Diploma Works

I was asked at Hay what was the earliest diploma work in the RA’s Collection. The answer was that I didn’t know. Depositing a work of art was a requirement of the original Instrument of Foundation, according to which no-one was to receive their Letter of Admission ’till he hath deposited in the Royal Academy, to remain there, a Picture, Bas-Relief, or other Specimen of his Abilities, approved of by the then sitting Council of the Academy’. The requirement was reiterated in 1771 – ‘That it is proper for present Academicians to give a picture or some other specimen of their abilities to remain in the Academy’ – which suggests that the early Academicians were ignoring it. It transpires that the first person to give a diploma work was Edward Burch, a very skilled gem engraver, who resigned from the Society of Artists in 1769 to enrol at the Royal Academy Schools, was made an ARA on 27 August 1770, and a full RA on 11 February 1771. He presented a small, framed gemstone, engraved with a neoclassical figure of Neptune, goddess of the Sea, as his diploma work on 11 June 1771, presumably as a token of his gratitude to his fellow Academicians.

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