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1907 The Humorous Side of the Royal Academy

Soon after its establishment in the mid-eighteenth century, the annual event of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition became a staple of the pens of satirists and cartoonists across the globe. It was ripe material providing a crucible of institutional politics and ritual, public prestige or denunciation, artistic sympathies and rivalries, and the spectacle of fashionable society visiting in their droves, the latter often drawing as much attention as the art on the walls. The Academy’s pretensions as a bastion of artistic standards and cultural traditions was lampooned from the start. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the most famous periodical of this period to devote pages of parody, wit, and satirical critique was Punch, with its summer issues always carrying items devoted to the Summer Exhibition.

Explore the 1907 catalogue

In the twentieth century, the fashionable society magazine The Tatler & Bystander carried on what had become by 1907 a venerable tradition of satirising the Summer Exhibition. Lampooning the notion of the “picture of the year”, Walter Emanuel discussed “The Worst Picture of the Year” in an article titled “The Humorous Side of Royal Academy” published on 22 May 1907 (Fig. 1). With his tongue firmly in cheek, Emanuel described how one artist he had heard of had retired to paint for his own amusement, while many artists exhibiting at the Summer Exhibition painted for the public’s amusement. He refused, however, to commit in print his opinion about which was the worst picture in the Academy, writing that “he did not want to make trouble between Mr. Eyre Crowe and Mr. Joseph Farquharson.”1 Farquharson, an ARA in 1907, was a stalwart of the Academy submitting works on the theme mainly of sheep in snowy landscapes which were very popular at the time and which continue to supply the greetings cards industry with scenes a-plenty.

One of the comedic highlights of the Summer Exhibition, according to Emanuel, occurred on Press Day when “many of the leading errors in the catalogue have not then been corrected.” He describes how he discovered that painting listed in the catalogue as “H.R.H. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll” to be a peasant woman. A portrait of a most sour-looking lady was coyly called “A Frolic”. There were some prominent themes in that year’s Exhibition, and Emanuel also highlights “the mass meeting of Joan of Arcs this year at Burlington House.” He suggests that John Collier’s Marriage de Convenance was intended to be the “picture of the year” but that “with fine independence the public refuses to be dictated to” and were flocking instead to Frank Cadogan Cowper’s The Devil in the Nunnery (or to give the full title: How the Devil, disguised as a vagrant troubadour, having been entertained by some charitable nuns, sang to them a song of love)(Fig. 2).2 The art critic of The Art-Journal noted of this work: “Mr Cadogan Cooper’s [sic] picture with the long name … has achieved a popular success, more, perhaps, by reason of the somewhat risque subject than on account of the dexterity displayed in the rendering of many passages.”3 Cartoons of certain works accompanied Emanuel’s article. George Dunlop Leslie’s painting The Town and Country Mouse showed two little girls, one a smartly dressed urbanite and the other a country girl carrying a terrier. The dog was altered in The Tatler’s cartoon version to a huge mouse and the accompanying caption read “The Country Mouse: showing the superior physique attained by mice brought up in rural districts.” Stanhope Forbes’ ARA Andante Espressivo was illustrated as “The Musical Sisters and Auntie at the Piano”. Collier’s popular “problem picture” Marriage de Convenance was listed as “The Cruel Dressmaker who refused to alter the sleeves”. A pastime among many visitors was to make up narratives for many of the obtuse subjects or paintings with confounding titles in the early twentieth-century Summer Exhibitions, and Emanuel’s jokes plays on this popular habit.

Emanuel provided further notes on a number of the exhibits and informed his readers that if they wanted

to enjoy to the full the racy humour of the remainder of my notes, I would recommend you to hie at once to the Royal Academy, for I have made arrangements by which any reader of THE TATLER on producing a copy of the paper and paying a nominal fee of 1s, will be admitted to the exhibition on any day of the week … The following nasty remarks will then be appreciated.4

In other words, the readers of The Tatler had to pay the same entrance fee as everyone else! Making “nasty remarks” about the exhibits at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is as old as the exhibition itself. By 1907, it had almost become something of a sport, a competition of wit and mockery in certain periodicals and newspapers. For well-established artists such as John Collier, such press was likely to amplify the popularity of their exhibited works, rather than diminish it. For less famous or secure artists, this kind of mockery could certainly be damaging. But, by 1907, artists submitting to the Summer Exhibition were well aware of the combative, rumbustious, and very public arena it offered for the debate, both positive and negative, of art.

  1. Walter Emanuel, “The Worst Picture of the Year” in an article titled “The Humorous Side of Royal Academy”, 22 May 1907, 135.↩︎

  2. Walter Emanuel, “The Humorous Side of Royal Academy”, 22 May 1907, 135.↩︎

  3. The Art-Journal (1907): 206.↩︎

  4. Walter Emanuel, “The Humorous Side of Royal Academy”, 22 May 1907, 136.↩︎

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Explore the 1907 catalogue