The Royal Academy seems to be a sedate enough place. Wrong, says Charles Saumarez Smith. Historically it's feud central. He talks to Lucinda Bredin about this unique institution
In his new book, The Company of Artists, about the Royal Academy of Arts, Charles Saumarez Smith, its Secretary and Chief Executive, likens the institution to the brutal democracy that existed on the island in Lord of the Flies.
Too right, I thought, casting my mind back to the various brushes I've had with Royal Academicians en masse. Perhaps the most vivid experience was when I was invited, by the then secretary, David Gordon, to witness the selection process of paintings for the annual Summer Exhibition. As this event is usually greeted with derision by newspaper critics – or worse, ignored – Gordon reckoned that an article describing how 12,000 paintings are whittled down to a select 1,000 for the show would be valuable publicity. Except he hadn't asked the Academicians what they felt.
Big mistake. One artist, who looked and sounded like a kettle about to boil, erupted as I entered the room, "We don't want this, do we?" At the time I thought it might be ascribed to the beef tea, made to an intoxicating recipe known only to the red-collared RA staff, which accompanies the ordeal of judging. I now realise that being slung out by a herd of arm-waving artists is all part of the tradition. "Oh, it is," says Saumarez Smith. "If you put together a bunch of artists who are not temperamentally used to working with other people, there's bound to be combustion."
We are sitting in the Royal Academy restaurant, where Charles Saumarez Smith, a tall, donnish figure who looks as if he could have sprung from some Trollopian close, talks about his new book. It charts how The Royal Academy of Arts, a private institution created by and for artists, came into being. Throughout the 18th century, painters who travelled on the Grand Tour – Joshua Reynolds, the future President, George Dance and Joseph Wilton among them – were struck by the artistic academies in Italian city states. Here there was the notion that art was not a mere trade, but that drawing and perspective were central to an education in the liberal arts. When these artists returned to Britain, they wanted to set up similar institutions. According to Saumarez Smith, "Some of it was about professional training – the leading artists had a sense of responsibility to train up the next generation – but there was also the idea of enhancing their status: not just social, but artistic as well."
Of course, as we have already touched upon, artists are not the likeliest people to agree on one course of action. Thus societies for painters seemed to mushroom in those years. Some, such as the St Martin's Lane Academy, were trade schools; some, such as the Society of Arts, sought a more refined approach. One thing that these associations had in common was that drawing was often combined with drinking, and meetings were held in places such as the rowdy Turk's Head Tavern in Gerrard Street – not conducive to quiet, reasoned discussion. At one of these meetings of the Society of Arts, there was a meltdown row. The more senior artists wanted to set up an Academy with the patronage of George III. The younger artists resented the way their elders hogged the best spaces in the annual exhibition, and objected to sharing the room for their drawing classes with an auction house and the pupils of a dancing master. The following day, four of the more senior members – architect William Chambers and three painters, George Michael Moser, Benjamin West and Francis Cotes – stormed off to the Court of St James's to see George III. Two weeks later, they presented the monarch with the Instrument of Foundation, which he duly signed. Thus the Royal Academy of Arts was created.
According to Saumarez Smith, little has changed at the Royal Academy. Right from the start, it was a "complicated medley", as he puts it, of an institution that combined boosting the status of the profession, teaching students and providing handsome galleries in which to exhibit pictures. All of these elements can give rise to heated debate. For instance, Thomas Gainsborough, who was based in Bath, was so furious with the way his pictures had been hung at the RA's 1772 exhibition that he refused to turn up to meetings of the Council – which promptly struck him off the list of Academicians. He was eventually reinstated. Such rows persist to the present day.
David Hockney recalls how he had to fight to instal his vast painting Bigger Trees near Warter in Gallery III, and complained that all the RA wanted to know was whether it was for sale. As Charles says, "If you look at the history of the Academy, it is subject to turbulence. It's because you have strong-minded artists who feel passionately about issues but often do not like organisations. But the important thing is that the RA is run by artists for artists – and I am their servant."
Saumarez Smith arrived as Secretary (the traditional title for his role) in 2007. He was previously the Director of the National Gallery, which in some ways is a grander job. But there were reports – which he won't confirm – that he was worn down by the infighting of the Board of Trustees. Since his arrival at the RA, he is generally regarded by the artists as far more respectful than some of his predecessors of the fact that it is their institution. As one of their number said, "In the past, I got the impression that we were thought of as nothing more than a downright nuisance that cluttered the place up and got in the way of the Monet exhibitions."
But it does give rise to another question: what is the Royal Academy for? In the 18th century, artists needed to elevate their profession, debate which subjects were worthy of being painted, and have a means of showing and selling their work to the public. Now, artists are regarded as on par with rock stars – and in some cases are as rich.
There are art colleges and history of art courses that, for better or worse, provide training; and as for showing work, London is choking with opportunities. "Well, you say that," says Saumarez Smith. "But the way the art market works is we tend to see new artists under the age of 40, and the older more established ones. But the tricky middle years are very tough for artists. The art world is cruel. The way taste operates is that in order to promote one type of art, you disparage the other. That is why the Royal Academy values the summer exhibition. I personally think that the public likes it more than the critics."
This, it has to be said, would not be hard. "It's true," he concedes. "Richard Dorment [the art critic of The Daily Telegraph] refuses even to review it – indeed, last year he got the theatre critic to do it.
The critics hate it because they see it as a rag bag. But before I came here, I had no idea of the amount of time, effort and commitment that the artists put into it. They really, really care about it – as they used to in the past. They are very committed to the idea that the public can see a range of art. They like exactly what the critics hate. I actually find the show really interesting because it is the moment when the Academy gets together and talks about painting! Who's going to be hung where, who's going to be hung high..."
The Royal Academy must be doing something right, because after years of being a byword for shuffling landscape painters, recently it has been much more successful in corralling the Young British Artist generation to join its ranks. Tracey Emin and Gary Hume are two names that come to mind. Even Cindy Sherman is an Honorary RA. As Saumarez Smith says, "The Academy is a broader church than it was. Emin is a good example. I like to think that in an 18th century way, she values the esteem of other painters. After all, artists are elected by the people who have taught them and whom they admire." Have there been artists who are constantly proposed and turned down? Saumarez Smith tactfully reaches back into history. "There was poor Constable who knew every year that he only got one vote. Frightfully humiliating.
Now people don't know. Mind you, there are some artists who don't want to be inside the tent. Damien Hirst turned membership down. I don't think that Lucian Freud was ever offered it. In the 19th century it was the same. The architect William Chambers was in, but Robert Adam wasn't. Every time someone asked about Adam, Chambers said, 'Yes, but not yet.'"
What has changed is that with its enfilade of spectacular galleries the Royal Academy has the power to mount some of the best exhibitions in London. But it is clear that Saumarez Smith wants to redress the balance. "It has been the greatest exhibition venue throughout the 20th century, but I want the public to be conscious of the other components – the RA schools where students receive free training, and the artists as a body themselves." To raise money to refurbish Burlington Gardens, the back of the Academy building, every single Royal Academician has contributed a work for sale. To get all the artists to pull together for one cause shows just how much they care about their club.
Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.
Charles Saumarez Smith's book, The Company of Artists, is published this month by Modern Art Press.
Royal Academicians from Anish Kapoor to Zaha Hadid runs until 11 November in the Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens, London W1.