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1982 Never On Sunday

To look back over the serious critical response to the Summer Exhibition is only to face an inescapable divide. On the one hand, there are those critics who take it for what it is, which is to say a comprehensive exhibition of the work of the Academicians themselves, augmented by a selection from the open submission. This will usually amount to something over 1,200 inevitably disparate works, hung high and low as sympathetically as possible, but with no curatorial theme or programme to rest upon. Excluding coins and medals, in 1982, the tally came to 1,530. On the other hand, there are those who wish the show were something else: a smaller, more selective, and analytical review of what they consider to be the best of current modernist production, and, as such, attractive to those major artists whose conspicuous absence they annually regret.

Explore the 1982 catalogue

For the Summer Exhibition of 1982, the 214th, that divide was as wide and obvious as ever. “The Summer Exhibition is successful, even triumphant”, declared The Daily Telegraph’s Terence Mullaly.1 “There are one or two pictures of rare beauty, and this year, more surely than at any time in the last 25 years, a large number of artists of high merit … have had a chance to exhibit.”2 He drew particular attention to works by Sir Robin Philipson, Robert Buhler, and Bernard Dunstan, his “a little picture in the finest tradition of workmanlike English painting”, had his usual grumble about there being too many “big empty abstracts”, and ended with the favourable verdict that “there is much that is serious, and a few paintings of compelling beauty.”3

Richard Cork, writing in the Evening Standard, could hardly have been farther away in opposition.

Going to the summer exhibition is like paying an annual visit to an ailing elderly aunt: the patient usually seems as well as can be expected, but it would be unwise to hope for any dramatic improvement … The problem has always centred upon a surfeit of work by the Academicians themselves … Good art challenges our stereotyped ways of looking at reality, stimulating us to see the world in a radically new light.4

He did have a good word for a few things, even by Academicians—Anthony Gross, Richard Eurich, Ruskin Spear, and, in particular, Anthony Green—but, he concluded, “I hope the Academy realises just how much remains to be done before it wins the respect of all the artists it should be anxious to attract.”5

Waldemar Januszczak was stridently hostile. He offered two reviews on the same page: the first, apparently favourable, to lull his Guardian reader into mistaken approbation; the second, the expression of truer feeling.6 In Part I, he paid much albeit somewhat arch attention to one of Peter Blake’s Fairy paintings, claimed to have “particularly enjoyed” work by Frederick Gore and Richard Eurich, and singled out Venetian Twilight by that archetypal old school Academician, Norman Hepple, for special praise. He violently objected to the £5,000 Johnson’s Wax Prize going to Craigie Aitchison for his tiny Lemon and Jar (Fig. 1), and thought works by Allen Jones, Gary Wragg, and other lately arrived moderns to be out of place, the show “scarred by progress”.

In Part II, he got down to business.

Come off it. How many more acres of painted waffle must we wade through? How many more Sunday painters are there waiting to be discovered? The 214th [Summer Show] is indistinguishable from the 213th … and so on all the way back to the year of Roger Fry’s first Post-Impressionist exhibition, the one which introduced pseudo-modernism into England … Pseudo-modernism is what drove Frederick Gore to the sacred South of France where he is still able to convince himself that there is something relevant about painting landscapes in the Van Gogh manner.7

He’d not finished yet.

The overwhelming impression left by this summer show, and all summer shows, is of an exhibition dominated by the worst sort of artist, the one who thinks it is enough to capture a likeness, enough to quote a past-master, enough to paint on Sundays. What this exhibition lacks is commitment and causes, originality and ambition.8

Though he, as do so many, stops short of saying what such pious abstractions actually mean. But he likes Aitchison’s Lemon after all, which, small and fragile, “glitters in the darkness of the Summer Show like light at the end of the tunnel.”9

Michael Shepherd, of The Sunday Telegraph, might have been at another exhibition entirely. Just as does the sun emerging from behind a cloud, this Summer Exhibition lifted his spirits. He admired a group of watercolours by Vivian Pitchforth, exceptional in their “evocation of air, light, water, earth and the spirit of place”, liked the President, Sir Hugh Casson’s “little gems of world-wide observation”, and offered a long list of commendations—Dunstan, Burn, Howard, Hayes, Eyton, Blackadder, Tindle, Rosomon, Weight etcetera.10

To William Feaver of The Observer, sardonically flippant as ever, it was “the usual, of course, in that John Ward hasn’t yet run out of county families to portray and Ruskin Spear is still making Sickerts of celebrities.”11 He has doubts about the sculpture.

Sydney Harpley girls generally occupy swings and hammocks. Stuart Smith’s girl stays indoors and shows her knickers … The Summer Exhibition wouldn’t be the same without Hobbit Corner and the Lolita quota. I’d miss them. But sculpture at the Royal Academy has reached such depths of garden-centre whimsy and misused skill it contaminates everything within sniggering distance.12 

He wasn’t keen on the abstraction, “dabs masquerading as manly swipes”, but had good words for Philip Sutton and Peter Greenham, and especially for Anthony Green who, “as always, pays ardent homage to his wife, [taking] liberties with such enthusiasm you can’t fault him.”13 (Fig. 2)

So where did I stand in all this? In my piece for The Financial Times, I put it like this:

The Academy seems to touch a nerve, and to see it in terms of Art only, or to regret a careful, academic or scholarly selection and analysis it could never supply, is to miss the point. The idiosyncrasies of the members and the lottery of a mass submission are strengths as much as weaknesses. I might well complain of particular neglect or even injustice here, or wonder at the inexplicable decision there … but I would have it no other way.14

I wrote: 

One of the most charming things about the Academy is its desire to please … one of the more poignant pleasures of press day is to discover the resigned, defiant anxiety of the members of the hanging committee to gauge the response to their honest labours. The question direct was put to me several times.15

I am as puzzled now as I was in 1982 by the ritual hostility the Summer Exhibition still attracts. And there are very few artists who never work on Sundays.

  1. Terence Mullaly, The Daily Telegraph, 13 May 1982.↩︎

  2. Terence Mullaly, The Daily Telegraph, 13 May 1982.↩︎

  3. Terence Mullaly, The Daily Telegraph, 13 May 1982.↩︎

  4. Richard Cork, Evening Standard, 13 May 1982.↩︎

  5. Richard Cork, Evening Standard, 13 May 1982.↩︎

  6. Waldemar Januszczak, The Guardian, 15 May 1982.↩︎

  7. Waldemar Januszczak, The Guardian, 15 May 1982.↩︎

  8. Waldemar Januszczak, The Guardian, 15 May 1982.↩︎

  9. Waldemar Januszczak, The Guardian, 15 May 1982.↩︎

  10. Michael Shepherd, The Sunday Telegraph, 16 May 1982.↩︎

  11. William Feaver, The Observer, 16 May 1982.↩︎

  12. William Feaver, The Observer, 16 May 1982.↩︎

  13. William Feaver, The Observer, 16 May 1982.↩︎

  14. William Packer, The Financial Times, 15 May 1982.↩︎

  15. William Packer, The Financial Times, 15 May 1982.↩︎

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Explore the 1982 catalogue