The Royal Academy of Arts: History and Collections – by Robin Simon

To mark the occasion of the opening of the New RA on 19 May 2018 and the celebration of its 250th anniversary, we have joined forces with the Royal Academy of Arts and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art to produce a very special book. The Royal Academy of Arts: History and Collections, edited by Robin Simon with Maryanne Stevens, is an unprecedented study of its collection which illuminates the history of art in Britain over the past two and a half centuries.

Editor Robin Simon explains which forgotten artists he discovered during the work on the RA250 celebrations.

The Royal Academy Schools lay at the heart of the institution from its foundation 250 years ago. And yet the Academy took the curious decision not to collect the drawings and paintings produced by even its most promising pupils, in marked contrast with the Académie royale in Paris and the Académie de France in Rome. Both those institutions (the former now the École des Beaux-Arts) are able to draw upon the riches they accumulated to show off countless masterpieces by the likes of Boucher, Fragonard and David.

The Academy in London did, none the less, acquire examples of the work of its student stars over the years, usually through family gift or bequest, so that magical early drawings by the likes of John Everett Millais, George Richmond, Edwin Landseer and G.F. Watts are now among the jewels of the collection. Other gems, however, are by artists who, even when they went on to become professionals, are far less well known. The book features, for example, a quite stunning study of a hand by Margaret Evangeline Wilson (1890–1977), who from 1912 was in the Schools, to which the drawing helped win her a scholarship. The acquisition record suggests that her later donation was little regarded, for it states only that she gave this and four other lovely drawings to the Academy between ‘about 1920 and about 1960’. At least Wilson’s drawing has a name attached to it, but a glorious mid-19th-century drawing after a cast of the Laocoön, which we also reproduce, remains anonymous, although it was signed by Landseer, then Keeper of the Schools, to mark his approval.

One of the most surprising discoveries in the course of preparing the book came as late as the autumn of 2015, when a vast canvas, some 30 feet wide, by Charles Sims (1873–1928) (another product of the Schools) was found rolled up in the basement of the Academy, a little nibbled round the edges. It had been painted as a mural for the Civics Room of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ exhibition at the Academy in 1916, and the artist went to his grave believing it had been lost. It is a splendid painting by this now underrated artist, completed with the aid of several named women students in the Schools, whose names Sims carefully inscribed on a shield at the bottom of the composition. They were: Florence Asher, Margaret Brown, Rosalie Emslie and Veronica [E.] Martindale. Rosalie Emslie (b. 1891), the daughter of artists, was in the RA Schools from November 1911 and went on to paint some fine period pieces in the 1930s. What happened to the others? If anyone knows, I should love to hear. A few clues: Martindale was born in 1893, Asher in 1888, and both entered the Schools in July 1913. But Margaret Brown?

There was another large canvas rolled up in the same place, this time a mere seventeen feet wide, a delightful representation of London life, painted for the same exhibition by Doris Zinkheisen (1898–1991), who was then also studying in the Schools, at the age of eighteen. She became a popular society portraitist with a distinctive style, best seen in her well-known Self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Other discoveries, at least for me, were of a different kind. Can you name the sculptor of the gigantic figure of Nelson on the top of the column in Trafalgar Square? No, I couldn’t either, but now I know: Edward Hodges Baily (1788–1867), who is ideal material for pub quizzes of a superior kind. Who did that other London landmark, the vast golden statue of Athena outside the Athenaeum? E.H. Baily, of course. What was the inspiration for Edvard Eriksen’s Little Mermaid on the harbour in Copenhagen? It was Baily’s Eve at the fountain (Bristol City Art Gallery), which gained universal fame when it was engraved after its exhibition in the Academy in 1822. Katherine Eustace, who has contributed the chapter on 18th- and 19th-century sculpture, writes that, after his death, the reputation of this titan among 19th-century sculptors, who was described in his own day as ‘England’s Canova’, ‘fell, so to speak, into an oubliette’. In other recent histories of the Academy he does not even feature in the index.

Discoveries about Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll (1848–1939), a trained sculptor, were something else again. In 1877 she presented the Academy with her own marble portrait bust of her formidable mother, Queen Victoria, which is just one among many representations in the collection of a reigning monarch, each of whom becomes Patron of the Royal Academy. The Princess had a soft spot for the Academy, attested by her gift in 1900 of Queen Victoria’s handsome watercolour box. And she had an even softer spot for some of the Academicians, including one of its presidents, Edwin Lutyens, and her tutor, Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834–1890). It was unfortunate, to say the least, that Boehm died on top of her in the privacy of his studio in Fulham Road. But to find out more, you will have to read the book…

Robin Simon is editor of the British Art Journal and honorary professor of English at University College London.

MaryAnne Stevens is an independent art historian and curator.

Royal AcademyTo purchase The Royal Academy of Arts: History and Collections click here.

Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

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