Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts, and the contribution made by the Academy to the artistic and cultural life of the country.
My Lords, I suppose the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and I have one thing in common: we can both go to bed tonight secure in the knowledge that we will between us have commanded the headlines tomorrow.
It has been a very frustrating period for me recently because I have had to follow what has been going on in your Lordships’ House and in another place from a hospital room. I am delighted to be back and able to introduce a debate, the keynote of which I think can be complete and enthusiastic unanimity. What I seek to do this evening is to draw attention to one of our truly great national institutions as it comes towards the end of a very special year in its history.
The Royal Academy is celebrating 250 years of remarkable contribution to our national life. There is not a Member in your Lordships’ House, nor indeed in the other place, who does not have some cause to be thankful for what the Royal Academy has done in upholding standards, giving opportunities, providing education and providing real continuity through a period from the reign of George III to the reign of Elizabeth II. There are many in your Lordships’ House—I think my noble friend Lord Crathorne will touch on this in more detail later—who have cause to be thankful because when I, together with the late Andrew Faulds, founded the all-party arts and heritage group way back in 1974, one of the very first institutions we visited was the Royal Academy, and we have been welcome ever since. I do not think a single year has gone by without at least a couple of visits to remarkable exhibitions.
The Royal Academy is unique—I use the word properly—in that it is an institution that is run by artists, sculptors and architects for artists, sculptors and architects, and is an institution that has provided stimulus, training and education of the highest order. Its first president was, of course, the great Sir Joshua Reynolds. It all came about because just over 250 years ago the architect William Chambers took a deputation to wait upon the king with a petition signed by some 40-odd artists asking for this institution to be established, and it was. During the 19th century, some of our greatest artists were trained in its schools, including Constable, Turner, Soane and Lawrence. The list is endless and illustrious and it has brought enormous benefit to our nation as a result.
The Royal Academy began not in Burlington House, where it is now, but in Somerset House, which was designed for it. It has provided a series of exhibitions which have stimulated the intellectual life of the nation in a very remarkable way. Of course we all know the summer exhibitions, and this year not only was there an extra large summer exhibition, but there was also an exhibition which displayed some of the treasures that had appeared in exhibitions from 1768 onwards. We know the Royal Academy not just for the summer exhibitions but for the other wonderful exhibitions. It has been a showcase for art of the highest international calibre. I could spend the whole evening, not just the few minutes allocated to me, talking about these things, but I shall just highlight perhaps the first of the great international exhibitions, the Italian exhibition of 1930, which was not without controversy because its most notable visitor was Mussolini. It was, however, an extraordinary exhibition, bringing together works by Donatello, Raphael and all the great Italian artists of the Renaissance. Just five years later, there was a truly remarkable Chinese exhibition.
One could go on and on, but I just want to talk about this year, because at the beginning of this year, we had something quite amazing: the recreation of much of the greatest of the royal collections, the collection of Charles I. Many of those great pictures were dispersed during that period of philistinism, which we know as the Commonwealth and Protectorate. Because of the generosity of loaners and the ingenuity of scholars, however, earlier this year the Charles I exhibition brought together so many of the things that that great connoisseur had collected. It is interesting that Charles I and George IV, who had varying reputations, nevertheless were among the greatest collectors that this country has ever known.
One of the stars of the exhibition earlier this year was that wonderful triple portrait of Charles I by van Dyck, done by the artist for Bernini to create a sculpture, which sadly perished in the fire at Whitehall Palace at the end of the 17th century. I have a particular interest in the triple portrait because I was able to borrow it last year for an exhibition that I arranged in Lincoln. This year we had it in the Royal Academy and it was a link between the two royal collectors, because although it was, of course, painted for Charles I, it was George IV as Prince Regent who rescued it when he went on a buying expedition to Rome in the early years of the 19th century. At the moment there is a very different but spectacular exhibition “Oceania”. Any of your Lordships who have not seen it should certainly go before it closes.
This year, we have seen a fantastic expansion of the Royal Academy to include the Burlington Gardens buildings. They have been visited since May by a million people. That is really quite a remarkable statistic. Again, if your Lordships have not been there, I hope you will go because they have made use of these new galleries and exhibition spaces to display such things as the very best possible and near-contemporary copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Hie thee there if you have not been already.
Of course, all this has been done during the presidency of Christopher Le Brun, a painter—it is very apposite that it should be a painter who is the president this year—and the tenure of Sir Charles Saumarez Smith, who still rejoices in the name of “secretary”. They have added on the words “chief executive”, but I like organisations that still have, as their chief officer, a secretary. He has been a brilliant one and is retiring at the end of this year, justifiably having been knighted, with the thanks of all of those who have regard for the centrality of the Royal Academy as a marvellous institution.
