The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the world’s longest running annual display of contemporary art, and one of its largest. Ever since 1769, and at a succession of locations ranging from Pall Mall to Piccadilly, the Academy’s exhibition rooms have been crowded for some two months each year with hundreds of paintings and sculptures produced by many of Britain’s leading artists. Over the last two hundred and fifty years, these spectacular displays of art – dominated by what has become a famously crowded and collage-like arrangement of pictures across the Academy’s walls – have provided thousands of artists with a crucial form of competition, inspiration and publicity, and captured the interest of millions of visitors.
As well as expressing the Academy’s own ambitions and achievements, these exhibitions have played a central role within London’s, the nation’s and the international art world. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they provided the main forum within which Britain’s artists could showcase their individual practice and compete with their rivals for popular and critical acclaim. Today, even as they continue to feature the works of many distinguished painters and sculptors, they are just as famous for providing less celebrated practitioners with the opportunity of seeing their creations hanging alongside the works of their more celebrated peers. These exhibitions thus offer a unique prism through which to view the history of the Royal Academy itself, and of modern British painting and sculpture more generally.
This research project focused on the history of the Academy’s summer exhibition and was designed to complement a major international loan exhibition that was held at the Royal Academy in 2018, entitled The Great Spectacle: The Royal Academy and its Summer Exhibitions 1769–2018. The display, which was co-curated by the PMC’s Mark Hallett and Sarah Victoria Turner, was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue
This research project was designed to generate a major online publication that served to supplement the 2018 exhibition and catalogue, and to offer a permanent research resource for all those interested in the history of the summer exhibition. This publication has two main components. First of all, it features an online chronicle that is designed to offer a lively and informative year-by-year account of the exhibition's 250-year history. This takes the form of a succession of short illustrated texts, of around a 1000 words each, written by a variety of art-historical experts, each of which focuses on a particular year's display. These fully searchable texts – which users can read, investigate and group together in a multiplicity of ways – is accompanied by text panels offering crucial factual details about each year's exhibition.
Secondly, this online chronicle was published in tandem with a major digital database, making the catalogues for every single RA summer exhibition catalogue available online. Users can also browse through and search across these catalogues, and explore them in relation to particular artists, works, genres and themes.
As well as this major online scholarly resource, this research project generated a series of scholarly events, including seminars, symposia and conferences.
These strands tell the story of these exhibitions, and in doing so provide an innovative, illuminating and visually stunning means of commemorating the Academy’s first 250 years and demonstrating the impact of these exhibitions on art in Britain and internationally.