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1962 "Have We Not Done Right?"

The Winter Exhibition, which preceded the 194th Summer Exhibition, had endeavoured to show Londoners the strength of provincial (as they were then called) art galleries, drawing upon university as well as municipal collections. It was titled, somewhat abruptly, Primitives to Picasso. Myfanwy Piper was quick to point out in Harper’s Bazaar that the title was misleading:

There are three Picassos. Two modest figure drawings, the latest dated 1922 and one small, not very characteristic painting of 1901. They let Picasso into the Royal Academy’s Tiddler’s Ground for the very first time, but on this showing it is not worth waving a flag.1

The allusion to the game Tom Tiddler’s Ground nicely pointed up the Royal Academy’s dilemma: letting Picasso into the Academy’s territory might seem to acknowledge belatedly the importance of Continental Modernism, but it had been managed in such a way as to prevent any effective interference. A glance at The Royal Academy Illustrated 1962 makes immediately apparent how enfeebled and formulaic the dominant styles and subjects at the Summer Exhibition had become. The Academy’s regressive stance was the reason why many artists of note, among them Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, and John Piper, refused to have anything to do with the Academy. A John Piper watercolour of three Sussex church towers did, however, hang this year in the Summer Exhibition, but only because it was one of the pictures acquired under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest for the Tate Gallery.

Explore the 1962 catalogue

With its Summer Exhibition, the Academy had valiantly held on to a “Salon” tradition during a period when the public had lost interest in it. A decline in visitors was one of many factors troubling the Academy’s financial health at his time. An undeniably significant national institution, at the heart of the Establishment, it yet refused to request or receive any financial assistance from the state. Every year the Summer Exhibition is preceded in April by the annual Royal Academy Banquet, which announces the start of the London Season and forthcoming pleasures such as Henley, Ascot, and Wimbledon. At the 1962 banquet, at which the eighty-seven-year-old Winston Churchill was a long-standing guest, the President, Sir Charles Wheeler, focused his address on the painful decision to sell the Leonardo cartoon of the Virgin Mary seated on her mother St Anne’s lap, with the Christ Child and the young St John the Baptist nearby. This had, at one moment, been placed in the hands of an auction house but, at the Prime Minister’s request, it had been withdrawn in order to make possible a public appeal, under the auspices of the National Arts Collection Fund, in the hope that the cartoon could remain in England. Wheeler ended his speech:

I cannot hide from you the veiled figure of sadness which moves about our galleries this evening, who stands at my shoulder as I speak. But, we are independent still, and tell me, my Lords and Gentlemen, have we not done right?2

This melancholy, self-doubting mood did not assist the 194th Summer Exhibition. It opened on 5 May, after a flourish of reviews in the newspapers the day before. One Aunt Sally was Wheeler himself, for three bronze portraits by him of the Queen were on show, two half-length and another head and shoulders. This last had been chosen as one of the highlights of the show, which David Carritt, art critic of The Evening Standard, regretted. Tact, charm, and a suitable public manner, Carritt said, had helped Wheeler gain the presidency, but the fact that his artistic principles must have also earned respect explained why the Summer Exhibition was “such a dreadfully depressing affair”.3 The Times agreed, its byline announcing: “Fewer Pictures, but also Fewer Good Ones, at the Year’s Academy”,4 while The Daily Herald damned it with faint praise: “There are fewer distressingly bad paintings in this year’s Summer Exhibition.”5 It was also unfortunate that a Keith Vaughan retrospective, then showing at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, gave the press the opportunity to remind the public that two years before, after seeing the Academy Summer Exhibition, Vaughan had rejected the offer of an Associate Membership.

In 1962, there had been over 6,000 submissions and 1,221 exhibits had been chosen by a Selection Committee composed of fourteen men. Leonard Rosoman had brought a certain order to the Main Gallery, the hanging of which had been his responsibility. He filled one entire wall with a memorial display of paintings by Augustus John, who had died in the previous October. It included John’s mural-sized, unfinished painting, The Blue Lake, in which many figures from his family appear. Eric Newton neatly, if a little harshly, dismissed it as an “unsuccessful attempt by a romantic artist to construct a classic design”.6 Rosoman also included in this room the work of younger painters as well as some abstracts, but in other galleries, there was apparently scant stylistic logic to the hang. One painting that caught attention was Ruskin Spear’s portrait of the comedian Sid James (Fig. 1). His battered features were found framed within a television set, in front of a coffee table, its top flattened so as to display predictable litter: a painted ashtray sat alongside collaged items—real bits of a cigarette packet and a matchbox, an actual ban the bomb leaflet, and a coversheet from the Radio Times. All this contributed to the formal patterning of the whole, which cleverly translated viewers into an armchair audience.

What was missing from this Summer Exhibition was William Coldstream’s The Studio, painted in 1932, which John Rothenstein, then the Director of the Tate Gallery, had put forward for consideration as a Chantrey Purchase: “It would be an understatement to say that this picture would be welcomed by the Trustees, for they are extremely anxious that it should enter the collection.”7 It was still in the artist’s possession and priced at £900. It won Carel Weight’s approval, although he thought the price was “a bit steep”. Thomas Monnington also approved the painting but pointed out that the interest of this work made it more directly suitable for purchase by the Tate itself. This may have started the breach that resulted in the painting being declined.

More readily acceptable, as a Chantrey Purchase, was William Roberts’ The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915, painted in 1961–1962 (Fig. 2). Not only was Roberts then an ARA (he became RA in 1966) but interest in Vorticism had been revived in 1956 by the Tate exhibition Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism. Wyndham Lewis, who was ill at the time and died in the following year, had been interviewed and was quoted in the catalogue as saying that Vorticism was what he, personally, had done and said at a certain time. William Roberts, infuriated by this remark, and by the way all the other artists, aside from Lewis, had been dismissed into a section headed “Other Vorticists”, wrote a series of pamphlets attacking Lewis. It is possible that his portrait of the Vorticists was yet another bid to assert the group’s cohesion. It certainly acts as a powerful mnemonic, even if, rather distressingly, the two female members, Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders, are kept on the threshold, in the doorway, and find no place around the table. In time, this painting attained still greater resonance when Richard Cork’s scholarly monument, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, was published in two volumes, in 1976–1977.

  1. Myfanwy Piper, Harper’s Bazaar, March 1962.↩︎

  2. Typescript of the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Charles Wheeler’s speech for the Annual Banquet 1962. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/SEC/25/5/13. Women were not permitted to attend these banquets until 1967.↩︎

  3. David Carritt, The Evening Standard, 4 May 1962.↩︎

  4. The Times, 4 May 1962.↩︎

  5. The Daily Herald, 4 May 1962.↩︎

  6. The Guardian Miscellany, 4 May 1962.↩︎

  7. John Rothenstein to Humphrey Brooke, 18 May 1962, Royal Academy Archives, RAA/PC/14/16.↩︎

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Explore the 1962 catalogue