All this has been achieved without government funding. No Governments of any persuasion have provided funding for the Royal Academy. It has been fortunate in receiving legacies and great donations, but it has been industrious in raising money itself. It does, however, benefit from two government contributions. First, no exhibition of great note can be held anywhere these days without government indemnity, and the academy has been a great beneficiary there. Secondly, it has the security of a 999-year lease on a peppercorn rent.
That is wonderful but draws a sharp contrast. As a fellow of one of the learned societies in the courtyard of Burlington House—I am an antiquary, but there are the astronomers, geologists, chemists and Linnaeans —we all have our premises on 10-year renewable leases. It would be a wonderful way to put the crown on the year of celebration if we could be given a degree of parity with the Royal Academy. I just sow the seed and hope that my noble friend will pass it to those who may be in a position to nurture it.
What of the future? I fear I must utter the awful word “Brexit”, because the secretary has indicated to me that there is real concern about the future of the schools and European participation in them after 29 March—or after the transition period. It is important that we take this on board because, as we leave the European Union, we must recognise that some of our greatest national jewels are our great educational and artistic institutions, of which the Royal Academy is one and the courtyard societies are others. It would also help the academy very much if the catalyst scheme of the Heritage Lottery Fund, whereby grants were given to match individual donation, could be reintroduced.
I end as I began—I am told that because of the small number of speakers, to all of whom I am extremely grateful, I can have a couple of minutes of injury time, which is very appropriate having just come out of hospital. The academy is worthy of celebration and applause by all of us and I very much hope that as it moves into its 251st year, it can look forward to a 300th anniversary of equal splendour.
My Lords, in another place, in 1970, I listened to the fine maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. He has kept up that standard over these 48 years. I thank him for obtaining the debate and leading it persuasively tonight. He has been an exemplary stalwart for the arts, culture and heritage in our two Houses.
It is a great privilege to be here at the heart of the British state. Our great sovereign is just down the Mall, the Commons Speaker and the Lord Chancellor are just down the Corridor. Across the road is the Lord Chief Justice in the Supreme Court and the abbey, with its mighty national history and attendant Prelates. The Prime Minister is in Downing Street and the Chief of the Defence Staff is in his Whitehall bunker.
I should like to think that the academy is also part of the warp and woof of our British state. It has earned such a place and, if they were here, notwithstanding their rivalries and disputatious natures, I guess that PRAs Joshua Reynolds, Mr Constable and the great JMW Turner would agree. I think they would like that. The RA can be inspirational and is a great institution.
I have held my Royal Academy friends card for 35 years or more, and have my Tate—Britain, Modern and Liverpool—pass and my National Art pass as well. I greatly appreciated the landmark exhibition of the RA entitled “British Art in the 20th Century”. That was a 1987 exhibition but I found it stimulating and startling. It was highly controversial as far as the art critics were concerned. I recollect the names of Shepherd, Graham-Dixon and Spurling; and Feaver crashed in heavily with his reporting on what had been selected and where it was hung.
This year, we have been greatly connected with the First World War and, four years ago, with its beginnings. From an exhibition that year, I remember to this day Mark Gertler’s terrifying “Merry-Go-Round”, which depicts soldiers and civilians screaming in a kind of pain. It was an instant success; a hit. I recollect CRW Nevinson’s depiction in black, white and grey of a company of soldiers resting; he portrayed the sheer exhaustion of the company of men and, understandably, their no little apprehension. I also recollect Sickert, who depicted Pierrot on Brighton promenade. Interestingly, many of the deckchairs in that painting are empty; the artist is making a point about casualties, and given the wind conditions, you could hear the great guns across the Channel.
In the same exhibition, Paul Nash’s depiction of a sea made up of broken aircraft fuselages is a powerful Second World War image. Another, which I found particularly interesting and rather sad, was Rodrigo Moynihan’s 1943 painting, “Medical Inspection”. A doctor is seated at a table with a group of men with naked torsos who are—I would not say starving, but of poor physique. They are the common man put into uniform, now having taken much of it off and waiting to be inspected. It is a powerful image and in some respects still relates to British society. I also mention Gwen John—is she better than her bombastic brother? In contrast to the images of war, I point out her painting “The Convalescent”, a sad depiction in a gentle, rather weak, palette.
Another great exhibition, bringing great credit to the Royal Academy, was that of Frans Hals. He might have liked Henry Ford, who told us, “You can have any colour you want so long as it is black”. Hals had his black as well: “Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House” is a depiction of five elderly ladies—distinguished, prosperous ladies—waiting for death. The catalogue, which I still have, depicts an enlarged hand; we in your Lordships’ House may recognise what is not a youthful hand. Hals was a remarkable man who threw the paint around, but in this instance he was very specific.
