Friday, October 21, 2022

‘Cheek by jowl’—the Royal Academy’s Exhibition, 1776

by Philippa Jane Keyworth 

When one thinks of an art exhibition these days, one might imagine an enormous white space, interspersed here and there with paintings. Carefully crafted. Minimalist. 

Not so in the 18th century. 

The Royal Academy of Arts annual exhibition
For my recent novel, I decided to set a scene at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual exhibition. The Royal Academy of Arts (often known in the present day as the RA), was founded in 1768. Sir William Chambers, an architect, brought a petition signed by 36 artists before King George III to seek permission to ‘establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design’. When the sovereign granted it, the RA and its annual exhibition was born, the latter known today as the Summer Exhibition. 

William Hunter's Life Class
for the Royal Academy of Art

Who could submit work? 

"[an] Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all Artists of distinguished merit."  

The Summer Exhibition remains one of the oldest open submission exhibitions in the world. This means you need no artistic pedigree in order to submit a piece for exhibit. It was a great egalitarian experiment in the vein of 18th century Enlightenment thinking that carries on to this day. 

‘’s a democracy of a sort, a very arbitrary one, I’m in charge!’ - Grayson Perry jokes in a Google culture and arts article 

Who could attend? 

And the visitors to the annual exhibition in the late 18th century were not all aristocracy either. Anyone could pay the shilling admission fee and admire the latest creations from the leading artists of the day. 

The academicians had to charge something, or—according to them—they might have to suffer the, 

‘noxious effluvia of the vulgar herd’ 

Perhaps now you can see why I might think this a fascinating setting? One in which I could base a scene filled with drama and intrigue in 1776? Just imagine it, the plethora of paintings staring down at the great swathes of artists, nobility and the middling orders gazing up. The sound and the buzz… 

What did it look like? 

So, back to the task at hand, I had decided to set a scene at the exhibition. Now I had to find out where it was held, what it looked like, which paintings were there in 1776. As any modern-dayer worth their salt would do, I began searching for contemporary images of the exhibition. Visual sources can be one of the most accessible ways to explore the past. I’m such a fan of it that I based my undergraduate dissertation on such sources, pouring over prints, paintings and etchings for many hours. And now I needed to find images of the exhibition. 

You read that right—by the way—I wanted to find ‘artwork of artwork’. And when I did, well, that was when I realised that the RA’s exhibition in 1776 was the furthest thing from a minimalist affair.

 Richard Earlom
The Exhibition at the Royal Academy
in Pall Mall in 1771, 20 May 1772. Mezzotint. 

Check out the RA’s reading of this print as each figure/painting/decoration has meaning. 

Paintings at the exhibition were hung cheek-by-jowl from dado rail to ceiling. It would have been an overwhelming sight upon first entry, and one which would have taken visitors some time to absorb.

To save wall space, pictures were hung frame-by-frame from chair rail to ceiling. The higher canvases, sometimes more than five tiers overhead, were tilted forward to enhance visibility and reduce glare. The huge, sky-lit galleries reverberated with the noise of the thronging crowds who, as usual at social occasions in Georgian England, brought their hunting hounds and lap dogs. - ‘Britain's Royal Academy of Art in the Late 1700s and Early 1800s’

 If you were an artist whose work was accepted for display, it would then have been arranged by the academicians (members who ran the RA), meaning you could be a new artist displayed alongside established names. That’s still the case today. 

Artists coveted the ‘on-the-line’ spots, where you would have your work seen to advantage at around or just above eye level. Anything higher than that was… not great. 

I mean, it’s just a case of logistics. 

Who would be able to see it? So undesirable was the happenstance, that a term was coined especially for it: ‘skied’. No artist wished to be ‘skied’. That was not only an insult, it was bad for business. For the exhibition could make an artist, as it wasn’t just to display work, it was to sell it! 

So here we are, standing in a room with walls mounted to the ceiling with paintings, and it wasn’t just the one room. The first location of the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition was a set of auctioneer’s rooms in Pall Mall. The visitor would have progressed through them, within a great swell of people, pouring into the main chamber where the principle works were hung.

Two Hunters, 'Prophet' and 'Surprise'
John Boultbee

How would you know who had created what? 

Visitors would have been given a catalogue of the works on display—gratis—to carry around with them. I was delighted to find the original catalogue of the 1776 exhibition digitised here.

Queen Eleanor Sucking the Blood 
from King Edward's Arm
Coloured stipple etching by Wynne Ryland, 1780
after A. Kauffman

It was a glorious find for a historian like me. I was able to read about the pieces of art on display, and then look them up on Google. This led me to featuring several in my book including works by Boultbee, Cosway and Kauffman. The latter is a particular favourite of mine. Angelica Kauffman was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy and a celebrated painter of the day. It’s always pleasing to read about an independently successful woman from the past.

Madonna and Child
Richard Cosway

What does it have to do with my novel? 

So there it is, a wonderful historical backdrop in which to set a scene. The great cross-section of Society, oozing through the rooms, jostling one another, speaking, pointing, exclaiming. Oh yes, a very good backdrop, one in which the heroine of a Georgian romance might set about uncovering Societal secrets. And a backdrop where the hero might just wish to find out what she’s up to… 


  1. William Hunter's life class for the Royal Academy of Art at old Somerset House. Mezzotint, 1783, after J. Zoffany
  2. 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition, Arts and Culture, Google
  3. Richard Earlom, The Exhibition at the Royal Academy in Pall Mall in 1771, 20 May 1772. Mezzotint
  4. How to read it: The Exhibition of the Royal Academy in Pall Mall, 1771
  5. Britain's Royal Academy of Art in the Late 1700s and Early 1800s
  6. Two Hunters: 'Prophet' and 'Surprise', John Boultbee (1753–1812)
  7. The exhibition of the Royal Academy, MDCCLXXVI. (1776). The eighth., 1776
  8. Queen Eleanor sucking the poison from King Edward's arm. Coloured stipple etching by Wynne Ryland, 1780, after A. Kauffman.
  9. Madonna and Child, Richard Cosway (1742-1821)
  10. Difficult Beginning ? The Early Years of the RoyalAcademy of Arts in London, Isabelle Baudino
  11. Wellcome Collection
  12. About the Exhibition, Royal Academy


Philippa Jane Keyworth

Philippa Jane Keyworth, also known as P. J. Keyworth, writes historical romance and fantasy novels you'll want to escape into. Keyworth's historical romance novels include Regency and Georgian romances that trace the steps of indomitable heroes and heroines through historic British streets. From London's glittering ballrooms to its dark gaming hells, characters experience the hopes and joys of love while avoiding a coil or too! Travel with them through London, Bath, Cornwall and beyond and you'll find yourself falling in love.