nash has just opened at Kew Gardens.  David Nash - an elemental artist is an article about the work of David Nash in the RA Magazine Summer 2010 - 
  • Arts Club Charitable Trust Award £2000 for a work in any medium (excluding architecture) Luca Perricone - 918 - Oratorian City  This is a new prize for this year’s Summer Exhibition and the award is made to artists under the age of 35 for an exceptional work in any media.  The winner is 16 years of age and is a student at Ampleforth College.
  • The Jack Goldhill Award for Sculpture (£10,000 for a sculpture) - Rana Begum - 1001 - NO. 283
  • The Sunny Dupree Family Award for a Woman Artist (£3,500 for the best painting or sculpture by a woman artist) - Jane Harris - 1385 - Midas Magic This is a very impressive piece and I can well understand why it won a prize.
  • The Hugh Casson Drawing Prize (£1,500 for an original work on paper in any medium, where the emphasis is clearly on drawing) Kenneth Draper RA - 1260 - Deep Quarry
  • The London Original Print Fair Prize (£2000 for a print in any medium)Stephen Chambers RA - 1328 - When Trouble Meets Trouble
  • The British Institution Awards: Four prizes of £1,000 each are awarded by the Trustees of the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the UK. Students entering paintings, works on paper, sculpture and architecture will be eligible for the awards.
  • The Rose Award for Photography (£1000 for a photograph or series of photographs) - Peter Abrahams - 1458 - Vanitas, Cleaning
  • Lend Lease/Architects’ Journal Awards
The piece, a model within a book of Rome’s 16th century Farnese Gardens, was hailed as the single exhibit the judges ‘all fell for’.
Other Reviews:
Exhibition Details
  • Dates: Open to the public: Monday 04 June – Sunday 12 August 2012  
  • Opening Hours: 10am – 6pm daily (last admission 5.30pm). Late night opening: Fridays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm) 
  • Admission: Admission prices include the List of Works giving details on every exhibit in the show.  £10.00 full price; £8.00 60 years+ and registered disabled; £7.00 NUS; £4.00 12-18 years and Income Support; £3.00 8-11 years; Free for 7 years and under.  RA Friends go free. 
  • Tickets: Tickets are available daily at the RA or visit  Group bookings: Groups of 10+ are asked to book in advance. Telephone 020 7300 8027 or email  


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review of the 244th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. I've never seen this exhibition before, and will be going this week for the first time. I shall definitely be comparing the way in which I encounter the exhibition with what you have written. It is an interesting point that you make about how the exhibition seems to be exhibiting older, more established young artists. I think this is a shame, as ultimately we need new blood, so to speak, to continue the world of British art.

  2. Very good review. When I lived in London I would always go the summer show and if ever I am in London in the summer, still make it the highlight of any visit. Last time however, I was very disappointed in it as it seemed to more a show for the RA's than anyone else. Looking at your review and a video tour on Youtube, this show seems to quite exciting with loads more work from the 'general' public. Looks like it would be quite exhausting to view all the exhibits in one go, so its great that you feel its is worthy of a 2nd Look. I didn't feel that way about the one I saw in 2010.
    Unfortunately, no chance of getting to London this year so I hope this format is a great success and maybe next year I will get to see it for myself.


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