I am an enthusiast, not an expert, but I recommend consideration of Poussin. In a great exhibition of his work, there were enormous canvasses from the Louvre. The one that caught my eye, in the biggest gallery, was “The Holy Family on the Steps”. It demonstrates his remarkable palette and how he masters geometry and perspective with no little subtlety; he was a classical painter. He had a truly memorable self-portrait: very powerful, very vain and very assured.
One of the great exhibitions in terms of popularity was very recent—the Hockney. I have never known an exhibition so crowded, and going down the steps into the reception area, what did you hear? It was pleasure. People were thrilled to be there. I remember, however, one very sniffy Daily Telegraph critic who said that Hockney had been a theatre painter. I think that was his way of dismissing Hockney. But surely his Lincolnshire wolds—his depictions of the farmed landscape and those beautiful green trees—have to be admired greatly.
There has been no little controversy at the Royal Academy. One of the great controversies involved a reference to the Moors murders: a large portrait made by the hands of children created a great deal of controversy. But, that is art. I dare say some remember the dinner the Academy gave for the great Sir Winston Churchill, at which the then-president Sir Alfred Munnings laid into modern art. It was not well received at all, but you cannot take from Munnings the credit for his equine portraits. I try to assess as a humble enthusiast.
The Academy places artistic genius before us. It celebrates and encourages British art and culture. Perhaps we are somewhat elitist when we are thronging the galleries of the RA, but one does see parties of children, and there is the trickle-down effect. However, it is expensive. I went to the NPG to see those lovely Gainsborough portraits, and it cost £16. You are not going to travel from Bolton to spend that—and how do you get from Bolton to the NPG? My point is that there is the trickle-down effect, but travel is very costly. In many ways the RA is metropolitan par excellence. I do not see how it could be otherwise. But when you go to such exhibitions now, you hear the voices of people from Europe. Whether that is the consequence of the Channel Tunnel, I am not sure, but it is cosmopolitan, international and successful, and I very much support the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, it is really most refreshing to take part in a debate where it is almost impossible to disagree with any of the other speakers. I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jones, and listen to him talk about his love of the arts and all the exhibitions he has witnessed. I agree entirely with him that we are talking about a national centre of excellence. In particular I must thank my noble friend Lord Cormack, for that is what he is, for leading this debate of celebration. We are not celebrating a great deal nowadays, but it is a celebration of a remarkable 250 years of history of a great art centre.
I ought to declare an interest as an emeritus trustee. The merits of being an emeritus trustee, of course, is that I have the privilege of being associated with the Royal Academy but with no responsibility whatever. That is a very enjoyable thing to have, and a great luxury. For a moment I want to join my noble friend Lord Cormack, and others, in standing back and just looking at this extraordinary achievement in this national gallery. It is something to celebrate at a time when we as a country are very divided and introspective. This is a really positive achievement to celebrate. As I said, it is a truly national centre of excellence—one that can be enjoyed by all 100,000 friends from all over the country. Throughout those 250 years, it has had the support of monarchs from King George III to Queen Elizabeth II, with the founding principle of promoting the creation, enjoyment and appreciation of visual arts and architecture. It is a national focus for those things. As my noble friend Lord Cormack said, it is in a unique position in the arts world as a centre for artists, sculptors, architects and printmakers.
As we have heard, the last year has seen the most impressive redevelopment that I think the Piccadilly building has ever had, remembering the move from Somerset House to, eventually, Piccadilly in the 19th century. The linking of Burlington House with Burlington Gardens has been quite remarkable. I walked around it again yesterday morning to get myself up to date. To have created 70% extra space in that joint building under the leadership of the architect Sir David Chipperfield has been miraculous, and the range of facilities is also very special. For example, yesterday I saw the remarkable Renzo Piano architecture exhibition in one of the new rooms. There is also the new Benjamin West Lecture Theatre, where I recently heard Sir David Cannadine give a brilliant lecture on Sir Winston Churchill’s qualities as a painter. The variety of learning to be had at the Royal Academy is quite remarkable.
I want to reinforce the remarks that have been made about funding. For five years I had the privilege of being Arts Minister, and here I ought to say that I owe a great deal to my noble friend Lord Cormack for the advice and support that he gave me at that time. During that period I paid my first visit as a Minister to the Royal Academy. Having, for my first several months, been besieged by everyone all over the country for taxpayer support, it was quite extraordinary to arrive at the Royal Academy and to be told that the whole institution was being run without a single penny of taxpayer support, bar of course the indirect support that my noble friend Lord Cormack mentioned of the peppercorn rent and the indemnity for exhibitions. You would expect a Rolls-Royce arts centre to find it easier to raise money from the private sector; nevertheless, to me, it was a remarkable story.
