The Royal Academy and its Collection

I went down to Oxford yesterday to do a double act with the President about our new building in Burlington Gardens, including the PRA talking about his display of the Academy’s early collection. Many of the questions related to the nature and status of the collection: the fact that it is rich not just in the so-called diploma works – works given by Academicians at the time of their election – but supplemented by other gifts over the years, by early Academicians wanting to ensure their place in its history, and by descendants of Academicians, including Gainsborough’s unmarried, younger daughter, Margaret, who gave her father’s Self-portrait, and Constable’s middle daughter, Isabel, who gave the Cloud Studies, which, together with the Gainsborough, will be amongst the treats of the new Collections Gallery. One of the questions related to why these works have not previously been visible. Part of the answer is that they used to be displayed (I assume) in the so-called Diploma Galleries which were added by Sydney Smirke on the attic floor of the original Burlington House, but which were abolished by the creation of the Sackler Galleries. The other part of the answer lies in the ambiguity of the Academy towards its history, as reflected by its decision to turn down the acquisition of Joshua Reynolds’s collection when it was offered them at a knockdown price not long before his death. All of this is set to change not just through the opening of the new Collections Gallery, but also the imminent publication of The Royal Academy: History and Collections, ed. Robin Simon and MaryAnne Stevens which provides a comprehensive study of all aspects of the Academy’s history and collection, such that it will be very hard to ignore in the future.

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