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1959 Changing Times

Through the 1950s, British artists earned increasing recognition on an international stage; the Royal Academy’s 1959 Summer Exhibition was generally seen by critics globally as being old school, making the Academy appear tired. Work by Academicians and their Associates, largely only seen at the Academy, lacked genuine imagination—a legacy of Sir Alfred J. Munnings, the Academy’s seventeenth President (1944–1956), who had died that July. World famous for his equestrian paintings, Munnings believed in painting what he saw. A trenchant and outspoken critic of the “moderns”, he disapproved of Matisse, dismissed exponents of “this modern art” as “daubers who cannot paint a tree to look like a tree”, and termed “modern” sculpture as “monstrous stuff”.1 

Under Sir Charles Wheeler (the first sculptor to hold the Presidency, from 11 December 1956), the Academy attempted to bridge the gulf between “traditional” and “modern” art by displaying examples of both in the Summer Exhibition. Where “moderns” were usually segregated in Room VIII or grouped together in what some referred to as the “kitchen sink” or “horror” galleries, they now hung throughout the Exhibition. “We are trying to get the best value out of each picture by showing them in contrast,” Wheeler said.2 The mix enlivened the Exhibition but also highlighted the obvious weaknesses in both the older-fashioned and the modernist-looking exhibits.

The painter John Bratby, aged thirty, was the most prominent of the group of “New Realists”. Having shared the British Guggenheim Award with Ben Nicholson in 1958, Bratby was a star attraction at his sixth appearance in the Academy’s Summer Exhibition.3 Bratby’s canvas, a group portrait of artists (including Helen Lessore, Carel Weight and Ruskin Spear), 6x12 feet large, with bold brushwork and paint applied directly from the tubes, in places nearly an inch thick, signalled changed times (Fig. 1).4

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Wheeler’s presidency began soon after the Tate exhibited American Abstract Expressionist works that reflected artistic shifts then occurring, when the influence of French art was beginning to wane and American culture was ascendant.5 Wheeler was open to the Academy showing works of all persuasions; he declared when opening the 1959 show, “We must ‘live’ together in tolerance in the split world of art.”6 However, The Manchester Guardian’s critic, Eric Newton, lamented how figurative work dominated the show: “Abstract art is hardly visible”.7 Acceptable were landscapes by Victor Pasmore and Edward Bawden—both Chantrey purchases.8 Yet the Pasmore was shown by virtue of being a Chantrey purchase, not because it passed the normal selection process, and was then more than ten years old. The absence of work by Ben Nicholson, Britain’s leading abstract painter since the 1930s, or by Ivon Hitchens, emphasised the Academy’s need to attract talent more widely.9

At the Academy’s Annual Dinner, Wheeler recalled that 1959 marked 400 years since Michelangelo’s death—Michelangelo was his yardstick. Essentially, he favoured figuration by which he measured contemporary art. To his eye, contemporary works lacked consummate skill: “works which, compared with those of Michelangelo, seem like the doodling of idiots and the inconsequential scribbles and splashes of fractious children.”10

Rather than Bratby’s canvas, or Strawberry Mousse painted by Ruskin Spear (Fig. 2), in which a woman gobbles the sweet, Wheeler would undoubtedly have preferred the academicism seen among several paintings that depicted the young queen. She is the centrepiece to A.R. Thomson’s Commemorative Dinner of the Royal Air Force, Bentley Priory, 1st April, 1958, a 60x78 inch canvas occupying the prime position in Gallery III. The queen sits under a large framed portrait of herself on the wall behind her, with other members of the royal family beside her at the table of honour. If Thomson’s painting was admired because every one of the sixty-four people in it, from the queen to the waiters, gave him a sitting, The Observer dismissed it for resembling “an American whiskey advertisement”.11 It dismissed Bratby’s canvas too, as “dead life” akin to “the insides of something pickled in a bottle”.12

Critics stressed the dearth of quality shown. The Daily Telegraph’s critic Terence Mullaly declared the sculpture was banal.13 The Birmingham Post critic Professor Thomas Bodkin lamented the show’s negligent representation of architecture.14 Exhibits were considered static and provincial, “of no interest to anybody but ourselves” wrote Sir Hugh Casson; and like them, the show itself mirrored a very traditional society.15 Eric Newton, writing in The Christian Science Monitor, stated that the Summer Exhibition “moves, in fact, with the times but always at a decent interval behind the times”.16 Alfred Thomson’s set piece ignored innovations made in the 1950s. For example, Cecil Beaton, Bill Brandt, and Francis Bacon were among artists beyond the Academy, who began blurring the boundaries between photography and fine art.17 Portraits predominated when Nikolaus Pevsner in 1955 saw landscape as a fundamental feature of English art in his celebrated BBC Reith Lectures.18 John Russell thought the show was only saved by a “dexterous hang”.19 Women viewers’ hats livened the Royal Academy’s dull art exhibit, pronounced The Boston Globe.20 The Academy appeared to be of waning artistic influence, its prestige attributed to depending “partly on its strange connection with the social life of London.”21 Critics called for making the show much more selective and smaller.