There is a lesson to be learned too from the Royal Academy’s recent achievement of getting nearly £13 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. As my noble friend Lord Cormack said, there was challenge funding in the past, and I am a great believer in that. In my time as Minister, I was able to prove to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that for every £1 of taxpayers’ money, you could get £5 from the private sector in various ways. That led him to give more taxpayer support to the arts. However, it is the variety of funding that matters. There is the commercial aspect and there are the donations of course—it is a charitable institution—but it was Sir Hugh Casson who, in the 1970s, started Friends of the Royal Academy. There are 100,000 friends from all over the country, which makes it a national institution. All of us take part in it and are interested in it, and we join in the activities.
We have heard all about the significant loan exhibitions of Italian and Chinese art, David Hockney’s art and the exhibition of Charles I’s paintings this year. Unfortunately, “Oceania” has just closed but I agree with my noble friend Lord Cormack that it was the most remarkable and highly imaginative exhibition. Very few of us know much about the history of the Pacific Ocean, such as that it has 20,000 islands, but the portrayal of its arts was quite special.
The art school is singularly important. Of course, the Royal Academy provided the first art school 250 years ago—we have heard of all the distinguished artists who have learned there. It is the only three-year postgraduate art course in Europe that is free—for the student, not for the Royal Academy, which supports the school.
I like the story in which the president at the time, Benjamin West, gives Constable encouragement. His painting had just been rejected for display in the academy, and Benjamin West said:
“Don’t be disheartened young man, we shall hear more of you again; you must have loved nature before you could have painted this”.
So there is encouragement for us all—not that I claim to be a Constable. I think that is a wonderful story.
The final thing I will touch on is the uniqueness of the governance system in this institution and its outstanding leadership. The 13-strong Council of Academicians, under the leadership of the president, sets the direction and strategy. I join the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in praising Christopher Le Brun, who has been an outstanding president. Then there is the chief executive or secretary—a good historical description of Sir Charles Saumarez Smith’s job, which has been to direct the work and the implementation of that strategy. He is retiring, of course, and we all wish him well. The chairman of the Royal Academy Development Trust, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, is retiring at the same time. He has done an exceptional job of helping to raise funds. Finally, I mention the Burlington appeal board, chaired by Sir Richard Carew Pole, who has worked tirelessly to raise money for the Royal Academy. They have all been outstanding leaders, but without its dedicated staff the place would not have managed such a great achievement. We have a great deal to celebrate on this 250th anniversary. It is an institution that can give great encouragement to the rest of the arts world.
It is so nice to take part in such a happy occasion. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for winning this debate and making it possible. We are congratulating the Royal Academy, a remarkable institution, on its first 250 years. I would love to talk a little about the Arts and Heritage Group, which was founded by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in 1974. As he said, one of its first visits was to the Royal Academy, and we have visited every year since. The wonderful secretary, Charles Saumarez Smith, always welcomes us in the morning, and the curator of each show kindly introduces the exhibition, which greatly adds to our knowledge and pleasure. The group has visited the RA on average twice a year over the last 10 years, and has enjoyed some amazing exhibitions.
It was a triumph to get back all the items that Charles I originally purchased and which were then dispersed. It has just won the Apollo Exhibition of the Year award. There were two wonderful Hockney exhibitions in 2012 and 2016; the one in 2012 was the most visited show that year.
In the past 10 years, we have also been to some of the other exhibitions that the Academy has organised, including Van Gogh, Monet and Rubens, and lovely shows such as the modern garden exhibition, which was full of beautiful pictures. We went to an amazing exhibition called “Bronze”. I was so impressed by the enormous bronzes, and I remember thinking of the difficulties involved in bringing it all together—it was quite extraordinary.
Mention has been made of the annual summer exhibition, which has been held every year for the past 250 years. Alongside the 80 academicians—it is worth mentioning that one-third of them are women—who are allowed to put in six pictures, anyone else in the country, or indeed anywhere else, can enter pictures if they wish to. Every year, there are literally thousands of entries from professional and amateur artists. It is a great show, which I always thoroughly enjoy. The selection panel has quite a difficult job. This year, 300,000 people came, which is more than had visited any of the exhibitions since 1907.
My mother exhibited several times in the summer exhibition. With so many pictures to fit in, some have to be hung quite high up, and people like to be hung “on the line”—in other words, at eye level. One of my mother’s paintings was of a model called Zelda. My father received a telegram from my mother which simply said, “Zelda hung on the line”. It was delivered by a policeman, who demanded an explanation.
Another great contribution by the Royal Academy has been its school, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Luce, which now offers a degree course. I always enjoyed visiting the degree shows, trying to spot new talent. In 1971, I was greatly impressed by a student’s work, and I have kept in touch with her ever since. She works very slowly and so has a small output of lovely works. I am glad to say that two of her best works are now in the House of Lords collection, and one is reproduced in the guide to the Palace of Westminster. Her name is Diane Ibbotson. A few years ago, I and the academician Anthony Green, who admired her work, persuaded her to enter a picture to the summer exhibition. It was voted the people’s choice, which was very satisfactory.
