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Art Made Now:
Chronicling the Summer Exhibition

Chronicling the Summer Exhibition

Welcome to The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018, an open access and peer-reviewed digital publication produced by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The RA Chronicle comprises two main parts. First of all, it offers a lively and informative year-by-year account of the Summer Exhibition’s remarkable history. This succession of short, illustrated texts, written by more than ninety art historians, curators, artists, and critics, is designed to highlight key issues, works, or artists from a particular year’s display. To provide a broader context for these accounts, each text is accompanied by factual and statistical details, such as attendance and submission figures, relating to that year’s Exhibition. Second, the RA Chronicle publishes a major digital database that makes the catalogues for every single Royal Academy Summer Exhibition available online as fully searchable texts. Together, the two parts of the RA Chronicle will be a permanent research resource for all those interested in the history of the Summer Exhibition. 

Introducing the RA Chronicle

In September 2017, the Royal Academy of Arts in London announced that Grayson Perry, one of its most well-known members, was going to be in charge of coordinating the 2018 Summer Exhibition. The appointment of such a high-profile Academician to this role was entirely appropriate, for the 2018 Exhibition would be the 250th such display, following an unbroken sequence of annual open exhibitions at the Academy that stretches right back to 1769. Perry made the stakes clear in the invitation he issued to those artists who might be interested in displaying their works at the show: “Fellow Artists! 2018 marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, so the Summer Exhibition will celebrate a quarter of a millennium of artistic innovation.” He then goes on to outline his own particular vision for the anniversary display: “As coordinator, I have decided that the theme of the show will be ‘Art Made Now’. I want to champion the democracy of the exhibition and show off the diversity of art being made in this moment.”1

“Art Made Now” is a good theme for the Summer Exhibition, and always has been; and it is right, too, that Perry should champion the openness of the Exhibition, and its diversity. Ever since its beginnings, this famous annual event in the London art calendar has devoted itself to showcasing contemporary art, primarily but not exclusively British, of a remarkably broad and varied character. This was true, indeed, of the very first such exhibition, which took place in the early summer of 1769, only months after the creation of the Royal Academy in December of the previous year. The Academy’s Instrument of Foundation, which set out the rules for the new institution—then made up of forty Academicians—declared that there was to be “an Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all artists of distinguished merit.”2 The Academy's inaugural show delivered on this promise, displaying more than 130 newly produced works by over fifty artists, and ranging in its contents from history paintings, portraits, and landscapes to sculptural busts, drawings, and architectural models.

Ever since, and at a variety of venues—Pall Mall, Somerset House, Trafalgar Square, and Burlington House—the Academy’s annual show has included what has sometimes seemed a bewildering array of contemporary works of art. By the end of the eighteenth century, the works on display already numbered in the hundreds; by the end of the following century, more than 2,000 pieces a year, including scores of prints, would typically be found packing the Academy’s galleries. Today, that figure regularly tops 5,000, and includes photographic and moving image work, and, on occasion, examples of installation and performance art. There has been, of course, a corresponding rise in the numbers of participating artists: today, hundreds of practitioners find their works hanging alongside those of the eighty artists who belong to the modern Academy. Audiences, too, have risen dramatically in number since the show’s beginnings: while a respectable 14,000 people attended the 1769 display, nearly 200,000 visitors came to the 2017 Exhibition.

How best, then, to make sense of this astonishingly busy and diverse event? And how best to bring alive the fact that, each year since 1769, the Summer Exhibition has always offered its visitors a spectacle that, however familiar in character, is packed with new works of art? One answer, which has been pursued in this publication, and which has the great virtue of expressing the annual rhythms of the Summer Exhibition itself, is to develop an online art-historical chronicle that focuses on each individual exhibition in turn and discusses something especially interesting about its character or contents. To enable us to carry out this ambitious project, we have asked more than ninety scholars, curators, critics, and artists to produce concise essays, of around 1,200 words each, about individual Summer Exhibitions. Some have written one or two—others a few more. In every case, authors have been encouraged to treat their task as something akin to that of writing a lively short story, on a topic of their own choosing. In a small number of cases, we have also worked with film-makers and animators, who have offered their own take on individual displays.

This approach has given our many contributors the opportunity to consider the history of the Summer Exhibition afresh and from a variety of perspectives. We were deliberately open-ended in our commissioning of texts, and writers have produced a spectrum of commentaries which range from those based on empirical research of archival and historical sources, to the personal accounts written by people directly involved with organising the Summer Exhibition. A generation on from the landmark exhibition and catalogue Art on the Line, which addressed the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century history of the Academy’s exhibitions at Somerset House, the RA Chronicle has also provided the opportunity for authors to reflect on the more recent histories of the Exhibition, which to date have been relatively limited in their scope.3 Just as importantly, the RA Chronicle’s structure is one that that encourages a flexible, experimental approach on the part of the user. Readers are invited to engage not only with the stories of a particular year but to draw art-historical connections of continuity and change between one year and another, between decades, and even between centuries. The range and richness of the RA Chronicle’s contents will allow users to explore particular themes over long historical periods, and, no doubt, to raise new issues and questions about the Summer Exhibition, and about British art and exhibition culture more generally.

