05/12/2022

1790 London UK – RA Exhibition, 22nd

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1790 – London

Name:RA Exhibition, 22nd
Dates:28 April – 8 July 1790
Days:72 days
Venue:Somerset House
Theme:All fine art genres – but with a preponderance of portraits
Exhibitors:703 artworks listed
Awards:
Visitors:43,092
Legacy:The RA exhibitions have become a London ‘institution’

The Royal Academy split from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1769. The RA went on to effectively dominate fine art with its annual exhibitions.

Somerset House

These two similar engravings (by Pietro Antonio Martini) show the 1785 Salon and the 1787 Summer Exhibition, both were held at Somerset House The room is much more crowded in 1787 because it is on the occasion that the Prince of Wales is being shown around.


Royal Academy Exhibition, 1785
Source: metmuseum.org

Royal Academy Exhibition, 1787
Source: christies.com

However, the 1790 RSA Exhibition prompted several critics to lament on the predominance of portraiture over history painting and landscape. With so few historical pictures on view, the small number that were present garnered more plaudits than they might otherwise have done … the beneficiaries of the vacuum were the capital’s leading portraitists, principally Reynolds and above all Lawrence. (Source: chronicle250)

David H. Solkin, FBA is the Walter H Annenberg Professor of the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art provides some background:

The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1790 found itself struggling to compete with two recent arrivals on the London art scene—Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery [at Fleet Street – Macklin commissioned 100 paintings illustrating famous English poems], in operation since April 1788, and Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery [see illustration below. at Pall Mall, this focussed on history painting], which had opened its doors a year later—and the evidence suggests that these new commercial upstarts damaged their older, more prestigious rival in at least two significant respects.

Engraving of a building designed in the classical style, with pilasters, a pediment, and a statue on the top section, and a rounded arch over the doorway on the lower.
Shakespeare Gallery

First of all, once Macklin and Boydell appeared on the scene, London’s newspaper publishers quickly learned that there was serious money to be made by the sale of puffing notices of current art exhibitions; and since this was a game that the officers of the Academy were reluctant to play, “the Exhibition” soon found itself overshadowed in the press by the paid-for coverage of its rivals (and of Sir Francis Bourgeois, who seems to have stopped at almost nothing when it came to self-promotion). Had the journalistic critics been asked to justify this bias, they might have done so by suggesting that the key trends in modern painting could no longer be observed on the Strand, but instead a mile to the west, in the more fashionable neighbourhood of Pall Mall.

The 22nd RA annual exhibitons catalogue is here.

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