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1994 Cultivating Design Arts

The 226th Summer Exhibition opened amid the customary mixture of delight and disapproval. Brian Sewell, the dyspeptic critic of London’s Evening Standard (from 1984) lambasted the Royal Academy as “the whore of Piccadilly” for its “clumsy, wayward, inept and misconceived attempts to be a broad church of the Arts.”1 The Daily Telegraph retorted, “everything is as it should be, and as it has always been.”2 

Then as now, the Summer Exhibition laughed in the face of critics. Of great popular appeal, it was a Piccadilly icon. A Summer Institution: as much a highlight of the Season as Glyndebourne, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, and the Henley Royal Regatta. If deeply conservative, it was the United Kingdom’s largest open exhibition, and so was the benchmark against which all open exhibitions positioned themselves.3 For the Academy (whose finances depended on the success of the shows it staged), it was an essential theatrical event.

This year, 13,090 works were entered for the Exhibition, at £10 an entry. Only one in ten of them made it to the final hanging: 1,376 works were exhibited (400 less than were displayed in 1993). Most exhibits were for sale, at prices ranging from £25 to £55,000. Sales of £1.1m were reportedly made.4

Crowds swarmed to the Exhibition in droves. The Academy’s halls, the grandest exhibition spaces in London, were more congested than its walls at the private view (more than 7,000 viewers were expected by end of private view day). “If you haven’t fought your way in, you don’t really feel you’ve enjoyed yourself,” exclaimed one visitor competing to get a glimpse of works on show.5 The private view was extended from one to two days.

Explore the 1994 catalogue

The Academician Ken Howard, on the Hanging Committee and exhibiting six paintings, defended the show as a serious exhibition that offered a cross-section of art in Britain. “You cannot say that it has nothing to do with art in Britain today,” he said. “People always have a go at the Establishment, and we are Establishment. It’s there to be kicked.”6 To his mind, the Exhibition was unified because no overwhelming philosophy governed the miscellaneous exhibits displayed, and it refused to set up any kind of traditional academic standard of what art should and should not be. Its role as a national institution, a unique showcase for amateurs and professionals, was for critics to deride and visitors to enjoy.

Added into the mix of work presented in the fourteen galleries were exhibits from invited artists from abroad: Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Antoni Tàpies, and Eduardo Chillida (all of whom were Honorary Academicians) as well as Helen Frankenthaler. Royal Academy Schools students received a room to themselves, with their work displayed in Gallery X.

Star attractions were the 146 architectural drawings and models, which spread beyond Gallery VI into the Central Hall. Work displayed came from Britain’s most famous practices, which were producing some of the most innovative architecture worldwide. Included were Sir Richard Rogers, (Richard Rogers Partnership: Zoofenster Building, Brau und Brunnen, Berlin); Sir Norman Foster (Sir Norman Foster & Partners: Bridge at Millau, France); Michael Hopkins (Hopkins architects: Tottenham Court Road Station Redevelopment, London); Richard MacCormac (MacCormac, Jamieson, Prichard (MJP): Ruskin Library, Lancaster University). Also worth seeing was work from Daniel Libeskind (Extension of the Berlin Museum with the Jewish Museum); Santiago Calatrava (St Paul’s Bridge); and Arup Associates with founding partner Sir Philip Dowson (Johannesburg International Athletics Stadium).

Sir Philip Dowson was in his first year as Academy President. Elected in December 1993 by a secret ballot of some seventy-five Royal Academicians, his appointment as the Academy’s 23rd President was widely welcomed. Dowson’s scholarly demeanour belied his passionate convictions. This could explain the quotation from Degas on the 1994 Summer Exhibition’s catalogue title page: “The heart is an instrument that goes rusty if not used, is it possible to be a heartless artist?”7  

The fifth architect to hold the presidency, Dowson grasped the baton gained from his predecessors Sir Hugh Casson and Sir Roger de Grey to press on with modernising the Academy. Their energy and dedication to the Academy renewed belief among some in its future. Sir Roger (whom Robert Medley taught in the 1930s, and who encouraged Medley to join the Academy) transformed the Academy’s stuffy image by staging hugely popular blockbuster exhibitions.8  

Similarly keen to change the conservative perception of the Academy and to broaden its appeal, Dowson sought to make the Summer Exhibition a feast of popular eclecticism. Eager to oversee the next stage of the Academy’s development plan, Dowson despaired of the parochial English outlook. “We have this terrible disease of nostalgia in this country and I’ve no wish to walk backwards into the 21st century.”9 He took to heart an aim posited by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his influential Discourses for artists to improve mankind by the grandeur of ideas.10 The architect Sir Philip Powell (Powell Moya Partnership) assisted Dowson:  elected an Associate of the Academy in 1972 and an Academician in 1977, he served as the Academy’s Treasurer (1975–1985). If modest and reticent, he held genuine interest in encouraging young architects.11  

