An introduction to the RA Collection

The Royal Academy has been amassing treasures related to art and architecture since it was founded in 1768. Here we meet the RA's Senior Curator Helen Valentine to learn more about the Collection.

Self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA (c.1780) by Joshua ReynoldsRoyal Academy of Arts

At the opening of the Royal Academy in 1769, its first President (Joshua Reynolds) announced: “The principal advantage of an academy is, that, besides furnishing able men to direct the student, it will be a repository for the great examples of the art. These are the materials on which genius is to work, and without which the strongest intellect may be fruitlessly or deviously employed.”

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

When the Royal Academy was established by 34 artists and architects, and with the blessing of King George III in 1768, the commitment to build a collection of works of art was written into its founding document. At the time the country didn’t have a national collection of either Old Master or British paintings that artists could study.

The Royal Academy’s Collection is unusual because most of the things in it were selected by artists, rather than by curators or collectors. In 2011 it was recognised by Arts Council England's Designation Scheme, which identifies and celebrates outstanding collections.

A trove of teaching materials
The Academy set out to collect representations of great works of art to be closely studied by students at the RA Schools, and to spur future artists to reach greater heights. Initially, this meant acquiring ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and architecture (in the form of plaster casts), as well as a few artworks from the well-regarded Renaissance period... well as some stranger items, like this life-size cast of a skinned horse...

Smugglerius (c.1834; 1776) by William Pink, Agostino Carlini RARoyal Academy of Arts

...and this 'écorché': a plaster cast of a human body with the skin stripped off to reveal musculature. The corpse used to make this was a person executed when found guilty of being a smuggler-turned-murderer. It was collected fresh from the gallows by the sculptor Carlini, commissioned by the first Professor of Anatomy at the RA Schools.

The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John; Taddei Tondo (ca.1505-05) by Michelangelo BuonarrotiRoyal Academy of Arts

Helen Valentine, Senior Curator of the RA Collection, explains: “The artist or collectors or patrons were giving works of art that they thought would inspire students. One of the most important examples is Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo (details), given to the Collection not just for the students but also to inspire Academicians.”

Fishing rod belonging to J.M.W. Turner RARoyal Academy of Arts

A memory of artists’ lives
The Collection also includes paraphernalia from the lives of artists – many donated by the artists or their relatives. For example, here's the painter JMW Turner’s fishing rod…

Queen Victoria's satchel and art equipmentRoyal Academy of Arts

...and Queen Victoria’s satchel of art equipment.

Cheeky Little Astronomer (2013) by Yinka Shonibare RARoyal Academy of Arts

A record of the Academy’s members

The Royal Academy’s founding document also decreed that along with collecting historical works, each artist and architect should give one of their own artworks to the Collection when they became a member of the institution.

Wintergreens (1986) by Frank Bowling RARoyal Academy of Arts

These donations are known as 'Diploma Works', and together they chart the development of British art-making over more than 250 years.

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

Here's part of that founding document, which states that “[The elected artist] shall not receive his Letter of Admission, till he hath deposited in the Royal Academy, to remain there, a Picture, Bas relief or other Specimen of his Abilities approved of by the then sitting Council of the Royal Academy.”

untitled: female (2018) by Phyllida Barlow RARoyal Academy of Arts

Valentine says, “We’re still working with Academicians giving their Diploma Works, as well as other artists who come along and want to give us their work. Sometimes you meet direct relatives of deceased artists who want to give their prized works to us. I like the variety of the RA Collection, and I like that it’s contemporary. It’s a living collection, always growing in a small way.”

Behind the scenes with the RA CollectionRoyal Academy of Arts

The growing Collection continues to fulfil its original remits, holding some 940 paintings, 1,180 sculptures, over 8,000 prints and 10,000 drawings, 2,000 architectural design drawings and 5,000 early photographs.

Let’s hear more from Helen about what it’s like to look after all those things...

Behind the scenes with the RA CollectionRoyal Academy of Arts

“As the curator of a collection, you’re a caretaker in many ways. The job attracts a very particular type of person who really enjoys looking after something. It’s about making sure it’s in as good condition as it can be, it’s properly documented, it’s accessible, it has information provided. You’re taking care of objects so that they can be shared with the wider world.”

Behind the scenes with the RA ArchiveRoyal Academy of Arts

“I love working with real objects. It never fails to be interesting and engaging. There will always be something you haven’t seen before. I think leaving something better than you found it is incredibly rewarding – you know that it’s there for the future.”

The Silence (1965) by Carel Weight RARoyal Academy of Arts

“In the mid-20th century people would say why aren’t Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth part of the Academy? And that’s because they didn’t want to be. It was felt there was this split between the RA’s more traditional art and the art world’s modernist movements. Sometimes the RA is right in the middle of the British art world, electing cutting-edge artists, and sometimes it’s out of sync with what’s happening more broadly – but that’s still telling us something about British art."

Behind the scenes with the RA CollectionRoyal Academy of Arts

Here are five of Helen’s highlights from the RA Collection…

Lamia (1899/1900) by George Frampton RARoyal Academy of Arts

1. Lamia by George Frampton RA (details)

“I’ve often travelled with this sculpture when it goes to other exhibitions, because it’s very delicate. It’s made partly with ivory, which means it’s very difficult to travel with because of so many regulations surrounding the material. The sculpture was made over a century ago, and of course you wouldn’t promote making art with ivory now, but I do think it’s an extraordinary, non-traditional use of the material. I love the impact it has; it’s wonderful when you take something out of its box in front of a group of people and they just go 'wow'.”

Cast of composite capital (late 18th century/early 19th century) by from the Baths of Caracalla, Rome (maker unknown)Royal Academy of Arts

2. Our collection of casts from classical architecture

We have an amazing collection of casts taken from ancient buildings in Rome in the 1780s and 1790s. Those buildings have changed now – from pollution or restoration or just time passing – but these casts are an exact record of what that part of the building looked like.

The Last Supper (c.1515-20) by Attributed to Giampietrino and Giovanni Antonio BoltraffioRoyal Academy of Arts

3. Our copy of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (learn more)

"This copy is interesting because it’s telling us quite a lot that we can’t get from the original work. We recently took it to Milan for some conservation work and so many people wanted the chance to look at it more closely. You can dismiss things as being just a copy, but when this one was bought for the Academy they recognised that it recorded exactly what Leonardo had done, and that was really valuable."

A Mermaid (1900) by John William Waterhouse RARoyal Academy of Arts

4. A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse RA (details)

I love this painting for the amazing response it gets from visitors. People really love it; I think it’s that combination of magic and realism.

The Leaping Horse (1825) by John ConstableRoyal Academy of Arts

5. The Leaping Horse by John Constable RA

"This painting is certainly a highlight. Constable had a difficult relationship with the Academy, but there’s something about him pushing himself to do this six-foot canvas, pouring his heart and soul into it because he wanted to be better-known. I’ve worked with The Leaping Horse for years, and it’s really wonderful to get to know a painting, find different things in it, talk about it with so many different people."

Take a closer look at this painting

You can find artworks from the Collection in free displays throughout the Royal Academy's buildings. Or, explore the Collection Gallery online.

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