1965 A Bit of Old London
A British Pathé film of the 197th Summer Exhibition opens with a close-up shot of a front door, “No. 31” (Fig. 1). “No Bottles. No Canvassers” the plaque attached to it declares. The door remains closed but we are invited to look through the window as the camera pans to the right taking in a cornucopia of objects on display. This is Peter Blake’s The Toy Shop (1962)( Fig. 2), described by the voice-over on the film, in clipped RP tones, as “one of the 700 oils” in that year’s exhibition, although such a description hardly does justice to this mixed media structure made from wood, glass, paper, plastic, fabric, and other materials. The Toy Shop is a curiosity shop of Peter Blake’s interests and visual worlds, made as both an art work and a way to store his treasure trove of paraphernalia: miniature paint brushes and palettes; model airplanes; a jigsaw puzzle of a dog; a cut-out illustration of Elvis Presley, pocket-sized toys, masks, badges, all vie for the viewer’s attention.
Like a real shop window, the display was a changing one, added to and rearranged by Blake between 1962, when the piece was first made, and 1970. The black and white film belies its bright, primary colours. The windows are painted a bright blue, bordered by red and yellow. The Toy Shop must have called out from the white walls of the Royal Academy. The racing green door, like the windows, was salvaged by Blake from a demolition site in Chiswick, West London. Hanging next to it is a real Union Jack flag. “It looks like a bit of old London, this toy shop,” declares the voice-over, highlighting Blake’s fascination with Victoriana and British Pop art’s strange fusion of objects symbolic of a bygone era with those that referenced contemporary fashions. Victoriana and Americana sit side-by-side in this window. Its crowded shopfront display of everyday objects offers an alternative to the similarly crowded, cheek-by-jowl arrangement of the walls of the Academy Exhibition, which that year was the largest since 1940 with 1,613 works shown in total. The Toy Shop might be understood within this context as a purposefully playful intervention, or even riposte, to the Academy—a kind of low-brow salon hang.1
The aesthetic frictions sparked by the proximity of works of a very different style and technical approach was by this point in the twentieth century a hallmark of the Summer Exhibition. This kind of contrast is highlighted by the film. Straight after Blake’s The Toy Shop, we are shown Cosmo Clark’s Vigil by the Marines, described as “an impressive study of the lying in-state of the late Sir Winston Churchill.” Close by were five of Churchill’s own paintings, some submitted to previous Summer Exhibitions, both before and after Churchill was made an Honorary Academician Extraordinary in 1948, becoming a rather high-profile poster boy for the talented amateur painter and stalwart supporter of the Academy.
The appearance of Blake’s The Toy Shop in the 1965 Summer Exhibition suggests that modernising forces were already reshaping the Academy in the 1960s. There was certainly a different feel to that year’s show created not only by works such as Blake’s The Toy Shop and the large abstract canvases that surrounded it, but also by the visitors. The 1965 Summer Exhibition looked different not just because of the art on the walls. “Beatniks and Dowagers Crowd the Academy” ran the title of an article in The Daily Telegraph.
Long-haired beatniks in jeans jostle with dowagers in diamonds … the modern art groups sitting on the window sills and munching their sandwiches, the young men as long-haired as the girls. Their private view day outfits: trousers, scruffy duffles and crepe-soled “sneakers”.2
It is not too fanciful to imagine this fashionable scruffy, arty crowd in their American-inspired outfits of jeans and “sneakers” being drawn to the Academy that year to see works such as Blake’s The Toy Shop, to see what was new.
The long-haired Beatniks arriving to see if change was really afoot in Burlington House might have noticed the updates to some of the galleries. Led by Thomas Monnington, £1,000 had been spent on “refurbishing four galleries with white wall coverings and velariums—low gauze ceilings that soften the light.”3 There were even reports that the Academy was trying to court cool by allowing smoking in the galleries. “At a time when cinemas are considering a ban on smoking, thoughts at Burlington House are flowing in the opposite direction.”4 These moves to make the Exhibition into something akin to an entertainment venue were part of the “fresh impact” that Monnington, as the senior member of that year’s Hanging Committee, was hoping to make.5 The Academy knew it had to change as a matter not simply of style, but of survival. It was in dire financial circumstances and attendance figures were declining (revenue was raised then solely from ticket and catalogue sales). It also had stiff competition from a growing and increasingly international London art world. The Sunday Telegraph pinned the problem on the proliferation of art exhibitions in post-war London, which had a direct impact on the Academy’s popularity and influence.6
The appearance of works such as The Toy Shop and the influx of new visitors in 1965 indicated that change was in the air, but some things still stayed the same. The Sunday Telegraph photographed twins Alice and Maisie Glenny in front of The Toy Shop. Always dressed identically, the twins, described as “perennial visitors” became part of Summer Exhibition lore in the mid-century and favourites of the British press for their quirky style and soundbites about the Exhibition. The Academy’s Summer Exhibition might have updated itself in some ways, but essentially it remained a “bit of old London”, very much part of the rituals of the season of events embedded into British social and cultural life.
The Toy Shop has also inspired virtual worlds and displays of an altogether different kind. Tate have created a Minecraft version for visitors to play with digitally: http://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/tate-worlds-art-reimagined-minecraft/games/toy-shop.↩︎
“Beatniks and Dowagers Crowd Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 1 May 1965, 11.↩︎
“Smoke Without Fire”, The Sunday Telegraph, 14 March 1965, 3.↩︎
“Smoke Without Fire”, 3.↩︎
“Smoke Without Fire”, 3.↩︎
“R.A. Goes Off at Half-Pop”, The Sunday Telegraph, 2 May 1965, 15.↩︎
Thematic categories: Academy reform, adjacent positioning of paintings, British Pop art, Burlington House, funding of Exhibition, independent exhibitions, modernisation of Summer Exhibition, Pop Art, postmodernism, Private Views, refurbishment of premises, Selection and Hanging Committee, visitors to exhibitions