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1929 Cosmopolitan or Nationalist

In 1929, there was a vigorous public debate about the role that the Royal Academy and its Summer Exhibition played in the promotion and dissemination of modern British art; this reflected the increasing exposure of younger audiences in Britain to continental modernism in art, architecture, and design.1 The debate highlighted how cosmopolitan taste had affected the types of modern art being produced, and how these changes in the political economy of art had fuelled calls for a more vocational approach to be adopted by artists and art schools. Faced with the growing demand for contemporary art among younger art-buyers and an expanding London art market, many commentators pointed out that it was artist-led associations such as the London Group, the Seven and Five Society, the London Artists Association, and the National Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers and Potters, as well as London’s leading commercial galleries and design studios, including the Leicester Galleries, the Tooth Gallery, and the Zwemmer Gallery, rather than the Academy, which had vigorously taken up the lead. These fashionable societies and dealers, who promoted the most ambitious contemporary art in updated, modern galleries and who appealed to younger metropolitan audiences, were openly “challenging the Academy in importance”.2

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One area of conspicuous growth was the high demand for prints and drawings by contemporary British artists.3 The Royal Academy Selection Committee was eager to meet this demand, which was stoked by overseas collectors, namely, Americans who were lauded by the press as “the Best Buyers of British prints”4 and younger art-lovers purchasing small-scale prints, drawings, and watercolours for the home—so it doubled the number of “black and white” works on display.5 The Academy already occupied a strong place in the prints market: many of the most distinguished print technicians in Britain were Royal Academicians including Henry Rushbury, William Russell Flint, Augustus John, Walter Sickert, Gerald Brockhurst, and Muirhead Bone. Landscape or genre scenes, such as Rushbury’s view of the busy Quai des Belges, Marseilles and his drawing of The Old Port Marseilles, and Russell Flint’s dry point etching titled A Spanish Christening, were especially popular when exhibited in 1929 and attracted praise from critics.

Wider debates about the need for British artists to adopt a more vocational, market-oriented approach and for art training institutions to supply the increasing demand for artists in technical drawing or as designers working in industry or alongside commercial manufacturers, attracted considerable press attention. In 1929, the Academy hosted a conference about the “Training of British Artists in Design for Manufacture”.6 At the Summer Exhibition, the display of architectural drawings, plans, and models demonstrated these expanding opportunities available to enterprising British artists and designers. Ambitious designs for modern commercial buildings in London were exhibited, including Edwin Lutyens’ 1928 commission for the Midland Bank’s Leadenhall Street office, Elcock and Sutcliff and Sir John Buret’s designs for the new Daily Telegraph office in Fleet Street, Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis’s plans for the Westminster Bank in Threadneedle Street, and proposals for the new Headquarters of the BBC by G. Val Myer and Watson Hart.

Reminding audiences of the symbolic role that modern art played in the broader political economy, two large-scale paintings by Irish artists were also displayed in the 1929 Summer Exhibition. The first by Belfast-born Sir John Lavery, commissioned by the art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, depicted the glittering spectacle of The Opening of the Modern Foreign and Sargent Galleries at the Tate Gallery (1929) that had taken place on 8 June 1926, in Lavery’s modern, post-impressionistic style (Fig. 1).7 Showing King George V and Queen Mary at the grand formal opening at Millbank, it portrayed Duveen sitting on the extreme left side of the composition.8 Representing one of the lavishly decorated galleries with green marble doorways, brown silk wall-hangings, and painted and gilt ceilings, these magnificent rooms at Millbank, financed by Duveen, housed the donations of foreign and modern painting made to the Tate Gallery by Samuel Courtauld and Hugh Lane, as well as works by the American Academician John Singer Sargent, who had died in April 1925. One contentious issue was the incorporation of the Lane Bequest into the British national collection as Irish legal protests continued over the legitimacy of Lane’s will and the disputed ownership between the British and Irish states.9

The second work was Limerick painter Seàn Keating’s Night Candle’s are Burnt Out (1927–1928), commissioned by the Irish Electricity Supply Board, which depicted the huge dam at Ardnacrusha started in 1924 as part of the hydroelectric power scheme on the Shannon River for the Irish national grid (Fig. 2).10 Signalling the ambitious plans for electrical modernisation in the Irish Free State, which had been founded in 1922 after a bloody war of independence from Britain, the allegorical painting was replete with nationalist symbolism in which the Capitalist was pitted against the gunman and the Church. This complexity led it to being dubbed by British critics, “the problem painting of the year”. As Keating later explained:

The title suggests that the dawn has come, when the dim candlelight of surviving medievalism in Ireland is fading before the rising sun of scientific progress, exemplified by the Shannon electricity works, which form the background to my picture … In short, my picture depicts the transition of Ireland from a country of ancient stagnation to a state of freedom and progress.11

Clearly communicating the symbolic importance that modern art played in the political economy, and underlining the different roles that history painting and tradition occupied in the two states, both Lavery’s and Keating’s works addressed the altering conditions of art’s production and consumption in the unpredictable political landscape of the late 1920s—wider changes which the Summer Exhibition registered in a limited but perceptible way.

  1. See James Peto and Donna Loveday (eds), Modern Britain 1929–1939 (London: Design Museum, 1999), 16.↩︎

  2. “British Art Boom”, Daily Herald,20 February 1930. C.R.W. Nevinson Press cutting albums contained in Tate Gallery Archive, TGA 7311/7.↩︎

  3. See Frances Carey and Anthony Griffiths, Avant-Garde British Printmaking, 1914–1960 (London: British Museum Publications, 1990), 14–15.↩︎

  4. Arthur Feesey, “Americans the Best Buyers of British Prints”, The Bazaar, Exchange and Mart,14 September 1929.↩︎

  5. See Theo Cowdell, “The Role of the Royal Academy in British Art 1918–30”, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 1980, 207–208.↩︎

  6. Noted in the Royal Academy Annual Report, 1929, 79; and discussed in Sidney C. Hutchinson, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986 (London: Robert Royce, 1986), 171.↩︎

  7. For a full account of the Tate Gallery opening and its wider political ramifications, see Brandon Taylor, Art For the Nation: Exhibitions and the London Public, 1747–2001 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999),132–166.↩︎

  8. See Frances Spalding, The Tate: A History (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1998), 48–50.↩︎

  9. For the controversy relating to Lane’s disputed will and the Lane Bequest, see Barbara Dawson (ed.), Hugh Lane: Founder of a Gallery of Modern Art for Ireland (Dublin: Dublin City Gallery, 2008), 12–13.↩︎

  10. Seàn Keating is listed as John Keating in the Royal Academy Catalogue.↩︎

  11. Quoted in Hunt Museum, Seàn Keating: In Focus, exhibition catalogue (Limerick: Hunt Museum, 2009), 19–20.↩︎

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Explore the 1929 catalogue