The Royal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academy of Arts in London, which had been founded in 1768, was at the very centre of Victorian art in Britain. Its annual Exhibition of the Work of Living Artists (known from the 1870s simply as the Summer Exhibition) was not only the premier showcase for new artwork and a principal means of bringing together artist, purchaser and art dealer, but was both an important part of the upper-class social calendar and a popular attraction, open to everybody who could afford the shilling entrance fee. The Royal Academy was, and remains, a self-governing and self-funded private body. Its exclusiveness and innate conservatism attracted criticism throughout the century, but its constitution and practices remained virtually unchanged into the 20th century and formed the background to the success of the vast majority of the well-known artists of the period.

The location, constitution and membership of the Royal Academy

Until 1836, the Royal Academy was housed in Somerset House on the Strand, London. A farewell dinner was held there on 17 December 1836, before the Academy moved to premises in the eastern half of the newly-built National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. The Exhibition which opened in May 1837 was the first to be held in the new building. The Royal Academy remained in the National Gallery for just over 30 years. In August 1866, the government granted the Academy a 999 year lease of Burlington House on Piccadilly for a nominal rent, in exchange for the RA agreeing to build a third storey at its own expense. The newly renovated building opened in November 1868, and the first Exhibition there was held in the summer of 1869. The Royal Academy remains in Burlington House at the present time, and still holds a Summer Exhibition from May to August every year.

In the early to mid-19th century, there were 40 Royal Academicians, raised to 42 in 1853. One of their number was elected as President, a position he held for life. The Council of the Academy was made up of eight of the RAs, four of whom stepped down each year, to be replaced by the other RAs in succession. In 1871 the number on the Council was increased to 12, but was brought back to 10 five years later. A further three RAs (five from 1871) sat on the Hanging Committee for the Summer Exhibition.

The second rank of artists making up the Royal Academy were the Associates of the Royal Academy (ARAs), who were ineligible to serve on the Council or any of the committees and who, initially, could not participate in voting or elections. From 1866, the number of potential ARAs became indefinite, but with a minimum of 20. However, few new ARAs were elected until 1876 when an agreement was made to raise the number to 30 by 1878. Until 1881, elections for new RAs, chosen from the ranks of the ARAs, took place in the February following the death or retirement of any of their number. ARA elections happened in November, from a list of candidates who had put their names forward to the Secretary of the Academy in May. After 1881, the election of new RAs and ARAs happened in two General Assemblies per year and the ARAs were afforded the same voting rights as the full members.

The election procedure took the form of a number of ballots, gradually reducing the number of candidates. The four candidates with the highest number of votes in a paper ballot in the first round went through to the second round. The four candidates were reduced to two, and the final round consisted of a run-off between those two candidates, each of whom was represented by a small cork ball which the electors dropped into one of two boxes. The winning candidate for ARA, not already being a member of the Academy, was not present at the election, so a model was sent to his house to inform him of the result. Newly elected RAs were received (after 1881) at a General Assembly held on 5 December, at which meeting the Council was nominated for the following year. Full members were expected to present a diploma work and a piece of silver plate to the Academy.

The Selection and Hanging Committees for the Summer Exhibition

The most visible aspect of the Royal Academy’s work, the annual Exhibition of the Work of Living Artists, ran from May to July or August every year. From 1872, the dates were fixed at the first Monday in May to the first Monday in August. The process by which the paintings were chosen and hung, and the round of Varnishing Days, private shows and banquets which accompanied the event, changed little in the course of the 19th century.

For artists submitting work to the Exhibition, the judgement of the Selection and Hanging Committees meant the difference between success and failure. Any artist was allowed to send up to eight unexhibited works to the Royal Academy. Paintings submitted by RAs and ARAs were automatically accepted, but those by ‘outsiders’ had to go through the process of selection. Within a week, artists could apply at the Academy to find out whether their works had been accepted or, like around 90 percent of the paintings, rejected.