The Academy collections are themselves superb. The first gift was from the president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, of his fine and famous self-portrait. The pride of the collection is Michelangelo’s Tondo of 1504, “The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John”—the only marble by Michelangelo in England. It is now on fine display in the new collections gallery, which opened in May this year. As has been mentioned, this gallery has been a major development that has added massively to what the Royal Academy can do and show. Visitors can now walk from Burlington House through these newly opened spaces to Burlington Gardens. It has been a brilliantly successful project, masterminded by Charles Saumarez Smith. It is his lasting legacy, as he leaves the Royal Academy at the end of the month for pastures new.
I end with a big thank you to Charles—now Sir Charles, happily—and the Royal Academy for what, over 250 years, it has given this country for the great benefit of all of us.
My Lords, I express my warmest congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, not just on the superb timing of this debate but on the way in which he introduced this interesting discussion this evening. To avoid repetition of much more erudite and artistically skilled contributors, as an amateur historian I will concentrate on the history—not least because my great-great-great-grandfather was Sir William Chambers. So I want to look at how the Royal Academy came into being. As Members of your Lordships’ House may like to be reminded, Chambers was appointed architectural tutor to the then Prince of Wales in August 1757. The prince became an accomplished architectural draughtsman himself—but, more significantly for this debate, he also became a lifelong admirer and sponsor of his erstwhile tutor.
After 1760, when George ascended to the throne, Chambers enjoyed increasing royal patronage, and the commissions of many of those he encountered at court. As a result his work was wide-ranging, from the design of the state coach for the coronation to the pagoda in Kew Gardens—and of course Somerset House itself. Despite some previous controversy over the abortive “Incorporated Society”, which left the King very dubious about any connection with a new society of artists, Chambers used his special access and influence with him to good effect in November 1768.
The part that Chambers played in those speedy events was acknowledged in the minutes of the general assembly of the Royal Academy that December, as follows:
“That some time towards the latter End of November 1768, Mr Chambers waited upon the King and informed him that many artists of reputation together with himself were very desirous of establishing a Society that should more effectually promote the Arts of Design than any yet established, but that they were sensible their Designs could not be carried into Execution without his majesty’s Patronage, for which they had prevailed upon him to solicit”.
A later minute thanked Chambers,
“for his Active and able Conduct in planning and forming the Royal Academy”.
By 7 December 1768 Chambers was able to take the Instrument of Foundation to the King for his signature and, as we have heard, on 14 December, in Dalton’s Warehouse in Pall Mall, the new Royal Academy held its first meeting and Joshua Reynolds was elected president. Significantly, Chambers was insistent that a painter should be president—although the King had entertained a prejudice against Reynolds—and himself opted to accept the post of treasurer.
Indeed, Chambers drafted the Instrument of Foundation to give the King the prerogative to appoint the treasurer, so that,
“he may have a person in whom he places full confidence, in an office where his interests is concerned”.
A contemporary noted that Reynolds had told him,
“that though he was President, Sir Wm was Viceroy over him”.
In short, it can safely be suggested that Chambers ensured that the new Academy was able to boast the title “Royal” from the very outset. That would also seem to be the conclusion of John Harris, the prime authority on Chambers, with whom I had the great pleasure of working during my time at the RIBA. I am hugely indebted to his scholarship for much of what I know of Chambers and his role in this saga.
As one of the founding fathers of the RA, Chambers can share credit for its initial open attitude to new members. As the excellent Library briefing that we have received for this debate reminds us, of the 36 founding members, four were Italian, one French, one Swiss and one American.
Even more significantly, there were two women founder members. I was especially interested in an item on “Woman’s Hour” last week about those two—Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser. The programme gave a fascinating description of some of the work of Kauffman, but the contributors admitted that Moser had not had enough attention—so I am going to remedy that just a little.
When we can escape from more contemporary absurdities, my daughter and I are currently examining some of our distinguished ancestor’s personal correspondence in the wonderful archives of the Royal Academy. Some of it we donated ourselves, but the archivist, Mark Pomeroy, and his magnificent team have also made available a great deal more.
Among the former is a delightful letter from Chambers to his favourite daughter Charlotte—our ancestor—written when Mary Moser was staying with the family in the summer of August 1784, in which he reported that Mary had been,
“swimming about ever since you left us til within these four days that she has taken with a strong fit of painting, of which the symptoms set all the family in an uproar; Lindgren flew into long Acre for oils and paints; Thomas to St Giles for pallets and brushes; T to Twickenham for straining frame; Miss Moser, George and the buggy, to Richmond in quest of an ivory knife; My Lady & Lavinia in the Coach to Brentford, in search of blew black; but alas no blew black to be found, and soot supplyd its place. The next difficulty was to find a proper painting room, when fortunately for the furniture of the house, the dark garret which holds the smoked bacon was declared to be the finest light in the world for painting. Miss Moser instantly took possession, converted an Old bed-stead into an easle to paint on, and has remained there ever since hard at work in the midst of Poppys, roses, Carnations, myrtle etc. She does not even come down to dinner, but abstains from everything but stewed pruens all the while she paints”.
