The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition – Royal Academy of Arts

The Great Spectacle

After visiting the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year, I fancied seeing The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition, the celebratory co-exhibition. Tickets were only £5 with a ticket for the Summer Exhibition, so I popped along after work on Friday.

The exhibition looks at the history and significance of the Summer Exhibition, displaying a mix of artwork which made an impact at the time, and pictures showing visitors actually at the exhibition. Satirical cartoons suggest the crush created by this popular venue, while William Powell Frith’s work shows the great and the good attending the Summer Exhibition during its Victorian heyday.

William Powell Frith,
A Private View at the Academy, 1881 (1883)

The show displays significant works by Reynolds and Gainsborough, as well as Turner. There is a small room dedicated to architecture, while sculpture is interwoven with painting and other more traditional forms of art. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of artworks by women on display, although the number of women elected to the Academy was in the past embarrassingly small. The exhibition does not shy away from controversy, covering the former perceptions of the RA as stuffy and old-fashioned, while Sargent’s painting of Henry James, attacked by suffragette Mary Wood, is displayed.

After the overwhelming busyness of the Summer Exhibition, The Great Spectacle is much calmer, displaying fewer works of art that, nevertheless, are of great significance. I found it to be well worth a visit.

2018 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Royal Academy

I’d never been to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, and decided that this year would be the first that I would go. This year it’s special for two reasons: one, it is the 250th Summer Exhibition, and two, it marks the opening of the newly redesigned Royal Academy of Arts.

I went with a friend who has been to many Summer Exhibitions in the past and really enjoys them. This year’s has been curated by artist Grayson Perry, and as usual is made up of works by well known professional artists, enthusiastic amateurs, and everything in between.

Lacking any skill or knowledge of art myself, I’m in no position to judge the quality of the works, but I was able to pick out many that I liked. My tastes tend towards the traditional, but there was something for everyone: classic painting, abstract art, sculpture, models, mixed media and more in every conceivable style. I’ve added a few of my favourites below.

Charles I: King and Collector – Royal Academy of Arts and Charles II: Art and Power – Queen’s Gallery

The Royal Academy and the Queen’s Gallery are both playing host to seventeenth-century royalty-related exhibitions this year. I don’t know if they planned it this way or not, but they certainly made the most of it, offering a joint weekend ticket including tea and cake. I’ll admit the cake swung it for me.

Royal Academy of Art

The Royal Academy exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector, was actually due to end on the day I visited, so it was very busy. This didn’t stop me from getting a good look at the works on display, however. Works are categorised by theme, with the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance and Van Dyck and Reubens in England grouped in separate rooms, or else their former location: pictures that were hung in the Queen’s House can be found in one room, and those from the Whitehall Cabinet in another. The Mortlake Tapestries adorn one room, while images of Charles I in the hunting field hang in the Central Hall.

The exhibition consists of works that were accumulated by Charles I before and after he became king. He loved art and was a keen collector, but after his execution his collection was broken up and sold off (some of the catalogues can be seen here). This exhibition reunites these works after several centuries. Some didn’t have far to come, having got back into the Royal family’s hands after the Restoration, or else having been sold to wealthy collectors in the UK. Others, however, ended up in Europe or the US, and have been loaned for the purposes of this exhibition.

I must admit that in themselves, I didn’t fall in love with many of the works on display here (though I did enjoy seeing the full-length portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, an image I recognised from A level History). However, I was impressed by the collection as a whole, and the way in which it reflects Charles’ impact on the art world.

Queen's Gallery

After my restoring cup of tea and piece of cake I walked through Green Park to the Queen’s Gallery, where Charles II: Art and Power is currently being hosted until 15 May. This exhibition follows on from and complements the Charles I exhibition, focusing on Charles II and how he made use of art to convey his power. It began with a small display of items relating to the Civil War, the execution of Charles I, and the Protectorate, and went on to focus on the art that he collected and that was produced during his reign. Some of this was originally part of his father’s collection and had been brought back; others were new acquisitions.

In terms of the historical interest, I think I preferred this exhibition, partly as it was much quieter and much easier to see the artworks. There were surprises too: for instance, I had no idea that the famous painting of Erasmus was once part of a pair, and the two paintings were attached together.

The most dramatic work in this exhibition is the huge portrait of Charles II (the one that adorns all the publicity material) that dominates the last room. In its display of power and authority it is reminiscent of the painting of Charles I on horseback displayed at the Royal Academy; knowing what happened to the first Charles, I wonder if the second Charles drew this comparison and wondered; or if he just didn’t care.

Regardless, these are a fascinating pair of exhibitions, well put together and worthwhile for their historical context as much as their artistic context.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 – Royal Academy of Arts


My longstanding interest in Russia meant that the Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts was right up my street. The exhibition covered the period between 1917 and 1932, when Russia was settling into life post-revolution and artists were first excited by the opportunities the new world presented, then dismayed at the restrictions imposed by Stalin.

