The procession from the Royal Academy's courtyard to St James's Church, Piccadilly What is it about British summer traditions that calls for a steel band? We all expect it for the Ashes, but for art? Anyone who was in Piccadilly yesterday late morning would have noticed the extraordinary sight of a steel band stopping traffic and leading a merry band of Royal Academicians to a Calypso beat with hundreds of artists in tow. The procession led to St James’s Piccadilly for a blessing on the Summer Exhibition
– an ancient ritual for a show that is full of tradition but always new.
‘May your world be painted with many different colours,’ the rector said, as the service ended, which made me think of the Summer Exhibition as a kind of ‘Rainbow nation’ of art, filled as it is with every possible colour and style of art, somehow happily coexisting on the walls of Burlington House.
Then it was back to the RA for the Non-Members Varnishing Day reception. The term Varnishing Day comes from the historic tradition of artists like Turner and Constable coming in the day before the Summer Exhibition opened to varnish and enhance their paintings so that they stood out from the crowd of art in this tightly hung show. Today it’s an excuse for a giant open house for art, where the Academicians host a party to celebrate all the members of the public whose art (780 works) has been selected to hang alongside theirs in the Summer Exhibition.
This event is one of the most fun, informal gatherings at the RA. Fuelled by Champagne and strawberries and cream, Royal Academicians mingle with artists who have come to see their work on the walls. I walked round the reception to ask a few of the proud artists how it felt to see their art here.
First Eileen Cooper RA, who hung the Print Room, introduced me to Janice Tchalenko and Mark D - both are first time exhibitors there. They had never met before but as we chatted it turned out that Mark – a ‘Stuckist’ artist – was a collector of Janice’s pots.
‘I’m a ceramicist by training,’ says Janice, ‘but I started taking a printmaking class and set myself the exercise of submitting a print to the Summer Exhibition. This is my first try, so I’m thrilled that it’s been accepted. ‘ Then we bump into the painter Humphrey Ocean RA, who turns out to be Janice’s neighbour and friend and is rather surprised to see her here. ‘I didn’t dare tell you I was putting work into the show,’ she beamed.
Left: Janice Tchalenko and Humphrey Ocean RA in the Large Weston Room. Her work is pictured top left. Right: Mark D stands next to his work (bottom right) which is displayed in the Large Weston Room.
Mark D is a Stuckist artist who started doing linoprints last year. ‘I normally do paintings but they are about five feet wide and wouldn’t have much chance of being accepted, so I’m thrilled to have these prints here. I come to the Summer Exhibition every year and I’m in awe to be in the same room today with some of my favourite artists – Chris Orr and Paula Rego – it’s humbling and very exciting.’
I ran into the young sculptor Tom Price with his dealer Paul Hedge of Hales Gallery. ‘I’ve never been to the Summer Exhibition before,’ said Price. ‘It’s amazing to be surrounded by so many artists I admire.’ Hedge admitted he hadn’t been to the Summer Exhibition since 1985: ‘It now feels as though a younger generation of artists are being looked at. I used to feel daunted coming here – as though I was coming up against the Establishment. Now it feels more welcoming.’
Tom Price stands next to his bronze sculptures in Gallery VII of the Summer Exhibition
The painter James Fisher’s work has a prominent spot in the largest of the galleries, near work by artists such as Gillian Ayres RA and this year’s Summer Exhibition organiser Stephen Chambers RA, who invited him to show: ‘I started coming here when I was young with my grandfather, who was an amateur painter – it was one of the things we did together. In 2008 my first work was accepted – after entering every year since I left art school ten years before. It was the year he died so I was pleased he knew my work was in the Summer Show at last. This year it feels as though there is more air around the paintings – you can really see the pictures more clearly.'
The painter Katie Pratt came with her two daughters in tow: ‘It’s extended half term for one of them and the other’s schools is closed today, so I brought them along and they’re loving it. The younger one likes the animal prints in the print room, while the older’s favourites are the colourful Gillian Ayres’ paintings covering the wall in the large gallery,’ she says. Pratt is a professional painter – she teaches at Wimbledon School of Art, but she has never shown at the Summer Exhibition before. ‘This is the first time I’ve submitted work and I’m so pleased to have been accepted, although I still haven’t found my work. It’s called ‘Ackney’ - it’s a black and green painting.’ As we chat, she bumps into James Fisher, whose work is also on show here, and who was a student with her. ‘The place feels like a big artists’ reunion!’
Martin Maloney and Dan Perfect were invited to show here by the painter Fiona Rae RA in a special gallery she has curated
L-R: Martin Maloney, Fiona Rae RA and Dan Perfect in Gallery IV, the room hung by Rae.
‘This is the first time I’ve been back on the walls of the RA since ‘Sensation’. I’m not a regular summer Exhibition visitor and I’m surprised by the artists who are surrounding me. It’s a good survey of what’s happening in contemporary art – I expected it to be more conservative. The work I’m showing is a recent painting, finished in December that’s a new departure for me – I’m playing with cubist conventions and the history of twentieth-century art.’
‘This is the first time I’ve shown in the Summer Exhibition in 25 years of being an artist. I always thought it wasn’t for me. But it feels very different this year. There are now more members of my generation – so it looks like a contemporary show to me. I find it quite moving that the RA gives artists a forum, a community. Having a community is important when art is such an isolated profession – especially for a painter. I love the rituals of the service, the procession and fanfare because an artist’s life really lacks these rituals and traditions, so it feels wonderful to be a part of it here. I also like the fact that you have to fight for your space at the RA – you’ve got to hold your own amongst all the other work competing for viewers’ attention.’