Mary Moser was clearly a talented artist but also quite a character and I hope that someone will write something more about her contribution to the early days of the Royal Academy.
I do not know whether Chambers was responsible for nominating her, and perhaps Kauffman as well. However, both came from famous artistic families. What I find most fascinating about their founding membership was that there were no other women members, according to the brief from the Library, for 168 years. So Chambers and his colleagues in the age of enlightenment were a great deal more open minded than their Victorian successors. One up to Chambers and his colleagues.
As a footnote to the question of his connection with the King and the Royal Household, I offer one other scrap of evidence from some of the correspondence that I and my family could not quite bring ourselves to leave with the RA. Sir William wrote to his son-in-law, Captain Charles Haward of the 3rd Foot Guards, as follows:
Having had occasion to use the Water Closet after you had been there I found that you spoilt it by throwing down such large pieces of paper as will not pass by and by not knowing how to manage it”—
I shall discretely omit the full details and the elaborate instructions that follow, but the bit at the end is important. It states that,
“if you should find any difficulty in performing the above manoeuvre, I will send for the King’s Sergeant Plumber to be present at two or three operations”.
If any doubts remain in the minds of your Lordships, surely this is abundant evidence of Sir William’s influence in royal circles and his key role in establishing the Royal Academy in such a prestigious position in our national life from its very birth.
I am sad that the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, is not able to be with us—I am sure we all send our best wishes to him and his daughter—but it is a happy accident that the noble Earl is with us, because he has been a member of the Royal Household in his official technical title since 2015. I think that he will be able to confirm that being in that particular connection is important, as it clearly was in 1768.
Finally, as perhaps befits this particular evening, I turn to the issue of leadership—of the Royal Academy, of course: nothing else. The Library briefing illustrates so well the effective leadership, partnership, between Chambers and Reynolds at the outset of the foundation of this remarkable institution. Whether they were already close friends, I do not know; it is not terribly apparent. Reynolds painted Chambers’ portrait—it is there in the Library brief—and a very good portrait it is; I wish I owned it. In addition to that, Chambers designed a home for Reynolds. The important point is that they worked so well together.
As has already been said, there are two remarkable individuals at the moment, working in a real partnership, who have carried the Royal Academy through its 250th year with huge success—not by any means sitting back on its laurels but looking firmly to the future. The president and the secretary should be congratulated on the positive path they are charting for the immediate future. This, again, is brilliantly set out in the documents from the Library.
As a regular visitor to Burlington House and now to Burlington Gardens—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Luce, about the success of that architectural combination—I am enormously appreciative of what that amazing organisation has provided for the nation. The Royal Academy is not satisfied by what has happened before—it is not resting on its laurels, even for this anniversary—and is obviously determined to detain its leadership role in the culture of our country. I am sure that all your Lordships wish the Academy a very happy birthday and very best wishes for the future.
My Lords, I rise to add my voice—a rather different one from those which preceded me—to this debate. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who is assiduous in the way he keeps matters of this kind before us and demands our attention on them. I will certainly end my remarks by wishing the Royal Academy many happy returns, but having heard that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has just come out of hospital, I want to wish him happy returns as well. It is very nice to see him here today.
I do not consider myself a philistine—I have visited galleries in Paris, Haiti, St Petersburg, Washington and I do not know where else—but I have never set foot in the Royal Academy so, as I say, I will express a different point of view. To say something constructive, I glory in the fact that an institution of this kind not only exhibits art—we have heard about the summer exhibition—but works as a true academy to promote the appreciation of art and the practice of creating it. It seems important to note that, as well as painters, it includes sculptors, architects and printmakers among its membership, since art is not just painterly skills.
I wanted to be a little better prepared than the fact I have never been to the Royal Academy would suggest, so I did what modern people do: I went on to the website, and found some one, two or three-minute YouTube pieces. I could give a long list, but I particularly enjoyed the little presentation of the “Oceania” exhibition. I have been to Fiji and the South Pacific and saw a lot of native art in situ there. Those pictures were extraordinary in bringing concepts, shapes, colours, contours and experiences into quite a different configuration, challenging us western people and our rather predictable cultural inclinations. Then there was Klimt and Vienna at the end of the 19th century. What a time in Vienna that was; Klimt in particular captured something of its decadence and aesthetics. That video was just one and a half minutes; I could quite easily dilate for more than 10 minutes on it, but I am sure the Minister would not appreciate me doing so.
