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1964 What Makes a Good Picture?

“It’s very difficult to say what makes a good picture,” said David Wolfers, writing for The Field, “but I like poetry and originality in a painting; maybe that’s enough.” He favoured figurative painters, with a preferred taste for the academic. Those looking for more experimental work found an absence of striking examples in the Exhibition; even Wolfers thought that displaying fewer exhibits was “partly at the expense of some of the young painters who often provide life and contrast.” The Times considered that the artists represented mainly kept their eyes on objects before them, “without much leaning towards imaginative expression or radical departures in style and aim.”1 Generally, the Exhibition disappointed because works withdrew “rather more than has been usual in recent years into quietly objective paths.” It failed to catch the spirit of the moment (Fig. 1). As The Times saw it, “For the adventure and experiment which distinguish the work of many of the younger British painters and sculptors––including those trained in the Academy Schools––one must look elsewhere.”2

A portrait of the “Angry Young Man” of the day, painter John Bratby, a darling of the media, was among works claiming attention in Gallery II. The painter Jean E. Cooke, Mrs Bratby, regularly exhibited portraits of Bratby, including in the Summer Exhibitions of 1959, 1961, 1965, and 1966. John Bratby’s portrait hung among the customary symposium of portraits of Academicians by each other. They included Roger de Grey by Ruskin Spear; and Ruskin Spear, Esq. by Robert Buhler.

Explore the 1964 catalogue

More animated than Cooke’s reflective portrayal of Bratby was Ruskin Spear’s Dinah, is there Anyone Finer?. Turning away from the keys, a woman grins at unseen company while playing the popular song on a piano. Her patterned dress and white high heels amplify her gleeful mood. The London-based Indian poet Dom Moraes, writing for The Times of India, singled out Spear’s portrait of cricketer “Fiery Fred” Trueman (1931–2006) as being the one painting of any real interest in the Exhibition.3 The Tatler and Bystander agreed that Freddie Trueman was the picture that most attracted attention.4 In a rare example, Spear reminded viewers they were living in the atomic age with The Peace Ship.5 Demonstrators and their banners crowd on a ferry, as they did in spring 1961, when protesters took to small boats to prevent the stationing of Polaris submarines in Holy Loch (only thirty miles from Glasgow) as part of a national campaign for peace and nuclear disarmament.

Yet portraits continued to be popular with viewers. In Gallery IV hung The House of Lords, Session 1961–2 by A.R. Thomson (Fig. 2). The “group portrait of the year”, some admired its academic regard for realism with so many individual portraits (170 in all, painted into 6x9 feet). It was generally thought notable rather as a document than a picture. 6

Among work by younger artists on show in Gallery VIII, the Royal College of Art painter Eric J. Morby commanded notice. His After Wild Strawberries was rated as that gallery’s principal feature: “one of the few pictures in the exhibition which attempt to create a strange atmosphere”, noted The Times, which illustrated the painting.7 From David Oxtoby, a devout fan of rock music, training at the Royal Academy Schools (1960–1964), and about to first exhibit in New York, came a Pop portrait of legendary American musician Ray Charles—The Ray. Its youthful mocking tone appeared “rather disreputable” to The Guardian, among the rows of stone-faced portraits on the walls of the Academy’s galleries.8 

Overall, the year’s offerings disappointed. To Nigel Gosling, art critic for The Observer, the Exhibition struck an “innocent country” note.9 He lamented its displaying a good deal less “contemporary” work. “What damages the show as usual is the absurd leniency of the selectors. There are some disgraceful objects here,” he complained.10  

The Times thought it notable that an effort was successfully made to give sculpture a better showing: fewer examples (132 sculptures) were interspersed with the paintings rather than segregated in a separate gallery as before. Few architects submitted their work; an average of seventy entries a year came from a profession of 20,000 people.11 Yet the Architectural Room was “positively brimming over with matchbox-size universities, laboratories and libraries”, and was considered to be of greater interest than any previous displays there for a number of years.12 If dominated by drawings by Sir Basil Spence, the display in one of the main rooms of the “splendid” model for Spence’s British Embassy in Rome boosted Architecture’s identity with the Academy.13

Despite the criticism for “great expanses of dullness in the show”, when the Exhibition closed, the public had bought from it 632 works of art for a total of £44,681 10s.—the third highest sales results in Academy history.14

  1. Our Special Correspondent, “No New Trends but Quiet Merits in Royal Academy Summer Show”, The Times, 1 May 1964, 15.↩︎

  2. Our Special Correspondent, “No New Trends but Quiet Merits in Royal Academy Summer Show”, The Times, 1 May 1964, 15.↩︎

  3. Dom Moraes, “The Arts in London”, The Times of India, 19 May 1964, 8.↩︎

  4. Muriel Bowen, “Sir Charles Attacks”, The Tatler and Bystander, 13 May 1964, 252.↩︎

  5. A mass demonstration marched from London to Glasgow, protesting the installation of the US government’s nuclear-armed Polaris submarine fleet at Holy Loch, Scotland. The march sparked big union rallies and drew substantial crowds. At the submarine site, the demonstrators launched a small flotilla towards the fleet’s supply ship, while thousands of others gathered on the beach to obstruct passage by the sailors. Lawrence S. Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954–1970, Vol. 2: The Struggle Against the Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 188.↩︎

  6. Our Special Correspondent, “No New Trends but Quiet Merits in Royal Academy Summer Show”, The Times, 1 May 1964, 15.↩︎

  7. Our Special Correspondent, “No New Trends but Quiet Merits in Royal Academy Summer Show”, The Times, 1 May 1964, 15. One of two works first exhibited by Morby in the Summer Exhibition, from a total of five works that he exhibited at the Summer Exhibition up to 1970; he exhibited again in the Summer Exhibition in 1967 and 1969. Morby was a Summer Exhibition prizewinner in 1984: “Picture Gallery”, The Times, 12 May 1984, 8.↩︎

  8. Guy Brett, “The Academy”, The Guardian, 1 May 1964, 13. Two works by Oxtoby had previously been exhibited in the 1963 Summer Exhibition, and he subsequently only exhibited one work in the 1968 Summer Exhibition.↩︎

  9. Nigel Gosling, “Burlington Meadows”, The Observer, 3 May 1964, 24. Gosling (1909–1982) was art critic for The Observer from 1961–1975.↩︎

  10. Nigel Gosling, “Burlington Meadows”, The Observer, 3 May 1964, 24.↩︎

  11. Our Architectural Correspondent, “Buildings Yet to Be: Theatre for Notting Hill”, The Times, 5 May 1964, 16; “Architecture at the Academy”, The Spectator, 11 May 1962, 19.↩︎

  12. “Royal Academy Shows Changing Trend in Architecture”, The Financial Times, 1 May 1964, 10; “In England Now”, The Lancet, 9 May 1964, 1036.↩︎

  13. “The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition Supplement—3”, The Illustrated London News, 2 May 1964, 687ff. No architecture was illustrated in the illustrated Souvenir Catalogue accompanying the Exhibition.↩︎

  14. “Court Circular”, The Times, 17 August 1964, 10.↩︎

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Explore the 1964 catalogue