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1974 A Vision of Variety

The year 1974 was a mediocre year for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, at least according to some critics. The Architectural Gallery was disappointing said The Financial Times, suggesting that: “the exhibits are tame and timid, both in fact and on presentation.”1 The Exhibition as a whole did not fare much better as Richard Cork claimed it was dull and looked like a repeat of the previous year.2 The height of conceptual practices and a perceived crisis in painting characterised British art in 1974 and the Arts Council exhibition Beyond Painting and Sculpture toured Britain that year. The exhibition was organised by Cork, who claimed that conceptual artists did not necessarily reject painting and sculpture but simply demonstrated “a willingness to experiment with alternatives”.3 This vogue for conceptual art may have been behind Cork’s criticism of the Summer Exhibition. The Royal Academician Bernard Dunstan was quick to take Cork to task: “Mr Cork is a case of almost complete visual insensibility, brought on, perhaps, by too great an enthusiasm for conceptual art.”4

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If the work in the Summer Exhibition was varied then so too were the reviews. The Arts Review considered the variety of sculptural styles confusing, calling it “a mammoth sculpture mart inducing vertigo when one considers the army of do-your-own-thing sculptors hammering, modelling and casting away, pursuing their favourite idiom in every corner of the land.”5 Meanwhile, some sculptures were better received than others. James Butler’s Girl on a Bed delighted almost everyone, while Geoffrey Clark’s smell sculptures saw onlookers sniffing small bottles of essential oils. The brave new world of olfactory sculpture presented a counterpoint to the straightforward portrait heads and busts that, for the most part, recorded the appearance of sitters.

Ada Elizabeth (Betty) Edith Swanwick designed the poster (Fig. 1) and catalogue cover for the 1974 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Swanwick’s visionary illustrations, in the spirit of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, were grounded in a strong belief in the practice of drawing and especially life drawing. She had become an Associate of the Royal Academy on 21 April 1972, although it would be 9 May 1979 before she was elected an Academician. Swanwick wittily placed the ghostly floating figures of Joshua Reynolds, the Academy’s first President, and Angelica Kauffmann, one of only two female Founder Members, at the centre of her design—the couple gazing at the abstract painting before them with bemused expressions. In the background, a large contemporary audience, signified by the flared trousers and knee-length boots typical of the 1970s, crowd around a formal painting of a soldier in red livery on horseback. This juxtaposition of tradition and the modern was at the heart of Swanwick’s concerns.

Swanwick had begun her career as an illustrator of books, magazines, and posters; Frank Pick had commissioned her first posters for London Transport in 1936. But her late work from the mid-1960s onwards, and largely in pencil and watercolour, was in the English mystical tradition, connecting to biblical stories and often female spirituality. Her practice during this period was not in tune with the times and she experienced it as such. Despite this, Swanwick exhibited every year at the Academy Summer Exhibition between 1965 and 1989, and in 1982 reflected:

[I] feel my work will look too human in the RA. I just cannot come to terms with some of the pictures and things I have seen in the last few days there. It leaves me frightened and confused and more alone than almost ever.6

In the Academy Summer Exhibition of 1973, Swanwick had exhibited The Dream, a work in pencil. Members of the renowned band Genesis were so taken with The Dream that they commissioned her to make another version, in watercolour and pencil, to be reproduced on the cover of their fifth album Selling England by the Pound. Peter Gabriel’s interpretation of the image can be heard in the track I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe). As well as designing the exhibition poster in 1974, Swanwick also exhibited pencil drawings The Intruder (ca. 1971–1973) and The Staircase (1972–1973) (Fig. 2). The latter was bought from the Academy for Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery. Paddy Rossmore, the most recent chronicler of Swanwick’s life and work, associates The Staircase with her earlier painting Women Preparing for a Banquet (ca. 1965), pointing to her latent feminism in foregrounding the participation of women, even where it is unrecorded.7 Women Preparing for a Banquet shows four women preparing a long table with twelve chairs and a special ornate chair at the head of the table, suggesting a link to the story of the Last Supper. In The Staircase, three women, looking work-weary, stand to the side with an empty wine crate by their feet. A man who appears to have just arrived and spoken with them turns away to ascend the stairs. A weather vane can be glimpsed out of the window, another symbol of the Last Supper. The canonical Gospels do not record the presence of women at the Last Supper but Swanwick’s paintings insist upon it.

The spiritual nature of Swanwick’s subjects, even if sometimes veiled, belies their earthly beginnings. Just a few years before painting The Staircase, Swanwick wrote about her working methods in an article titled “The Living Reference File”, published in 1970. Here Swanwick made the creative collision of inner and outer worlds clear from the outset: “for me it is simply that I feel compelled to create on a flat surface another world from a mental vision that has been suggested by events or scenes I have witnessed in day to day life.”8 The material and the visionary are also brought together curious ways in Swanwick’s 1974 poster. The spirits of Reynolds and Kauffmann occupy the contemporary gallery space of the Academy, while seeming to merge with the abstract work that holds their attention. A circular aperture cut from its centre acts as a window on the past and the future. Reynolds grips his gallery guide firmly, clinging to tradition, while Kauffmann throws her copy to the floor with abandon, embracing the present and welcoming the future in all its variety.

  1. H.A.N. Brockman, “Bricks Without Straw”, The Financial Times, 3 May 1974.↩︎

  2. Richard Cork, “Royal Academy Eye-Opener: Girl on a Bed Puts Life into a Dull Exhibition”, Evening Standard, 3 May 1974.↩︎

  3. Richard Cork, Beyond Painting & Sculpture: Works Bought for the Arts Council by Richard Cork (London: Arts Council, 1973), 4.↩︎

  4. Bernard Dunstan, “That Nude: Is It Really Obvious?”, Evening Standard, 7 May 1974.↩︎

  5. Guy Burn, “The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition”, Arts Review, 17 May 1974, 280–281.↩︎

  6. Betty Swanwick, “Letter from Betty Swanwick to Paddy Rossmore”, 3 April 1982, quoted in Paddy Rossmore, Betty Swanwick: Artist and Visionary (London: Chris Beetles Gallery, 2008), 24.↩︎

  7. Rossmore, Betty Swanwick, 40.↩︎

  8. Betty Swanwick, “The Living Reference File”, The Artist 78, no. 5, 467 (January 1970): 102.↩︎

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Explore the 1974 catalogue