A Little Bit More Lockdown Art

This is Part Two of my jaunt through the Royal Academy because I ended up with just too many paintings to fit into one blog post. You can find Part One here.

Covid-19 has had most of us stuck at home for quite a while now. True, restrictions have been eased somewhat, but there’s still a long ways to go until things are back to normal (or we start living this “new normal” – whatever that ends up being!). In the meantime, I thought I’d express some of the general lockdown experience through art, illustrating how works or art, sometimes painted centuries ago, can still relate to our lives today.

The paintings all come from the Royal Academy, which has its home on Piccadilly in central London. It’s proud to have trained artists, exhibited artists, and been run by artists for over 250 years.
In normal times, a large part of their collection is free to visit (you just have to buy a ticket for special exhibitions), but even during Covid-times, they have a huge amount of information available on their website.

© Royal Academy of Arts
Detail © Royal Academy of Arts
Detail © Royal Academy of Arts

The moment the galleries reopen.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll be first in line. There are so many exhibitions I was looking forward to which have been cancelled or postponed (British Baroque, Titian, Artemisia Gentileschi…!). I’ve loved seeing the kind of online exhibitions various art galleries and museums in the UK and abroad have put together. My favourites include The Enchanted Interior at Guildhall Art Gallery and the amazing online access curated by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam!
At the end of the day, however, it’s still not the same as seeing these incredible works of art in person. I can’t wait.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly, 1795
Henry Singleton (1766 – 1839)

The Royal Academy has always been about art education as well as exhibition, and the Royal Academy Schools (as the art school is known) is one of the best in the world. It was held in high regard in the eighteenth century as well: this painting shows a collection of Academicians (a title reserved for the top artists of the day), judging which students should be awarded Premiums (medals) based on their submissions. It was tough competition.

The gentlemen you can see in the red and gold “throne” is Benjamin West, artist and second President of the Royal Academy. Just behind him to the left, you may be able to make out two women. If you read my last blog post, you would have come across Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser (the only 2 women involved in the founding of the Royal Academy). Here, they have been given a raised position, but they’ve still been relegated to the distant background. Although, in fact, it was gracious of Singleton to include them in the first place, because as women (despite being founding members), they would not have been allowed in these General Assemblies…

Also, if you read my previous blog post, the first painting featured was Design by Angelica Kauffman (see zoomed details above). Here, you can see it in situ on the ceiling! In the roundel closest to the red curtain. The roundel next to it is also by her: Composition.

Henry Singleton specialised in portraits and miniatures (very, very small paintings), and had also been a student at the Royal Academy Schools himself from the age of 17. Over the course of his career, he exhibited an impressive 300 or so works at the Royal Academy.

© Royal Academy of Arts

When someone asks how you spent lockdown…
You had the best intentions in the world, you must have sat down in front of that blank piece of paper a million times, telling yourself you were ready to produce the next Mona Lisa, but then there was also Tiger King, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the last ever season of Modern Family to watch. Next lockdown…

Despite what I just said, you shouldn’t be embarrassed for being unproductive too! I know I’ve wasted plenty of time!

Untitled AG48, 2014
Rebecca Salter

I haven’t done this piece justice in my description above, and really, you need to go to the Royal Academy website to see it properly. This is actually much much more than a blank piece of paper. In fact, you’ve probably noticed that it’s not even blank. This piece of paper is covered in thousands of lines, burnt by hand into exceptionally thin Japanese paper layered on top of thick Western backing paper. The burnt lines mark both papers and then the top paper was flipped over and glued down.

Salter likened the effect to a magnetic field (like those old school experiments you used to do with magnets and iron filings), and she found the repetitive work, not tedious, but calm and meditative. I think it looks quite a bit like those swarms of starlings, which create undulating waves in the sky.

Salter was born in the UK, but spent six years studying art and working in Japan.

“I realised how incredibly Eurocentric my education had been and it was just very interesting … to see Western art history from somebody else’s viewpoint but also to engage with a different art history”

Rebecca Salter, Royal Academy, 2017

She became the President of the Royal Academy in 2019. The first female President in its 250+ year history.

