Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy from 12th June to 19th August 2018

Exhibition Review – The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy from 12th June to 19th August 2018

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the world’s longest running annual exhibition of contemporary art and has been held each year without interruption since 1769. To celebrate the 250th anniversary, the Royal Academy presents a special exhibition that will run alongside the 2018 Summer Exhibition, The Great Spectacle tells the story of the annual show by featuring highlights from the past 250 years.

The exhibition features over 80 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints from the first Summer Exhibition through to the present day by artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffman, Elizabeth Butler, Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, John Everett Millais, Sir Frederic Leighton, John Singer Sargent, Peter Blake, Tracey Emin, Zaha Hadid, Sir Michael Craig-Martin, David Hockney and Wolfgang Tillmans, amongst others.

The exhibition begins with William Powell Frith’s, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 exhibited in 1883, which depicts the characteristic hang of the Summer Exhibition with the familiar crowded arrangement of pictures.

The Summer Exhibition has since 1769 played an important role within London’s art world by allowing artists and architects to showcase their talents and compete with their rivals for the popular and critical acclaim.

The Great Spectacle exhibition is arranged in chronological sections: A Georgian Parade; The Rise of Genre Painting; The Triumph of Landscape; The Pre-Raphaelites Arrive; Victorian Acclaim; Dealing with the Modern; Exhibiting Architecture; Post-War Visions and New Sensations to allow visitors to take a journey through British art.

As you wander through the small intimate rooms, the story begins to unfold. Works from Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough vie for your attention as they would have done in the 18th century. 

Works from John Constable and Turner provide evidence of another golden age for British painting in the 19th century. 

The Victorians were great supporters of the Summer Exhibition which they attended in their thousands, John Everett Millais was a general favourite with the crowds.

Rodin’s The Age of Bronze provides a glimpse into the future with works by John Singer Sargent and Laura Knight providing some sense of the period at the start of the 20th century. 

Sir Winston Churchill’s Winter Sunshine, Chartwell was submitted in 1947 under the pseudonym David Winter and Pietro Annigoni’s Queen Elizabeth II attracted huge crowds when exhibited in 1955.

Peter Blake bought a sense of the 1960s which led the rise of Brit Art and artists who created works like Tracey Emin’s There’s a Lot of Money in Chairs exhibited in 2001 and Michael Craig-Martin’s Reconstructing Seurat (Orange exhibited in 2007. 

The intriguing Great Spectacle exhibition provides visitors with plenty of evidence that the Summer Exhibition is often an uneasy balance of the traditional and the new. Although we would consider Constable and Turner as traditional painters, in their day they were considered radical.

Over the period of 250 years, it is safe to say that some periods are more exciting than others but that is often seen in hindsight. People have attended the Summer Exhibition because they wanted to be amused and surprised by contemporary art. This is perhaps one constant that has changed little over the last 250 years of the exhibition.   

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Academy website here

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