1948 "Blooming like a Flower in Such a Drab Setting"
The motto of the 1948 Summer Exhibition was a quote from the painter Walter Sickert (who had resigned as a Royal Academician in 1935): “I know that the future, with its infinite possibilities of variation, can only continue to rise gradually on the solid foundation of the past.” The past, both recent and distant, was to be seen everywhere at the 180th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. The artistic past, as Sickert’s quote served to emphasise, was its “solid foundation”. Visitors were met in the Courtyard by Alfred Drury’s bronze statue of the Academy’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, which had occupied its pedestal since 1931, and a sign announcing the Summer Exhibition festooned with flags. The courtyard gave off a very patriotic air. This inheritance of the past was further emphasised in the text of the Catalogue which stated that:
The members feel themselves bound together as inheritors of a great public trust handed down to them by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Wilson, Lawrence, Flaxman, Turner, Wilkie, Constable, Millais, Watts and other artists of high standing in the nation’s roll of fame. Responsible to no Government department, but only to the Royal Patron, they give the best of their experience and judgement to a great national service.1
This idea of art as “national service” had particular resonance at the time, with a National Service Act becoming an Act of Parliament in 1948 (following the creation of similar legislation in 1947), which extended British conscription into the Armed Services. Although the conflict of the Second World War had ceased, memories of it pervaded a number of exhibits in the 1948 Exhibition. The impact of the war on peacetime was also the subject of a number of paintings. Frederick Elwell’s Another Country House and Contents for Sale directly referenced the crumbling material wealth of the nation’s aristocracy, with many families forced to sell assets such as their country estates directly after the war. James Fitton’s London Landscape depicted a derelict shop in Brixton, South London (Fig. 1). Boarded up, like many of the capital’s bombsites and casualties of austerity, it had become an exhibition space of its own, displaying a visual cacophony of posters and bills, creating a salon hang of everyday advertisements. Fitton commented that the shop front “seemed to be blooming like a flower in such a drab setting”. After first seeing the scene, he went back the following morning about 6.30am and “using the roof of my car as an easel, I worked on it until the place became too busy.” But his last visit was “an anti-climax”: “all the bills were gone and had given place to the usual vulgarity of a chromium-plated shop front.”2 The distinctive look of post-war London was obviously changing. The Times noted, “several schemes of rehabilitation and reconstruction in the exhibition.” These included the new town centre of Hemel Hempstead represented by a “crowded” drawing by Mr G.A. Jellicoe and Giles Gilbert Scott’s “ingenious suggestion for the layout of buildings beside Liverpool Cathedral.”3 As well as cityscapes and scenes of post-war urban life, still life and flower studies dominate the Catalogue. Some are pretty escapism, others symbolic momento mori, or as in the case of Anne Redpath’s The Pink Table, experiments in composition and colour.
If the past was folded into the present in a number of ways in the 1948 Exhibition, some exhibits also spoke directly of the circumstances of that year directly. One such work was Rodrigo Moynihan’s engaging portrait of the then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (Fig. 2). Attlee was the leader of the first Labour majority government, winning a landslide election in 1945, which brought in momentous post-war reforms, most notably the introduction of the Welfare State. A Labour Party campaign poster is also visible in Fitton’s painting. Attlee’s portrait was painted for the Oxford and Cambridge University Club and was described by the art critic of The Times as “an interesting attempt to get away from the conventions of the official portrait.”4 Attlee is not represented with any trappings of power. Instead, he is seated behind a desk, rather hemmed in by a full letter rack. He looks ready to make an announcement, leaning forward with an alert expression.
The 12 per cent national swing from the Conservatives to Labour was unprecedented at that time. The Leader of the losing Conservative Party, Winston Churchill, was also present at the Exhibition. Not as a portrait, but in the form of his submission to the Summer Exhibition—a painting titled Blenheim Tapestries. A stalwart support of the Academy and a champion of the “amateur”, 1948 was a special year for Churchill, who was elected to the position of an “Honorary Academician Extraordinary”. The other Honorary for that year was the French artist André Dunoyer de Segonzac, who was elected to take the place of Pierre Bonnard. Churchill and Dunoyer de Segonzac were widely contrasted in the press as the unique combination of amateur and professional work, which was the special purview of the Summer Exhibition.
The Times declared the 1948 Exhibition “more catholic than ever”. As well as portraits and landscapes, their critic noted, “a collage in which newspapers have been stuck on to the picture, in the manner of the early cubists” (the italics in the original seem to denote shock at this art form entering Burlington House).5 For the artist and critic Wyndham Lewis, a famous foe of the Academy, there was only one picture worth seeing. “Having uttered my annual curse upon this unspeakable institution,” he vented, “let me acclaim in Gallery No. III (same show!) a portrait of surpassing excellence. I refer to A.R. Thomson’s portrait of Wenda Rogerson.”6 Even Lewis, who had famously fallen out with the Academy when it had rejected his portrait of T.S. Elliot in 1938, could find something he liked in the Summer Exhibition.
The Royal Academy Illustrated (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1948), n.p.↩︎
James Fitton’s remarks of 17 August 1948, quoted here: http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/image/327881/james-fitton-london-landscape-1948.↩︎
”Contrasts of Style and Quality at Burlington House”, The Times, 1 May 1948, 5.↩︎
“Contrasts of Style and Quality at Burlington House”, 5.↩︎
“Contrasts of Style and Quality at Burlington House”, 5.↩︎
Wyndham Lewis, “Augustus John and the Royal Academy”, The Listener, 13 May 1948, 794.↩︎
Thematic categories: art criticism - portraits, Burlington House, cityscapes, Courtyard of Burlington House (Annenberg Courtyard), critique of Exhibition - positive reviews, French artists, Honorary Academicians, new towns, political context of Exhibition, politicians, portraits, post-war influences, resignations, Second World War, statues, still life painting