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1925 Compromise Art

Reviewing the 1925 Summer Exhibition, art critics highlighted that there had been “sharp changes of style” from the works displayed in the previous year; the Spectator critic claimed that “all the pre-war rebels … have become Academic in a Georgian sense … one would have to go back fifteen years for such an academic Academy”.1 Many progressive critics recognised that although previously appreciative of “the disciples of moderate modernism”,2 the Summer Exhibition’s Selection and Hanging Committees in 1925, it seemed, had turned back the clock. Anthony Bertram writing in The Saturday Review condemned this change of heart and criticised “the dull proposing of Burlington House”3 and The Sphere’s art critic went further decrying that: “of the several hundred oil paintings [in the Summer Exhibition] not more than two score rise above the level of uninspired, if ably mastered technique.”4 Looking back over the previous two Summer Exhibitions in 1924, The Observer critic, P.G. Konody lamented that in 1925 “compromise art is everywhere, the liberal policy … has apparently been abandoned … and [the RA] is [now] hopelessly out of touch with modern aspirations”.5 The New Statesman’s critic Philip Hendy wholeheartedly agreed noting that at the recent Academy Summer Exhibitions “modernism is ignored” and “all the isms are gone”.6

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Critics saw the elderliness of the Academy’s membership, its out-dated election methods, deep-rooted cronyism, and the institution’s aversion to modernisation as faults. Even the youngest full Academician, Glynn Philpot, who showed A Street Accident that year, was now forty years old, and although the painting depicted a contemporary scene of human suffering, its painterly execution was highly traditional and the composition of its central figures clearly referenced a conventional Pietà (Fig. 1). Previously capped at forty elected ARAs, changes instituted in 1918 to allow the election of younger full Academicians re-categorised members aged seventy-five years or older as “Senior Academicians”. However, little had improved by 1925 as the wait to progress from Associate status to full Royal Academician had hardly altered: averaging around nine in the years before 1918, and eight years in the period 1918–1925.7 Indeed, only six ARAs were under forty years old, thereby perpetuating the marked demographic imbalance within the Academy’s membership.

Moreover, following the death of John Singer Sargent in April 1925, whose portrait of The Marchioness Curzon of Keddleston was “hung with a wreath of laurel leaves as a memorial to this great painter”8 in this year’s Summer Exhibition, the elections of two new RAs only confirmed the institution’s reluctance to promote contemporary subjects and modernist styles. They were the traditionalist equestrian and horse painter—and outspoken critic of modernism—Alfred Munnings, whose The Coming Storm (1910–1911) was shown in 1925, and the decorative painter of classical subjects Philip Connard, represented by his Diploma work Apollo and Daphne. Such elections also bolstered widespread accusations of the Academy’s cronyism. Academicians benefitted from teaching employment in the Royal Academy Schools, and due to their guaranteed rights to show in the Annual Exhibitions, their work was eligible for purchase by the Chantrey Bequest administered by the Academy. Although a revised scheme for the operations of the Chantrey Bequest had been put in place in 1922, it was viewed as ineffective by 1925.9 The purchase of Arthur George Walker’s ivory and marble statuette Christ at the Whipping Post (ca. 1925) from the Summer Exhibition for £300 by the Bequest for the Tate Gallery collection, forcefully underlined this partiality which was identified by critics as a major institutional failing. Walker had been elected ARA in April 1923 and his reputation was based upon his conservative sculptures of religious subjects and war memorials which were outmoded in comparison with contemporary sculptural trends and taste.10

By contrast, progressive critics praised the monumental figurative classicism of Dod Procter’s work; at that year’s show, she was the only one of eleven women artists selected in 1925. Procter’s The Model depicted a Newlyn fisherman’s daughter, Cissie Barnes, contemplatively resting her head in her hand (Fig. 2). Drawn in clear outline and featuring idealised drapery, Procter’s austere, if simplified modern language applied to a bobbed-haired schoolgirl dressed in a simple skirt and top with a shawl or blanket over her, registered the impact of Cubism in a way that supplemented, rather than supplanted, a traditional approach. For The Sunday Times critic, the painting represented a commendable modernism and encompassed “the new vision of the Twentieth century”.11 Even two years later, The Daily Mail critic clearly recalled the impact that this impressive work had made upon him:

Mrs. Procter’s first startling success at the Royal Academy was achieved in 1925 with her painting of “The Model”, which by its solidarity of form and unhesitating sureness of handling made every other picture in its vicinity look flat, tame and insignificant.12

The failure of the Academy’s Selection and Hanging Committees to support forms of cosmopolitan modernism favoured by younger artists drawn from a broader artistic background attracted widespread criticism from progressive critics and this reluctance re-inflamed ongoing critical debates about the Academy’s irrelevance to modern artists, who preferred to show with artist-led associations such as the Seven and Five Society, the London Group, the Society of Women Artists, and the Women’s International Art Club. Moreover, by adopting an out-dated hang in old-fashioned rooms, the Summer Exhibition organisers had largely ignored the innovative ways of displaying and marketing contemporary art that had been pioneered in the updated galleries of leading London dealer such as the Leicester Galleries, the New Chenil Galleries, and the Mayor Gallery. Falling attendance numbers and declining sales figures reinforced this sense that the Academy was out of touch with recent artistic developments and resistant to change; a stance that contrasted with the cosmopolitan taste evidenced in much contemporary art and that many progressive artists, dealers, and critics applauded and which younger metropolitan art audiences had enthusiastically embraced.

  1. The Spectator, 9 May 1925.↩︎

  2. P.G. Konody, The Observer, 1 May 1926.↩︎

  3. Anthony Bertram, The Saturday Review, 6 June 1925.↩︎

  4. The Sphere, 9 May 1925.↩︎

  5. P.G. Konody, The Observer, 1 May 1926.↩︎

  6. Philip Hendy, The New Statesman, 13 March 1926.↩︎

  7. Theo Cowdell, “The Role of the Royal Academy in English Art 1918–30”, PhD thesis, University of London, 1980, 1.↩︎

  8. Quoted in Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray (eds), John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits (London: Yale University Press, 2003), 272.↩︎

  9. By 1927, strong disagreements between the RA President and Council members responsible for the Chantrey Bequest with the Tate Gallery over the recommended purchase of modernist paintings from the New English Art Club exhibition made to the Chantrey Trustees, resulted in a stand-off between them over the out-dated tastes of the Academy Committee, resulting in no Bequest purchases being made in 1927 and 1928. See Sidney C. Hutchinson, The History of the Royal Academy, 1768–1968, 2nd edn(London: Robert Royce, 1986), 167–168.↩︎

  10. Walker would become a full Royal Academicians in February 1936, before being promoted to Senior Academician in January 1937.↩︎

  11. Quoted in Alison James, A Singular Vision: Dod Procter 1890–1972 (Bristol: Sansom & Co., 2007), 74.↩︎

  12. The Daily Mail, 3 May 1927.↩︎

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