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

1946 The First Academy Since the War

In July 1946, after the end of the Second World War, bread was controversially rationed in Britain. Privations were felt up and down the country as the rationing of household basics continued into peacetime. However, in certain sections of society, there was money to be spent and the Royal Academy was one, perhaps somewhat surprising, beneficiary of the post-war flush of finances felt by some. It was a bumper year for visitors to the Summer Exhibition. A recorded 197,457 people visited and the total of sales came to £22,986 1s. The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury noted that while most purchasers were private buyers “a number of Provincial galleries, among them the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, and the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, are represented in the sales list.” Sheffield bought all watercolours.1 In the 1940s, a time before the glut of contemporary art fairs and with a still relatively small network of dealers specialising in contemporary art, the Summer Exhibition was an important event in the calendars of collectors and curators from across Great Britain and further afield. As was reported in The Yorkshire Post, curators from the industrial towns of the North of England headed down to London in the first week of the Summer Exhibition to snap up the bargains and swell their already significant collections.

Explore the 1946 catalogue

This atmosphere of post-war buoyancy and optimism was also noted by The Times with reference to the number of exhibits submitted. “In the first Academy since the war,” the reporter observed, “… enough artists’ materials have been got together for the production of very nearly 1,300 exhibits.”2 The statistical data for the 1946 display attests to this upturn in fortunes. A total of 10,119 works had been sent in for the Selection Committee to pass judgement on, as opposed to 9,639 in 1945. What is perhaps more significant, however, is the substantial increase in non-members, that is, artists who had not been elected to the post of Royal Academician or Associate Royal Academician, who submitted works. In 1946, 979 “non-members” did so, whereas only 654 had in 1945, suggesting that with the end of the war, more of the population were engaged anew with making art, or resumed their careers as artists.

By all accounts in the press, the Exhibition and exhibits looked to the future. “War pictures, it may be noted, have largely disappeared,” reported The Times.3 However, there were significant exceptions to this and exhibits that spoke powerfully of the contexts and consequences of war. One of the most discussed exhibits was Laura Knight’s The Nuremberg Trial (Fig. 1). A large painting, described by Knight to the War Artists Advisory Committee as “one big important picture”, it blended a depiction of Knight’s first-hand observation of the trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg into a backdrop of the burnt-out ruins of the German city, which had been largely destroyed by Allied bombing campaigns. In her autobiography, Knight described her palpable shock at her “first view of the horror of total destruction.”4 Sitting in the press box as an official war correspondent, Knight peered down on the war criminals at their trial, the legal teams, and the American white-helmeted military police—commonly referred to as “snowdrops”—standing guard over this sombre scene. Mostly, Knight kept the window of her broadcasting box closed and did not wear the headphones to listen into the translation of the trial below her. She closed out the audible happenings of the courtroom, writing that: “often its horror is beyond bearing—I shut it out to concentrate on my composition.”5

On arriving back from Nuremberg in 1946, Knight went almost straight to work for the Academy. She just had two days at home, barely enough time she wrote “to resume a normal attitude of mind”, before she had to serve on the Hanging Committee of the Summer Exhibition.6 Knight wrote frankly about the experience of Academy Committee work in The Magic of a Line: “Male or female, you get little pity for acting on the Selection or Hanging Committee,” alluding to the fierce politics of display that has (and continues) to surround the position in which an artists’ work is displayed at the annual Exhibition.7 She does not mention the process of being involved in hanging her own work. Numerous group portraits had filled the walls of the Summer Exhibition, but this was a portrait of some of the most reviled men in the world, crammed together in a German courtroom. Knight’s portrait received mixed reviews. Perhaps the art world and the exhibition-going public of 1946 did not want to be reminded of the horrors of war crime trials and bombed-out cities.

One group of artists certainly had their eyes on the future. The Daily Mail reported a protest on 23 May which was staged by what was described as “members of the ultra-modern school of artists”, who launched a “demonstration in the crowded gallery in which Dame Laura Knight’s picture of the Nuremberg trials is the outstanding attraction.” Lasting only a few minutes, a young man addressed the crowd: “Don’t waste your time looking at this exhibition of decadent art. This is all second-hand stuff. Come and see our art.”8 This was followed with a cartoon in the paper, published on the following day, satirising the event, but where this exhibition was or who these artists were the article does not say (Fig. 2).9 The group were apparently hustled out of the Academy and the Summer Exhibition went on.

  1. “Royal Academy Success”, The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 22 July 1946, 2.↩︎

  2. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 4 May 1946, 5. The Annual Report lists 1,298 works as being submitted.↩︎

  3. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 4 May 1946, 5.↩︎

  4. Laura Knight, The Magic of a Line: The Autobiography of Laura Knight (London: William Kimber, 1965), 285.↩︎

  5. Knight, The Magic of a Line, 291.↩︎

  6. Knight, The Magic of a Line, 303.↩︎

  7. Knight, The Magic of a Line, 305.↩︎

  8. “‘Scene’ at the Academy”, The Daily Mail, 23 May 1946, 3.↩︎

  9. The Daily Mail, 24 May 1946, 3.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1946 catalogue