Royal Academy Chronicle The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 search Menu

1921 “Pronouncedly Modern Tendencies”

In the same year, the Royal Academy took steps to absorb some of the more modern elements in British art by electing Augustus John and Frederick Cayley Robinson to its membership, the critics and the artists themselves observed “pronouncedly modern tendencies” on its walls.1 The Selection and Hanging Committees of that year, which included artists less closely associated with the establishment like Adrian Scott Stokes and David Young Cameron had purged the walls of around 1,000 pictures, removing the upper storey of paintings.2 Some of the stalwarts of the Academy such as John Singer Sargent and John Lavery were represented by limited contributions, while other long-standing favourites were rejected altogether including John Collier, Tom Mostyn, and Arthur Severn. In their stead, a different group of painters, many of whom were traditionally associated with the Academy’s rival exhibiting society the New English Art Club, took up position on the walls, including Vivian Forbes and Glyn Philpot. These artists embraced a range of styles but many were beginning to jettison wholly figurative painting in favour of aspects of abstraction, or incorporating some elements of abstraction at least.

Explore the 1921 catalogue

The artist Frank O. Salisbury, despite having his own painting of the burial of the unknown soldier And they Buried him among the Kings placed in prime position in Gallery III, wrote a disgruntled letter to The Times, professing to represent “the [opinions of the] senior and more responsible members of the Royal Academy” (Fig. 1).3 He claimed that: “artists of reputation and distinction, who have continuously exhibited for 10, 20 or 40 years have been ruthlessly thrown aside”, resulting in reputational and financial losses. Salisbury’s list of complaints included the Committee turning over Gallery VI to James Thornhill’s copies of Raphael’s cartoons, as well as the fact that: “fifteen girl students of the Academy schools had one or more pictures exhibited.” Despite professing an interest in “encourag[ing] the young aspirants”, Salisbury was irate that “students be placed before matured and able painters” (a likely misogynistic streak was left implicit).4

Salisbury’s outburst touched a nerve among the artistic community and beyond. His letter prompted a quick response from the Aldermen of the City of London, offering for the first time their spaces at the Guildhall Art Gallery for a display of “rejected” pictures. A Selection Committee consisting of a mixture of artists represented at the Academy that year as well as a handful of others was quickly formed and the display opened in early June. As Frank Rutter was quick to point out, however, the Guildhall exhibition did not represent all those pictures rejected from the Academy; the term “rejected” was very quickly dropped from its title, which was changed to An Exhibition of Works by Living British Painters. Ironically, it was therefore just as selective and, in its own fashion, elitist as the Academy Exhibition to which it purportedly offered a corrective.

Some sense of the Guildhall exhibition is suggested by the following, admittedly satirical, description of an “irate old gentleman … heard demanding the return of his gate money at the Royal Academy”, who could instead:

find himself at the Guildhall in the soothing atmosphere of the ‘eighties of the last century. No shocks for his nerves, no special demand for his intellect; plenty of romance and sentiment; and above all an abundance of clear illustrations and painted literature and history, with a sprinkling of quoted verse in the catalogue.5

The most up-to-date works on display at this rival exhibition, according to P.G. Konody, were the “moderate” impressionism of the landscape paintings of Wynford Dewhurst—a phrase which, by 1921, meant old school.

By contrast, while crowds at the Academy were drawn to Alfred Munnings’ equestrian portrait of the Prince of Wales on his hunter Forest Witch, the sense of change at Burlington House was nevertheless characterised by the inclusion of new generation “modern” artists such as Vivian Forbes and Glyn Philpot, who had come to prominence during the First World War. Philpot’s painting Journey of the Spirit, exhibited that year, was an extraordinary demonstration of the artist’s commitment to painterly modernity (Fig. 2). The work’s combination of three muscle-bound nude figures in a quasi-abstract landscape tended both to amaze and confound the critics. One wrote: “It is a theme even less expressible in words. Nude male figures in a misty, mountainous landscape journeying with labour and gestures towards—something’.6

While Salisbury led the reactionaries, another strand of painters welcomed the changes afoot. The artist William Lee Hankey, a member of the Newlyn school of painters who exhibited at but was never part of the Academy establishment, responded to Salisbury’s public complaints by criticising the Academy’s tendency to either reject or sky new painters to make way for “the familiar canvases of familiar painters”.7 Hankey welcomed the current exhibition, writing: “[it] gives the first sign we have had for years that the committee is prepared to show real discrimination and encourages the hope that a very strong body of ‘outsiders’ will in future send their work to Burlington House.”8 Hankey was hopeful that a further strain of New English Art Club exhibitors, who had well-established reputations but had thus far remained outside the stable of the Academy, including Philip Wilson Steer, William Nicholson, and Charles Ricketts would exhibit at Burlington House.

The Academy’s tendency to favour its own members and associates was of course not the only reason artists chose not to submit their paintings to the Exhibition. Some, particularly women and younger artists, hated the whole idea of a juried exhibition, seeing the Academy as a “closed show controlled by males” and preferring to send their works to open displays like the Allied Artists exhibitions.9 For certain artists, like Cedric Morris and Frances Hodgkins, this meant they would shun the Academy forever, despite its attempts to compromise.

  1. P.G. Konody, “Royal Academy”, The Observer, 1 May 1921, 13.↩︎

  2. “The New Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 2 May 1921, 8.↩︎

  3. Frank O. Salisbury, “Distinguished Painters Rejected”, letter to The Times, 3 May 1921, 6.↩︎

  4. Frank O. Salisbury, “Distinguished Painters Rejected”, letter to The Times, 3 May 1921, 6.↩︎

  5. P.G. Konody, “Art and Artists”, The Observer, 12 June 1921, 9.↩︎

  6. “Academy Open To-Day”, The Times, 2 May 1921, 9.↩︎

  7. W. Lee Hankey, letter to The Times, 10 May 1921, 13.↩︎

  8. W. Lee Hankey, letter to The Times, 10 May 1921, 13.↩︎

  9. These exhibitions were run by the Allied Artists’ Association, an artists’ exhibiting society founded by Frank Rutter in 1908. By the 1920s, these were being staged at Heal’s Mansard Gallery.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1921 catalogue