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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

Royal Academy of Arts in London: A Brief History

What is the Royal Academy of Arts?

The Royal Academy of Arts is an iconic art school and home of the Summer Exhibition, founded in the 18th century.

Royal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academy of Arts History

In 1768, the architect Sir William Chambers visited King George III with a petition signed by 36 artists and architects. He was seeking permission to establish a society and school of art and design, and to hold an annual exhibition of new British art. With the king’s agreement, the Royal Academy, the first of its kind in the whole of the United Kingdom, was born. The 36 individuals who signed this petition became the first Royal Academicians, with Sir Joshua Reynolds acting as their founding president. You will spot Reynolds as you enter the Academy’s courtyard, paintbrush and palette in hand. You also stand a good chance of catching one of the many contemporary installations displayed in the courtyard throughout the year.

Since its formation, the Academy has been run by Royal Academicians. These now comprise a selection of artists and architects elected by current Academicians in recognition of their exceptional work. Collectively, these Academicians make up some of the greatest names in contemporary art and architecture.

The Royal Academy’s art collection is one of the oldest permanent collections in Britain, now with over 30,000 works ranging from Reynolds and Gainsborough, Constable and Turner to Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry. Every Academician donates one of their works to the Academy when elected, ensuring the collection’s steady growth. The Academy also possesses Michelangelo’s breathtaking Taddei Tondo, a depiction of the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist. It was donated to the Academy by Sir George Beaumont and remains the only marble sculpture by the artist in the UK. Since the late 19th century, the Academy has also been running a world-class exhibition programme, ranging from ancient sculpture to modern masters.

The Royal Academy also plays host to The Summer Exhibition, which has taken place every year since 1769, despite civil unrest and two world wars. It is an open show, organised and curated every year by a small group of Academicians. Anyone is allowed to submit and, if chosen by the judging panel, exhibit and sell their work. The exhibition has played a vital role in supporting young and emerging artists for over 250 years. Now with over 1,200 works on display each year, it is the most exciting, varied and largest open exhibition in the world. Work is hung floor to ceiling, with the most established artists appearing beside the burgeoning talent of outsiders.

The Royal Academy now operates as an independent and privately funded charity, with a focus on free arts education. It is still home to Britain’s longest established free art school. Originally based in Somerset House, the Academy moved to Trafalgar Square in 1837, where it shared quarters with the National Gallery. It wasn’t until 1868 that it moved to its current home in Burlington House, this magnificent Palladian building that dates back to the 17th century. Look out for the Royal Societies of Astronomy, Chemistry and Antiquity, who have also settled in this magnificent building.

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