When is the last time you were announced in a receiving line, invited to wear medals and heralded with trumpet fanfares? Unless you frequent diplomatic parties, it’s an experience from another century and one of the rituals that makes the RA's Annual Dinner such a spectacular and eccentric experience. As they read out my name I felt like Cinderella going to the ball – and I imagine most other people did as well. We all stood up straight, raised our game and sang for our supper, which is what makes this such a sparkling event. No slouching, no diffidence and no cynicism. Tonight was an excuse to be charming.
But what elevates the Annual Dinner above a purely social gathering is the artists. The Royal Academicians are the hosts and their work surrounds us, casting everything and everyone in a creative glow. This is an annual celebration of culture where the RA quite rightly blows its own trumpet, championing the arts in this country almost as loudly as the fanfare trumpeters – and almost as flamboyantly – though it’s hard to compete with the bearskins and scarlet uniforms sported by the Queen’s Division band playing there.
I clinked Champagne glasses with the architect Peter Cook RA, who was bedecked in medals – about five of them, from his RA medal to his RIBA prize: ‘My son said I look like a dodgy South American dictator,’ he joked, ‘and I did up my raincoat all the way on the bus over here in case I got any odd looks.’ If one of the world’s most avant-garde architects dons white tie and medals, it shows that even radicals treat the event with deference. I introduced him to contemporary art wunderkind Hans Ulrich Obrist, who was attending for the first time and was bowled over: ‘I love all this ritual. It feels like the kind of event one reads about. It’s amazing to be surrounded by so many artists and architects I admire.’
I talked to Andrew Marr about the ‘Glasgow Boys’ exhibition coming to the RA this autumn – as a Glaswegian and self-confessed Sunday painter, he is a fan of their work and is opening the RA’s show and writing about them for the RA Magazine. What I didn’t know, however, is that he’s descended from the Scottish Colourist Leslie Hunter, so he has art in his blood.
The two most glamorous women in the room were ninety: the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire looked resplendent in a sea green gown, and the painter Diana Armfield RA, glowed in a grey wrap. Both are still active and engaged in the world – the Duchess is writing her autobiography, Diana has a show of new work coming up this autumn. The secret of youth? ‘Never retire,’ says Diana.
How do you seat over 300 people in about ten minutes? It's a military operation with guests given a map of the tables – eight of them, adorned with fragrant English roses, leading off one long top table – and hosts escorting them briskly to their seats. Dinner, like the Summer Exhibition, was a mix of innovation and tradition: a daring starter duo of tuna tartar and pressed pickled tuna with glazed palm hearts, followed by safer roast duck breast and a crowd-pleasing pudding of strawberry tart, with strawberry ripple ice cream and white chocolate straws.
Stephen Fry’s annual dinner speech
honoured the artists, though rather bizarrely referred to ‘assorted media scum’ in the audience, when esteemed members of the fourth estate including Alan Rusbridger, Mariella Frostrup, Andrew Graham-Dixon and Simon Jenkins were among the guests. Those of us who felt embarrassed by this were in good company, since he called embarrassment ‘the British national emotion’ and went on to discuss how looking at art in public can be embarrassing. Where do you look? What do you say when confronted by a complex and challenging work of art? How do you avoid looking ignorant? Luckily the Summer Exhibition – with its different styles and hundreds of artists – provides good training for this: no one can be an expert on it and most of us are perplexed, but it’s still enormous fun.
L-R: Sir Nicholas Grimshaw PRA, Stephen Fry, Ed Vaizey
The architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, President of the Royal Academy, responded with a bracing defence of the arts and the cultural industries in Britain. In the presence of Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, he argued that the arts provide much better value for money than the recently bailed out banking industry, reminding the cost-cutting Government that it is virtually free to promote Britain’s art and design, to use the arts as an ambassador for Britain, to invite artists and designers into schools to inspire future generations.
A charming Ed Vaizey MP was caught slightly off-guard but made all the right noises about the importance of the arts and generously acknowledged the enormous contributions made by his predecessor Chris Smith, also in the room. Given that his mother is the formidable art journalist and champion Lady Marina Vaizey, he may be that rare thing – a politician who has actually grown up with an awareness of the arts and understands their value. We can but hope… In the meantime, perhaps Andrew Marr can interview him on the subject...