This book, together with the exhibition that it accompanies, examines the history of the Royal Academy exhibitions that took place annually in Somerset House between 1780 and 1836. These years were in many ways the crucial period for British art, a period spanning the last phase of Gainsborough’s career, the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds and the flowering of the genius of Turner and Constable. At every annual exhibition, painters struggled to secure the best places for their works in the Great Room, as near as possible to the famous ‘Line’, the wooden moulding that still runs around the walls at a distance of some eight feet from the floor. Ambitious pictures of historical subjects, executed in the ‘grand manner’, and boldly coloured portraits of famous sitters by leading Academicians were usually to be found in the most privileged positions, with their frames resting ‘on the Line’ itself. Meanwhile, paintings with delicate or highly wrought surfaces tended to be shown beneath, at eye-level or even lower. Other works were ‘skied’ – hung almost invisibly in the ceiling cove. A worse fate was to be left out of the Great Room altogether and to be consigned to a space of much lesser prestige. Historians have long thought that it was the nature of such annual exhibitions, the crowded, intensely emulative conditions under which artists showed their work, that motivated many of the developments in European art at the beginning of the modern period. The present project sets out to test these ideas in practice, by presenting the actual pictures in the very space in which they were first seen by the public and where artists annually placed their reputations ‘on the line’, in the eyes of their rivals, of critics and connoisseurs, and of the public at large.
We have been honoured and delighted to receive the Patronage of her Majesty the Queen in this undertaking, and to have received the active support of the Trustees and staff of the Royal Collection Trust through loans of paintings for the exhibition. From the beginning, the project has been developed in partnership with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and has been strongly supported by all the principal public and private collections of British art throughout the country. We have received also the generous support of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Rose Foundation, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation, White Public Relations and the group of Courtauld Exhibition Patrons, including especially Mr Danny Katz and Nicholas and Judith Goodison. To them, and to another warm supporter of our work who wishes to remain anonymous, I should like to express our thanks.
As the exhibition opens, it will effectively launch a season in which, with the opening of the new Tate Britain and the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and other major events in Europe and North America, the achievements of artists working in Britain will be the focus of international celebration. It is fitting that the season should begin in Sir William Chambers’s Great Room at Somerset House, now happily again becoming familiar to Londoners as one of the capital’s leading exhibition spaces.
John Murdoch
Courtauld Institute Gallery