As well as offering a new interpretative history of the Summer Exhibition, we wanted to provide a rich repository of data about the Academy’s annual show. Each year’s entry thus includes extra information about that year’s display, tabulated as a series of entries that run alongside the commentaries themselves. Qualitative information, including details such as the main talking points in press reviews, significant exhibits, or artists that took centre stage in a given year, appears in a brief paragraph under the heading “The Year in Context”. Quantitative information provides such details as the dates of the exhibition, the number of works that were submitted, the number of visitors who attended, the gender balance of contributors, and the balance between Academicians and non-Academicians among those who showed their work. Much of this information can be looked at in relation to each individual year, or across extended periods. This data has been gathered from the institutional records of the Academy, including the minutes of its Council, its Annual Reports, and the published catalogues of the Summer Exhibition, as well as published repositories of Summer Exhibition data such as Algernon Graves’ The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904 (1905).


Like all data, it is subject to the accuracy of those who originally recorded the numbers and information, as well as its subsequent transcriptions. There are also some gaps where information could not be ascertained. However, notwithstanding these important caveats, tracking the data for exhibitors, audience figures, and sales at the Summer Exhibition across a period from 1769 to 2018 offers an opportunity to think about the impact of the Summer Exhibition as a cultural event within the histories of the Royal Academy and of British art more generally. Visualising this data makes some aspects of the Summer Exhibition’s histories startlingly apparent. One especially striking phenomenon is the predominance of painters within the Academy and its Annual Exhibition (Fig. 1). For those well acquainted with the history of the Academy, this will come as little surprise. However, what is particularly interesting is the consistency with which painters (and, as a result, painting) have dominated for the period for which we have this data (1769–1989), accounting for between 60–80 per cent of works displayed at the Exhibition. Perhaps more surprising is the balance of Academicians and non-Academicians among exhibitors (Fig. 2). In the first Exhibition of 1769, 76 per cent of the exhibitors were Academicians. However, following its establishment, this number falls and we see that, quite regularly, over 90 per cent of the exhibitors are non-Academicians, highlighting the significance of the Exhibition as a venue of display for artists who were not part of the institution.


The contribution of women artists as exhibitors at the Summer Exhibition is another area which requires much further research. Throughout its history, the Summer Exhibition has provided an important venue for women artists to meet their public, to receive critical attention from the press, and to offer their work for sale to a large audience. However, a particularly frustrating issue for researchers is the gender bias propagated by the manner in which the published list of exhibitors has been collated: without painstaking close research, data relating to exhibitors’ gender may only be gleaned from gendered naming conventions or those exhibitors who were listed using English honorifics (Miss, Mrs, Countess, etc).4 Exhibitors who used initials are, for the purposes of our analysis, counted as male, and therefore the number of female exhibitors that are recorded is significantly lower than has actually been the case. We also know that some women, such as the artist Rosa Brett, used pseudonyms to disguise their gender. Therefore, the picture offered by the data has to be interpreted as indicative rather than completely accurate. Taking these inaccuracies into account, what the visualised data does clearly show is the growth of women exhibiting from the late nineteenth century onwards, with women making up over at least 20 per cent of the exhibitors from 1893 onwards (Fig. 3). Significantly, there is a steady growth in the number of women exhibiting from the 1860s onwards, and it is interesting to speculate upon the correlation between this pattern and the admittance of women to the Royal Academy Schools beginning in 1860.


The peaks and troughs of the data visualisations for attendance figures and sales (Figs. 4 and 5) also demonstrate the commercial importance of these Annual Exhibitions for the Academy. There are definitely highs and lows—at its zenith, a staggering 391,197 people attended the Summer Exhibition of 1879. The graph, rather akin to a heart-rate monitor measuring the vivacity of the Exhibition, represents some periods of ill-health, with a steep decline in visitors in the early twentieth century. It is interesting to see a jump in 1955, attributable to the popularity of Pietro Annigoni’s Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II—the opening hours of the Exhibition were extended that year, so great was the clamour to see this painting in the flesh. In terms of visitor figures, the graph tells the story of the Summer Exhibition’s bumpy ride in regard to popularity, with a steady rise over the past few years to numbers in the 200,000s. The recent spike in sales highlights the commercial viability of the Exhibition and its importance as a revenue generator for the Academy.



As well as providing users with a range of art-historical perspectives on the Exhibition, and contextualising facts and figures about the displays, we have produced searchable digital facsimiles of the catalogues for every single year of the Summer Exhibition. Again, these are embedded in each year’s entry, but they can also be accessed independently through the publication’s search function. This large-scale digitisation project has been developed to allow anyone with an interest in the history of the Summer Exhibition, and in the artists and works who have featured in this history, to pursue their research with unprecedented ease, and in exceptional depth.

This project has been made possible through digital tools and technologies. It was important to us that the texts, data, and digitised catalogues we publish in the RA Chronicle are available as open-access resources under a Creative Commons licence, indicating that this is a starting point for research. There are many more histories of the Exhibition and its exhibitors that remain to be written. We hope that the RA Chronicle will provide a wealth of information and access to important data that has been, until now, relatively difficult to access. We therefore look forward to seeing the RA Chronicle stimulating important new research on the Summer Exhibition and its histories, hopefully over decades to come, and are keen to capture how this resource is being used by its readers. Please contact us with news about the findings and discoveries that have been made possible by the RA Chronicle, and tell us about how you have used it in teaching or in your studies and research. 

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  1. Statement by Grayson Perry, Summer Exhibition 2018 Coordinator:↩︎

  2. For a digital copy of the Royal Academy of Art’s Instrument of Foundation, housed in the Royal Academy’s Archive (RAA/IF), see↩︎

  3. Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780–1836. Courtauld Institute Gallery, Somerset House, London (18 October 2001–20 January 2002).↩︎

  4. For an alternate methodology, see, for example, Paris Spies-Gans’s entry for 1800 and her forthcoming PhD thesis.↩︎

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