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2005 Frank Bowling

The year 2005 marked a watershed for the Royal Academy. The Guyanese-born painter Frank Bowling was elected an Academician in May 2005, the first Black British artist in its history. Although winning the accolade of “painting of the year” for his painting, Mirror (1964–1966) for his very first exhibit at the 1966 Summer Exhibition, the same year that Bowling’s name was put forward as a potential Associate Royal Academician—his election did not come to fruition until nearly forty years later (Fig. 1). Elected on 25 May 2005, this was too late for Bowling to be granted the automatic right of a Royal Academician to submit up to six works to that year’s Summer Exhibition. Nonetheless, the artist has submitted prolifically since his student days at the Royal College of Art during the 1960s, with several of his works shown within the most recent 2017 Exhibition. Bowling's continued commitment to submitting work demonstrates his deep connection to the Academy and especially to the Summer Exhibition and its democratic ethos.

The Royal College of Art was Bowling’s first and foremost training ground and his teachers such as Rodney Burn, Roger de Grey, Ruskin Spear, and most importantly, Bowling’s mentor, Carel Weight, were themselves all Royal Academicians. As a student, Bowling was encouraged by them to send his work to the Summer Exhibition, as an opportunity for Bowling to make his mark in England. After graduating, Bowling maintained his relationship with the Academy through displaying work in the Annual Exhibition and even painted some of his “Map Paintings” in “one of the big rooms in the Academy” at the arrangement of his former tutor, Carel Weight.1 These networks and connections are important in understanding Bowling’s relationship with the Academy leading up to his election in 2005, and its significance to him.

Explore the 2005 catalogue

It was Weight, as the then Head of Painting at the Royal College of Art, who had originally guided Bowling to a successful application to the school. Even after Bowling’s relocation to New York in 1966, their relationship continued across the Atlantic and Weight particularly supported Bowling’s relationship with the Academy and his continued submissions to the Summer Exhibition. He endorsed Bowling’s relocation and it was Weight who first posed the fundamental question to Bowling, as early as 1959, that would prove critical to the development of his practice: “what kind of painter did I want to be? Abstract or figurative?”2 While New York would be pivotal in the artist’s decision, it is his monumentally scaled earlier work, Mirror that captures not just this seeming opposition between figuration and abstraction, but also their convergence. It evokes both juxtaposition and mutability through the two oppositional “reflections” of the artist on either side of a golden winding staircase, with his first wife, Paddy Kitchen. These stairs—taken from a real-life equivalent in the Royal College of Art’s studios from where Bowling had graduated in the same year he began the painting—were an object of fascination for the artist. The motion of colour weaves through the solidity of the spiral staircase in contrast with the swirling abstract colours above and clearly defined Pop Art aesthetics below it. Within this early work, we can witness the ways in which colour becomes an event in itself, with lines and forms that precede human motion, whether abstract or figurative. In an interview in 1975, Bowling acknowledged this position: “I follow colour if you like.”3 Following colour led to Bowling's relocation, and with it, his full embrace of abstraction leading to such works as Wintergreens (1986), which he submitted as his Academy diploma work and was displayed in the Summer Exhibition of 2007 (Fig. 2).

As Bowling’s Mirror intimated, aesthetic and institutional evolution are conjoined and Bowling’s election was not the only first for the Academy in 2005. The theme of the Exhibition, which had been suggested by the Academician and Royal College of Art Professor Christopher Orr, was the multiple image, with an emphasis upon printmaking. The American, Ed Ruscha, who had been elected an Honorary Academician the year before, was that summer’s featured artist. Ruscha’s installation meant that photography was included for the first time in the Exhibition; there was also a lightbox by Michael Craig-Martin, acknowledging art practices that combined techniques such as screenprinting and digital printing.4 The theme accounts for the presences of Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Ruscha, but there were a number of the New York School featured as well, including Helen Frankenthaler and Ellsworth Kelly. The new inclusion of engravings and lithographs also lead to the display of such works by Chuck Close, Richard Hamilton, and Lucian Freud. Other highlights included works by David Hockney, Paula Rego, and Langlands & Bell as well as memorial works by recently deceased members, such as Peter Coker, Norman Adams, and Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. David Nash’s monumental wooden sculptures in the Annenberg Courtyard were particularly praised. Given that William Blake had never been elected because he had apprenticed primarily as an engraver, the theme is indicative of the Academy’s expansiveness and commitment to progress that year. 

However, the critics still struggled with the choices these advances presented in the Exhibition, labelled as too “kitsch” by one newspaper.5 The Summer Exhibition was summarily reduced by another critic to: “a sculpture of homicidal teddy bears, an inflatable globe, and a body in perspex slices.”6 Yet for Caroline Boucher, writing in The Guardian, the sense that the direction of the Summer Exhibition, and by implication the Academy, could be gradually evolving was positive. “After the flak that both the Royal Academy and the summer exhibition have received for the past few years,” she wrote, “it’s a relief to come away with a sense of enjoyment, indeed exhilaration.”7 As Bowling’s Mirror and his eventual election in 2005 encapsulated, change was inevitable.

  1. See “Frank Bowling RA”, Royal Academy of Art website,↩︎

  2. Frank Bowling cited by Robert Doty in “Interview with Frank Bowling”, 14 September 1971,↩︎

  3. Bowling in Jeanne Siegel, “Frank Bowling’s Abstract Paintings: A Critique and Interview”, Art International (Archive Press) 19 (May 1975): 23–26.↩︎

  4. “Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2005”, The Guardian, May 2005,,,1498635,00.html.↩︎

  5. John Russell Taylor, “The Nearly New Looks So Dated as Academy Misses the Moment—Summer Exhibition”, The Times, 3 June 2005, 34.↩︎

  6. Hephzibah Anderson, “Summer Exhibition 2005”, Evening Standard, 23 June 2005.↩︎

  7. Caroline Boucher, “No Longer a Hanging Offence”, The Guardian, 5 June 2015,↩︎

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Explore the 2005 catalogue