During this first fifteen years, artists enjoyed considerable freedom, and revelled in the new possibilities that the new regime offered. However, in 1932 Stalin decreed that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable style for the Soviet Union, ending this burst of creativity.

The exhibition features work by many acclaimed artists, including Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall and Rodchenko. Interestingly it also features film clips of life in Russia, from both films and documentaries about the Soviet regime.

One of the most powerful things about the exhibition had nothing at all to do with art. In the last room, there was a video booth showing photographs of people who had been arrested and sent to gulags by Stalin and his cronies. The faces staring out of the screen are still haunting me.

Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans – Royal Academy of Arts

Royal Academy

What attracted me to Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tymans was the promotional picture of one of James Ensor’s paintings: a pair of skeletons fighting over a fish, pulling it apart in a kind of grotesque tug of war. Ensor, who lived his whole life in Ostend, Belgium, specialised in this kind of bizarre picture. This exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts has been curated by artist Luc Tymans.

Perhaps surprisingly, the pictures were largely painted in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, because their macabre imagery seems from a later time. There is a proliferation of skeletons: fighting over fish, huddling by a heater to keep warm, inspecting chinoserie. Ensor painted himself as a skeleton on more than one occasion. If I hadn’t known better I would have thought that the artist was from Mexico, there were so many skeletons.

So many pictures seem to show a fallen barrier between this world and the next, with subjects including angels and masked revellers, and many have a black sense of humour. I especially liked the bad doctors and the dangerous chefs, with horrific but blackly comic imagery.

A self-portrait of the artist shows him wearing a traditionally feminine bonnet and a perfectly calm expression. Ensor was obviously someone who didn’t care what people thought of him and was happy to go his own way, in life as well as art.

James Ensor, 'Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring'
James Ensor, ‘Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring’, Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique

Jean Etienne Liotard – Royal Academy of Arts

I paid a visit to the Jean Etienne Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which is on until 31 January in the Sackler Wing, Burlington House. Liotard (1702-89) worked largely as a portraitist across Enlightenment Europe. Born in Geneva, he travelled widely, working at times for the British, French and Austrian royal families. More unusually, his exploration of the Near East and the Ottoman Empire gave him a fascination with Oriental costume and a nickname, “the Turk”. This is the first sole exhibition of Liotard’s work in the UK, and includes over 70 works.

Liotard worked largely in pastels, which makes him very different from other artists that I am familiar with. His portraits have fantastic detail and he was clearly a very accomplished artist, but to my eye there is something slightly flat about them: I missed the depth that oil paintings have. The exceptions are Liotard’s self-portraits and the pictures of his family and friends, which reveal sensitivity and depth. I particularly liked the unusual Self-Portrait Laughing from c. 1770.

I did notice that the pictures included a lot of blue, and I wondered why. Perhaps blue was just a common colour of the clothes of the period, or perhaps Liotard wanted to make the pictures look expensive: I know that in terms of oil paint, blue shades were particularly expensive, so perhaps using pastel was a way to get this effect without the cost. However, this is just conjecture.

This was an interesting and unusual exhibition, well worth seeing, and rather enlightening.

White: a project by Edmund de Waal – Royal Academy of Arts

I recently visited a new exhibition, White: a project by Edmund de Waal, at the Royal Academy of Arts. This exhibition, which runs until 3 January, is unusual as it takes place in the RA Library and Print Room. As a librarian, I was really interested to see inside this space.

The project is curated by artist Edmund de Waal, and is an exploration of the colour white, its meaning and impact and its role in different contexts. De Waal has collected a number of white objects for display, each of which is very different. The objects include books, sculptures, paintings and photographs.

Edmund de Waal, who has written a forthcoming book relating to this topic – The White Road – is best known for his memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. That very same hare is on display in this exhibition: created around 1880, and attributed to Sawaki Rizo Masatoshi.

Some of de Waal’s own white sculptures are visible here, and other varied pieces are also displayed, including a bust of a woman from the late fifteenth century, sculpted after Francesco Laurana. My favourite, however, was the South Arabian calcite alabaster anthropormorphic stele, carved in the first century BC or AD.

Images included Garry Fabian Miller’s It’s Open Clear Light from 2014–15, as well as Horatio Ross’ Fir trees on the banks of Dornoch Firth between Ardgay and Fearn of around 1850. In terms of the written word, the manuscript of John Cage’s 4’33” and the white page from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were also displayed.

The exhibition explored what the colour white might mean, revealing its lack of neutrality, its blankness, purity and spirituality. It got me thinking about what the colour white means to me, what it represents. When I think of white I think of clouds, of blank paper, but most of all of the icy landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctic. What does white mean to you?

Ai Weiwei – Royal Academy of Arts


I was interested to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: despite not being the biggest fan of modern art in general, this particular artist is well known for his commentary on censorship, the Chinese government and human rights. He first became well-known in Britain in 2010 when his sunflower seeds installation was present in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but this is the first major survey in the UK.

