Friday, May 22, 2009

Summer Exhibitionists

The sun is shining, the air is warming—spring is moving into summer, and the bravest are starting to sport some skin! In the nineteenth century there was another way to exhibit oneself in England. One of the highlights of summer was the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Everyone who could afford the 1-shilling entry fee strolled through the galleries to view paintings and sculpture from England’s most renowned artists.

And a few not so renowned.

The Summer Exhibition, which ran from May to August, was open to amateur artists as well. All you had to do was submit your work of art to a jury of members of the Royal Academy of Art. This Selection Committee deliberated for days to choose around 1,000 works of art to be featured in the exhibit. Supposedly footmen carried in the art and placed it before the jurors, who gazed on it and gave a thumbs up/thumbs down kind of vote. Pieces that received enough thumbs up were allowed in the exhibit.

But there was a second hurdle to jump before a piece actually appeared to the public. Pieces approved by the Selection Committee went before the Hanging Committee, who had the unenviable job of squeezing all the pieces into the galleries for viewing. As you can see from the picture, they literally crammed everything into the space. Sometimes, a painting that was approved by the Selection Committee was rejected by the Hanging Committee because they just couldn’t make it fit!

But can you imagine the excitement of a young lady or gentleman getting that final letter of acceptance? Your work is going to be sitting alongside Constable, Turner, Rowlandson, and other household names of the art world! You got to join these impressive talents a few days before the exhibit opened to schmooze and add “finishing touches” to your piece. And if your piece was hung “on the line,” a railing that ran around the room and served as an anchor for the paintings, that meant you had truly arrived. After all, inferior pieces were hung in the stratosphere, where the audience needed a telescope to see the details.

Today, the opening of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is still a red carpet event bringing notables from around the world. What would you expect from a bunch of exhibitionists?


Joanna said...

Boy and I was excited about going to the renaissance fair tomorrow. But I think an art exhibit would almost be more fun!

Regina Scott said...

Joanna, I love ren faires! Hope you have a great time. I'm going sailing on the Lady Washington, our state's tall ship, tomorrow. I'm hoping to have pictures to post next week. Regina

Gillian Layne said...

Love this! I have been digging around for information about Somerset House because I've been researching the Royal Society--and I understand they shared the space in the late 1700's.

Now they're located in the Burlington House, I believe. It was quite the time for arts and science.

Janeen said...

Wow, this is a great post! Very intresting, I didn't know that screening process either. You gals are just a well of knowledge. ha ha Hope your having a great holiday weekend!

Regina Scott said...


Yes, both the Royal Academy and the Royal Society were housed in Somerset house during that time. The picture in the post is from the second floor galleries of that building. Do you know about Leigh's Picture of London 1819? It's the equivalent of an early tour guide. The info on Somerset House is at

Gillian Layne said...

Thanks, Regina! Actually when I goggled Leigh's London I found a wealth of material. Thanks for the information. :)