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1876 Cope's Selection and Rejection

One of the most talked about pictures in the 1876 display was Charles West Cope’s Selecting Pictures for the Royal Academy Exhibition (Fig. 1). The painting hung in a central position in Gallery III, one of the most prominent places within the Royal Academy’s suite of rooms in the relatively new spaces at Burlington House. Cope’s large, carefully delineated group portrait of the Academy’s Selection Committee in the process of choosing paintings for the Exhibition must have looked at odds with its immediate neighbours, Victorian genre and historical scenes by Henry Stacey Marks and Sir John Gilbert, suggesting a deliberate attempt on the part of the Hanging Committee to give the painting and its subject matter a certain importance, a prominence that was borne out by the crowds that subsequently gathered around the picture. 

Cope’s group portrait offers a narrative about the selection and rejection of works by members of the Academy’s Council at the Annual Exhibition. It was described as such by The Morning Post’s critic, who wrote of the picture as revealing the “mysterious rites” behind the Annual Exhibition.1 Here, the scene depicted is loosely based on the artist Council Members of 1875, who gather in the exhibition galleries, some seated, others standing, all in a reverential semicircle on the left-hand side. On the opposite side, the Academy’s porters hold up the paintings which are about to be judged, or as that year’s catalogue put it to be “accepted, rejected or made doubtful”, the latter a category from which extra works would be chosen by the Hanging Committee after spaces had been made for those that had been definitively accepted.

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The members of the Committee are all accurately depicted, and Cope shows both the elder statesmen of the Academy such as the President Sir Francis Grant and J.C. Horsley as well as the younger generation, notably John Everett Millais and Frederic Leighton. The Committee focus intently on the painting placed in front of them—not a gaze out of place. The Academicians here are depicted not as artists but as administrators; they bear the marks of this judgement process: the President Sir Francis Grant holds a golden gavel, while their secretary Mr Eaton writes notes at an adjoining table. The drama is a scene of two halves. On the right, the painting in question is surrounded by porters, with the janitor holding up a piece of white chalk, ready to mark the work’s fate. While the central drama holds the viewer in suspense, around these figures the hurly burly of putting on the Exhibition are revealed: paintings are propped up against walls, while others are moved by carpenters clearly struggling under their weight. Immediately behind the central group of porters, a gaggle of carpenters appear to discuss the merits of a painting, a humorous corrective to the serious attitudes and formal poses of the Council’s conclave.

While the critics recognised that Cope’s picture was popular due to its subject matter, as an illustration of “a much commented upon and oftentimes adversely criticised scene”, they were almost universally dismissive of its style and technique.2 The Daily News for example described “the portraits as hard and wooden; the attitudes stiff and ungraceful; the colouring without any intelligible key.”3 The Graphic too wrote, “the colour of the faces is livid, and their texture wooden when it is not leathery.”4 Nevertheless, in a move which reveals the gap between press criticism and public success, Cope’s painting was uniformly popular with the public, spawning a variety of popular reproductions and notable imitations in subsequent years.

In a fundamental irony, Cope’s painting had itself never been submitted to the Selection Committee: painted by Cope sometime between 1875–1876, the work had belonged to George Moore, a philanthropist and partner in the dealership Copestake, Moore & Crampton, who then gave it to the Academy in time to be hung at the 1876 Exhibition. Hanging works which were not submitted to the rigorous selection process did happen but it was less usual, and this move suggests a particular agenda behind the inclusion of the piece in a prominent position.

The mid-1870s marked a highpoint in the Annual Exhibition’s success, reflected in the heightened visitor figures and an ever-growing number of submissions by artists clamouring for success: it was inevitable that some of these artists would be rejected and remain disgruntled. The same period saw an increase in complaints from artists, who thought the selection process unfair. In 1875, the year before Cope’s painting was exhibited, the painter J.E. Soden published his infamous pamphlet A Rap at the RA:

The toil of months, experience of years,
Before the dreaded Council now appears:—
It’s left their view almost as soon as it’s in it.—
They damn them at a rate of three a minute.—
Scarce time for even faults to be detected,
The cross is chalked:—‘tis flung aside “REJECTED”.
Shame! that they, Artists, should such pain have given
To those who struggle, as they have striven!

Both Cope’s decision to paint the work and the Hanging Committee’s decision to place the work prominently within the Exhibition were probably a deliberate attempt to deflect some of these criticisms: by removing the veil of mystique, and portraying the diligence of the Committee in their work, it was no doubt hoped the barbed gloves would be taken off. However, the rituals of the Academy continued to provide substantial material for criticism throughout the remainder of the Victorian period. Cope’s painting instigated a growing tradition in the popular press, which favoured of illustrations of the Selection Committee at work, the timing of which does not seem coincidental.

  1. The Morning Post, 5 May 1876, 3.↩︎

  2. Charles E. Pascoe, The Art-Journal 2 (1876): 220–222.↩︎

  3. The Daily News, 6 May 1876.↩︎

  4. The Graphic, 13 May 1876.↩︎

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Explore the 1876 catalogue