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1981 The Summer Exhibition

Where the bee sucks, there suck I

In a cowslip’s bell I lie;

There I crouch when owls do cry.

On the bat’s back I do fly

            After Summer merrily:

Merrily, merrily shall I live now

Under the blossom that hangs the bough

The song of the sprite Ariel from Act 5, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (ca. 1610–1611) was adopted as the motto of the 213th Summer Exhibition in 1981. Mottos had been used since 1769 (the first one was rather unsubtle: “Major rerum mihi nafcitur ordo Virg” or “A mighty order of things is born.” Virgil). In 1981, bucolic visions of the natural bounties of summer are conjured by Ariel’s song—bees buzz around cowslips full of pollen, the boughs are laden with blossoms. The cover of The Royal Academy Illustrated and the official poster of that year, both of the same design by Frederick Gore, reinforced this idyllic image of a long, hot, and languorous summer (Fig. 1). A couple, the woman in a red bikini, picnic surrounded by large flowers: a foxglove, a bright red poppy, and a cowslip bell complete with a feasting bee.

The Royal Academy’s Exhibition had long been associated with rituals of the British summer (for better or worse) and a regular fixture of the “Season”, often associated with other annual cultural and sporting events such as the Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon. But the reality of the British summer was rather different to Ariel’s and Gore’s sunny visions. Between 23 and 26 April, just a few weeks before the Exhibition opened on 16 May, the UK witnessed the coldest spell of weather on record at that time of year since 1908. Heavy snow blanketed the UK and north-easterly winds brought freezing temperatures.1 As the summer wore on, the meteorological charts recorded that the country warmed up, but with that came severe thunderstorms. The 6 August was a particularly dark day with heavy rain. The visions of a warm and barmy summer conjured by Gore’s catalogue and poster illustration were contained firmly within the realms of artistic representation rather than the rainy, cold reality of the British summer.

Explore the 1981 catalogue

Storms were also brewing inside the Academy. Its financial situation had been precarious for a number of years, an issue compacted by falling attendance figures at the Summer Exhibition. The stark fact was that the Academy was facing bankruptcy and the annual deficit was reported to be around £500,000. The cost of running a large-scale arts institution mounted year-on-year. The situation was dire and various drastic options were explored, including shutting the Academy for part of the year. Some feared that treasures would be sold off (as they had been in 1962 with the Leonardo cartoon). At the annual Academy Dinner on 11 May, the President, Sir Hugh Casson, announced more positive measures to remain solvent, with the establishment of the Royal Academy Trust Fund under the chairmanship of Lord Lever and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh heading up the list of distinguished managing trustees. Its task was to raise £6.5 million in the short space of two to three years. In an article in Country Life supporting the initiative, the scholar Brinsley Ford noted of the amount which was needed to halt the deficit and make major structural repairs and improvements to the buildings and facilities:

The sum of £6.5 million sounds a formidable one to raise, but it is surely not too much to hope that the money, which is the equivalent of the cost of four miles of motorway, will be found to ensure the survival of one of our great national institutions. The Academy is rightly determined to preserve its independence but this should not prevent its appealing to the Government for a special grant to the trust, without strings attached.2

Such troubles undoubtedly overshadowed the Summer Exhibition, but it nevertheless carried on, business-as-usual. Frank Davis, writing on the occasion of visiting his sixtieth Summer Exhibition remarked that he could not remember any specific details of past displays “beyond blurred portraits of royalty, of provincial mayors, of pretty (often over-pretty) women and numerous agreeable landscapes.”3 It was, however, a painting of a past display that caught his attention in 1981. This was William Powell Frith’s Private View at the Royal Academy (1881) which was on loan from Mr C.J.R. Pope for whose family it was painted. The years such as 1881, and not 1981, were, according to Davis (and many others) “the great days when RAs were regarded as gods”. After the death of Leighton in 1896, things were never the same. For Davis, the Titans had fallen long ago and were replaced by “pleasant mediocrity, punctuated by one or two horrors and some highly competent subtleties.” The “old and bold” were in “good fettle”; Ruskin Spear, John Bratby, and Norman Hepple (Fig. 2) were name-checked in this respect.4 After surveying the rest, Davis experienced mixed emotions and “tottered out exhausted, exasperated and happy”, fortifying himself with chicken pie and wine at Fortnum and Mason’s across Piccadilly “drinking success to the Academy’s heroic efforts to remain solvent.”5 This it did.

Casson had had his eye on shaking up the Academy for some time. Long before he was president, he had written an article in The Observer, describing the Summer Exhibition as “a provincial show of no interest to anybody but ourselves.” He recommended radical reform, including swapping the schedule of the Summer and Winter Exhibitions. “Once clear of the Ascot-Wimbledon-Season circus, it would be taken more seriously and could become more serious.”6 But it remained, and remains, firmly a summer event—whatever the weather.

  1. See “April 1981 Snow”, TWO,↩︎

  2. Brinsley Ford, “Ensuring the Future: The Royal Academy of Arts in London”, Country Life, 4 June 1981, 1613.↩︎

  3. Frank Davis, “Shudders and Subtleties: The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 1981”, Country Life, 11 June, 1981, 1658.↩︎

  4. Davis, “Shudders and Subtleties”, 1659.↩︎

  5. Davis, “Shudders and Subtleties”, 1659.↩︎

  6. Sir Hugh Casson, “Our Royal Academy”, The Observer, 16 August 1959, quoted in James Fenton, School of Genius (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006), 290.↩︎

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Explore the 1981 catalogue