The RA's Collection Gallery hosts changing displays of highlights from the Academy's 250-year-old art collection. In this tour, you can see a display called The Making of an Artist: The Great Tradition (details).
Let's take a closer look...
Greeting you at the doorway to the gallery is Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA's oil painting, Satan Summoning his Legions, made 1796–1797.
Lawrence’s grandest history painting is dominated by a muscular male figure, naked apart from his sword, helmet and some carefully placed drapery. He is Satan, the rebel angel, who has been sent to Hell. Standing by a lake of fire, he summons other fallen angels. The painting was inspired by John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.
Lawrence thought this painting one of his greatest works, but for the rest of his career he painted mainly portraits.
And this is Thomas Lawrence himself, captured in a self-portrait painted late in life, c.1820.
As a teenager, Lawrence attended the RA Schools and later became President of the Royal Academy.
Lawrence took great care over the mouth, eyes and the rest of the face, but left the lower part of the canvas almost untouched. He used a limited range of colours and shows himself plainly against a simple background.
Hanging next to Lawrence is Portrait of Sir William Chambers, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA in c.1780.
The architect William Chambers was a key figure in the early years of the RA. He designed the RA’s first purpose-built home at Somerset House, shown in the background, and was the RA’s first Treasurer.
His connections to King George III helped the Royal Academy, but sometimes irritated Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the RA. Reynolds complained that “though he was President, Sir William was Viceroy over him”.
Reynolds painted the portrait of Chambers to make a pair with his own self-portrait, made in c.1780.
Here he presents himself as an intellectual heavyweight: swathed in academic robes and holding a document (perhaps one of his annual Discourses on Art). He's paying homage to two of his artistic heroes: his left hand rests on a bust of Michelangelo while his capped head on a plain background evokes the self-portraits of Rembrandt.
This is Thomas Gainsborough RA's Romantic Landscape of c.1783.
Gainsborough painted portraits for money and landscapes for pleasure. He wrote: “I am sick of portraits and wish very much to walk off to some sweet village where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.”
He sometimes sketched from nature but based many of his landscape paintings on models made from cork, moss and broccoli.
In Angelica Kauffman RA's 1778–1780 painting, Design, an artist intently studies a classical sculpture. She's an allegory for design or drawing – believed to be one of the four elements of art (alongside invention, colour and composition). Classical figures of personification were often depicted as passive, but this figure is active and in control.
Like most artists in the 1700s, Kauffman worked from casts after classical sculpture, but as a woman she was not allowed into the life room to draw live (nude) models.
From Michelangelo onwards, artists have taken inspiration from the developed musculature and slightly twisting pose of this ancient Greek sculpture, called the Belvedere Torso.
Joshua Reynolds said that even though it is “a defaced and shattered fragment” it has “the traces of superlative genius”. There are many references to the Belvedere Torso in 18th-century British art (you might recognise it from Kauffman's painting nearby).
The Royal Academy owns many plaster casts of antique sculpture, but this is the only original sculpture from antiquity in the RA Collection.
It's attributed to an artist called Timotheus, and thought to have been made c.375–350 BC. Originally the sculpture may have been part of the Temple of Asklepios in Greece. The back isn't fully carved, suggesting it may originally have been placed in a niche.
The figure may be a nymph, with near-transparent drapery so lightly carved that the body appears almost naked.
These are James Thornhill RA's 18th-century copies of Raphael's original 16th-century preparatory drawings for the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.
From left to right, they're titled Paul Preaching in the Areopagus, Peter and John Curing the Lame Man, and The Blinding of Elymas.
This eight-metre-wide painting is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, depicting the part of the Bible where Jesus announces at dinner that one of his 12 loyal supporters (disciples) will betray him before sunrise.
This version is oil paint on canvas, whereas Leonardo’s version was painted in tempera and oil on a dry wall – an unusual use of materials – so has flaked and deteriorated badly. It probably didn’t help that Napoleon used the original Last Supper’s room as a stable during his invasion of Milan.
This painting is thought to have been painted by Giampietrino and possibly Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio – both pupils of Leonardo. It’s believed to be the most accurate record of the original, and has been used to help with its conservation.
In this copy you can see details now not visible in the original – including Jesus’s feet, which were lost when a door was built into the wall that the original work is painted on.
This sculpture depicts sea serpents strangling a mythological priest named Laocoön, and his sons. The Greek god Poseidon sent this punishment after Laocoön warned the citizens of Troy not to take the wooden horse (concealing Greek soldiers) into their city.
Many artists in 18th-century Britain admired this portrayal of suffering and anguish. Joshua Reynolds declared that it has “more expression in the countenance than perhaps any other antique statue” and marvelled at “the writhing and contortion of the body”.
These wrestlers were cast from from a Roman marble copy of a lost Greek bronze of the 4th century BC.
In ancient Greece the martial art of pankration combined wrestling and boxing. It had very few rules and was included in the Olympic Games.
The artist John Flaxman discussed the sculpture when he was the RA’s Professor of Sculpture in the 19th century. He said that the wrestlers “exhibit the greatest muscular display in violent action” and admired “how rationally and justly the ancients copied nature”.
JMW Turner RA's Dolbadern Castle, North Wales from 1800 is one of his earliest paintings. It depicts a remote Welsh castle where Prince Owain the Red was imprisoned in the late 1200s.
The theme of lost liberty was important when Turner painted this picture. The government had curtailed personal freedom in fear that the French Revolution would spread to Britain.
In John Constable RA's 1825 painting, The Leaping Horse, the barge lowers its sail, the rope slackens and the tow horse leaps the barrier on the path. Here Constable depicts a scene in Suffolk where he spent his “careless boyhood”.
Constable paid great attention to weather and he described this painting as “a lovely subject, of the canal kind, lively – & soothing – calm and exhilarating, fresh – & blowing”.
This tiny painting is Charles Robert Leslie RA's Portrait of John Constable RA, a private memento of their friendship. Leslie was a successful portrait painter but is today best known as John Constable’s first biographer.
Later this work became one of the most enduring public images of Constable. It contrasts with this gallery's other more formal portraits of founding Royal Academicians.
Behind the scenes with the RA CollectionRoyal Academy of Arts