Then there was Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites—I am very fond of their work—and a very insightful description of what Pre-Raphaelitism sought to achieve. “America after the Fall”—including the painting of those rather po-faced people with a pitchfork, looking the way many people must have felt in the 1930s—indicated how the rural parts of the United States of America are as primitive now as they were when they came into existence in the 18th century, just a few years after the Royal Academy itself. Then there was the video showing Reynolds and Gainsborough in contradistinction. I will make my debut at the Royal Academy when I go to see Bill Viola and Michelangelo’s “Life Death Rebirth”, which seems to capture something I am interested in.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioned the composition of the first academicians in 1768. At a time when we are thinking of leaving Europe, it is not a bad thing to be reminded of Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, France and Germany, which all contributed to the original membership. How can art be insular? How can art exist in a vacuum? It cannot. The Royal Academy, which is quintessentially British, was set up to show that not only could France have institutions of this kind, but we could. However, by recognising the riches that came from a wider creative body, this was never done in an insular or inward-looking way. Creative activity knows no borders.
Once upon a time, not long before I took on these duties, I had what in a card game would be called a royal flush. Nobody else has ever done it. I preached, week by week, from John Wesley’s pulpit; I had a canon’s stall at St Paul’s Cathedral; and I sat on these red Benches in your Lordships’ House. If the Royal Academy is unique, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, says, then so am I.
Let me indicate for a moment how these three locales in my own personal history threw up an awareness of the Royal Academy, which I admit I have never visited. The architect who built Wesley’s Chapel was George Dance the Younger. He was one of the original 40 members in 1768. Is that not something? From my bedroom window on City Road, when the leaves—as now—were off the trees, I could just see the grave of William Blake. I am a poetry man—words are my metier—but Blake was an artist too, and a considerable number of his pieces are in the possession of the Royal Academy. He did all of his training—1779 to 1785—at the Royal Academy. I take great delight in that, as well as in his riposte to Joshua Reynolds, who has been highly spoken of by others but who did not command that degree of respect from William Blake. Reynolds wrote:
“The disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind”,
to which Blake responded:
“To generalize is to be an idiot; to particularize is the alone distinction of merit”.
I go with Blake on that one.
Also at Wesley’s Chapel we have all the stained-glass windows and the finest collection of paintings by Frank Salisbury. He is now out of fashion, but he painted 25 portraits of the House of Windsor, more portraits of Winston Churchill than any other artist, the first portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, and endless numbers of American presidents vying to get into the same kind of frame as our royal family. Frank Salisbury was a student at the Royal Academy. I have had occasion to know and deal with his family. That is Wesley’s Chapel and the Royal Academy.
As for St Paul’s Cathedral, when sitting there listening to Anglican sermons—which I can tell you are not usually as vigorous as Methodist ones—I have had occasion to look around to be inspired by what I see around me. For example, the spandrels of the four evangelists painted by royal academician George Frederic Watts were quite splendid up there, reminding me that, whatever the sermon is doing with the scriptures, the artist has probably got it more accurately and inspiringly. Watts said:
“I paint ideas, not things”.
Then there are those three bowls in the eastern end of St Paul’s Cathedral; the vaults over the quire by William Blake Richmond, again of the Royal Academy; and Byzantine-style mosaics, pieces of glass set not flat on each other but rigorously against each other to catch the light, rough and sparkling—they are truly remarkable, 12 tonnes of cement and 6,750,000 little tesserae of glass. Think of that—we could rather do with that when refurbishing this place. Then there are the red Benches. Sir Charles Barry had shown his paintings in the summer exhibition while still a teenager, and had a great affection for the place for ever after.
The Royal Academy is undoubtedly a place of great distinction, and a great national monument. It is something of which we should all be proud, and anyone who has never set foot in it should be thoroughly ashamed of himself, as indeed I am right now. But, having wished the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a happy return—it is good to see him back—I want to ask the Government one searching question, which is in the Motion we are supposed be debating: what plans do the Government have to celebrate the 250th anniversary? I am waiting for it. To the Royal Academy I say: ad multos annos. Enjoy yourselves for another quarter of a millennium.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I too thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for securing this debate. It has been fascinating, with a journey through various Royal Academy exhibitions given by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, and my noble friend Lord Crathorne. We have been given a fascinating history of the early days of the Royal Academy from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who mentioned the connections with the Royal Household and beyond. I add that my ancestor was also Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard just 60 years after the formation of the Royal Academy.
To answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, while the Government do not directly have any plans to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts, I believe that it is right, as noble Lords have said, to recognise the academy’s outstanding work and the continuous contribution it has made to our national cultural landscape. Moreover, organisations that we at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sponsor as arm’s-length bodies have made some impressive contributions to the celebrations. This year, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A have exhibited work alongside the Royal Academy.
