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1886 "Can the Royal Academy be Reformed?"

The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1886 occurred between the calls for reform that resulted from the 1885 Exhibition and the first meetings of what would become the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887. The illustrator, painter, and designer Walter Crane first raised the spectre of rebellion with an article published in The Pall Mall Gazette on 1 July 1885 asking, “Can the Royal Academy be Reformed?”1 Many agreed that the Academy was in a terrible state. The critic for The Magazine of Art declared, in 1886, that: “this year the Royal Academy is at its worst. It has reached its nadir in the way of exhibitions.”2 The Academy had weathered such critiques before, witnessing the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery (1877) and the rise of the single-artist exhibition at private galleries. In fact, J.A.M. Whistler organised an exhibition of his work to compete with the Summer Exhibition in 1886. Crane, alongside Whistler, George Clausen, William Holman Hunt, and others became one of the “Chelsea Conspirators” (so named since they met in Chelsea), who called for the Academy to become a national art exhibition representative of all “art workers”, from painters to book illustrators and carpet designers. They lamented the way in which the Academy functioned as a private club, one that considered only the interests of its members.3 When this agitation did not result in reform, Crane joined a group of designers who were looking to stage their own exhibitions. They would organise as the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887 and staged their first exhibition in 1888.

Explore the 1886 catalogue

For Crane, handicraft was a principal component of art, whether in painting or the decorative arts. As scholars have suggested, the establishment of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888 was a radical attempt to bring this understanding of artistic labour to the fore. Crane separated the value of painting as an artistic endeavour from a specific critique of contemporary painting and the art institutions like the Academy that supported it. He felt that the corruption of contemporary painting was the manifestation of a fundamental social fissure, one that he sought to address through his own political activism in support of socialism.

The Royal Academy exhibition of 1886 seemed impervious to Crane’s suggestion of reform, although Letters to the Editor of The Times, published throughout August 1886, functioned as a forum for debate, prompting the editors of the paper to publish a summary, concluding: “The Royal Academy, like the House of Lord, wants mending rather than ending.”4 One of the central issues was the number of paintings that Academy members were allowed to exhibit each year. Many critics proposed that the allotment of eight be reduced to three, to create more room for art by non-members. Such a move, critics argued, would also address the prevailing notion that the Academy was an old boy’s club, foisting sub-standard paintings by a few upon the eyes of the many. By November, Longman’s Magazine published “A Modern Defence of the Royal Academy”, a humorous piece that nevertheless changed the terms of the debate and raised the vexing question: does the Academy lead public taste or does it reflect public taste? The anonymous author singled out the painter William Powell Frith as a example of this phenomenon: “The Academy would in vain hang the works of our unpopular talent in the best places … the natural public taste is for Mr. Frith.”5 

William Powell Frith showed four paintings at the Academy Exhibition in 1886, almost fifty years after he was first accepted as a student in 1837. The artist’s lengthy career was marked by great success at the Academy, exhibiting such works as Life at the Seaside (Ramsgate Sands) in 1854 and Derby Day in 1858. The works Frith contributed to the 1886 Exhibition, however, did not match these earlier canvases in scale and ambition, with themes ranging from children’s play (The Sick Doll) (Fig. 1) to historical genre (Dr. Johnson’s Tardy Gallantry). Instead, Frith’s works suggested the tension between continuity and change at the Exhibition of that year, as the Academy struggled to keep pace with insurgent forces in the art world.

Frith was a traditionalist, and he dismissed most of the major movements in nineteenth-century art as “ridiculous” (the Pre-Raphaelites) or an “outrage” (Impressionism).6 Instead, he offered audiences a panoramic view of Victorian society, from seaside holidays to children playing doctor in the family dining room. In The Sick Doll, the two girls take the lead: one cradles the doll and prepares to spoon medicine into her mouth, while the other takes the doll’s pulse. The boy is forced into the subservient position of doing their bidding, a theme suggested by the lines from Mrs J.E. Panton’s Poems for Children’s Hour exhibited with the painting: “Arthur mixed the darling’s physic/ And I gave it in the spoon/ Mary felt her pulse, and whispered,/ ‘Sweet! You will be better soon.’” The lines assure us that this dolly domestic drama will soon be resolved. We notice the care with which Frith has described the home of these children, from the bright green curtains to the densely patterned floral rug. We sense the urgency of their play: tea remains on the side table, and the floor is littered with discarded toys, from a tambourine and a ball in the background to a richly illustrated picture book in the foreground. This attention to the domestic details of life—to home furnishings—would likewise animate the rebellion within the Academy, as discussed above.

With Crane’s critique in mind, a second painting of child’s play seems to allude, however obliquely, to the skill and taste that would soon animate the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. In Puritan and Cavalier, Frederick Goodall depicted his children playing a game of hide and seek, here recast in historical terms as the Reformation struggle between puritans and the cavaliers loyal to King Charles (Fig. 2). A King Charles spaniel helps his young cavalier find a puritan girl hiding behind a magnificent gold and crewel work screen. That screen bears a striking similarity to the one designed by Walter Crane in 1876 and embroidered by the female students of the Royal School of Art Needlework. That year, Crane’s screen garnered great praise at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in the United States. This object was exactly the kind of artistic handiwork that Crane hoped the Academy would one day embrace—but it was not to be.

  1. Walter Crane, “Can the Royal Academy be Reformed?”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 1 July 1885, 1033–1034.↩︎

  2. “Current Art”, The Magazine of Art, June 1886, 345.↩︎

  3. George Clausen, Walter Crane, and W. Holman Hunt, “The Royal Academy: To the Editor of the Times”, The Times, 7 August 1886, 6.↩︎

  4. “The Reform of the Royal Academy in Becoming a Burning Question”, The Times, 19 August 1886, 7.↩︎

  5. “A Modest Defence of the Royal Academy”, Longman’s Magazine, November 1886, 44–52.↩︎

  6. As quoted in Mark Bills and Vivian Knight (eds), William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age (London: Yale University Press, 2007), 73.↩︎

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Explore the 1886 catalogue