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1985 Sketching the Selection Committee

The selection and hanging process for the Summer Exhibition has been a source of enduring fascination throughout its history. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, for example, articles about the selection promising to reveal the “secrets of the Academy judges who can make or break and artist’s career” were a regular feature.1 The Academy itself was keen to make the process visible too, often including photographs of the Selection Committee at work in the illustrated catalogues accompanying the Summer Exhibition. This same reverence for the process is evident in a number of artworks produced by Academicians, such as Ruskin Spear’s painting After the Hanging (exhibited in the 1989 Summer Exhibition), showing RA President Roger de Grey, Academicians Eduardo Paolozzi and Robert Buhler, and RA Secretary Sidney Hutchinson enjoying a meal after completing their task.

Explore the 1985 catalogue

The Selection Committee for the 1985 Summer Exhibition (the first of de Grey’s presidency) included Ken Howard, who had been elected as Associate in the previous year. New Academicians were required to serve on the Selection Committee in their first year, and Howard was heavily involved in the Exhibition as a whole: he edited the illustrated catalogue, hung the works (mostly watercolours) in Gallery V, and assisted with the hanging of Gallery II. Howard had submitted work to many previous Summer Exhibitions and attached great significance to becoming an Academician, as he explained in his autobiography Light and Dark:

I will always remember the day in 1984 when I was finally elected a Royal Academician. The phone rang and it was Bernard Dunstan, who’d just been to the General Assembly … Bernard rang me and told me that I had been elected. It was a fantastic feeling after all those years of exhibiting—sixteen of which I had been a candidate.2

Wanting to become an Academician was not just a matter of prestige for Howard—it also enabled him to move away from the commissions on which he had long depended to make a living as an artist. Howard’s former art master Bob Whitmore had told him that becoming an RA was essential for earning a living as an artist, and he concluded that: “Bob had been right: being an RA was to make all the difference to the possibility of earning a living without teaching or commissions.”3

Howard documented his involvement by making a drawing of the 1985 Selection Committee, which was reproduced in the illustrated catalogue and is now in the Academy collection (Fig. 1). The subject evokes earlier group portraits of Academicians, particularly C.W. Cope’s The Council of the Royal Academy Selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875 (which is also in the RA collection) (Fig. 2), although when asked about that work recently, Howard denied that it had influenced his drawing. Instead, the artist emphasised the similarity between the drawing and the work he made in Northern Ireland between 1973 and 1983 after being commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to document the Troubles.4

Many previous war artists had favoured portraiture but Howard has explained that: “when I had been commissioned by the Imperial War Museum initially they had said that I could do whatever I liked when I was out there, but that they didn’t want portraits.”5 He described his work in Ireland as that of a “visual journalist”,6 recording observation posts while soldiers were in stationary positions, suiting the pen and wash technique also employed in his Selection Committee drawing. While the difference between the two environments could hardly be greater, Howard retained the impulse to record the event in a similar way. Accordingly, Howard’s Selection Committee drawing is above all a depiction of an event.

Howard may not have deliberately alluded to Cope’s work, but the comparison between the two works is fascinating nonetheless. Unlike Cope’s complex assembly of figures, Howard’s composition is clear and sparse, with students from the Royal Academy Schools (holding the works) and the Selection Committee forming two gently curving lines.7 From left to right, Howard has depicted Piers Rodgers, two unidentified sitters (possibly William Bowyer and Norman Stevens?), Norman Adams, de Grey, Sir Robin Philipson, Norman Blamey, Fred Cuming, and Jean Cook. Those present varied between sittings and, accordingly, not all of the 1985 Selection Committee are present. Cope, on the other hand, inserted Millais, who did not serve on the Committee in 1875, in the foreground of his painting! As a newly elected Associate, Howard enjoyed the selection process and had great admiration for the Academicians depicted, particularly Philipson, who Howard remembered as being particularly helpful to him in his early days as an Associate. The drawing is Howard’s affectionate tribute to the heritage and values of the Academy.

Both Cope and Howard show the respective committees paying close attention to the selection of works. In Cope’s case, this may have been in order to demonstrate that, contrary to reports from sceptical artists, the Academicians indeed carefully examined every work submitted.8 In 1985, however, it was from within the Selection Committee itself that questions were raised about the selection process, particularly with regards to sculpture. Norman Stevens wrote to de Grey to express concern that “the majority of the Selection/Hanging Committee had not seen the works rejected by the Sculptor Members” in a year in which only fourteen sculptures by non-Members had been selected.9 As a result, it was decided to instigate a process whereby the whole Selection Committee would be able to view the sculpture entries, rather than Sculptor Members making the initial selection for themselves.10 At any rate, by 1985 for practical reasons, the selection of sculpture by non-Members was already made largely from photographs rather than the objects themselves—a far less picturesque scene than the selection of two-dimensional works depicted by Howard and Cope.

  1. See, for example, Hugh Hebert, “A Dab-Handed Selection”, The Guardian, 6 April 1979, 21; Robin Simon, “Old Masters of our Modern Art”, The Daily Mail, 8 June 1989; and Penny Fox, “Moments with the Hangmen”, The Scotsman, 9 June 1989.↩︎

  2. Ken Howard, Light and Dark: The Autobiography of Ken Howard (London: RA Publishing, 2001), 255.↩︎

  3. Howard, Light and Dark, 255.↩︎

  4. Howard was the first official war artist since the Second World War.↩︎

  5. Howard, Light and Dark, 174.↩︎

  6. Howard, Light and Dark, 176.↩︎

  7. Photographs of the committee published in newspapers in 1985 show the committee in more of a semi-circular arrangement, although Howard (conversation with author, 19 January 2018) maintains the arrangement varied from one sitting to the next, and that he did not alter the arrangement for his drawing.↩︎

  8. ”Artist of the Month—May 2012: Charles West Cope RA (1811–1890)”, Royal Academy of Arts website, (accessed 28 January 2018).↩︎

  9. Letter from Stevens to de Grey, 9 May 1985, RAA/PRA/10/16. A breakdown of works exhibited that year produced by the Academy stated that there were fifteen sculptures by non-Members.↩︎

  10. Council Minutes, 14 May 1985.↩︎

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Explore the 1985 catalogue