250 years of the Summer Exhibition

The Royal Academy's annual open-submission art show has happened every year since 1768 and is a staple of the British art world. Let's find out more...

By Royal Academy of Arts

Royal Academy Instrument of Foundation (10 Dec 1768)Royal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academy Instrument of Foundation (a document that declared the RA's mission in 1768) announced that the newly formed institution would hold an "Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all Artists of distinguished merit."

The Summer Exhibition in 60 secondsRoyal Academy of Arts

The "Annual Exhibition" dreamt up by the Royal Academy founders is now known as the Summer Exhibition. It's been held annually for more than a quarter-millenium, and is now the world's largest open-submission art show. Anyone can enter their art to be considered for inclusion, so you’ll find work by little-known artists next to work by established household names.

The Exhibition at the Royal Academy in Pall Mall in 1771 (Published 1772, Robert Sayer) by Richard Earlom (engraver), after Michel Vincent ('Charles') BrandoinRoyal Academy of Arts

At the first Summer Exhibition in 1769, there were 136 works by 56 artists, but the exhibition soon grew and hasn’t stopped since. In 2019’s show, there were more than 1,200 works by 1,044 artists.

The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875 (1876) by Charles West Cope RARoyal Academy of Arts

The works on show are selected and arranged by the artists who run the Royal Academy (known as Royal Academicians, and they also enter their works into the exhibition, creating an eclectic mix in the galleries. This painting from 1876 depicts artists on the selection committee (an exclusively white male group back then) choosing from entrants’ works that have been sent to the Royal Academy for consideration.

The Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1792: The Antique Academy (April 1792) by Thomas Sandby RARoyal Academy of Arts

With so many works squeezed onto the walls, position matters. In the 18th century, pictures were hung floor to ceiling, very close together, tipped towards the viewer and arranged symmetrically.

This 1792 sketch by Royal Academician Thomas Sandby shows a layout plan for that year's exhibition. Not pictured, however, is the "beef tea" drink that's offered to the Selection Committee during the eight-day hanging process. The tradition continues today (and the recipe has been kept a secret all this time).

The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787 (1 July 1787)Royal Academy of Arts

History paintings (depicting grand scenes from the Bible, history and mythology) and swaggering portraits by celebrated artists of the day sat in pride of place. They were hung “on the line”, so that the bottom edge of the artwork was eight feet from the ground: close enough to appreciate the detail, but high enough to be a little imposing. Smaller pieces sat below, and works by lesser-known artists were “skied” – hung near the ceiling where it was difficult to see them.

Exhibition Room, Somerset House; from ‘Microcosm of London’, London: R. Ackermann, 1808-10, vol.I, pl.2 (1 January 1808) by Drawn and engraved by Augustus Charles Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson. Aquatinted by John HillRoyal Academy of Arts

Art historians Mark Hallett and Sarah Victoria Turner have called it “a great urban spectacle, in which art, entertainment, commerce, education, and self-promotion have mingled together in a riot of colour and conversation.”

Grayson Perry's Summer ExhibitionRoyal Academy of Arts

Those words ring true for the Summer Exhibition in the 21st century as much as the 18th. The show operates pretty much the same – though the art on show has changed a lot (as the 2018 show coordinator Grayson Perry RA shows us in this video).

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 1931. ‘Sending in Day’ (1931) by Unidentified photographer working for Sport & General Press Agency Ltd.Royal Academy of Arts

Here are four highlights from over 250 years of putting on the world's largest open-submission art show...

David Wilkie and the Summer Exhibition’s first blockbusterRoyal Academy of Arts

In the early 1800s, the young Scottish painter David Wilkie exhibited the show's first 'blockbuster' works. His 1806 painting, The Village Politicians (take a look), an everyday scene of men debating the news in a pub, was the first to have a barrier around it to protect it from the jostling crowd. In 1822 he submitted the painting here, Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Despatch, to similar appeal.


He wasn’t the only one, though: in 1858, William Powell Frith’s The Derby Day (take a look) drew such crowds that a policeman had to guard it. The same happened to The Roll Call (take a look) in 1874, by a little-known artist called Elizabeth Thompson (later Elizabeth Butler). Both Wilkie and Frith were later elected Royal Academicians – but Butler was held back by just two votes, the nearest any woman had come to being elected to the RA.

Detail of the portrait of Henry James O.M. by J.S. Sargent R.A. after being damaged by a suffragette, May 1914. (ca. May 1914) by Unidentified photographerRoyal Academy of Arts

On 4 May 1914, the suffragette Mary Wood smuggled a meat cleaver into the Summer Exhibition and slashed John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the writer Henry James. Wood stated that she tried to destroy it to “show the public that they have no security for their property nor for their art treasures until women are given political freedom.” However, Wood may also have chosen this portrait – painted by an elder statesman of the artistic elite – to challenge the bastion of conservatism.

Gallery IX, Burlington House after the explosion of a German bomb in 1917 (ca.September 24 1917)Royal Academy of Arts

In 1917, during the First World War, the RA was bombed by a German Zeppelin, damaging one of the galleries usually used for the Summer Exhibition (you can still see the scars around the Lecture Room doorway). The Schools studios were also damaged, and there were a few broken casts as well as some shrapnel lodged in the stone paving outside. Repairs were done just in time to open the Summer Exhibition – though without the usual celebratory openings. For the rest of the year, many of the galleries were occupied by the Red Cross, and downstairs the RA Schools housed a unit that designed camouflage for ships.

Gallery V of the Royal Academy 2017 Summer Exhibition (2015)Royal Academy of Arts

In 2020, due to the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Summer Exhibition is for the first time moving to the autumn. An Indian Summer Exhibition, if you will...

Photograph of Jim Lambie RA's 'Zobop' staircase at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015 (2015)Royal Academy of Arts

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