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1978 The First Wollaston Award

Explore the 1978 catalogue

Each year a vast number of works are exhibited in the Summer Exhibition, but on many occasions the critical response has focused on one or two works, often for reasons unconnected to artistic quality. This was not the case in 1978, to the relief and approbation of critics fatigued by the cycle of novelty and spectacle sometimes associated with the event. Paddy Kitchen in The Times wrote that: “the concept that each summer there should be a newsworthy gimmick is a tiresome one, and the present approach, with the emphasis on commitment and workmanship, puts the onus on the spectator in a laudable way.”1 Marina Vaizey in The Sunday Times, meanwhile, attempted to characterise the prevalent aesthetic of the Exhibition:

There is a kind of passionate scrutiny of daily life, an unsentimental vision of the native landscape, that is coming more and more, from artists known and unknown, to rescue the Academy from the Higher Drivel, the visual Muzak. The banal, the mundane, is given disquieting edge; eccentricity, myth, sheer feeling itself is beginning to infiltrate “realism”.2

Such “passionate scrutiny” was exemplified by the work of Peter Greenham, an Academician who showed six works in 1978. One of these, his portrait of Lady Bonham Carter in Gallery I, received the inaugural Charles Wollaston Award (Fig. 1). Lady (Charlotte) Bonham Carter, née Wickham (1893–1989) was a patron of the arts whose eventful life also included wartime work serving in the War Office and as a photographic interpreter with the RAF.

The portrait was commissioned by a group of the sitter’s friends, and shows her wearing a gown by the famous designer Mariano Fortuny, which she bought from him in Venice in 1922 (Fig. 2).3 In accordance with the sitter’s wishes, the portrait was acquired by the Tate after her death, while another, more painterly portrait of her by Greenham is in the Southampton Art Gallery.4

Charles Wollaston was a retired art lecturer at the Bognor College of Education who had previously trained at the Slade School of Art and had exhibited at the Summer Exhibition himself. Since he established the award, given to the “most distinguished work” in the Summer Exhibition, it has been the most substantial award made to a Summer Exhibition exhibit. In 1978, the prize was £1,000, and it is now £25,000 (the same as the award to the winner of the Turner Prize).

The award is made by the President and Council on the recommendation of a panel comprising both Academicians and at least one non-Academician.5 The first panel comprised the Academicians Christopher Sanders, Olwyn Bowey, and H.T. Cadbury-Brown, alongside one “outsider”, Sir William Coldstream.6 Coldstream was an insider in every other sense, however—an immensely influential arts administrator as well as an important artist, he had taught Wollaston at the Slade, and so may have been personally suggested by the donor.

Coldstream was born only a year before Greenham, and the work of both artists was a combination of commissioned portraits often with highly distinguished sitters and landscapes in an idiom which resisted changing fashions.7 (One difference was that Greenham’s portraits required on average ten to twelve sessions of a few hours each, whereas Coldstream’s preference was for many more sessions). After his death in 1992, Greenham’s obituary, by his fellow academician Bernard Dunstan remarked how “in a period when portrait-painting seemed to be at its lowest ebb, his portraits stood out for their beauty of touch, their grasp of form, their sympathetic characterisation.”8

Greenham was also an important presence within the Academy. He was elected as an Academician in 1960 and served as Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools from 1964. The Keeper retains a studio at the Academy and it was here that sittings for the portrait of Lady Bonham Carter took place. Such was his respect within the Academy that in 1988 Roger de Grey lobbied for him to receive a knighthood, writing to the Honours Secretary Jean Cole that:

He is first and foremost a painter of exceptional distinction and indeed there are many in the art world who consider him to have made the greatest contribution to British art in the last 30 years. Although his work is conservative by nature, it is still the product of a penetrating mind and shows a scale which can only be associated with greatness.9 

De Grey also drew attention to Greenham’s work in the Schools, which he considered to be on a par with that of Coldstream at the Slade School and Robin Darwin at the Royal College of Art.

The Wollaston Award serves as a useful index of how the Summer Exhibition has changed over the last forty years. As suggested earlier in this essay, choosing Greenham as the first winner reflected the contemplative atmosphere, which prevailed in the Exhibition as a whole. Recent winners have illustrated the Summer Exhibition’s increasing openness to media such as photography and film. In recent years, they have included Wolfgang Tillmans, whose Greifbar 1 (a photograph made without the use of a camera) won in 2014, and Isaac Julien, whose five-screen film WESTERN UNION: Small Boats received the prize in 2017. Both Tillmans and Julien are now Academicians, and will in turn shape the future of the Academy.

  1. Paddy Kitchen, “‘Grim task’ of the Summer Exhibition”, The Times, 20 May 1978, 9.↩︎

  2. Marina Vaizey, “Sketch on the Rocks”, The Sunday Times, 21 May 1978, 37.↩︎

  3. At this time, Fortuny had just moved to a new factory in the Giudecca district of Venice.↩︎

  4. This picture, Portrait of an Old Lady, was acquired by the gallery from the artist in 1982.↩︎

  5. During his lifetime, Wollaston sometimes appeared on the panel.↩︎

  6. Others considered for the “outsider” position were Lawrence Gowing, Claude Rogers, and Brinsley Ford. Council Minutes for 21 February 1978, RAA/PC/1/55.↩︎

  7. Greenham, for instance, painted a double portrait of Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.↩︎

  8. Bernard Dunstan, “Obituary: Peter Greenham”, The Independent, 12 July 1992, (accessed 16 January 2018).↩︎

  9. Letter from de Grey to Jean Cole, 14 October 1988, Members’ correspondence files. Greenham was never knighted, although he was appointed CBE in 1978.↩︎

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Explore the 1978 catalogue