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1998 Sheffield, Bali, Piccadilly

Much of the press coverage of the 1998 Summer Exhibition was occupied by Critical Mass, sixty bronze casts of Anthony Gormley’s body arranged across the Annenberg Courtyard. Gormley’s Angel of the North had been unveiled in Gateshead earlier in the year, while another incipient icon of the Blair years could be found in Gallery VI, in the form of a model of Richard Rogers’ Millennium Dome.1Elsewhere were memorial displays of the recently deceased Academicians Victor Pasmore and Carel Weight. The abstract painter Gillian Ayres was conspicuously absent in a different manner, having resigned in protest at the previous year’s controversial Young British Artist exhibition Sensation.2 Many reviewers noted the contrast—“Prepare notto be shocked” went the Evening Standard headline.3 Gary Hume, later to become a Royal Academician, was the only Sensation artist on the walls the following summer. A small Bryan Kneale sculpture was stolen—reputedly the first theft in the Summer Exhibition’s history—and a letter to The Daily Telegraph complained that “for the first time in living memory” the Exhibition was not heralded by Union flags over Burlington House.4 Reviews were mixed, although even an otherwise hostile Brian Sewell conceded that it was “beautifully hung … there is a sense of composure and repose, encouraging the viewer to contemplate.”5

Explore the 1998 catalogue

Among all this, John Hoyland won the £25,000 Charles Wollaston Award for the best painting in the Exhibition. Tree Music 6.3.98, was one of six Hoylands presented—his full entitlement as an Academician (Fig. 1). It was included by the painter Anthony Whishaw in Gallery VI, which, alongside Rogers’ model, held a mixture of prints and large paintings, resulting “in a range of scale from the small and intimate to the strong and powerful.”6 The prize had been set up in 1978 with funds from Charles Wollaston, an art teacher from Bognor Regis, who helped judge the prize until his death in 1992. On the 1998 panel were the Academicians Norman Ackroyd and Patrick Caulfield, the journalists Anna Ford and Francine Stock, and the critic Mel Gooding. Caulfield was one of Hoyland’s best friends, while Gooding had written a monograph on the artist’s work in 1990, substantially updating it in 2006. Noting that a condensed retrospective of Hoyland’s paintings was due to be held at the Academy in 1999 (in the same year he was made Professor of Painting at the Academy Schools), Art Review sniffed that: “presumably it was his turn to win”.7 Gooding remembers there being very little debate—“Tree Music was the obvious choice”8—although Martin Gayford in The Spectator singled out The Island 21.1.98, the other large painting Hoyland exhibited, as “among the most spectacular [paintings in the important Gallery III] … a big ebullient abstract … a palpable success.”9

It was exactly forty years since Hoyland’s debut in the 1958 Summer Exhibition, while a student at the Schools. His Backyards, Sheffield was acquired for the Academy from the Exhibition for the sum of £100. A second appearance followed in 1959, but during the 1960s, as Hoyland established himself as a major force in British abstract painting, showing frequently in prestigious galleries on both sides of the Atlantic, the Summer Exhibition, and the Academy as a whole, was likely far from his mind. His route back began in 1976, when he was invited to show in a room curated by Peter Blake, the first time invited artists were included alongside Academicians and open submissions. Supported by Leslie Waddington, Hoyland’s dealer since the late 1960s, Peter Blake’s Choice, as it was known, proved controversial, although Hoyland’s contribution attracted very little specific newspaper attention beyond the report that it was at first inadvertently hung upside down.10 Blake’s introduction of what disgruntled Senior Academician James Fitton called “the tycoons of Bond Street” could be seen to presage the Academy’s courting of the YBA generation in the 1990s.11

Hoyland began exhibiting regularly at the Summer Exhibition in 1983, when he was elected Associate Academician, becoming a full Academician in 1991, and a senior one in 2010. He only missed a single Summer Exhibition between 1989 and 2010. In the half-century since his debut, the Exhibition’s fortunes had declined and then were revived. In 1958, there were 174,231 visitors; in 1976, there were 71,354 visitors; and in 2012, the year of Hoyland’s own memorial display, there were 132,926 visitors (more unforgivably than in 1976, when a painting was again hung upside down). Over the course of twenty-nine Summer Exhibitions, Hoyland showed eighty-seven paintings and twenty-two prints.12 The Academy Archive records seven paintings and forty individual prints sold during the course of the exhibitions, although we know of additional purchases—sometimes of major paintings—originating in the exhibitions but finalised later, which the Academy would not have recorded it. Tree Music was acquired by Martin Krajewski, an important collector of Hoyland’s paintings, sometime after the 1998 Exhibition closed.

