I have been asked to select my ten favourite paintings from the collections of the Royal Academy as a way of advertising the benefits of online browsing of the collection on the BBC website Your Paintings (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/). I initially thought that I would just choose the ten most famous paintings, partly inspired by seeing so many of them displayed in the exhibition, Genius and Ambition, in the grand Victorian galleries at Bendigo in Australia. But you don’t necessarily need the website to find out about Constable’s Leaping Horse. What I like about the website is that it is easier to find out about paintings that even I did not know existed because they are kept in store (once we have our new building open in Burlington Gardens I very much hope that more of them will be shown).
I thought that I would start with a painting which I found myself looking at during a long meeting earlier this week. It’s attributed to Zoffany, but not entirely convincingly (1781 was the year he exhibited his great group portrait of the The Sharp Family) and shows The Antique Room of the Royal Academy at New Somerset House (03/846).
It shows a group of students drawing from the already extensive collection of classical casts – the so-called Plaster Academy – not long after the Royal Academy’s new building was opened in Somerset House. The now ageing Keeper, George Michael Moser, is said to be overseeing the class, but it doesn’t resemble the caricature of him by Rowlandson. The picture has an earnestness to it which gives a sense of the appeal of the Academy in its early days, the opportunity to learn to draw by candlelight under the supervision of established artists and with their guidance, and their passionate interest in copying from the antique.