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1924 Renaissance or Suicide?

The year 1924 marked an important shift in the type and range of paintings exhibited at the Summer Exhibition, as critics perceived the increasing dominance of the New English Art Club (NEAC) within the Academy. A London-based, artist-run exhibition society, the NEAC embraced French artistic styles employing an impressionist touch and heightened colour palette. Alongside the growing presence of younger women artists, NEAC members were also acknowledged to have a progressive impact upon the Royal Academy, as the club became increasingly seen as a stepping stone to Summer Exhibition success and Academy membership.1 Members of the NEAC recently elected as Academy Associates attested to this influence, including Walter Russell in 1920 and Augustus John in 1921, the latter of whom showed Portrait of Princess Antoine Bibescoat the Summer Exhibition in 1924 (Fig. 1). Other works by NEAC painters at the Summer Exhibition proved popular that year, and both William Rothenstein’s The Princess Badroulbadour (1908) and John Lavery’s vibrantly coloured interior of jockeys being weighed before a race titled The Jockey’s Dressing Room at Ascot (1923) were presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest to the Tate Gallery after their display in 1924.

The broader range of works by younger women artists on display, known as the “Academy Flappers”, was also applauded. Pictures by Dod Procter, Ethel Walker, and Laura Knight, including her much praised A Rehearsal of 1923 (Fig. 2), were seen as a sign of liberalisation and were well received in the press. This perception was reflected in one critic’s claim that: “modernist pictures are taken into the bosom of the Academy” with a “modernist influence gently pervading the whole” and another’s assertion that such changes in approach on the part of the Academy heralded a “vigorous Renaissance in the Art of painting in Britain”.2

Explore the 1924 catalogue

However, for many conservative Academicians and critics, the 1924 show was thought to compromise the Academy’s traditional strengths and undermine its high reputation, provoking an institutional crisis. They openly objected to the infusion of NEAC talent into the Academy’s membership, decrying the embrace of contemporary subjects rendered in French-inspired painterly styles, and they opposed calls for more women artists to be elected into the Academy. Only one woman, Annie Swynnerton, was a full Academician; in 1920, she became “the first woman since the 18th century to be elected to academical [sic] honours.”3 The next female painter to be elected was Laura Knight, who was made ARA in 1927. Nevertheless, the 1921 census had listed 4,184 women painters, engravers, and sculptors in England and Wales, with 2,329 in London—making up roughly a third of all artists listed.4 An analysis of London galleries in the mid-1920s confirms that women artists comprised between 25 and 33 per cent of all exhibitors. Yet in the 1924 Summer Exhibition, only thirty-two women artists had been accepted among the 1,563 exhibitors, even if works by leading figures like Procter, Walker, and Knight attracted critical praise.

That same year, two events had further exposed the Academy’s procedures to intense public scrutiny. The first, Frank Dicksee’s appointment as President of the Royal Academy, was welcomed by both younger Academicians and by liberal art critics as a sign of positive changes taking place within the institution. The second event, however, saw the publication of Ebenezer Wake Cook’s book Retrogression in Art and the Suicide of the Royal Academy in 1924, which lambasted the election of younger and more progressive NEAC artists to ARA—Augustus John in particular—and vehemently opposed expanding the number of women artists in the Summer Exhibition. Cook argued that both trends were evidence of a pernicious “barbarism” enforcing the “debased Modernity standards” of a “muddle headed minority”. In his view, the reputation of British art was already suffering under the impact of the “Bolshevism” and “Anarchism” that had discredited British artistic traditions.5 What was urgently needed, Wake Cook demanded, was “to save the Academy from itself and to arrest, if possible, the further degradation of some of our Public Galleries”, the Tate Gallery included, through their support for modern art.6

This debate about the inability of the Academy to maintain traditional artistic standards was used by conservative critics to support calls for the reform of the Royal Academy Schools and its training procedures. Its shortcomings in teaching were particularly exposed when a commission by the School’s Keeper, Charles Sims, Portrait of His Majesty King George V, was exhibited briefly at the 1924 Summer Exhibition before being withdrawn for offending the King, and later destroyed.7 Sims’ failure to return to teach at the Royal Academy Schools in October 1925 badly affected his students’ ability to progress and sit their exams, and he resigned formally on 21 March 1926.8 Sims’ actions inflamed criticisms of the Royal Academy Schools as a major training institution for British artists, initiating an investigation by the Royal Academy’s School’s Committee that concluded it “was not so much a School, as a rather freely run life class [where] … the Students work as they please”.9 In response, any new students whose work displayed “crude” modernist tendencies were not admitted.10

This decline in the Academy’s standing was highlighted by the Summer Exhibition’s falling attendance figures and by its declining sales figures, as less than 10 per cent of the 1,544 works displayed were sold in 1924. The Sphere’s critic reported that: “younger artists aiming to establish a reputation … are ignored by and ignore the Royal Academy of Arts”.11 Moreover, a review in the Weekly Despatch openly questioned the relevance of ARA or RA titles to becoming a professional artist or securing a painting’s sale:

no picture nowadays obtains a market or secures a price simple because it has been in the Academy … artists have no use for Burlington House … a little one man show [sic] in a well known art gallery is [soon] sold out and will cause a stir in art circles which three years of Academy pictures will fail to do.12
  1. See Kenneth McConkey, The New English: A History of the New English Art Club (London: Royal Academy of Art, 2006), 137–151.↩︎

  2. Quoted by Theo Cowdell, “The Role of the Royal Academy in English Art 1918–30”, PhD thesis, University of London, 1980, 185.↩︎

  3. Francis Vane Phipson Rutter, The Little Book of the Royal Academy of Nineteen Twenty-Four (London: G.T. Foulis and Co., 1924), 66.↩︎

  4. In England and Wales, in 1921, there were 8,314 male artists and in London 4,198 male artists. From Catherine Deepwell, Women Artists in Britain between the Two World Wars, PhD thesis Birkbeck, University of London 1991, 261.↩︎

  5. Ebenezer Wake Cook, Retrogression in Art and the Suicide of the Royal Academy (London: Hutchinson, 1924), 174.↩︎

  6. Wake Cook, Retrogression in Art and the Suicide of the Royal Academy, vii.↩︎

  7. The King complained to Sims about the depiction of his legs and it was agreed the portrait would be destroyed. However, Sims exhibited the portrait in New York in autumn 1925 causing outrage, and placing the Academy in an acutely embarrassing situation. See Sidney C. Hutchinson, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986, 2nd edn (London: Robert Royce, 1986), 165.↩︎

  8. See Jane Colbourne, “A Critical Survey of the Materials and Techniques of Charles Henry Sims RA (1873-1928) with Special Reference to Egg Tempera Media and Works of Art on Paper”, PhD thesis, Northumbria University, 2011, 79–80.↩︎

  9. Royal Academy Annual Report(London, 1927), 39–41. Quoted by Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1968, 166.↩︎

  10. The Committee was chaired by Sir Reginald Blomfield and it produced its report in January 1926. See Hutchinson, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986, 165–166. Sims committed suicide in 1928, aged 54.↩︎

  11. The Sphere, 2 August 1924.↩︎

  12. Brandon St. Ives, “Academy Pictures Fate”, Weekly Despatch, 22 June 1924.↩︎

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Explore the 1924 catalogue