The History of the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy of art, currently housed in Burlington House, London, is arguably one of the most important cultural institutions in Britain, if not one of the most historically influential worldwide. Founded in 1768 by 36 artists and architects who sought permission from King George III, their aim was to establish a “society for promoting the Arts of Design”. 

One of the founding principles was to hold an annual exhibition that any artist could submit work for, and anyone could visit. Today, this exhibition is called the Summer Exhibition, and it has taken place every year since 1769, including during both World Wars.

William Powell Frith RA
A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881

The Royal Academy schools are the oldest of their kind in Britain and have been an integral part of the Royal Academy since its foundation. Its programme of formal training was modelled on that of the French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture founded by Louis XIV in 1648. As the first school to provide professional training for artists in Britain, it has functioned not only to train young artists but also to govern the conduct and pricing of established masters, to mount exhibitions to display recent work, and to present lectures and catalogues to elevate public taste. Countless esteemed artists have studied there over the centuries, one of the most notable examples is John Everett Millais who at the age of ten was the youngest student ever admitted to the Royal Academy of Art Schools. Millais, affectionately nicknamed ‘The Child’, went on to become one of the most successful British artists in the 19th century and a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood before he was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1896. 

Membership to the Royal Academy is composed of up to 80 practicing artists who are elected by ballot of the General Assembly of the Royal Academy and are known individually as Royal Academicians (RA). Whilst the number of prominent artists who have been elected RAs are too many to count, some examples include Thomas Gainsborough (founding member), J. M. W. Turner, Frederic Leighton, David Hockney, Sidney Nolan, and Tracey Emin.

In contrast perhaps to the history of the French Académie, the Royal Academy in England showed a more open-minded approach to the institutional critique that evolved during the mid-19th century. It allowed artists who exhibited at alternate venues such as the Grosvenor Gallery, London, to still be exhibited at the Royal Academy. Whilst some may argue there are still elements of tradition that constrain the institution, it has maintained its reputation for hosting ambitious and contemporary exhibitions. Some notable examples from the 20th and 21st centuries include: A New Spirit in Painting (1981), which attempted to sum up the state of painting at that point, Sensations (1997), a group exhibition of the Young British Artists, Anish Kapoor’s solo exhibition in 2009, and David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture in 2012. 

For over 250 years, the Royal Academy has fulfilled its founders’ objectives of championing art and artists, not just promoting the appreciation and understanding of art but also its practice.

By Madeleine Norton, Head of Decorative Arts & Art, Sydney

Banner Image (detail): Arthur George Walker RA (English, 1861-1939) Peleus and Thetis: The Spurned Embrace 1911, marble, on rotating pedestal, signed and dated to base: AG WALKER 1911, Height 117cm / Estimate: $80,000-120,000

February 2024