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1995 Sculpture Returns to the Courtyard

In his Foreword to the illustrated catalogue for the 1995 Summer Exhibition, the Academician Brendan Neiland highlighted an important feature of the Exhibition:

The courtyard is being used for the first time to exhibit sculpture, and this provides a magnificent opportunity for sculptors to exhibit in the open air in the heart of London. The presence of work in this context enhances the grandeur of the enclosure, and creates a wonderful and fitting entrance from Piccadilly.1

Neiland was wrong, however. In fact, sculpture had been exhibited in the Courtyard even before the arrival of the Royal Academy at Burlington House. Furthermore, the Courtyard had been used to display sculpture in conjunction with the Summer Exhibition at least as early as 1896, when Harry Bates’ equestrian statue of Lord Roberts was shown there.2 Even so, the time which had passed since the Courtyard was last used in this way was sufficiently large for it to be presented as an entirely new dimension of the Summer Exhibition.

Explore the 1995 catalogue

In 1995, the Academy had a much smaller footprint than it does today—neighbouring 6 Burlington Gardens, now part of the Academy site, was then occupied by the Museum of Mankind, while the Courtyard served primarily as a car park (despite the long-standing presence of Alfred Drury’s statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds).3 The Courtyard, then as now, belonged not to the Academy but to the Crown—Margaret Thatcher supposedly once asked the Academy President Roger de Grey to pick up a piece of litter in the Courtyard, only for him to tell her to pick it up instead as part of her state duties!4

The measures taken to make the site hospitable for sculpture were limited: the centre was covered with gravel to distinguish it from the surrounding area, and four sculptures were sited there: The Cricketer (1981) by Barry Flanagan, Backflip (1993) by Allen Jones (bizarrely mistitled Black Flip in the list of works), Tethys (1986) by William Tucker, and Earth and Wine (1995) by Michael Kenny (Fig. 1).

These sculptures demonstrated the range of styles employed by Academicians. Flanagan’s Cricketer shows his signature hare poised on the top of three stumps precariously arranged into a tripod, and established a humorous dialogue with Drury’s elegant statue of Reynolds. That year, Cricketer, which Flanagan had donated to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1989, won the Wollaston Award for the most distinguished exhibit in the Summer Exhibition.

Like Cricketer, Jones’ Backflip has gone on to occupy a prominent outdoor site (in Webster Groves, Missouri). Jones’ sculpture foregrounds process—the artist has said that: “usually the sculpture grows out of the act of cutting with scissors and bending papers.”5 This emphasis on process is shared with Tucker’s Tethys, one of a group of five “Gods” exhibited together at the Tate Gallery in 1987. Rendered in grainy plaster from small models rather than preparatory drawings, Tucker’s “Gods” departed from the post-minimalist idiom of his earlier work and embraced the expressive plaster modelling associated more readily with sculptors like Alberto Giacometti.

The sole abstract sculpture in the group, Kenny’s tripartite Earth and Wine, responded particularly well to the architecture of the site (above all the entrance arch, which seemed to echo the arched vertical element of the sculpture) (Fig. 2). In an essay on Kenny’s sculpture, Peter Davies has written of the work’s emphatic geometry:

fabricated in metal sheets, to create the same mysterious geometry of the clustered stone forms … the surfaces of Earth and Wine are divided with lines, not in pencil, but in thin rods of metal inserted into surface grooves. This device, which has been introduced into the most recent carvings, fulfills the artist’s strong sense that drawing can encompass all media in its “symbolic attempt to discover the supra-natural order in things.6

The critics were generally positive about the use of the Courtyard as a site for sculpture, with William Packer, for instance, calling it “a happy precedent”, although William Feaver considered it a “gratuitous preliminary” to the Summer Exhibition.7 Equally, the response to the sculpture shown was positive: John McEwen wrote that: “the work goes well together, shows everyone at his best and is a bold advertisement for what lies ahead”,8 while Martin Gayford thought that: “Michael Kenny’s rusted steel abstract and William Tucker’s gnarled stub of bronze look surprisingly good in the context.”9 Clearly, however, the gravel island in the Courtyard could only be a temporary solution, as was the display area designed by Academician Paul Koralek in the following year, which provided an even more isolated setting for works by Eduardo Chillida and John Maine.

Tim Hilton reported in 1995 that: “there’s a scheme, still vague, to expel cars from the forecourt and thus make it into a decent environment for leisure or art.”10 This eventually took place when the Courtyard was redeveloped to the designs of another Academician, Sir Michael Hopkins, a few years later (made possible by a large donation from the American philanthropist and former ambassador Walter H. Annenberg). The car park was replaced with cobbles, a granite pavement, and fountains.

Courtyard sculpture is now well established within Academy programming, both as a part of the Summer Exhibition and beyond. In this sense, the aspiration to transform the Courtyard into a “decent environment for leisure or art” has certainly been achieved, although with a different emphasis to the displays of sculpture in the late 1990s. The terms “sculpture park” and “gallery” were often used to describe the displays in 1995 and 1996, along with the groups of works by Kenny (1997) and Tony Cragg (1999), and Antony Gormley’s sixty-part work Critical Mass in 1998. More recently, on the other hand, the preference has been for a single large work, such as Anthony Caro’s sprawling Promenade in 2008 and Bryan Kneale’s Triton III in 2009—works which evoke the monumental idiom of Bates and Ford. So too, does the sculpture in the Courtyard at the time of writing this essay: a new cast of G.F. Watts’ Physical Energy—a work first displayed in public during the Summer Exhibition of 1904.

  1. Brendan Neiland, “Foreword”, Royal Academy Illustrated 1995 (London: 1995), 5.↩︎

  2. Another early usage of the Courtyard for this purpose was in 1900, when Edward Onslow Ford’s statue of the Late Maharajah of Mysore was sited there.↩︎

  3. Similarly, the courtyard of nearby Somerset House was used as a car park until it was recently redeveloped.↩︎

  4. Tim Hilton, “Summer’s Here Again—For the 227th Time”, The Independent on Sunday, 11 June 1995, 20–21.↩︎

  5. Andrew Lambirth, Allen Jones: Works (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2005), 119.↩︎

  6. Peter Davies, Michael Kenny: Sculpture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997), 33.↩︎

  7. William Packer, “Visual Treat Awaits”, The Financial Times, 3 June 1995; William Feaver, “All the Trick Cyclists”, The Observer, 4 June 1995, 12.↩︎

  8. John McEwen, “A Distinct Improvement”, The Sunday Telegraph, 4 June 1995.↩︎

  9. Martin Gayford, “A Good Time Had By All”, The Telegraph, 3 June 1995, RA press clippings.↩︎

  10. Hilton, “Summer’s Here Again—For the 227th Time”.↩︎

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Explore the 1995 catalogue