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1975 Into the Fray

If not a fresh start exactly, the Summer Exhibition of 1975, the 207th, marked for me something of a turning point. My first ever visit to a Summer Exhibition was in 1960, towards the end of my first year as a student at Wimbledon School of Art, and I have missed no more than a couple since. I first had a painting hung in 1963—of Marilyn Monroe in case you ask: in Gallery VII, and not too high—and several more over the years, though I’ve never been a regular supplicant. But by the 1970s, I was following a parallel career as a critic, and 1975 found me for the first time reviewing the Summer Exhibition for The Financial Times. It’s not really done, I know, to quote oneself—but sometimes the temptation is just too great. But I’ll wait a moment.

Sir Thomas Monnington was then in his ninth year as President, and it would be his last, for he died the following January. His had been an undemonstrative presidency, yet, in his quiet way, he had been eminently successful in resetting the Academy’s course back towards the mainstream of current British Art, which its founders had always intended it to command. It was not there yet, but the signs were good. We have only to list some of the artists who joined the Academy during his time in office—Eduardo Paolozzi, Bryan Kneale, Sandra Blow, David Tindle, Jeffery Camp, Sheila Fell, Peter Blake, Edward Bawden, Edward Middleditch, Norman Blamey, Elizabeth Frink, William Bowyer, Elizabeth Blackadder, Geoffrey Clarke, Anthony Green—to get some measure of the progress made. It was a course his more obviously lively and naturally communicative successors, Sir Hugh Casson and then Sir Roger de Grey would follow, and all credit to them—but the credit is not theirs alone.

Explore the 1975 catalogue

If the reviews from 1975 make clear that the shift was by no means yet obvious to the critics of the day, they do suggest that the general critical mood had eased. Though Apollo magazine did indeed dismiss the show with off-hand contempt as “a predictable and depressing flood of mediocrity”,1 and Richard Cork, of the Evening Standard, admitted to his “fair share of ranting in the past”, before giving it his full rant once more, that was about it for conventional abuse.2 Cork declared,

For years now, this annual celebration of all that is most backward-looking in English art has been condemned for its head-in-the-sand attitude towards contemporary developments. But however the critics rage … the Academy continues to steer its own imperturbable course through the storm of adverse comments. Indeed it grows larger and more commercially successful all the time ... Instead of nurturing a spirit of inquiry and experiment, it merely reinforces a stultifying, largely second-rate set of values which pander to the sentimental notion that art has not undergone a profound change during the twentieth century.3

I can’t say, however, that other critics were exactly fulsome in their praise. Rather it was largely a case at best of cautious acknowledgement that this year the Academy was really not too bad, but could do better: at worst mere notice it was on at all. Nigel Gosling, for The Observer, said little more than that it had just opened “with its usual formula of ‘something old and something new, something borrowed and”—with particular reference to Ruskin Spear’s monochrome portrait of Margaret Thatcher—“‘something blue’” (Fig. 1).4 The range of styles, he continued, “is now immense, and of quality also. There are some alarming portraits, many low-toned pleasures.”5 Robert Melville, in The New Statesman, was another to give but passing mention within a general review, picking out Spear’s True Blue too, along with Flight, John Bratby’s allegory on the then topical disappearances of Lord Lucan and John Stonehouse MP. He was much taken with Peter Blake’s collage poster for the Exhibition (Fig. 2), and also with paintings by William Roberts—“the Academy’s endearingly straight-faced comedian”—and with a Tristram Hillier Still Life. Most of all he admired David Tindle’s painting of a disconsolate, hunched-up young woman in a thick jumper, which “would no doubt be picture of the year if it were very much larger.”6

Christopher Drake, for The Tatler, took serious exception to the prints, “the most singly unencouraging aspect of the show”.7 William Gaunt, for The Times, gave it three paragraphs: “The show may once again be considered as a supermarket in which the shopper has a liberal margin of choice.”8 Margaret Richards of Tribune thought much the same. “The content is mainly middle-class and middle IQ, but so long as you don’t expect anything revolutionary, politically or stylistically, it is an excellent art supermarket.”9

Terence Mullaly, giving the show his usual comprehensive review in The Daily Telegraph, could see “no reason nowadays why any artist should not send in.” And in stark contrast to what he’d said of his work in the not-so-distant past, he drew particular attention to “the most satisfying abstract in the Academy, an exercise in cool precision and the subtle use of colour by Sir Thomas Monnington, the President.”10

So where did I stand? The Academy, “admired unreservedly for its splendid loan exhibitions and roundly abused for its summer jamboree”, was, I said, “one of those idiosyncratic institutions as much misunderstood by friends as by enemies … a private and privileged body representing no interests but its own.”11 The problem was one of expectation.

Critics demand it show only the best and most avant garde of English art … while the ignorant and amateur continue to imagine that to be hung on the line is every artist’s ambition … None of this helps the Academy very much.12

Yet the opportunity to re-examine English art year on year was there for the Academy to take.

The Academicians themselves seem to sense this … But old controversies die hard, and though Munnings is long dead and the Academy now so very different, many of our most distinguished artists still refuse to have anything whatsoever to do with it. The pity is their absence shows.13

It was surely “time for compromise on all sides”.14

I thought the Exhibition itself “well hung … the many good things easy to pick out”, but thoroughly disliked the sculpture. Among the artists I mentioned were Richard Eurich, David Tindle, Robert Buhler, John Nash, Allen Gwynne-Jones, Peter Coker, Norman Blamey, Carel Weight, Frederick Cuming, and Anthony Green—all of them Academicians. Together they gave “the lie to the belief that Burlington House is the last refuge of the old and incompetent.” All in all, I felt that the Academy could and should stay true to itself, but not without effort on its part. “It seemed moribund once and is too useful to be allowed to become so again”, was my parting shot.15

  1. Apollo (July 1975).↩︎

  2. Richard Cork, Evening Standard, 2 May 1975.↩︎

  3. Richard Cork, Evening Standard, 2 May 1975.↩︎

  4. Nigel Gosling, The Observer, 4 May 1975.↩︎

  5. Nigel Gosling, The Observer, 4 May 1975.↩︎

  6. Robert Melville, The New Statesman, 10 May 1975.↩︎

  7. Christopher Drake, The Tatler (June 1975).↩︎

  8. William Gaunt, The Times, 6 May 1975.↩︎

  9. Margaret Richards, Tribune, 16 May 1975.↩︎

  10. Terence Mullaly, The Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1975.↩︎

  11. William Packer, The Financial Times, 10 May 1975.↩︎

  12. William Packer, The Financial Times, 10 May 1975.↩︎

  13. William Packer, The Financial Times, 10 May 1975.↩︎

  14. William Packer, The Financial Times, 10 May 1975.↩︎

  15. William Packer, The Financial Times, 10 May 1975.↩︎

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Explore the 1975 catalogue