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1984 The Club

At the 1984 Exhibition, the Royal Academician Ruskin Spear displayed a portrait of his old friend and fellow Academician Carel Weight (Fig. 1). In that year’s Royal Academy Illustrated, the illustrated souvenir of the Annual Exhibition, Lawrence Gowing praised the work for capturing Weight’s “concerned serenity”; and in an appreciation of Spear’s career published in the following year, Mervyn Levy described the same picture as one that communicates “the delightful, clown-like presence of Carel Weight—a loveable, vague dreamer, set in his own wonderland and wearing a tie purchased in Woolworth’s before the Flood.”1

These affectionate descriptions of Weight as a serene and loveable dreamer might easily blind us to the fact that he had long been an influential figure in the English art world. This had been more fully recognised and described in 1982, on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition of his paintings at the Academy. In the catalogue to Weight’s show, the Academy’s then President, Hugh Casson, as well as celebrating “an artist loved both by the public and also by his fellow artists”, also pointed to his sterling service to two institutions. First of all, he lauded the painter’s “loyalty and faith in the Royal Academy” itself, to which Weight had been elected an Associate in 1955 and a full Academician in 1965. Second, he hailed the inspirational qualities and the “tolerance and understanding” that Weight had displayed during his many years teaching at the Royal College of Art, which he had joined as a tutor in 1947, and where he was the Professor of Painting between 1957 and 1973.2

Explore the 1984 catalogue

Weight, in having played important roles at both the Academy and the Royal College, was by no means alone; indeed, he was one of a coterie of artists and administrators whose careers straddled both institutions over many decades. To better understand this, let us look at a photograph taken some time in the late 1950s by Geoffrey Ireland, who in 1953 was appointed to the position of a tutor in graphic design at the Royal College of Art (Fig. 2).3 The photograph is one of a series that Ireland took of a College staff meeting, and it conjures up a combination of bureaucracy and bibulousness characteristic of its time, as the assembled men—all of whom held teaching or administrative roles at the College—shuffle papers in between sipping glasses of wine. From left to right, we see Ruskin Spear, the painter of the 1984 portrait of Weight; Rodney Joseph Burn; Carel Weight himself; Roger De Grey; and, finally, the all-powerful Rector of the Royal College from 1948 to 1971, Robin Darwin.4 In a second photograph of the same meeting, Ireland pictured Spear and Weight alongside another of their Royal College of Art colleagues, Donald Hamilton Fraser, who went on to teach at the College until 1983; and in a third, he portrayed their colleague Leonard Rosoman.5 In their entirety, Ireland’s photographs of the meeting depict the group of men who, as well-established artists in their own right, directed the teaching of painting at what, under Darwin’s leadership, had become the leading centre for postgraduate art education in Britain. As such, these photographs follow on from another, earlier and more famous depiction of the Royal College of Art’s painting staff, produced in 1951 by one of the tutors drafted in by Darwin, Rodrigo Moynihan. This already featured Weight, Spear, and Burn, but it also included figures such as Robert Buhler, Moynihan himself, and Colin Hayes, who was to carry on teaching at the College until 1984.

Crucially, all these men were not only members of the teaching staff at the Royal College of Art, they were also, at different stages in their careers, elected to the position of Royal Academician.6 And if we now return to the 1984 Summer Exhibition, we find that all but one of these same men (Darwin had died in 1974) were, some three decades after their portrayals by Ireland and Moynihan, still displaying their work at the Academy’s Annual Exhibition. Spear, Weight, Burn, Fraser, Rosoman, Buhler, and Hayes all exhibited a full complement of six paintings, while de Grey and Moynihan exhibited three each.7 Many of these men, furthermore, played important roles in the running of the Academy itself. This was eloquently confirmed by one of Rosoman’s paintings in that year’s show, The Meeting, which offered a monumental depiction of a meeting of the Academy’s senior figures that had been held five years beforehand.8 In the picture, among the many other colleagues gathered together for the occasion, we find the figures of Buhler, Hayes, Rosoman, and de Grey, the last of whom, in 1979, enjoyed the prominent position of the Academy’s Treasurer. Tellingly, in December 1984, soon after Rosoman’s painting had been exhibited, de Grey was elected as the 22nd President of the Royal Academy, succeeding Casson, who had himself been a long-standing Professor at the Royal College of Art.9