Unknown or previously unrecognised architects scooped up many of the prizes in the year’s Summer Exhibition. Andrew Wright, aged twenty-nine and working in the office of the Richard Rogers Partnership, received the Bovis/Architects’ Journal Grand Award of £3,500 (plus a bronze trophy) for his proposed scheme for the Samye Ling Buddhist community, Holy Island, Scotland (Fig. 1).12 Wright acknowledged that allowing young talent to come forward was the strength of the Summer Exhibition. “Here, young architects can stand alongside leading academicians. That’s an honour and it allows the public to see a cross-section of the work going on in Britain.”13

Jason Oliver, a graduate from Nottingham University School of Architecture received The Measured Drawing Prize of £1,000 sponsored by The Worshipful Company of Chartered Accountants; Eva Jiricna’s display of study models of staircases (Fig. 2) received The Design Award of £750 (for the best model drawing or graphic presentation); and £200 plus a subscription to The Architects’ Journal went each to three students (Alex Lush, University of Bath; Dominic O’Roirdan, Mackintosh School; and Andrew Clinch, South Bank University).14 

Moreover, architectural highlights (documents, drawings, and models) from the Academy’s past three Summer Exhibitions were displayed in Los Angeles within a month of this year’s Summer Exhibition closing.15 Now more internationalist in outlook (as the architectural exhibits reflected), the Academy took to heart the purpose for which the institution was established in 1768: to cultivate Britain’s “design arts”––painting, sculpture, and architecture. 

  1. Anon., “Brian Sewell, Art Critic, Obituary”, The Daily Telegraph, 21 September 2015. Using this term, Sewell attacked the Royal Academy for masquerading as a charity when reviewing the Exhibition by David Hockney A Bigger Picture, Evening Standard, 19 January 2012, at↩︎

  2. Mick Brown, “Indignant of New Malden”, The Daily Telegraph, 6 June 1994, 15.↩︎

  3. James Hall, “The British Open: The Open Art Exhibition is a Strange Animal”, The Guardian, 23 May 1994, A4.↩︎

  4. Iain Gale, “Art”, The Independent, 7 June 1994.↩︎

  5. Rebecca Fowler et al., “Getting the Hang of It”, The Sunday Times, 5 June 1994, 28. A record 7,000 people a day was achieved at the Monet in the ‘90s exhibition.↩︎

  6. Rebecca Fowler et al., “Getting the Hang of It”, The Sunday Times, 5 June 1994, 28.↩︎

  7. Dalya Alberge, “Architect to lead the Royal Academy”, The Independent, 10 December 1993.↩︎

  8. Among these popular exhibitions was the exhibition Monet in the ‘90s: The Series Paintings which attracted a record 658,000 visitors in the Autumn of 1990: Norman Rosenthal, “Obituary: Sir Roger de Grey”, The Independent, 16 February 1995. Sir Norman Rosenthal, Royal Academy Exhibitions Secretary (197–-2008) assisted with this development; and Head of Education, Curator MaryAnne Stevens (1979–2013).↩︎

  9. Philip Dowson, “The Mediterranean Type of Man”, Management Today (January 1999): 84. At the Academy, Dowson also faced the long-overdue modernisation of the Main Galleries, each of which cost between £3m to £4m to equip them with up-to-date display facilities: Richard Cork, “Filling his Days with the Void”,  The Times, 21 April 1994, 39.↩︎

  10. S. Jeffries, “We are Faithful to the Legacy of Reynolds”, The Guardian, 5 June 1995, 10.↩︎

  11. Kenneth Powell, “Powell, Sir (Arnold Joseph) Philip (1921–2003), architect”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/89996 (accessed online 31 December 2017). Powell was the first Royal Academician to have been architecturally trained in the post-war years: Neil R. Bingham, Masterworks, Architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts (London: The Academy, 2011), 36.↩︎

  12. The award was for an exhibit displaying architectural merit and success in communicating the architect’s intention to the public. Images of the model for Wright’s design for Holy Island graced the cover of The Architects’ Journal, in the issue for 25 May 1994. For details of the Holy Island project: Andrew Wright, “A Design Methodology for Urban Sustainability: Three Case Studies”, in Brian Edwards and David Turrent (eds), Sustainable Housing: Principles & Practice (London: E & FN Spon, 2000), 80–87.↩︎

  13. Andrew Wright, “A Design Methodology for Urban Sustainability.↩︎

  14. Eva Jiricna became the first woman architect-Academician in 1997. The Architects’ Journal illustrated the student work: The Architects’ Journal, 25 May 1994, 20. This was a discretionary prize awarded to work of outstanding merit. Among assessors were Trevor Danatt (Professor of Architecture 1988–1995; Dannat Johnson); Stephen Greenberg (Editor of The Architects’ Journal, and future founding director of the architectural practice Metaphor, specialising in the cultural sector); and Czech-born, London-based architect Jan Kaplický (1937–2009) (Future Systems).↩︎

  15. Robert Maxwell and Peter Murray, Contemporary British Architects: Recent Projects From the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition (Munich: Prestel, 1994). Exhibited at the Pacific Design Centre, Los Angeles from 12 September to 4 November 1994, the exhibition subsequently toured various venues in the United States through April 1996.↩︎

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Explore the 1994 catalogue