Following his split from Leslie Waddington in 1992, ending a relationship of a quarter of a century with the gallerist, the 1990s were difficult years for Hoyland and it is seems likely that the Summer Exhibitions became an increasingly important outlet for him. However, the 1999 Academy Exhibition, followed by a further mini-retrospective at Tate St Ives in 2006, marked a revival of interest that would continue to grow after his death in 2011, culminating in an exhibition of Damien Hirst’s collection at his Newport Street Gallery in 2015 and the representation of the Estate by Pace Gallery. In the years before he died, Hoyland developed an unlikely friendship with Hirst, having previously been a vocal critic.

In 1960, Hoyland’s final year show, his abstract paintings were ordered off the walls of the Schools by Charles Wheeler, the President of the Academy. He only gained his diploma as the result of the strength of previous figurative work. The Schools though, were not wholly opposed to recent developments, with the Keeper Henry Rushbury recording with tacit approval in 1959 that: “some of the senior students have experimented in the Abstract Expressionism which has been current among British and International artists outside the Academy.”13 Although cognisant of modern French painting up to around Nicolas de Staël, the paintings Hoyland displayed in his first two Summer Exhibitions were all figurative. Most likely, he felt that the abstract paintings he had by then begun to make would be rejected. By the 1990s, however, abstraction had long been a familiar sight at the Summer Exhibition, common enough to attract the passing scorn of self-consciously avant-garde observers.14 The other painting prize in 1998—the Korn/Ferry International Picture of the Year, worth £10,000—went to an abstract by Sandra Blow. A majority of the male panel members chose Hoyland and a majority of the female members chose Blow.15

Tree Music eludes easy clarification as either abstract or figurative. Its visionary form originates in the pendants suspended in trees in the Indonesian island of Bali, but, while this source is still clearly visible, it is transported into an other-worldly realm, both vivid and sombre. Hoyland saw Bali for the first time in the winter of 1994, returning shortly after for the first of a number of more extended visits. The importance of travel as a source of inspiration for Hoyland stretches back to the 1950s, when he hitchhiked from Sheffield to Italy. Henry Rushbury sanctioned a term-time trip to the south of France with the encouragement to “go and play in the sunshine boy”.16 The Bali pictures are the triumphant culmination of this early impulse. They stand out within Hoyland’s work because of their transformed figurative content, and because of the directness and power with which they equate the exotic—the remotely non-European—and the fantastical and unknown. They are perhaps the last examples of a serious modernist artist making this equation, in a lineage that goes back to the journeys of Matisse and Gauguin to Morocco and Tahiti. Currently, the interest in Hoyland’s art is concentrated in its opening decades. A full appraisal would need to acknowledge Hoyland’s capacity for reinvention and the heights it could reach in the 1990s and beyond.

  1. The Millennium Dome Centre Piece of Britain’s Millennium Celebrations, The Structure, The Attractions, The Landscape. There was a structural cross-section in Gallery X.↩︎

  2. Ayres was missed by Phillip Hensher in The Mail, 6 July 1998, although The Daily Telegraph noted that the absence of her “strident canvases” must have made hanging the show easier. “At Last the RA Gets it Right”, 29 May 1998.↩︎

  3. Robin Stringer, “Prepare Not to be Shocked”, Evening Standard, 28 May 1998.↩︎

  4. Matthew Chapman and Richard Allen, “Thief Walks Off with RA’s £2,000 Sculpture”, Evening Standard, 24 July 1998; letter from Mrs Edna Weiss,The Daily Telegraph, 22 July 1998.↩︎

  5. Brian Sewell, “It’s Downhill all the Way”, Evening Standard, 29 May 1998.↩︎

  6. “Introduction: Barbara Rae RA, Editor of this Year’s RA Illustrated, Tours the Summer Exhibition with Andrew Lambirth”, Royal Academy Illustrated 1998: A Souvenir of the 230th Summer Exhibition (London: 1998), 15.↩︎

  7. Art Review (September 1998).↩︎

  8. Mel Gooding in conversation with the author, 29 September 2017.↩︎

  9. Martin Gayford, “Slim Pickings”, The Spectator, 6 June 1998, 40.↩︎

  10. Keith Nurse, “Royal Academy Row Over ‘Rubbish’ from Invited Exhibitors”, The Daily Telegraph, 6 May 1976.↩︎

  11. James Fitton quoted in Keith Nurse, “Royal Academy Row Over ‘Rubbish’ from Invited Exhibitors”, The Daily Telegraph, 6 May 1976.↩︎

  12. Information supplied by Mark Pomeroy, Archivist, Royal Academy of Arts.↩︎

  13. Henry Rushbury, “Keeper’s Report”, Royal Academy Annual Report (London, 1959), 33.↩︎

  14. The Independent’s listing described: “The mixture as before, the worthy struggling with the meretricious, the flaccid, flabby abstract with the whimsical postcard.” “Arts Listing”, The Independent, 11 June 1998.↩︎

  15. The judges were Jennifer Durrant, Deirdre Dyson, Colin Gleadell, Ray Kelly, and Barbara Rae.↩︎

  16. John Hoyland, Artist Lives Interview (London: British Library, 2005).↩︎

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Explore the 1998 catalogue