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1966 The Academy Swings

The year 1966 was a difficult one for the Royal Academy. As London reinvented itself as the coolest city on the planet, the Academy found itself caught between the conservative impulses of its advanced age (two years off a double-century) and the pressures to be fashionable imposed by much contemporary talk of the “Pop” era. A month before the Summer Exhibition’s May opening, the American Time magazine had published its famous “Swinging City” edition, its introductory editorial noting the physical and cultural changes which had swept through the capital over the course of a decade, approving of the demise of “dreary servings of watery mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts” in favour of “trattorias in Soho”. The picture its leading article and photo essay painted was of a city transformed by celebrity, fashion, food, and art. The party atmosphere was captured by reporting on a cocktail party at Robert Fraser’s Mayfair gallery, attended by socialite Jane Ormsby Gore in skin-tight black bell bottoms, ghost white make-up, and “tons of eyelashes” and starlet Sue Kingsford in a two-piece pink trouser suit revealing her naked waist. In Time’s view, London in the spring of 1966 was a “medley of chequered sunglasses and delightfully quaint pay phone boxes, a blend of ‘flash’ American, polished continental and robust old English influences that mixes and merges … The result is a sparkling slap-dash comedy.”1

Explore the 1966 catalogue

On 6 May, as the Summer Exhibition opened, the Academy stepped into this fevered scene like a maiden aunt attempting to do the twist at a teenage discotheque. The Daily Telegraph, in typical fashion, did its best to play up the resulting contrasts, in the manner of Time’s influential issue. Its social reporter, writing under the headline “Dolly Girls and Debutantes Visit Academy”, noted of the jostling first day crowds that:

long haired youths in jeans and baggy sweaters stood beside City men in pin stripes, starched white collars and carnation button holes. Girls in PVC jackets and mid thigh-length skirts admired pictures beside middle-aged women in extravagant hats. The Duchess of Bedford was there. Honor Blackman, the former TV “Avengers” girl looked in to admire the bronze bust of herself [by Richard Browne] (Fig. 1). Sir Charles Wheeler was continually chatting to visitors.2

Wheeler was the retiring President of the Academy and his position as a defender of traditional values in art and society in the face of modernity’s challenges clearly troubled him. Two nights previously at the Summer Exhibition Annual Dinner (attended only by male Academicians), he had courted controversy in a valedictory speech that despaired of contemporary trends. The Guardian was among several papers to pick up on his provocations, reporting his view that: “painters who are inspired by psychotics, anonymous wall-scribblers, lunatics, and criminals are acclaimed as geniuses. And we swallow it whole instead of spewing it out as clear-minded and honest people should.”3 By the time of the public opening, he had moderated his tone, a little. The Daily Telegraph reported his views verbatim:

There are examples of the extremes of art from the very traditional right through to the very modern … It is a remarkable tribute to the tolerance of the Academy that there is such variety. I think it is this which has brought the boys in jeans and long hair as well as the society people … I am not happy personally with some of the pictures but I have to be two people. In my studio I have my own standards. As president of a body such as this you represent some 80 other people and have to take their views. It tears me to bits sometimes—I feel quite schizophrenic.4

Wider press reaction to the content of the show picked up on this clash of values. The popular tabloids homed in on the photogenic and newsworthy, The Daily Mirror, The Sun, and The Daily Sketch choosing to feature the Honor Blackman bust and Gerard de Rose’s painting The Two Faces of Mick Jagger. Broadsheet critics were not so obliging. In The Guardian, Norbert Lynton aimed his ink at the shortcomings of the work of traditionalists including Wheeler, bemoaning the fact that his self-portrait “has all the dignity of a Hollywood promotion photograph.” The British-Guiana-born pop artist Frank Bowling’s Mirror, May ’64–March ‘65 is the only work to receive his approval, combining “passionately felt content with an equally passionate regard for the stringencies of pictorial design and craftsmanship.” For the rest, as Lynton bemoaned: “We have got used to thinking of these summer shows as an annual joke, but what a waste, what a waste!”5

Meanwhile, in The Sunday Times, Robert Hughes went straight to the nub of the problem in a call, whose irony may have been lost on many readers, for a return to reactionary mediocrity. Tapping in to the “swinging” theme, he spun his essay around the notion of the boutique, that new arrival on London’s shopping streets:

the noble caricatural simplicity of the Summer Show is lost. It once provided artists with the elementary symbol of reactionary power … Now instead it wishes to be “up to date”… The Academy wrongly imagined that it could pick up a new style for itself, like a hat in a boutique. Either you experience and live through a current situation or you don’t; and the Royal Academy can’t … [It] should go back to its old reactionary position. It would be less embarrassing for the really creative artists and much more comfortable for the Academicians themselves … Sir Charles Wheeler must bring back the geldings and stockbrokers and flowerpieces if he really wants to help those benighted Freudian modernists.6

In the end, the mixed messages of 1966 proved doubly damaging to the Academy. In August, at the end of the Summer Exhibition’s run, The Daily Telegraph reported that attendance figures were the lowest recorded in the history of the institution and 25 per cent below those of 1965. Of the 1,467 works exhibited, 677 were sold for £43,279 (a little down on the 719 works sold in the previous year); twenty-five of these went to public galleries and official bodies. Most of them were figurative and conventional, including works by Ruskin Spear, John and Jean Bratby, John Nash, John Aldridge, and Frederick Gore. Anthony Green’s Black Crucifix (Fig. 2) and Expulsion from Paradise, which had provoked some comment in the press, remained unsold, as did Bowling’s Mirror, May ’64–March ‘65 and de Rose’s Two Faces of Mick Jagger.7 As The Daily Mail lamented, “the 1966 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition … is not Op. It isn’t Pop. It’s Lollipop. It tries to be with it, but sugars the pill of truly audacious modernity with sweet evocations of the past.”8 Never mind. In the faded news clippings that are all that remain of the event, the debutantes and dolly girls who graced the galleries of Burlington House during that swinging year still look wonderful.

  1. Time, 15 April 1966, 11–41.↩︎

  2. “Dolly Girls and Debutantes Visit Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 7 May 1966.↩︎

  3. “Art World in ‘Freudian Fever’”, The Guardian, 5 May 1966.↩︎

  4. “Dolly Girls and Debutantes Visit Academy”, The Daily Telegraph.↩︎

  5. Norbert Lynton, “Grooves of Academe”, The Guardian, 11 May 1966.↩︎

  6. Robert Hughes, “Summer Boutique”, The Sunday Times, 15 May 1966, 28.↩︎

  7. “Academy Show Figures Lowest in History”, The Daily Telegraph, 15 August 1966.↩︎

  8. Pierre Jeannerat, “Not Op, not Pop, Just Lollipop”, The Daily Mail, 6 May 1966.↩︎

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Explore the 1966 catalogue