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1967 A New Broom?

Explore the 1967 catalogue

The Summer Exhibition of 1967, the 199th, was marked by two significant and not altogether unconnected developments: it was the first overseen by Thomas Monnington, as President; and it was the first to invite women—including, astonishing as it may now seem, its own female Academicians and Associates—to attend the traditional inaugural Dinner. So for the first time, the great ladies of British Arts and Sciences, among them Dames Laura Knight, Ethel Walker, Ninette de Valois, Barbara Hepworth, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Rebecca West, came together with the great and good of Public Life to hear Lady Violet Bonham Carter (properly Lady Asquith), propose the toast to the Royal Academy.

It was a somewhat inauspicious beginning. The Evening Standard reported that,

Mr Thomas Monnington, making his first speech, got off to a shaky start by saying how pleased he was to see the Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Harold Mac …, then corrected himself just in time to say Harold MacWilson.1

Nevertheless, what followed, the paper did admit, was “an eminently reasonable speech” and, in the event, a more than reasonable Presidency. For, in the changes that he would set in train, gradual though they had to be, he would prove as constructively influential as any of the Academy’s presidents of modern times. Future presidents would build on what he began, yet to undemonstrative Tom Monnington, an artist nowadays rather in the shadow of his wife, Winifred Knights’ resurgent reputation, such credit is seldom if ever given.

And 1967 was too soon in any case. Hardly giving him time to sit down, the critics lined up to deliver their ritual abuse, much of it personal. Terence Mullaly, for The Daily Telegraph, usually so supportive, issued a warning to his readers.

For the first time the [new] president is exhibiting an abstract … The progressive-minded need not rush along to Burlington House … The President is indeed a charming man but his work is an embarrassment. I can only recommend it to a linoleum manufacturer.2 (Fig. 1)

Robert Wraight, for the Evening News, was even more brutal. The new President:

has a reputation as a “modern” and shows two paintings. One of these, Square Design, is a pleasing tartan pattern suitable for a woman’s skirt material. The other, Design on a Diagonal of a Square is a trite pastiche of the sort of thing Piet Mondrian was doing forty years ago.3

Things hardly improved as the pack moved on from the particular to the general. “The hopeless fight to integrate the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ works has been given up,” said Wraight.4

Apartheid has won the day, and most abstracts and other paintings that your Aunt Ethel cannot understand are confined to two rooms … Art being what it is today, it stands to reason that three-quarters of the 1400-odd exhibits in this show are not worth your attention.5

William Roberts, Jean Cooke, Ruskin Spear, Frederick Gore, and Edward le Bas were among the few to win his grudging approval.

A few brief paragraphs were more than enough for Norbert Lynton of The Guardian.

Last year I berated the Academy for failing to maintain the traditional standards it claimed to represent … This year things are worse: mediocrity’s hold is now almost total … Titles are especially important where the portraits are concerned: you might miss someone you know. 6

Ian Dunlop, for the Evening Standard, wrote with a somewhat more studied condescension.

 There was some hope, if only a forlorn one, that this year’s summer exhibition would see a change for the better … The proportion of outright bad paintings to the merely insipid has considerable diminished. The hanging is clearer … The chances of finding something original in such company are slim to say the least. But there is always something to catch the eye.7

And he goes on to mention, among others, Ruskin Spear’s pub scenes and landscapes by Elizabeth Blackadder. So far, not quite so bad—but it doesn’t last. As at a horticultural event, “works are chosen like vegetables, for their appearance rather than their taste because they seem to conform to a heavenly archetype.” Perhaps the selection should be farmed out, he wonders. “Could [the Academicians] not persuade, even beg, all those British artists who at present would not dream of exhibiting to lend their work?”8

For the anonymous critic of The Illustrated London News,

one trouble with the summer show is that it lives up to an ideal rather different from its popular reputation. Almost all the best work is contributed by the Academicians themselves … Popularly the Academy is looked upon as an institution offering unparalleled opportunities to amateurs to show and sell.9

Edwin Mullins, in The Sunday Telegraph, was damning.

This year, as in former years, [the] modern rooms are a pathetic pastiche. Second-rate “mod” is far more dreary than second-rate “trad”. One cannot help wondering on what conceivable principles the Hanging Committee selects its so-called “modern” works anyway … With Royal Academicians like this, how can they ever win a battle for modernity, or gain the support of young talent which they sorely need. [They stand] for official Art, catering for official taste, and so long as they remain in authority the summer exhibition will remain an official nonentity.10

Edward Lucie-Smith, in The Sunday Times, while no less dismissive, was a shade more positive.

The Academy is now far more tolerant and eclectic than the commercial galleries which house the avant-garde. Unfortunately it is an eclecticism without standards … This venerable institution must reform itself … vested interests must be pruned, elderly vanities must be disregarded, important toes must be trodden upon … Such a process … would bring the Academy back [into] the very mainstream of Art. But it is easier said than done.11

Even in black and white, the evidence of the Illustrated Catalogue suggests that such general formulaic obloquy was a shade overdone, and the general Catalogue is full of the names of artists who interest us still. Some have already been given, so here are some more: William Gear, John Tunnard, Diana Armfield, Maurice de Saumarez, Robin Philipson, John Nash, John Ward, Peter Coker, Euan Uglow, Patrick George, Edward Bawden, Roy de Maistre, Peter Greenham (Fig. 2), William Gillies, Vivian Pitchforth, James Fitton, Carel Weight, Robert Buhler, Sonia Lawson, Roger de Grey, Richard Eurich, Leonard Rosoman, Claude Rogers—one could go on for ever.

Though these artists may not flicker brightly across the radar of our Art World Arbiters nowadays, their reputations remain encouragingly alive in the real world. The eternal problem is only the question the critics and curators always and only ask: “is it ‘modern’, ‘original’, challenging or au courant?”; never: “is it good, and true to itself?”

  1. News report, Evening Standard, 27 April 1967.↩︎

  2. Terence Mullaly, The Daily Telegraph, 28 April 1967.↩︎

  3. Robert Wraight, Evening News, 28 April 1967.↩︎

  4. Robert Wraight, Evening News, 28 April 1967.↩︎

  5. Robert Wraight, Evening News, 28 April 1967.↩︎

  6. Norbert Lynton, The Guardian, 28 April 1967.↩︎

  7. Ian Dunlop, Evening Standard, 28 April 1967.↩︎

  8. Ian Dunlop, Evening Standard, 28 April 1967.↩︎

  9. The Illustrated London News, 29 April 1967, 34.↩︎

  10. Edwin Mullins, The Sunday Telegraph, 30 April 1967.↩︎

  11. Edward Lucie-Smith, The Sunday Times, 30 April 1967.↩︎

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Explore the 1967 catalogue