The exhibition was curated in collaboration with Weiwei, and covers the period from 1993, when he returned to China, until the present day. Some works have been created specifically for the RA.

I genuinely wasn’t sure what I would make of this exhibition, but I found it a worthwhile experience, getting me to think about the issues Weiwei raises in his work. I liked the way that contemporary Chinese society was juxtaposed with ancient culture.

Consisting largely of big installation pieces, on a first glance there isn’t a whole lot to look at in the exhibition, but in fact I thought the works had a surprising depth. The free audio guide definitely helped me find my way through the pieces. This n represents a map of China.


Another consisted of leftover wood arranged incredibly neatly, with pieces of ancient temple buried among the pile.


I was impressed by this stool sculpture. These works are apparently useful objects intentionally made useless, ancient artefacts modified by modern craftsmen, commenting on China’s past and present.

These tables were bizarre – quirky, but interesting. The craftsmanship is clearly evident, both in the pieces themselves and in the way they have been reshaped.

This work, consisting of material from collapsed buildings, represents the Szechuan earthquake of 2008, and the panels on the wall bear the names of those who died. Many of these were children, the details suppressed by the authorities as they did not want to admit that the materials for building schools had been skimped on.

This sculpture is made from material taken from an arts centre that Weiwei built, and that was forcibly demolished shortly afterwards.

This impressive sculpture also represents China.

This field is made of marble.

The marble buggy was created after Weiwei had an unpleasant experience of surveillance while he was out walking his son in his buggy.

I liked the room of cubes. This crystal one took a long time to create.

This one was based on a traditional kind of Chinese box.

This cube is made entirely of tea leaves.

This one is solid metal.

This map of China is made of porcelain.

These handcuffs are made of jade.

These bones might look real, but they are actually porcelain.

I really liked this wallpaper, which looks ornate and pretty but actually consists of handcuffs, CCTV cameras and the Twitter logo.

This set of boxes contain scale models of Ai Weiwei’s rooms while he was under house arrest and being watched constantly by two soldiers. Each has a window in the side and an opening on the top.

Weiwei has modelled himself and two soldiers in each model.

Finally, this chandelier looks fairly traditional from a distance, but close up you realise that it is, in fact, made of bicycles.

As I said, I wasn’t sure if I would be impressed by this exhibition but I really was. In all honesty, I was probably swayed by the knowledge that Weiwei had been placed under house arrest and come under scrutiny from the Chinese authorities – his art must be important for them to act in this way. Wrong or right, I did find myself thinking seriously about all of these works and they are still on my mind now.

The exhibition runs until 13 December. The Royal Academy is open every day, including late opening on Friday.

Daniel Maclise: The Waterloo Cartoon – Royal Academy of Arts

When I visited the Royal Academy in order to see the Joseph Cornell exhibition, I also popped into Burlington House’s Weston Rooms to see the smaller exhibition entitled Daniel Maclise: The Waterloo Cartoon. This exhibition, which runs until 3 January, marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and is free with a ticket to one of the other major exhibitions at the RA.

The cartoon was made by Daniel Maclise, an Irish painter and illustrator, in 1858-59 in preparation for a commission at the Houses of Parliament (the finished wall art is still there), The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher After the Battle of Waterloo. The cartoon, which has recently undergone conservation treatment, is one of the largest surviving cartoons in the UK and shows the meeting of the two generals after their victory over Napoleon. Accompanied by staff and soldiers, the work showcases the intensive research Maclise undertook during his preparation, which included eyewitness accounts of the battle. The result is not always 100% accurate but is fairly close nevertheless. The size of the drawing makes an impact, as does the representation of soldiers in all states, including severely injured. The work seems to be trying to evoke an awareness of the heroism of the soldiers involved in the battle, even as it celebrates victory.

Alongside the cartoon, there are a selection of French and Italian prints representing the battle as viewed from the “other side”. Including satirical prints of British soldiers and less flattering images of the generals, they provide an interesting contrast. The exhibition is certainly worth popping into if you’re visiting the RA for Joseph Cornell or Ai Weiwei

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust – Royal Academy of Arts

The Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts explores the life’s work of a New York-based eccentric who rarely left his home state but travelled widely in his mind. In later life, once his art had brought him success, he was offered the chance to visit Europe but declined, on the basis that he would lose the state of yearning that had helped him to produce the thoughtful, delicate works that he put together in the basement of the house he shared with his mother and brother.

The exhibition encompasses the works he created over a decades-long career. He collected photos, archives and other bits and bobs and used them to make collages and boxes, many built around particular themes. Tiny drawings and maps, place names, cutout pictures, and delicate pieces of wood and fabric are all used in his works. Some of my favourites included the box of parrots and the case in which a picture of a Victorian girl floats into the air, attached to an unseen balloon by tiny strings. The works have the air of cabinets of curiosities; they reflect Cornell’s wide interests (space, travel, history, stories of all kinds) and each one is unique.

This art is unlike any I’ve seen before, and I’m glad I made the effort to go and see the exhibition before it closed.