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1938 “Deadly Conservatism” and the Hanging Committee

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Disputes over rejected works are no novelty in the history of the Royal Academy but it is remarkable that, in 1938, one of the most talked-about paintings was not even in the show. The Academy rejected Wyndham Lewis’ portrait of T.S. Eliot, creating a press furore (Fig. 1).1 Lewis happily denounced the Academy as a “foul institution” and claimed that he had submitted the portrait to test its bias.2 Augustus John then resigned from the Academy in protest, writing to thank Lewis for giving him an escape route.3  John later added in a letter to Laura Knight: “It seemed pretty hopeless to oppose the predominant junta of deadly conservatism … If by my beastly action I shall have brought some fresh air into Burlington House I shall feel justified.”4 Much has been written about this intriguing episode,5 but it has only occasionally been noted that the Committee responsible for the rejection are immortalised in Frederick Elwell’s RA “Diploma” work, which was exhibited at the Summer Exhibition in the following year, in 1939 (Fig. 2).6 Fresh air is not the first thing that comes to mind when looking at this painting of the Academicians relaxing after lunch. Their surroundings appear more gentlemen’s club than arts institution and the painting has been considered an all-too-convincing portrayal of academic stuffiness.7 It is even tempting to read this puzzling work as a covert critique, but given Elwell’s general outlook, it seems unlikely.8

What, then, motivated Elwell to draw further attention to this controversial Committee, of which he was himself a member? The portrait plays to the artist’s strengths, including a close observation of the Academy’s tableware.9 Was Elwell “simply enthused by the opulence of a club he has been privileged to join”?10 Or does his decision to portray the Committee indicate, in itself, that he intended the work to amount to more that this?

The answer may lie in a significant difference from previous depictions of the Selection Committee. These invariably show the artists in the act of selecting.11 By offering instead a vista on the Exhibition’s social rituals, Elwell avoided direct reference to the rejection of the T.S. Eliot portrait. Yet, in this display of well-fed calm and conviviality after the storm, it is as though the whole controversy never happened. Was Elwell softly but surely reasserting the Academy’s authority by demonstrating its united front against the criticism of an individual troublemaker?

The need for such a reassertion might be questioned but public opinion had generally sided with Lewis. The Daily Telegraph went so far as to describe the T.S. Eliot portrait as “Ingres-like” and “entirely of academic standard”.12 The Academy’s response was merely that the portrait was not good enough, a committee member adding in a letter to the press “we are not here to exhibit experiments but achievements”.13

The same logic resurfaced emphatically in the speeches at the Exhibition Banquet that year.14 Winston Churchill was one of the speakers and, between jokes and digs at political rivals, he strongly defended the Academy and its duty “to hold a middle course between tradition and innovation”. Artists could experiment elsewhere, he said, but the Academy should only admit work that had “won a certain measure of acceptance”. Significantly, Churchill also aligned this “middle course” conservatism in the arts with its political counterpart, arguing for the necessity of both amid turbulent times.15  

In this context, might Elwell’s Diploma work be considered not only a demonstration of Churchill’s “middle course” but also a subtle defence of the Academy Selection Committee as its rightful arbiters? The Times critic for the 1939 Exhibition, where Elwell’s work was shown, certainly saw it that way. Arguing that “the Royal Academy is the Royal Academy” and should be accepted as such, the critic went on to commend Elwell on his loyalty to the institution describing the portrait as “a thoroughly good picture of a kind that is done better at the Academy than anywhere else”.16

  1. Press interest in the matter began with the news of the portrait’s rejection, see, for example, “Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot and the R.A.”, The Guardian, 21 April 1938, 10; and “The Rejected Picture: Artist’s Protest”, The Guardian, 22 April 1938, 16. Articles on the subject continued to be published in all mainstream newspapers throughout the run of the Exhibition.↩︎

  2. The “foul institution” comment is from The Daily Mail, cited in a detailed account of the whole affair in Paul O’Keeffe, Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 379; see also 379–389, 391–394. Wyndham Lewis courted the press, reviewing the Academy Exhibition for The Star newspaper, giving numerous interviews in print and for newsreels, He also devoted the last chapter of his book Wyndham Lewis, The Artist: From Blast to Burlington House (London: Laidlaw and Laidlaw, 1939), to the episode. His accounts vary, however. In some, he claims to have been surprised at the portrait’s rejection while in others he states that he sent the picture in expecting it to be rejected in order to expose the Academy’s prejudice.↩︎

  3. John’s letter of resignation, dated 23 April 1938, is held in the Royal Academy Archive RAA/SEC/4/74/9. This and the letter to Wyndham Lewis are quoted in Michael Holroyd, Augustus John: The New Biography (London: Pimlico, 2011), 477. It should be noted that John’s relationship with the Academy was mercurial. He accepted election in 1920 but had misgivings about it. When he resigned, he had not even seen Lewis’ portrait and after seeing it he, perhaps jokingly, confessed some sympathy with the Academy, see Michael Holroyd, “Damning and Blasting”, The Listener, 6 July 1972. After some vacillation, John accepted re-election only two years later but, significantly, this was after Sir William Llewellyn, one of the leading “conservatives”, had retired as President.↩︎