The paintings were submitted at the end of March or the beginning of April. The Selection Committee, made up of the President and Council members of the Royal Academy, had the task of deciding which of the many thousands of paintings should appear in the Exhibition. The process was fast-moving and relentless: over four or five days, a team of porters, known as ‘carpenters’, placed each item one by one in front of the Committee for their scrutiny. Judgement was swift. The RAs voted on each item, deciding whether to mark it with an A (accepted), a D (doubtful) or with a cross (rejected). Very few items were definitely accepted at this stage. The ‘doubtful’ paintings proceeded to the hanging stage, but could be rejected at any point.

Once the Selection Committee had finished their work, the Hanging Committee took over, with the responsibility of arranging the paintings on the walls of the exhibition rooms. All the members of the Committee collaborated in hanging the paintings they considered to be the outstanding works, which were placed in the best locations in each of the rooms. In practise, the best places were normally taken by paintings submitted by the RAs and ARAs. When the Royal Academy was housed in the National Gallery buildings, the principal room was known as the Large Room. According to William Powell Frith in his autobiography, this room was the domain of the RAs, with paintings by ARAs very seldom hung there, and paintings by outsiders even more rarely. RAs at this time (1850s-1860s) were entitled to have all eight of their paintings hung ‘on the line’, while ARAs were lucky to have more than one of their paintings in such an honoured position. The meaning of ‘on the line’, generally referring to paintings at eye level, had a precise meaning in the days of Somerset House and the National Gallery. A ledge ran around the rooms at a height of eight feet from the floor, and a painting was judged to be ‘on the line’ if the top edge of its frame was level with the ledge.

Once the principal paintings were in place, the members of the Hanging Committee worked on their own in the various rooms, cramming every inch of wall space with paintings hung cheek by jowl up to the ceiling. ‘Doubtful’ paintings were rejected as space considerations allowed, or brought back at the last moment to fill a gap. Consideration of aesthetics was not part of the hanging process, leading many artists to complain about the position of their subtle paintings next to brighter and more striking works which drowned them out. Works at the top of the exhibition could hardly be seen, and artists and critics alike deplored the ‘Octagon Room’ in the National Gallery, where paintings almost disappeared into the dark shadows. The room was known by artists in the 1840s and 1850s as the ‘condemned cell’, and the reviewer of the 1849 Exhibition for the Illustrated London News (12 May 1849, p.350) misses out this room altogether, explaining ‘it is unjust to artists for critics to condemn what they cannot see’. A letter to the Editor of The Times the year before (6 Apr 1848) suggested that the room be turned into a refreshment room, as it ‘was never built for showing pictures [and would be] most thankfully received by all who know the fatigue of examining pictures in hot weather.’

The move to Burlington House in 1869 was not accompanied by any change in the hanging process, except for the fact that the ‘line’ was replaced by a dado rail and the convention that the ‘line’ should not be broken by any pictures hung across it gradually disappeared. Nevertheless, paintings at eye level were still referred to as ‘on the line’, and were generally the paintings best remembered by the viewing public.

Varnishing Days, the Private Views, Banquet and Soirée

Before the Exhibition opened to the general public, and after it closed, a number of activities and social occasions took place. The first were the Varnishing Days, days set aside immediately after the hanging had been completed in order for the exhibitors to put finishing touches to their paintings. Until 1852, only RAs and ARAs were allowed to ‘varnish’ their pictures. The days were abolished after 1852, but were restored in 1862, consisting of three days reserved for RAs and ARAs plus an ‘outsiders’ day in which exhibitors who were not members of the Academy could work on their paintings and meet more established artists. The Varnishing Days provided one of the only opportunities in the year for artists to meet together, meaning that they were as much social occasions as working days. For artists at the start of their career, they offered the possibility of receiving advice from more experienced painters.

George Dunlop Leslie, recalling his attendance at the outsiders’ Varnishing Days in the 1860s, wrote that ‘of course…we outsiders were very much on our good behaviour, seldom indulging in hilarity or freedom of conversation’, and that ‘the members kept up a certain amount of dignity and restraint in their manners towards us; but they were very pleasant days nevertheless’. On attending his first Varnishing Day as an ARA, in 1869, Leslie was struck by the welcome given him by the existing members: ‘My first feelings on this occasion were something like those of the “Ugly Duckling” when he was finally saluted and recognised by the swans as one of themselves… It seemed so extraordinary to find oneself amongst them, greeted and welcomed by one after another in the kindest manner’.

