How Did Joshua Reynolds Help Establish the Royal Academy and Transform British Art?

Alice Loxton

4 mins

21 Oct 2019

On 10 December 1768, King George III issued a personal act to establish a Royal Academy. It aimed to promote art and design through exhibition and education.

Driven by its first president, Joshua Reynolds, it played a major part in transforming the status of British painting from a tradesman’s craft to an esteemed and intellectual profession.

The status of art in the 18th century

In the 18th century, the social status of artists was low. The only qualifying factors were to have had a general education with knowledge of geometry, classical history and literature. Many artists were sons of middle-class tradesmen, who had trained in traditional apprenticeship systems and worked as paid assistants.

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An aspiring artist would then specialise in one branch of painting. The most respected genre was history paintings – works with morally uplifting messages drawn depicting stories from Ancient Rome, the bible or mythology. The demand for this ‘high’ form of art was generally met by existing Old Master paintings by the likes of Titian or Caravaggio.

This shoehorned most British artistic capabilities into portraiture, as almost anyone could afford this in some degree – whether in oil, chalks or pencil. Landscapes also become popular, as they became a way of expressing emotion or intellect through classical references. Other subject matter such as ships, flowers and animals also gained credibility.

With concerts by Handel and exhibitions by Hogarth, the Foundling Hospital was pioneering in presenting art to the public. Image source: CC BY 4.0.

Despite this production of art, in the mid 18th century, there was little opportunity for British artists to display their work. Perhaps one of the first displays of art in Britain – in the sense of a public gallery that we know today – was at the Foundling Hospital. This was a charitable endeavour led by William Hogarth, where arts of work were displayed to raise money for the orphaned children of London.

Several groups followed Hogarth’s example, developing with varying success. Yet these were exclusively for the display of artwork. Here, the Royal Academy would set itself apart by offering a new dimension: education.

The Academy is established

The new Academy was therefore founded with two objectives: to raise the professional status of the artist through expert training, and arrange exhibitions of contemporary works which met a high standard. To compete with the prevailing tastes of continental work, it sought to raise the standards of British art and encourage national interest based on an official canon of good taste.

Although a sculptor named Henry Cheere had made an attempt to establish an autonomous academy in 1755, this was unsuccessful. It was Sir William Chambers, who oversaw the British government’s architectural schemes, who used his position to gain patronage from George III and acquire financial support in 1768. The first president was Joshua Reynolds, the painter.

The courtyard of Burlington House, where the Royal Academy is based today. Image source: robertbye / CC0.

The 36 founding members included four Italians, one French, one Swiss and one American. Among this group were two women, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann. 

The location of the Royal Academy jumped around central London occupying spaces in Pall Mall, Somerset House, Trafalgar Square and Burlington House in Piccadilly, where it remains today. The president at this time, Francis Grant, secured an annual rent of £1 for 999 years.

The Summer Exhibition

The first exhibition of contemporary art opened in April 1769 and lasted for a month. Known as the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, it became a chance for artists to make their name, and it has been staged every year since without fail.

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When the Summer Exhibition was first held at Somerset House, it was one of the great spectacles of Georgian London. People of all classes piled into Sir William Chambers’ specially designed rooms. Pictures were hung from floor to ceiling with no gaps left between, providing an elegant parallel of British society.

Great competition grew between artists for their work to be hung ‘on the line’ – the section of wall at eye level, which would most likely catch the potential purchaser’s eye.

Pictures hung above the line were cantilevered out from the wall to minimise the glare on the varnished canvases. The area below the line was reserved for smaller and more detailed pictures.

The private view of the Summer Exhibition in 1881, as painted by William Powel Frith. The visitors the exhibitions attracted became just as great a spectacle as the works themselves.

Paintings hung on the line were reserved for full-length portraits of members of the Royal Family, but also made space for the celebrities of the day – society beauties such as the Duchess of Devonshire, writers such as Doctor Johnson, and military heroes such as Nelson.

In a world without photography, to see these celebrities depicted in one room in such vibrant colour and heroic poses must have been thrilling.

The walls were covered in green baize, meaning the artists often avoided green in their paintings and favoured red pigments instead.

Joshua Reynolds and the Grand Manner

‘The Ladies Waldegrave’, painted by Reynolds in 1780, was typical of the Grand Manner.

Perhaps the most important member of the Royal Academy was Joshua Reynolds. He offered a series of 15 lectures to the Academy between 1769 and 1790. These ‘Discourses on Art’ argued that painters should not slavishly copy nature but paint an idealised form. This,

‘gives what is called the grand style to invention, to composition, to expression, and even to colouring and drapery’.

It drew heavily on the style of classical art and Italian masters, becoming known as the Grand Manner. Reynolds would adapt this to portraiture, raising it to ‘high art’ genre. At the height of his success, Reynolds charged £200 for a full-length portrait – the sum of an average middle-class annual salary.

‘Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney, The Archers’, painted by Reynolds in 1769.