It was the year’s most crowded and popular art show in London. As many as 117,755 visitors flocked to it. Within three weeks of opening, up to 385 works had sold for £32,644 18s. 6d., a higher figure than in any previous Summer Exhibition.22 This demonstrated the show’s “phenomenal potentialities as a salesroom”.23 Eric Newton praised the Academy for “earning the public’s gratitude by exhibiting a great deal of work that cannot easily be seen elsewhere.”24 Therein lies the importance of the Academy’s Summer Exhibition, he wrote. “It is, in fact, one of the most remarkable examples of the British genius for compromise—a compromise, in this case, between creative energy and social respectability.”25

  1. “Death of former R.A. President”, The Irish Times, 18 July 1959, 5. Also Robert Wraight (Comp.), Hip! Hip! Hip! R.A., An Unofficial Book for the Royal Academy’s Bicentenary (London: Leslie Frewin, 1968), 199. Munnings had exhibited in every Summer Exhibition from 1905 (except in 1941).↩︎

  2. The Daily Telegraph Reporter, “Domination of ‘Moderns’ at Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 1 May 1959, l.↩︎

  3. Having first displayed at the Academy in its 1954 Summer Exhibition, John Bratby became ARA Elect in 1959.↩︎

  4. Bratby’s canvas was the centrepiece in the coveted Gallery III. Two landscapes by Bratby, of Elm Park Gardens, were also hung in the show. For a report of viewer’s reactions to his exhibits, see The Daily Telegraph Reporter, “Thousands at Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1959, 12.↩︎

  5. In the exhibition Modern Art in the United States: Rene d’Harnoncourt, “Introduction”,  Modern Art in the United States: Painting, Sculpture and Prints. A Selection from the Collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. An Exhibition organised by the Tate Gallery and the Arts Council, at the Tate Gallery, 5 January to 12 February 1956 (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1956).↩︎

  6. Sir Charles Wheeler, High Relief: The Autobiography of Sir Charles Wheeler, Sculptor (Feltham: Country Life Books, 1968), 74; Stuart Preston, “The Numerous Faces of Contemporary Art”, The New York Times, 10 May 1959, 13.↩︎

  7. Eric Newton, “Portraits, Jokes, and Big Machines, Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Manchester Guardian, 1 May 1959, 7.↩︎

  8. The Quiet River: The Thames at Chiswick by Victor Pasmore; this was only the third occasion that Pasmore had hung at the Summer Exhibition, exhibiting one work each in 1929 and 1940; Caradon by Edward Bawden. Four works exhibited in 1959 by Bawden also included Derelict Mine and Cottages at Minions. Unlike Pasmore, Bawden was a regular exhibitor at the Summer Exhibition since his election as ARA in 1947.↩︎

  9. Hitchens only appeared once in the Summer Exhibition, with Coronation (1937) in 1965; as did Nicholson, with Le Quotidien (1932). Both works were Chantrey purchases.↩︎

  10. “Sir Charles Wheeler Attacks ‘Racket’ of Art Dealing”, The Times, 30 April 1964, 11. Wraight, Hip! Hip! Hip! R.A., 199.↩︎

  11. Nevile Wallis, “Savouries and Sweets”, The Observer, 3 May 1959, 18. It was one of six works, that A.R. Thomson exhibited in 1959. To The Illustrated London News, Thomson’s picture was one of the most undeniably skilful for its accurate portrait-studies: “III—At the 1959 Royal Academy: Ceremonies and Other Studies”,The Illustrated London News, 2 May 1959, 747.↩︎

  12. Nevile Wallis, “Savouries and Sweets”, The Observer, 3 May 1959, 18.↩︎

  13. Terence Mullaly, “Familiar Stalwarts in Dull Collection”, The Daily Telegraph, 1 May 1959, 19. The poor showing of sculpture was read as being symptomatic of the Academy’s failure to attract sculptors of consequence: Nevile Wallis, “Royal Academy Summer Exhibition”, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 107, no. 5035 (1 June 1959): 507.↩︎

  14. Thomas Bodkin, The Birmingham Post, 1 June 1959, in Royal Academy Summer Exhibition clippings file, Royal Academy Archives.↩︎

  15. Sir Hugh Casson, “Our Royal Academy”, The Observer, 16 August 1959, 10.↩︎

  16. Eric Newton, “Artistic Compromises at Royal Academy: Retains Prestige”, The Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 1959, 6.↩︎

  17. Francis Bacon took photographs as a starting point for many of his paintings, like the series of popes, begun in 1951, inspired by photographs of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X.↩︎

  18. Nikolaus Pevsner, The Englishness of English Art: An Expanded and Annotated Version of the Reith Lectures Broadcast in October and November 1955 (London: Architectural Press, 1956).↩︎

  19. John Russell, “The Summer Academy: Good-Bye to a Tradition”, The Sunday Times, 3 May 1959, 26.↩︎

  20. “Royal Academy’s Dull Art Exhibit Livened by Women Viewers’ Hats”, The Boston Globe, 2 May 1959, 2.↩︎

  21. Eric Newton, “Artistic Compromises at Royal Academy: Retains Prestige”, The Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 1959, 6. On the Academy as no longer being the centre of London’s art life, see Wraight, Hip! Hip! Hip! R.A., 11.↩︎

  22. “Record Sales at R.A. Exhibition”, The Manchester Guardian, 23 May 1959, 2.↩︎

  23. Eric Newton, “Artistic Compromises at Royal Academy: Retains Prestige”, The Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 1959, 6.↩︎

  24. Eric Newton, “Artistic Compromises at Royal Academy: Retains Prestige”, The Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 1959, 6.↩︎

  25. Eric Newton, “Artistic Compromises at Royal Academy: Retains Prestige”, The Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 1959, 6.↩︎

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Explore the 1959 catalogue