  4. Quoted in Holroyd, Augustus John, 477.↩︎

  5. In addition to the publications already cited are many more including the Exhibition Catalogues: Wyndham Lewis: Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, 2008); and Wyndham Lewis: Life, War, Art, Imperial War Museum North, 23 June 2017–1 January 2018.↩︎

  6. The painting remains in the Academy collection and is occasionally on view at Burlington House, Elwell was elected ARA on 24 April 1931 and RA on 5 December 1938 (suggesting that he had already started on this painting before making it his Diploma work). The connection between Elwell’s portrait and the rejection of Wyndham Lewis’ work is noted briefly in MaryAnne Stevens (ed.), The Edwardians and After: The Royal Academy 1900–1950 (London: Royal Academy Publications, 1990), 86–87, and picked up by a couple of the reviews of that exhibition including Andrew Graham-Dixon’s “Strictly Members Only”, The Independent, 4 September 1990, see It is also mentioned in Wendy Loncaster, Fred Elwell R.A.: A Life in Art (Beverley: Highgate Publications, 1993), 118.↩︎

  7. For example, it has recently been used to illustrate a blog post addressing the question of whether an institution like the Academy can ever be truly radical given its history, see Ben Luke, “Summer Exhibition 2014: Turning the Tables”, Royal Academy, 2 June 2014, See also Giles Auty, “The Edwardians and After”, The Spectator, 4 August 1990, 37,↩︎

  8. Unfortunately, Elwell left very little in the way of public statements regarding his opinions on art. However, he was a skilled artist working in a traditional genre and his friends at the Academy were artists with a similar outlook, including Alfred Munnings, Reginald Brundrit, and S.J. Lamorna Birch (who features in the portrait).↩︎

  9. This is also noted in Stevens (ed.), Edwardians and After and by Graham-Dixon, “Strictly Members Only”. It is notable that even the paintings on the walls are reduced to their frames and reflective glazing, while all detail and pictorial interest focuses on the Academicians and their tableware. The detailed and eerily still painting has similarities with numerous other works by Elwell from this period, for example, The Squire.↩︎

  10. Graham-Dixon, “Strictly Members Only”.↩︎

  11. A tradition of depicting the Selection Committee developed from the 1870s onwards in paint, prints, drawings, and later in photographs. See, for example, C.W. Cope, The Council of the Royal Academy Selecting Pictures for the Exhibition 1875, 1876, oil on canvas; after Charles Paul Renouard, The Selection Committee at Work, wood-engraved illustration for The Graphic, 7 May 1887; Reginald Cleaver, Selecting Committee, Royal Academy; ca. 1892, pen and ink on paper; Selection Committee, 1933, photograph, and numerous others from the 1920s onwards; Alfred Thomson, The Selection Committee, 1955, oil on canvas; and Ken Howard, The Royal Academy Selection Committee, 1985, pen and ink on paper.↩︎

  12. Quoted in O’Keeffe, Some Kind of Genius, 380–381. Similar sentiments surfaced in many papers, The Guardian described Wyndham Lewis as “a fine portraitist” (21 April 1938, 10), and The Times commented that the Academy had made “a blunder” in this case, “Portrait Rejected by RA”, The Times, 26 April 1938, 13.↩︎

  13. From The Daily Telegraph, 23 April 1938, quoted in O’Keeffe, Some Kind of Genius, 381. Numerous individual artists, including Alfred Munnings, William Nicholson, and Lewis himself, joined the debate on both sides and the letters pages of The Times were dotted with their correspondence in April and May 1938. There have been persistent rumours that the Academy Committee had taken exception to the portrait because they considered some of the shapes on either side of the poet to be phallic symbols. However, there is no evidence to support this, see the correspondence from Paul Edwards, “Letters”, London Review of Books, 9 October 2008,↩︎

  14. The Academy Banquet of 1938 was a display of the institution’s establishment status, as was usual at this time. Although there was no royal guest of honour that year, guests dined under a large portrait of the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and a message from the king was read out. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, attended in lieu of a royal guest and gave a speech. The President of the Academy, Sir William Llewellyn, also raised toasts and there were responses from Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet, and Lord Heward, the Lord Chief Justice. A further speech was given by Winston Churchill, at that time a Conservative backbench MP and an amateur painter.↩︎

  15. A detailed account of the speeches appeared in “Variety in Art”, The Times, 2 May 1938, 10. They were also broadcast on the BBC, a recorded excerpt from Churchill’s speech can be found here: Further information on the Banquet and speeches can be found in O’Keeffe, Some Kind of Genius, 384–386. The light-hearted tone adopted by both Chamberlain and Churchill only partially masks some serious differences of opinion, the Banquet taking place only weeks after Hitler’s Austrian “Anschluss”. Opposing elements in art and culture were dramatically in evidence at this time, the Nazi’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition taking place in Munich in 1937, and the “International Surrealist Exhibition” taking place in Paris from January–February 1938 and in London from June–July the same year.↩︎

  16. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 29 April 1939, 15. The critic of the Express jokingly commended Elwell on his “cheek” in depicting the Committee “not judging but looking pleasantly mellow after lunch. The port is on the table, the brandy too”, see The Daily Express, 27 April 1939, 6.↩︎

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Explore the 1938 catalogue