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1865 The Appearance of the Red Star

Observant visitors to the ninety-seventh Annual Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts would have witnessed an innovation on the gallery walls of Trafalgar Square. As always, the densely packed salon saw the pictures jostling for attention, frames touching frames, hung almost floor to ceiling. The new addition was not a revolutionary new painting style, nor a curatorial change, but was to be found on the frames of certain works exhibited. It was fairly small and relatively unobtrusive—a small red star. Puzzled, the visitor probably turned to the official catalogue to consult the rules and regulations which strictly governed the Annual Exhibition. On the first page, a clear explanation was to be found: “A Red Star affixed to the Frame denotes that the Picture is Sold.”1 A red star, or now, more commonly a red dot, next to an artwork—either on the frame, the information card, or adjacent to the work on the wall—has become a common symbol around the world to indicate that it has been sold. Like so many Exhibition rituals and practices we now simply take for granted, this one originated at the Summer Exhibition. It was lobbied for by the Art Union of London, an organisation which awarded works of art as prizes by a lottery system, so that their members could determine which works were for sale at the Exhibition and therefore available as a prize.

The Illustrated Times noted that this “novelty” was not an uncontroversial addition to the Exhibition’s rituals:

The practice is open to objection, though it has its advantages. The chief objection is that, of course, such pictures as are sold on the easel will not bear the star and so the works that were really among the very earliest purchased will never obtain the distinctive mark, which with many people will be a standard of merit.2

The Academy’s Exhibition had been a commercial arena from the start and the critic perceptively judged that sales would have an impact on the critical and public success of a work. If a work remained unsold during the Exhibition, questions would undoubtedly be raised about it. A total of 2,645 works were submitted that year, and 152 of them were sold, although sales were slightly down compared to previous years (in 1863: 179 works were sold; in 1864: 156 works were sold). As the Exhibition grew in popularity and the number of works exhibited increased, the rules and regulations of the Exhibition became paramount. These were a form of crowd control for works of art. Frames were seen as particularly important and their conventions were strictly observed:

Each Picture, or Drawing, must be in a separate Frame, except very small miniatures or Sculpted Gems … All Pictures and Drawings must be in Gilt Frames. Oil Paintings under glass, and Drawings with wide margins are inadmissible. Excessive breadth in frames, as well as projecting mouldings, may prevent Pictures obtaining the situation they otherwise merit; and oval frames should be avoided, as they are difficult of arrangement.3

There was no room for the star on the wall next to works of art as they were hung so tightly together, so it was necessary to fix it to the gilt frames which were often bought by artists from commercial frame manufacturers, although the Pre-Raphaelites were known by this date for handcrafting their own bespoke frames for the Exhibition.

Explore the 1865 catalogue

One painting that did not have a red dot attached to its frame was William Powell Frith’s The Marriage of the Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Windsor, 10 March 1863 (Fig. 1). This was a commission by the Queen, who it had been made clear to Frith must be “unmistakably visible” in the painting.4 The Queen was reportedly happy with the painting after some changes and her Lady of Bedchamber wrote to the artist to say that the Queen recognised “every body almost”. When the work went on display at the Annual Exhibition in 1865, it was hard to get a proper look at the crowded scene and it was widely declared as the picture of the year. The Pall Mall Gazette complained that: “It is almost impossible to get a sight of it for the crowd”.5 The art critic of The Illustrated News noted the fashionable crowd that gathered around it, “the ‘sensation’ picture of East Room”, saying that the visitor who wanted to see it must be prepared to “wade knee-deep through an ocean of crinoline, and to content himself with snatches caught between a forest of bonnets”, surely a swipe at the number of women visitors that went to see Frith’s painting?6

Red star or no red star, this was a particularly high-profile painting of the Exhibition that was assured success. Other non-commissioned works had to eagerly await a buyer. The red stars—now red dots—are still in use at the Academy Summer Exhibitions. In 2012, the artist Cornelia Parker visited the Summer Exhibition and took a photograph of a popular print (reportedly by Tracey Emin) with the red dots stacked up besides it, indicating the number of prints sold when a edition of multiple prints is offered for sale. Digitally erasing the original print, Parker left only a red-dot-festooned frame, fascinated by the “Pavlovian response” they elicit from the art-buying public. Since 2013, she has shown this work and later versions each year at the Summer Exhibition, under the title Stolen Thunder (Fig. 2). The artist Andrew Mackintosh then incorporated a representation of Parker’s painting into his own work, also called Stolen Thunder, and that was exhibited in the 2015 Summer Exhibition. Now universally understood in the art world, the red dot origins within the development of the rules of regulations of the Academy’s Annual Exhibition is an important reminder of the imbricated relationships between art making, exhibitions, and commerce. Such is the potential of these small red dots as signifiers of commercial and popular success, they have even become art works in their own right.

  1. Catalogue of the Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1865).↩︎

  2. “Fine Arts”, The Illustrated Times, 6 May 1965, 10.↩︎

  3. Catalogue of the Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1865).↩︎

  4. See the Royal Collection Trust,↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy Exhibition (Second Notice)”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 6 May 1865, 11.↩︎

  6. “Fine Arts”, The Illustrated Times, 6 May 1965, 10.↩︎

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Explore the 1865 catalogue