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The Company of Artists

by Charles Saumarez Smith

(London Times)

There are a number of myths surrounding the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, the most commonly believed being that it was the brainchild of Sir Joshua Reynolds and that its precepts were written by Samuel Johnson.

In fact, as the Royal Academy's secretary and chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith reveals in a book about the RA's beginnings, the founders were an architect, William Chambers, an upstart young American painter, a sexagenarian Swiss emigre, a society portraitist and George III. Reynolds was a later recruit.

The quest for a national standard of artistic excellence and teaching run by and for artists had been inspired by the academies of the Renaissance Italian city states and then, in the 1640s, by the French, inspired by Louis XIV. But there was a crucial difference between the French model and the English: George, an enthusiastic amateur artist himself who had been taught to draw by Chambers, believed painting to be an intellectual pursuit that contributed to the advancement of society, while Louis's true motive was to boost France's luxury trades and foreign exports. Nevertheless, by the mid-18th century the French Academie royale de peinture et de sculpture had established a standard of accomplishment that the English envied.

London's artistic societies had been developing over the previous century to deal, teach, mount exhibitions and give professional support, and the yearning for a national academy to create a public art was shared by most of their members. Meeting in the coffee houses of Covent Garden and inns of Soho, artists schemed and planned. Schools developed, such as Kneller's Academy of Painting and Hogarth's Academy of St Martin's. But they were too under-resourced to support a national profile.

There were spectacular fallings-out among the societies: the Society of Dilettanti was seen as too aristocratic; the directors of the Society of Artists were suspected of pursuing their own interests rather than the artists' and a rival Free Society of Artists was set up; there were private feuds and squabbles compounded by professional jealousies among the artists. There was a row between the architects James Paine and Chambers as to who would design the Society of Artists' new academy, and an even more fundamental disagreement about who would have the ultimate authority, the directors or the members, on which the Attorney-General was called on to pronounce. His opinion fell to the community. The artists, and the directors would not accept the ruling. While the disagreement simmered, the leading painter of the day, Reynolds, was elected a director in his absence. Apparently, he sent to 'request the favour of declining that honour', not because he had an inkling of an alternative plan, Saumarez Smith believes, but simply because he was too busy.

But there was an alternative. Thanks to Chambers's friendship with George, the community representatives met the King to present a petition signed by 22 artists. Not only did the King approve, he declared that 'he considered the Culture of the Arts as a national Concern, and that the memorialists might depend upon his patronage and Assistance in carrying their Plan into execution'.

It was the artists, led by Chambers, who drew up the Royal Academy plan which is still the charter today. Johnson was involved in the choice of the first president. The King insisted Reynolds was the only choice, but the painter was not interested. He was a founder and enthusiastic member of the Literary Club which met weekly at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street where members 'unbosomed their minds freely to each other', and it was there, Saumarez Smith believes, that Johnson, John Wilkes and Oliver Goldsmith prevailed on Reynolds, convinced that without him the project would fail. The Royal Academy was founded on December 10, 1768, with 40 members, later expanded to 80. Johnson's reward was an annual dinner and to be made an honorary RA professor.

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