Once the paintings had been hung and varnished, the Exhibition was viewed by select groups before opening to the general public on the first Monday in May. From 1871, a Press Day was set aside for critics from newspapers and periodicals. A Royal Private View took place, involving the Queen and members of the Royal family. But it was the Private View which signalled the real start of the Royal Academy season and which was an important part of the high society calendar. Admission was by ticket only, and those invited were the well-known members of the fashionable élite and members of the press. ‘Outsider’ exhibitors were not invited. The final event, held on the Saturday before the general opening of the Exhibition, was the Royal Academy Banquet. The Banquet was strictly men-only, involving members of the Academy and personally selected guests from the very highest echelons of government, the Church, the armed forces, the universities and the worlds of literature, drama and music. The speeches were reported verbatim in The Times from the 1850s. Precedence was strictly adhered to at the Banquet. The most recently elected ARA was seated on one of the tables furthest from the President of the Royal Academy and the principal guests, but was moved up the pecking order every year.

After 1851, another social occasion was introduced. The Soirée, held initially after the Exhibition had closed, but later moved to the first week in July, was attended by exhibitors and distinguished celebrity guests. ‘Outsider’ exhibitors were only admitted if they were introduced by a member and paid one guinea. Such restrictions were gradually relaxed. According to William Powell Frith, the Soirée in the early years was an enjoyable event, at which the members ‘seemed to lay aside a little of their dignity’. Edwin Landseer was known to sing songs and to tell stories, and speeches were delivered, including a rare one by Turner.

Finally, the ARAs and RAs formed their own social club, called the Academy Club, which met a number of times in the year to eat together. Each member was allowed to bring two guests. One of the dinners was, by tradition, always on the first Monday in May (opening day at the Exhibition) and took place in Greenwich. The members ate whitebait at the ‘Trafalgar’ (later at the ‘Ship Inn’) and chartered a steamboat for a trip along the river. Another dinner held in June or July was arranged at a place in the countryside.

The Summer Exhibition was extraordinarily popular among the general public in the mid-nineteenth century. In the peak year, 1879, over 390,000 visitors paid to their shilling to see the paintings at Burlington House. Reviews of the major works appeared in all the newspapers and periodicals, and some of the paintings sold for astronomical sums. The most popular were engraved, and reproductions decorated the walls of middle-class living rooms and were even (as in the case of Millais’ Bubbles) used in advertisements. Frith’s Derby Day, when it was exhibited in 1858, caused such interest that an iron railing had to be placed in front to stop the crowds damaging it.

Until around the 1880s, the Royal Academy Exhibition was the most important exhibition in Britain. Other institutions did provide galleries, such as the British Institution and the Society of British Artists, but these shows were considered inferior and were mostly filled with paintings which had been rejected by the RA or already seen there. However, in the later years of the 19th century the RA Exhibition began to be dominated by portraits and ‘pot-boilers’ (populist paintings produced for monetary profit rather than artistic considerations), and members of the Aesthetic movement turned away from it. The Grosvenor Gallery opened in London in 1877, with the aim of providing a setting in which art itself could flourish, in contrast to the glitz and social-climbing of the RA. By the early 20th century, the art world was fractured into cliques and separate movements, and the RA was ceasing to be at the centre of British art. The Academy has refined its role, but still provides a Summer Exhibition of contemporary art, chosen by a Hanging Committee and open to the fee-paying public at Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The Royal Academy Schools

The Royal Academy Schools of Art were funded by the receipts from the Exhibition and provided free tuition and library facilities for any student with talent (including women from the mid-nineteenth century). In the 1850s, a prospective student was asked to send in a chalk drawing from an antique statue, a drawing of an anatomical figure, a drawing from the skeleton, and a letter of recommendation. If these were considered acceptable, the student was admitted as a probationer. During the probationary period of three months, the student had to prepare a set of drawings in the Academy to prove that he had not been assisted in producing the first works. On completion of probation, the studentship was confirmed and lasted for ten years, reduced to seven in 1853.

