Friday, July 17, 2020

Blast from the Past: Summer Exhibitionists

When I first penned this post in May 2009, I had two heroines who were painters, Lady Emily Southwell of the Lady Emily Capers, and her mentor, Hannah Alexander of Secrets and Sensibilities. Now I have three with the introduction of Abigail Archer in The Artist’s Healer. So, it seemed a good time to bring this post back to the forefront.

The sun is shining, the air is warming—summer is here, 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! For a few days before the exhibit opened, you were allowed to join these impressive talents 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. This year, for the first time, it will run in the fall and winter, from October 6, 2020, to January 3, 2021, because of the coronavirus. The world may change, but art lives on.

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