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1869 "A House of Its Own"

On 30 April 1869, Queen Victoria performed her traditional duty of opening the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition. This year, the Exhibition for the first time occupied purpose-built spaces within its new home, the much remodelled Burlington House, a seventeenth-century mansion on London’s fashionable Piccadilly. Forced to move from Trafalgar Square in 1867, the Academy had agreed a long-term lease on the now government-owned mansion. It was an optimistic moment for a down-trodden institution: forced for many years to share unsatisfactory accommodation with the National Gallery, the move represented a new beginning, or as one critic described it “the opportunity to build and maintain a house of its own”.1 However, Burlington House initially had no adequate space for the all-important Annual Exhibition, an event whose profits were crucial to the institution’s financial survival. Almost immediately, the Academy engaged one of its own members, the Professor of Architecture Sidney Smirke—who had recently made his name as architect of the central Reading Room at the British Museum—to design these new galleries.

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Smirke was handed a relatively easy task, in one sense: the amount of space on offer at Burlington House was a huge improvement on the five rooms previously available at Trafalgar Square. The vastly increased accommodation gave the architect the opportunity to create a series of ten dedicated public rooms specifically designed for the Exhibition, rather than as at Trafalgar Square, where spaces had doubled both as exhibition galleries and the Academy’s teaching rooms. Smirke designed the new rooms on beaux-arts principles of major and minor axes: these were a series of interconnecting spaces, with a glass-domed Octagon room in the centre, which afforded both elegant vistas and logical visitor flow from one room to the other. A watercolour drawing from 1866 either by or prepared for the architect shows Gallery III, the largest of the spaces, which was designed as both the climax of the exhibition suite and the architectural centrepiece of the new galleries (Fig. 1). Here, the watercolour, which would have been created to convince Smirke’s colleagues of the appropriateness of his designs, accentuates the vastness of the space, as well as revealing the ingenious natural lighting system, a vast series of glass skylights encased in a variety of cast iron supports that were intended to diffuse a great deal of natural lighting throughout the galleries.

The critical reaction in 1869 to the new spaces was overwhelmingly positive, with most critics who reviewed that year’s display devoting sizeable column inches to a discussion of the Exhibition as an architectural space. The Daily News wrote: “The unanimous opinion by all who visited the exhibition, and walked through the magnificent galleries, was that they far surpassed all the picture galleries in existence.”2 In size alone, the new galleries outshone their nearest neighbours, the British Institution, the New Watercolour Society, and the Old Watercolour Society on London’s fashionable Pall Mall. The same critic went on to enthuse about the interior decoration of the galleries, a description which is extraordinary for its inordinate attention to detail:

every ceiling is richly gilt, and the walls papered with a quiet-coloured, reddish diaper paper that sets off the pictures admirably. The lower part of the walls is wainscoted and painted in imitative dark wood, with a blank ledge at 2ft 6in from the floor, upon which the lowest pictures are placed. The floor is beautifully parqueted in oak and other hard woods, and is an immense improvement upon the dusty boards of the former rooms in the National Gallery, and is immensely comfortable to walk on.3

The comfort of paying visitors was clearly high on the agenda: for the first time, large “well-stuffed sofas” were added in all the rooms.4 This was an Academy that was both responding to and leading the way in the demands of an increasingly sophisticated late Victorian exhibition-going public.

Just after the Exhibition opened, The Illustrated London News published its own image of Gallery III, or as it was also known “The Great Room” (Fig. 2). The print not only gives a sense of the capacious nature of the room itself, but also of what was described in the accompanying article as a new approach to picture-hanging, one which disrupted many of the long-held conventions associated with hanging above or below “the line”.5 In its new home, the Academy’s council had come up with a set of novel rules for its Hanging Committee, namely, that all paintings on a small scale were intended to be placed nearly on a level with the eye, and no work would be hung higher than 12 feet. Furthermore, no picture was to be hung so as to necessitate stooping, effectively abolishing the so-called “lower line” of pictures.6 The comparative sparseness of the hang that resulted is visible in the print, with pictures here on occasions only two or three deep. The irony of this less dense hang, as The Illustrated London News pointed out, was that despite the increase in wall space in the new Academy (some estimated more than threefold), the thinned hang diminished the space which could actually be used by one half.7

If the sparser hanging arrangements were intended to improve visibility and deflect the oft-repeated criticism that the crowded hang made for an unpleasant viewing experience, the new galleries were in fact a victim of their own success. While The Illustrated London News’ print offers a vision of the crowd strolling leisurely and comfortably around the Great Room, the image is at odds with contemporary criticism, which described the unpleasant crowding of the spaces. As one wrote, “The new rooms are so crowded that favourite pictures can scarcely be seen at all.”8 These comments were borne out by the figures, which counted around 300,000 visitors across the duration of the display, the largest number ever to cross the threshold of the Exhibition up to that day. The desire to enhance the visitor experience by improving viewing conditions and visibility of the works, while also catering to the financial imperative to attract high numbers of visitors, led to tensions and compromises that were to continue over subsequent generations.

  1. “The Royal Academy”, Saturday Review, 8 May 1869.↩︎

  2. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Daily News, 1 May 1869.↩︎

  3. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Daily News, 1 May 1869.↩︎

  4. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Daily News, 1 May 1869.↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 30 January 1869.↩︎

  6. “The Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 30 January 1869.↩︎

  7. “The Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 30 January 1869.↩︎

  8. “The Royal Academy”, Saturday Review, 15 May 1869.↩︎

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Explore the 1869 catalogue