The opportunity to celebrate 250 years of a cultural institution, as mentioned by all noble Lords, is a special one, and there are few that are older. It is unique, too, given the significant impact the Royal Academy has had on society, within both the artistic world and our wider culture. It is a feat for an institution such as the Royal Academy to endure two and a half centuries of change, to weather significant cultural shifts, and to retain and continue to build an engaged audience of art lovers.
Many noble Lords may be familiar with the original intentions of the Royal Academy—to form a society that promoted the art of design. In doing so, it is fair to say that the academicians became arbiters of artistic quality at the time. This is most recognisable through the inimitable summer exhibitions mentioned by many noble Lords, which continue to this day. It cannot be overstated how the Royal Academy influenced the academic practice of art through its school, but also pioneered the notion of public access to culture. But the Royal Academy’s role in the cultural canon has shifted considerably since 1768.
Artists and cultural innovators have always been at the forefront of significant societal change. Arts can offer comfort and bring people together at times of hardship, as noble Lords have said. The Royal Academy remained open throughout both World Wars, proving that art can continue to hold society up through times of adversity.
If we were able to ask the hundreds of thousands of artists who have submitted work for the open competition for the summer exhibition, I have no doubt that they would share with your Lordships a time in their childhood where their creativity was stoked. The Royal Academy’s families programme is a shining example of cultural education, with free events that bring children of all ages into the institution directly. It is vital to communicate that young people are not just welcome but belong in a building with such a rich but at times exclusive history. Now the Royal Academy opens its doors and urges children to explore the possibilities within. I cannot imagine the same approach in 1768, but our understanding of what public access means has transformed completely over 250 years, and so has the Royal Academy.
We must ensure that arts and culture are open to everybody. There are barriers, not just for young people but for a cross-section of society that may not recognise the arts as a place where they belong. This has to change. The Royal Academy’s work to address challenges to access and participation should be applauded. Its families programme also has workshops catering for children with special needs. This shows us that the arts can transform lives and bring new, challenging and exciting voices to society. The Royal Academy has done much in recent years to ensure that its buildings are accessible. Workshops and staff training to support audiences living with dementia are now common, as well as a fantastic arts programme that engages dementia suffers with visual art.
Importantly, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, the Royal Academy is an independent, privately funded institution. As such, it has displayed financial resilience against challenges not untypical of those facing arts organisations, and this makes its longevity all the more inspiring. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said, we note the work of Sir Hugh Casson PRA, who founded the Friends of the Royal Academy membership scheme in 1977, an innovation that continues to this day with great success. The Government are committed to arts and culture and work with Arts Council England and our sponsored museums. Between 2015 and 2018 the Arts Council invested almost £1.1 billion of public money in the arts, alongside an estimated £700 million of lottery funding, while museums receive £800 million annually from public sources. By investing in arts and culture, we are supporting our communities, our creativity and also our economy.
To turn noble Lords’ attention away from London for a moment, the Government announced £8.5 million for Coventry’s plans to showcase the city as UK City of Culture in 2021. It aims to close the gap in access to high-quality arts and culture by reaching into areas with the lowest levels of opportunity.
While, as I have said, the Government do not directly fund the Royal Academy, we should not, as noble Lords have all said, overlook that its momentous redevelopment project was supported with £12.7 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. My noble friend Lord Ashton had the privilege of attending the opening, along with my honourable friend in the other place, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism. Indeed, Michael Ellis has a continuing interest in the Royal Academy and in particular enjoyed the Oceania exhibition mentioned by many noble Lords. Ministers have seen for themselves the increase in public space that will continue to provide free exhibitions for all to enjoy. It is my hope, and I am sure one that is shared by the Royal Academy, that this commitment to civic access continues for the next 250 years and beyond.
My noble friend raised a couple of points I want to cover. He brought up the subject of European students coming to Royal Academy schools post Brexit. I can reassure him that the Government will continue to encourage European students to apply for courses at UK postgraduate institutions because we want the best artists in the world to study in the United Kingdom. I look forward to the publication of the Government’s immigration White Paper in the near future. He also referred to the Heritage Lottery Fund catalyst scheme. I was pleased to see his reference to the £12.7 million that the Royal Academy received. Specific funding decisions made by the Heritage Lottery Fund are ultimately for its trustees not the Government, but I am sure we all agree that this was a wise funding decision. A number of noble Lords mentioned the Royal Academy schools. The Royal Academy schools have been at the heart of the Academy since its foundation. As noble Lords have said, today the schools offer the only free three-year postgraduate fine art course in the United Kingdom. It is the oldest art school in Britain and is regarded throughout the world as a centre of excellence. Past students, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, include William Blake, JMW Turner and, of course, John Constable.
This has been an excellent debate. I am afraid I have something to admit to—as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, had to as well—I have never been to the Royal Academy. Perhaps we can go together. In closing, I would like to thank the Royal Academy for its contribution to life in this country, and I wish it much success in the future.