The Royal Academy may have been established as a refined institution of high culture, but in a place run by 80 artists, passions and rivalries unsurprisingly run high. Here, we track down a few of the quibbles and quarrels that have kept the RA a lively place for more than 250 years – featuring JMW Turner, John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough and many more...
JMW Turner vs John Constable
Born within a year of each other, Turner and Constable were the heavyweights of 19th-century British landscape painting – both of them transforming and elevating the genre. They exhibited every year at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, where critics fed the rivalry by drawing frequent comparisons between their work.
It all came to a head at the 1832 Summer Exhibition. Constable was set to unveil The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a seven-foot canvas he’d worked on for 13 years. The painting captured the illustrious ceremony of the bridge celebration with rich colours, lively brushstrokes and bright touches of red and gold.
Next to it hung Turner’s Helvoetsluys: a gentle, understated seascape of the port of Hellevoetsluis in the Netherlands, with light clouds and weak sunlight.
At the time, artists were allowed to put finishing touches to their work in the galleries before the exhibition opened. The painter C.R. Leslie RA, a friend of both artists, described what happened next – though he may have exaggerated slightly...
“Constable’s Waterloo seemed as if painted with liquid gold and silver, and Turner came several times into the room as he was heightening with vermilion and lake [red pigments] the decorations of the city barges. Turner stood behind him, looking from the Waterloo to his own picture, and at last brought his palette … And putting a round daub of red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling on his grey sea, went away without saying a word.
The intensity of the red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling on his grey sea, caused even the vermillion and lake of Constable to look weak. 'He has been here', said Constable, 'and fired a gun.'
The great man did not come into the room for a day and a half; and then, in the last moments that were allowed for varnishing, he glazed the scarlet seal he had put on his picture, and shaped it into a buoy.”
A close-up of the "round daub of red lead" that Turner added to his painting.
Joshua Reynolds vs Thomas Gainsborough
18th-century giants Gainsborough and Reynolds had a lot to compete over. Both were considered Britain’s leading painters in their day, and both were founding members of the RA – and Reynolds its first President.
Reynolds believed in traditional art with permanent values handed down from ancient Greeks and Romans, capturing grand moments and people in history. Gainsborough loved to paint the fleeting, flippant pleasures of light, shade and tint in everyday scenes (though he paid the bills with portrait commissions).
At the RA’s Annual Exhibition, they jostled for the best spots for their paintings – Gainsborough regularly arguing that his works were shunned on the walls because his nemesis was President of the institution.
Reynolds vs Gainsborough in the Summer Exhibition
Both artists also craved status, vying for the role of King George III’s court painter for many years. Both were commissioned to paint the King and Queen, but in 1784 Reynolds finally secured the official position (most likely because he had the added clout of being the RA’s President). Yet Gainsborough continued to be the monarchs’ personal favourite and produced many more portraits of the family – much to Reynolds’ displeasure.
Then in 1788, Gainsborough relented. On his deathbed aged 61, he sent a letter to Reynolds reflecting on a lifetime of bitter rivalry. He wrote:
“Dear Sir Joshua, I...write what I fear you will not read, after lying in a dying state for 6 month… The extreem affection which I am informed of by a Friend - which Sir Josha has expresd - induces me to beg a last favour, which is to come once under my Roof and look at my things...that I may have the honor to speak to you… I can from a sincere Heart say that I always admired - and sincerely loved - Sir Joshua Reynolds.”
Watch a short video of Royal Academy Archivist Mark Pomeroy reading Gainsborough's letter
Two years later in a lecture delivered at the Academy, Reynolds said:
“I cannot prevail on myself to suppress, that I was not connected with him by any habits of familiarity: if any little jealousies had subsisted between us, they were forgotten in those moments of sincerity...”
Nathaniel Hone vs Angelica Kauffman
Nathaniel Hone began what Tate has called “one of the greatest scandals of the British 18th-century art world” when he submitted his painting, The Conjuror, to the RA’s 1775 Annual Exhibition.
In the foreground of his painting was a bearded conjuror thought to represent the RA’s first President, Joshua Reynolds, with the inference that he creates his paintings from the work of other artists. A young Angelica Kauffman acts as a magician’s assistant propped up by his knee – an allusion to rumours that the pair were lovers.
If that weren’t enough of a dig, in an early version of the work (now in the Tate's collection) Hone painted a group of naked dancing figures in the top left corner, including a lady in black stockings – three points if you can guess who that’s supposed to be. The gathering (in front of the silhouette of St Paul’s Cathedral) is thought to be a reference to a project that Kauffman, Reynolds and others were working on, decorating the cathedral with religious paintings. Hone painted over this scene (as you can see in this later version), but only after Kauffman saw the work and informed the Academy.
Nonetheless, the damage had been done and his painting was rejected from the exhibition. Hone sent a servant to retrieve The Conjuror, as well as five of his other works that were hung in the galleries ready to be displayed in the show. He left only Spartan Boy, which he said:
“I am willing to have hung up from the great respect I owe to ye King and his Academy.”
Not done yet, Hone then put on his own retaliatory solo exhibition of 65 of his own works, opening on the same day as the RA’s, just down the road. In the catalogue, he laid out the feud in great detail and reprinted several of the letters sent between him and the RA. He wrote that the some of the works shown were:
“[intended] to [have been] exhibited [at the] Royal Academy this year, and … actually hung up there”, but added that he “never introduced, or intended to introduce any figure reflecting on Mrs Angelica Kauffman, or any lady whatever”.
James Barry vs the RA
One of only two artists ever expelled from the RA, James Barry was an Irish painter elected to the Academy in 1773 and appointed Professor of Painting nine years later. He held the position for 17 years until he published his less-than-complimentary ‘Letter to the Dilettanti Society’ – which swiftly got him expelled.
In the 76-page letter he deplored the state of patronage in Britain and what he regarded as the Academy’s ineffectiveness. His fellow Academicians decided he had to go, on the grounds of criticising the Royal Academy and making “improper digressions” in his lectures to RA Schools students. After being expelled he wrote a second edition of the letter, which included an appendix giving his account of the Academicians' action.