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.