Even this most cursory form of examination suggests, at the very least, a remarkable form of crossover between the membership of these two institutions between the 1950s and the 1980s. It is now clear that the group of artist-teachers who came to prominence at the Royal College of Art in the fifteen years after the Second World War also came to enjoy a similarly prominent presence and influence at the Academy in subsequent decades. Bound together by hundreds of man-hours spent in each other’s company over many years, and by their shared training, careers, tastes, and friendships, these men can be seen to have constituted a kind of club, a powerful mini-establishment within the art world as a whole. As such, their institutional power seems unquestionable: this club’s members, after all, served as gate-keepers and leaders in two organisations crucial to artistic training and exposure in post-war Britain. But it is also interesting to think about this group’s artistic impact. What was the character of these men’s artistic practice, when viewed collectively, and what was its importance within the wider history of post-War British art? And to what extent did they use their institutional power—consciously or unconsciously—to encourage this form of practice on the part of the students they taught, or to expect it of those artists whom they considered for membership of the Academy? Furthermore, was it helpful to paint like these men in order to get one’s works accepted at the Summer Exhibition itself? Indeed, did they help create what we might call a Summer Exhibition aesthetic, one that can be recognised flowing not only across their own paintings, but across many of the other pictures hanging in the Exhibition?

These are all questions that seem worthy of further exploration, and that might begin to be answered by taking a closer look at the pictures on display at the 1984 Summer Exhibition. But one thing is for sure: however much he may have come across to some as a loveable dreamer, clown, and eccentric, Carel Weight—like the man who painted him—was also an exceptionally successful and sharp-minded operator, and part of an informal, all-male coterie that enjoyed a remarkably long run of power within the post-war English artistic establishment.

  1. Lawrence Gowing, “Introduction”, in Lawrence Gowing (ed.), Royal Academy Illustrated (London, 1984), n.p.; Mervyn Levy, Ruskin Spear (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985), 33.↩︎

  2. Hugh Casson, “Preface”, in Norman Rosenthal (ed.), Carel Weight R.A. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1982).↩︎

  3. The National Portrait Gallery, which owns these photographs, lists them as dating from “c.1953”—a dating that is presumably linked to Ireland’s appointment at the College in that year. However, it seems more likely that the photographs date from 1957–1958, when all the pictured artists can be identified as having had a connection to the College. More work needs to be done on this topic to come up with a definitive dating.↩︎

  4. For Darwin’s impact on the college, and for the College’s history during the post-war period, see Christopher Frayling’s invaluable The Royal College of Art: One Hundred & Fifty Years of Art and Design (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1987), 129–196.↩︎

  5. These photographs are titled, respectively, “Donald Hamilton Fraser, Ruskin Spear, Carel Victor Morlais Weight, and two unknown men”; and “Royal College of Art (group containing Leonard Rosoman and Kenneth Rowntree)”.↩︎

  6. Robert Buhler was elected RA in 1956; Rodney Burn, in 1962; Darwin, in 1972; de Grey, in 1969; Fraser, in 1985 (ARA in 1975); Hayes, in 1970; Rosoman, in 1969; Spear, in 1954; and Weight, in 1965, source: Royal Academy.↩︎

  7. See the catalogue, The Two Hundred and Sixteenth Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 1984, London, where the artists and their works are listed in the index.↩︎

  8. The picture, now at the National Portrait Gallery, is illustrated as the frontispiece to Lawrence Gowing (ed.), Royal Academy Illustrated.↩︎

  9. For Casson’s time at the Royal College of Art, see Frayling, The Royal College of Art.↩︎

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Explore the 1984 catalogue