The story of the Royal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academy is a gallery and art school in the heart of London, founded more than 250 years ago by a group of artists and architects wanting to champion the arts. Here are some highlights from its first quarter-millenium...

The story of the Royal Academy of ArtsRoyal Academy of Arts

“An Academy in which the Polite Arts may be regularly cultivated, is at last opened among us by Royal Munificence. This must appear an event in the highest degree interesting, not only to the Artists, but to the whole nation.”

– Joshua Reynolds, Discourse I, January 2nd, 1769.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

At over 250 years old, the Royal Academy is the oldest institution in Britain solely devoted to the fine arts. It was founded in 1768 by a group of artists and architects who wanted a slice of the success of other European academies: teaching institutions with annual exhibitions where artists could promote themselves to prominence, gain professional credibility, and have their artistic interests protected. The RA was one of the last royal academies created in Europe, and its founders were anxious to catch up with the prestige of neighbouring institutions.

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

They drew up a founding document, known as the Royal Academy Instrument of Foundation. Here's one of its pages, declaring that the artists and architects were "desirous of establishing a Society for promoting the Arts of Design", with the King as "Patron, Protector and Supporter".

The Blinding of Elymas (1729-31; 1514-1516) by James Thornhill (after Raphael)Royal Academy of Arts

To establish repute in its early decades, the RA focused on lofty, intellectual ideas developed by Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. It was following what was known as the Continental theory of art, which deemed that the height of artistic achievements were history paintings. These were works that depicted scenes from the Bible, and from ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology, chosen for their moral or philosophical significance.

Behind the scenes with the RA CollectionRoyal Academy of Arts

Needing material for its artists to study, the Royal Academy also set about compiling a collection of exemplar works – mostly casts of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and Renaissance paintings. The RA’s founding document also stated that all members must donate one of their artworks when elected, so the Academy began to house an expanding treasure trove of British art.

Not only was the RA gathering artworks for its artists to study, but also books (mainly on the topic of art). Its library was established along with the rest of the RA in 1768, making it the oldest institutional fine arts library in the UK. It’s built up a significant collection of books and other material relating to British art.

Take an online tour of the library

View of the old Royal Academy in Pall Mall by Edmund Evans (attributed to)Royal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academy swiftly became one of the most significant arts societies in Europe, but it struggled to find a solid home for all those high-minded ideas. For the Academy’s first eight years the King gave some rooms in Old Somerset House for teaching, as well as a gallery on Pall Mall in London, which was just 30 feet long.

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

Nonetheless, it was big enough to host the RA’s first Annual Exhibitions, showcasing what they decreed to be the best of British contemporary art for an audience of thousands. The show has taken place every year since the first in 1769, and is now known as the Summer Exhibition.

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

In 1775, architect William Chambers (one of the Academy’s founders) was commissioned to design a new Somerset House, where the state gave the Academy an official residence with a purpose-built, 32-foot-high gallery for the Annual Exhibition.

South front of Burlington House (ca.1860s) by Stephen AylingRoyal Academy of Arts

After outgrowing Somerset House, the RA spent three decades in part of the National Gallery’s Trafalgar Square building. Fast forward to 1867 and the Royal Academy was given a home in Burlington House on Piccadilly, where it remains to this day. No wonder – the government offered the building at an annual rent of £1 for 999 years.

Unpacking exhibits from Japan. The International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy 1935-6. Photograph by an unknown photographer from Topical Press Agency.; International Exhibition of Chinese Art 1935-36 (1935)Royal Academy of Arts

With a big, shiny, new home secured, the Royal Academy could begin showing international loan exhibitions as well as “specimens of works of deceased British artists”, alongside the well-established Summer Exhibition. Over the years, these exhibitions have expanded to include work by all sorts of international artists – both historical and contemporary.

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

A few decades later in the First World War, the RA was bombed by a Zeppelin. The Schools studios and one of the galleries were damaged (you can still see the scars around the Lecture Room doorway), and there were a few broken casts as well as some shrapnel lodged in the stone paving outside. Undeterred, the annual Summer Exhibition continued throughout the wars – 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.

Picasso Sculptures by Gordon ParksLIFE Photo Collection

In 1949, the RA made headlines when its then-President Alfred Munnings delivered a speech during a dinner attended by Britain's most influential arbiters of art. He berated modern artists from Picasso to Matisse and plenty in between, imploring “If you paint a tree, for God’s sake try and make it look like a tree, and if you paint a sky, try and make it look like a sky.” Munnings had already decided to resign before he made the speech, and since the speech was being broadcast live by the BBC, he made sure he went out with a bang.

New Buildings of the London University, Burlington Gardens; ‘The Illustrated London News’ (May 1870)Royal Academy of Arts

By the 21st century, though, the RA was embracing the avant-garde. In 2001 the Academy bought a listed building behind Burlington House, originally designed for the University of London in the 1800s. From 2003 to 2015, the RA hosted contemporary exhibitions in these new galleries at 6 Burlington Gardens, showcasing the work of Academicians from Richard Rogers to Allen Jones – as well as other exciting living artists.

The New RA in 90 secondsRoyal Academy of Arts

In 2008, work began on a masterplan that would unite Burlington House and Burlington Gardens, opening up new spaces to exhibit art and architecture and host lectures, workshops and debates. Ten years later, the new RA opened on 19 May 2018, in time for its 250th anniversary.

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