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1920 An Uneasy Peace

The 1920 Summer Exhibition followed hard on the heels of The Nation’s War Paintings and Other Records, a landmark display of Britain’s war art.1 Selected from the holdings of the Imperial War Museum and staged at Burlington House, this Exhibition brought the work of “rebels” like Percy Wyndham Lewis and C.R.W. Nevinson within the “sacred groves” of the Royal Academy.2 Notwithstanding some minor mud-slinging between the art world trenches, War Paintings was widely regarded as one of the most successful exhibitions to have taken place at the Academy and was even credited with heralding a new Renaissance in British art.3

Hopes were therefore running high as the Academy prepared to open its doors in the spring of 1920. Art critics of the main national newspapers were convinced that the institution was on the brink of significant reform, with the Annual Exhibition itself offering the perfect opportunity to capitalise on the success of The Nation’s War Paintings.4 As that display had strikingly demonstrated, the works of established Academicians could rub shoulders with those of modernism’s young tyros and still garner a largely positive response from the critics and public alike. This augured well for at least a gentle broadening of the range of artists represented in the Academy’s annual show, especially in its display of visual responses to the war and the recently concluded peace.

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It was not to be, however. A flick through Royal Academy Illustrated 1920 reveals a familiar array of society portraits, pastoral landscapes, and a sprinkling of religious, historical, and mythological subjects. These are mostly by Academy regulars and the general effect, as the reviewer of The Guardian—among others—concluded, was of a “no change” Academy.5 Some changes had in fact been made: the Hanging Committee had removed the top row of paintings to avoid the cluttered and controversial effect of skying works. Yet this “pruned Academy” did little to satisfy those who had been expecting modernist painters like Augustus John and his “confederates” to storm the barricades of Burlington House and many critics complained that its main effect was merely to make bad paintings more obvious.6 

A sense of missed opportunity is captured by the Exhibition’s reviews, several of which make direct—and unfavourable—comparisons between the Summer Exhibition and the War Paintings exhibition. The Times regretted that: “the newer British art is still almost entirely unrepresented; we mean the kind of art which made the success of the war paintings exhibitions in the same rooms”7 and even The Daily Express complained that the show lacked “those outstanding points of interest that during the war led one to believe in a new inspiration in British painting.”8 Simultaneously, they took issue with the fact that the Academy had still not elected a female artist as one of its Members despite their continuing success in the Summer Exhibitions. The Guardian’s review stated that War Paintings had demonstrated the worth of “a real public art” before asking plaintively of the Academy Summer Exhibition: “Has this nation … come through the furnace of the Great War with nothing to reveal of its soul but this?”9

Beyond the issue of representation, a further challenge for the Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1920 was that the peace had apparently proved harder—or, at least, less inspiring—to paint than the war. The Tablet, for one, observed that the “large canvases given up to commemorate the ‘Peace’ and other conferences command the spectator’s attention. We cannot say much in their favour”.10 Frank O. Salisbury’s large mural panel for the Royal Exchange, The National Peace Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s, showed the sombre-faced king and queen with the Archbishop of Canterbury leaving the Cathedral at the end of the service (Fig. 1). Though given pride of place at Burlington House, this work received particular criticism for its staid and lacklustre appearance with one critic describing it as little more than “coloured illustration”.11 

The problematic nature of representing the peace was brought into especially sharp focus by two of the most significant paintings in the Exhibition, Sir William Orpen’s group portraits A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay and The Signing of the Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919 (Fig. 2). Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, Orpen attended the peace conference as an official war artist alongside Augustus John.12 In a written account of his experience as an “onlooker” in Paris, Orpen voiced his dislike of the “frocks” (as he called the diplomats and politicians) and compared them unfavourably with the “fighting man”, who had won the war but, he felt, had too quickly been forgotten.13 The resulting paintings are striking and clearly imbued with similar sentiments, presenting the assembled delegates as a crowd of self-satisfied suits dwarfed by the stiflingly ornate architecture and distorted reflections of the Hall of Mirrors, in particular. Critics admired Orpen’s technical skill but found his tone “a trifle sour”.14 The Guardian gave a more direct verdict, stating: “Nothing that the severest critics of the press have said about the peace conference has been so audacious as this”.15 The Pall Mall Gazette reported that, despite public fatigue with current affairs, there was nevertheless an appetite to see these and other topical paintings in 1920.