Students began their Academy career in the Antique School, making detailed hatched drawings of plaster casts and statues. Once they had completed a course of Perspective training, a year of compulsory attendance at lectures, and been judged competent at the Antique, they were allowed to move on to the School of the Living Model. The third School in the series was the School of Painting. The curriculum had been restricted until 1847: it was only in that year that painting from life models had been introduced, in imitation of the training offered in ‘foreign academies’. Before then, the School of Painting had offered only the copying of existing works of art. There was no fixed timescale of progress through the Schools, and no formal examination system or graduation ceremony, although prizes were awarded annually in December.

The Professors of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Perspective and Anatomy were elected from the forty Royal Academy members for five years at a time, and were required to deliver six lectures per year. The Professor of Perspective from 1839 was J P Knight, who gave practical classes, rather than lectures, on winter evenings from 6 to 8 pm. The anatomy lecturer when George Dunlop Leslie was a student in the early 1850s was Professor Partridge, who was assisted on his lecturing platform by a male model named Westall, who would sit in the nude, demonstrating the muscle groups. The platform itself was decorated with ‘gruesome anatomical diagrams’ and the Royal Academy skeleton, ‘swinging from a ring in its skull’.

The Life Academy and the School of Painting were each attended by nine Visitors, again elected from the RAs, and serving for one year at a time. Visitors were required to be present at the Schools for one month, in rotation, and were supposed to examine the students’ work and give advice and instruction. From 1868, ARAs were also liable to be elected as Visitors, a development which was welcomed by George Dunlop Leslie as it widened the ranks from which Visitors could be found. Leslie complained that in his days in the Schools, in the early 1850s, many of the older RAs were too ill or busy to take up their duties; and that those who could were liable to be aged, such as Abraham Cooper, born in 1787 and elected ARA in 1817 despite failing the probationary tests for the Royal Academy School in the same year. ‘From old men such as these we derived little or no benefit in our studies’.

The same criticisms were levelled by William Powell Frith, a student in the late 1830s and early 1840s. He remembered the Life classes, held in the ‘pepper box’, or the central cupola at the top of the RA’s rooms in the National Gallery. The Visitors sat with them for ‘the prescribed two hours, rarely drawing, oftener reading. In those days scarcely ever teaching’. Frith ascribed the problem to the fact that ‘some of our best painters are the worst teachers’, and yet competence at instructing students was never part of the selection process for Visitors. In theory, the Royal Academy Schools offered training from the very best and most eminent artists in Britain; in practice, the constant turnover of Visitors meant that there was no consistency in the advice offered to the students, even if the Visitors felt inclined to give any. Frith also criticised the reliance on mechanical drawing from the antique, and the lack of any encouragement to artists to develop an eye for composition, colour and style.

However limited the training offered by the Royal Academy Schools, they were an almost essential part of the path followed by young artists on their way to wealth and celebrity. Most of the ARAs and RAs of the mid and late-nineteenth century had passed through the Schools, and later took their turn as Visitors and lecturers.


  • Frith, William Powell. My Autobiography and Reminiscences (R Bentley and Son, London, 1887-1888)
  • Gillett, Paula. The Victorian Painter’s World (Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., Gloucester, 1990)
  • Leslie, George Dunlop. The Inner Life of the Royal Academy (John Murray, London, 1914)
  • Millais, John Guille. The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (Methuen and Co., London, 1899)
  • Sandby, William. The History of the Royal Academy of Arts (Longman, 1862)


The Royal Academy of Arts

Floorplan of the National Gallery, London, showing the East Wing (formerly occupied by the Royal Academy)

Bob Speel’s page on the foundation of the Royal Academy, with a link to a list of Presidents of the Royal Academy

The Victorian Web: ‘Victorian Art Institutions: A Contemporary Survey of Academies, Schools, and Galleries’

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