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© Royal Academy of Arts
Detail © Royal Academy of Arts

When you’ve spent 77 weeks with your household and finally someone else enters the room.
You love your family, you love your roommates, but you might need a break after lockdown. Spotting someone you know on the street, seeing a neighbour take out the bins, or meeting up with your (potentially) five (!) allocated people outdoors feels like finding human life after the Apocalypse.

Tea in the Studio, 1932
Arthur George Walker (1861 – 1939)

Pictured is Walker’s brother, Harold, and a friend, taking tea in Walker’s studio. Presumably he and Harold were quite close: he spent a good portion of his life living with his brother, along with his sister and Aunt Isabella until 1911, when he was around 50 years old.

The studio is full of his work: the collapsed female figure on the right hand side is the back of Grief and through the doorway you can see the equestrian statue of John Wesley.
He also produced the alabaster relief of Florence Nightingale in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral as well as the statue of her by Pall Mall in the West End. Clearly a fan!
If you’ve ever spied the statue of Suffragette, Emmeline Pankurst, in the Victoria Tower Gardens by the Houses of Parliament – that was him too.

He moved his studio from Chelsea to Dorset in 1933, so it’s possible that he painted this (and another, Cedar Studios) so he could remember his old studio.

***

© Royal Academy of Arts
Detail © Royal Academy of Arts

When we’re told we can go outside again without restrictions…
It will happen one day. We might not feel ready for it, the world outside might seem alien and foreign to us now, but we can do this.

The Night Alarm: The Advance!, 1871
Charles West Cope (1811 – 1890)

Here we have quite an apprehensive group: pitchfork raised, clutching each other for dear life. I especially like the small boy in the bottom right who seems determined to fuse himself to, presumably, his brother’s leg.

The way Cope has used the candlelight to paint the groups’ shadows is very clever. It makes their own looming shadows seem almost more threatening than the darkness ahead.

What are they so terrified of, you ask??
Well, it’s quite tough to make out, but if you look at the zoomed detail above, you’ll see more clearly the sinister shapes hiding in the foreground…
Hideous, monstrous… Cats.
Clearly the yowling of the these ferocious kitties sounds much more threatening in the rural nighttime gloom.

Cope is probably best known for his contribution to the Houses of Parliament, where he painted frescoes, mostly in the House of Lords and the Peers’ Corridor. He may have used some of the skills developed in the large-scale Parliament frescoes to paint this, similarly monumental, piece. It’s an impressive 1.5m in height and almost a metre wide.

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© Royal Academy of Arts

And then when you realise, no this is not a drill!
I don’t know about you, but I’m just looking forward to hugging people again.

Disco Dancing No.3, c.1982
Harriet Lassalle (b.1958)

Unfortunately there’s very little information about Lassalle and her work online. Even without that background information though, you can feel the joy and the energy in this painting. A room of people feeling the music and dancing like no-one’s watching.

Lassalle started her exhibiting career at the Royal Academy in 1981 at the Summer Exhibition.

It’s a great honour to be featured at the Summer Exhibition. Since 1769, it’s been hosted annually by the Royal Academy: the largest open-submission art exhibition in the world, which means that absolutely anyone can submit their work for consideration. Amazingly it has actually taken place every year, including during both World Wars. Never fear, you can calm your anxious heart, the “Summer” Exhibition will still take place this year, but it will be in the autumn instead.

The exhibition features work in a huge variety of media, representing the cutting edge of contemporary art, and it really is an explosion of colours and shapes if you ever have a chance to visit yourself. Many established artists and Academicians, like David Hockney and Tracy Emin, have exhibited there, but part of what I love about it is the inclusion of so many emerging artists as well, providing them with a world-famous venue to display and sell their art. In previous years, nearly two-thirds of the exhibits were by non-Academicians.

There’s actually an excellent online video and resources if you want to take a quick peek at 2019’s exhibition.

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I hope this has given you a sense of the breadth of art at the Royal Academy.

Do you have a piece of art which you feels sums up your lockdown experience?? If you don’t, maybe you could find one. Most art galleries have excellent online collections.
I’d love to hear.

All of the images come from the Royal Academy website, and the only editing I have done is to crop and enlarge some details for the sake of clarity.


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