In the end, despite occupying the same galleries, The Nation’s War Paintings and the Academy’s Annual Exhibition inhabited opposite ends of the art world spectrum. The contrast between them highlights a widening gap between the two types of display offered by the Academy in the first half of the twentieth century. The loan exhibitions developed an increasingly broad, international remit and also saw the benefits of external collaboration. The Hanging Committee of The Nation’s War Paintings, for instance, had five external advisers to four RAs, the former including Charles Aitken, Keeper of the Tate Gallery, Charles J. Holmes, Director of the National Gallery, and Henry Tonks of the Slade. Conversely, the Summer Exhibition seems to have been gradually hamstrung by its status as “the home of traditions”.16

  1. The Nation’s War Paintings took place at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 12 December 1919–7 February 1920.↩︎

  2. “Rebels in the Fortress”, The Daily Express, 3 January 1919, cited in James Fox, British Art and the First World War 1914–1924 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 136.↩︎

  3. The critical reception of The Nation’s War Paintings is discussed by Fox, British Art and the First World War, 134–136; and by Sue Malvern, Modern Art, Britain and the Great War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 93, and 106–107.↩︎

  4. Various newspaper articles referred to changes at the Academy and to the emergence of a progressive element, see The Guardian, 1 May 1920, 10; P.G. Konody, The Observer, 2 May 1920, 10; The Times, 1 May 1920, 15; The Daily Mail, 4 May 1920, 6.↩︎

  5. The Guardian, 1 May 1920, 10. This echoes earlier statements that the exhibitions that took place during the First World War looked “much the same as during the years of peace”, see David Peters Corbett, The Modernity of English Art, 1914–1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 95, n.61.↩︎

  6. The “pruned Academy” description is from “A Cynic at the Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 8 May 1920, 784. The description of Augustus John and his confederates storming the Academy is from The Guardian, 1 May 1920, 10; and the criticism of the new hang featured in several reviews including The Times, 1 May 1920, 15. Despite the apparent pruning of the hang, the Academy fitted 1,477 works into the 1920 Summer Exhibition, only 196 less than in 1919, see Royal Academy Annual Report, 1920.↩︎

  7. “Royal Academy: Improvements on Past Years—A Preliminary Notice”, The Times, 1 May 1920, 15.↩︎

  8. “Women Storm the Academy”, The Daily Express, 1 May 1920, 4.↩︎

  9. The Guardian, 1 May 1920, 10.↩︎

  10. The Tablet, 8 May 1920.↩︎

  11. For instance, P.G. Konody, The Observer, 2 May 1920, 10.↩︎

  12. “J.B.” of The Guardian, 2 March 1920, commented on how “piquant” it was that Britain should be represented by Orpen “an Irishman of mocking brilliance” and John, a Welshman prone “to idealise life”. John’s resulting portraits were exhibited by Messrs Chenil at the Alpine Club, while Orpen’s appeared at the Academy.↩︎

  13. Sir William Orpen, An Onlooker in France: A Critical Edition of the Artist’s War Memoirs by Robert Upstone and Angela Weight (London: Paul Holberton, 2008), 200.↩︎

  14. “A Cynic at the Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 8 May 1920, 784.↩︎

  15. The Guardian, 1 May 1920, 10. The situation came to a head a few years later in the final painting of the commission, To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1923). Orpen omitted the “frocks” altogether, flanking the draped coffin of the Unknown Soldier with two injured soldiers attended by cherubs. The Imperial War Museum refused to purchase the painting arguing that it did not fulfil the terms of the commission. An eventual compromise saw Orpen paint out these figures, leaving a stark, perhaps even more powerful, image of desolation, see Robert Upstone, William Orpen: Politics, Sex & Death (London: Imperial War Museum, 2005), 143–146; and Orpen, An Onlooker in France, 39–42.↩︎

  16. The Hanging Committee for The Nation’s War Paintings: Charles Aitken, Muirhead Bone, D.Y. Cameron, Francis Dodd, Charles J. Holmes, Sir John Lavery, Sir William Orpen, Charles Sims and Professor Henry Tonks. The reference to the “home of traditions” is from R.H.W. [R.H. Wilenski], “Fine Arts: The Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 7 May 1920, 611.↩︎

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