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1973 Breaking Down the 'Old Exclusiveness'

The year 1973 marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy. For the occasion, a small selection of works by Reynolds was installed in the General Assembly Room at the Academy, to coincide with the Summer Exhibition. Visitors therefore had the opportunity to compare the Reynolds’ portraiture with the “Contemporary Paintings, Engraving, Sculpture and Architecture” promised by the Summer Exhibition—the rather clunky subtitle was introduced this year. Naturally, the contrast was an inviting one for critics. One negative review of the Summer Exhibition was titled “A Show to Make Sir Joshua Turn in his Grave!”,1 although Philip Howard in The Times was more positive, noting that: “democracy and reality have broken down the old exclusiveness” associated with the Summer Exhibition.2

Explore the 1973 catalogue

How, then, were democracy and reality manifested? The works highlighted by Howard included John Bratby’s triptych The Royal Family, which, in the words of another journalist, was “undoubtedly this year’s most controversial showpiece” (Fig. 1).3 This large work, which included portraits of Bratby and his friends alongside the families of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret, notably lacked the deference with which the royal family was traditionally depicted. The work was controversial less for Bratby’s characteristically expressionist brushwork than for specific aspects such as the “black eye” on the face of the queen and the owls perched upon the heads of the queen and princess.4 The work had to be approved by the Selection Committee—unusual for a work by an Academician—and a photograph was sent to Buckingham Palace to give the queen the opportunity to reject it (she chose not to).

By this time, Bratby was well known for his willingness to provoke. He rose to prominence in the 1950s as a “Kitchen Sink” painter whose works brought the clutter of the ordinary post-war interior into the gallery, but became the first artist in the history of the Academy to refuse election as an Academician in 1969. Bratby opposed the increasing presence of abstract art at the Academy, although he continued to exhibit at the Summer Exhibition and eventually became a full Academician in 1973.5 Bratby deliberately courted controversy in his royal family pictures—a newspaper article published before the Exhibition opened reported Bratby’s “fears that they may be banned by the Royal Academy”. 6 When they finally did go on view, the critics were unimpressed by the work. A characteristic response was Richard Cork’s description of the triptych as “an atrocious piece of cooked-up nonsense”, which demonstrated Bratby’s “inexhaustible appetite for sensationalism at all costs”.7 The publicity did not work to Bratby’s advantage—even in a successful year for the Exhibition, the painting (priced at £5,000) went unsold and remained in the artist’s possession until he gifted it to the Art Gallery of Auckland, New Zealand, in 1985.8

When writing of “democracy and reality” in the Exhibition, Howard also drew attention to Demonstration outside Pentonville Prison by Dan Jones (son of Elwyn Jones, who became lord chancellor in the following year). The painting depicted the 1972 protest against the imprisonment of the “Pentonville Five”, a group of trade unionists who refused to attend the newly established National Industrial Relations Court following a picketing dispute. The protest outside the prison where the men had been taken, combined with the threat of a nationwide general strike, led to the release of the Pentonville Five several days later.

After he saw the painting at the Exhibition, Vic Feather, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) at the time, immediately reserved it.9 Feather was an enthusiastic art collector, who was photographed in the Academy with the painting in the background for a Daily Telegraph profile on his interest in art during the Exhibition. The painting now hangs outside the TUC’s General Council Chamber. Jones himself was closely involved with the TUC—a 1979 catalogue described him as working for the borough of Tower Hamlets as a youth worker and painting in his spare time, and stated that his work reflected the “industrial activity in which he is involved as secretary of Tower Hamlets Trades Council.”10 The presence of this work in the Summer Exhibition, and the interest it aroused, showed the turbulent politics of the 1970s making their presence felt within the galleries of the Academy.

Even the exhibition poster, designed by Anthony Green, proved controversial (Fig. 2). Green, who was elected as Associate in 1972, was one of the youngest Academicians, and has written that: “my association with the Academy started in the 1960s when it was very unfashionable”.11 Green provided the image used on the cover of the illustrated catalogue and the exhibition poster: a portrait of his wife, bare-breasted and holding a palette in a manner that Green has likened to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.12The reference is apt, as Green’s poster was censored by London Transport on the basis that it would encourage graffiti (any representations of breasts on the Underground at this time were similarly prohibited).13 In response, Green produced a cut-out “dress” with which the original image was clothed, and new posters were made for the Underground, although the original was shown on Overground stations and outside the Academy itself. The episode highlighted the inflexibility of London Transport policy, while the Academy, so often presented as a conservative organisation, supported the publication of Green’s work in its uncensored form.

  1. Richard Cork, “A Show to Make Sir Joshua Turn in his Grave!”, Evening Standard, 4 May 1973.↩︎

  2. Philip Howard, “Paint Feast to Make Critics Hum”, The Times, 4 May 1973.↩︎

  3. Jillian Robertson, “A Bratby Goes Into Store …”, Evening Standard, 30 August 1973.↩︎

  4. Richard Lay, “The Queen, with a Black Eye and an Owl on her Head, Shares an Art Show with Nude Hayley Mills”, The Daily Mail, 4 May 1977. The owl inspired a satirical cartoon by John Jensen which showed Richard Nixon with an enormous eagle perched on his head, see The Sunday Telegraph, 6 May 1973.↩︎

  5. Maurice Yacowar, The Great Bratby: A Portrait of John Bratby RA (London: Middlesex University Press, 2008), 106. Bratby’s letters explaining his reasons for refusing election are in the Academy archive (Members’ Files).↩︎

  6. Unsigned, “Waiting for a Royal Cue”, The Daily Mirror, 16 February 1973.↩︎

  7. Cork, “A Show to Make Sir Joshua Turn in his Grave!”.↩︎

  8. Attendance was up from 58,000 in the previous year to 75,000, and three-quarters of saleable works were sold.↩︎

  9. Unsigned, “From the Academy to the TUC”, The Financial Times, 11 May 1973.↩︎

  10. East London in Change and Struggle, exhibition catalgue (Harlow: Playhouse Gallery, 1979), n.p.↩︎

  11. Quoted in RA Illustrated 2000, 10.↩︎

  12. Conversation with Anthony Green, 24 January 2018.↩︎

  13. Ross Waby, “Tube Censors Who are Shy of the Bare Truth”, Evening Standard, 11 May 1973. Other censored posters around this time included one promoting the 1970 Camden Arts Centre exhibition Manufactured Art.↩︎

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Explore the 1973 catalogue