At the time of the 2010 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London, I wrote the following:
It was an anxiously-awaited letter from a certain auspicious institution that stopped me in my tracks late that Friday morning. I ripped it open with suitable theatrical disdain. It dramatically announced that ‘with over 10,000 entries, the competition was extremely strong’, yes, yes I thought, get on with it, ‘however I am delighted to inform you that your work..........’ the rest of the missive faded away momentarily from view as I tried to take in the magic of what had been written by my correspondent, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw CBE and President of the Royal Academy. I could not believe that a photograph of mine had ‘been selected and hung in the exhibition’ – the Summer Exhibition no less at Burlington House.
I was a newbie to all this (on my second attempt) but I was determined to enjoy every moment of it and my wife has observed on several occasions that I have been floating on Cloud 9 since then. Enclosed with the letter was what my father many years ago used to call a ‘stiffy’ – an embossed invitation to the quixotically-named Non-Members’ Varnishing Day.
The big day arrived and thankfully a gorgeous summer’s morn beckoned. I journeyed up on the train turning up a little too early at the exalted address in Piccadilly with the unholy zeal of someone who is a reformed latecomer. Only the exhibiting artists are invited – not even significant others are permitted and I find myself surrounded by arty types presumably and larger than life figures standing on plinths disporting themselves in striking poses in the courtyard outside. Since I lead such an inconsequential existence in rural south-east England, I do not recognise a soul but even I begin to take the hint when I see largish medals worn demonstrably by various women and men; that’s what an Academician must be then, I surmise simultaneously discerning the remarkable sculptures of the late Barry Flanagan.
It feels like my first day at school with attendant ‘butterflies’ but many others greet each other warmly as long lost friends and display the insouciance of being on familiar territory. A carnival atmosphere is palpable as a steel band is playing and a television crew is going through its paces with smiling media personality, Andrew Graham-Dixon in full flow to camera. While waiting I strike up a conversation with Austin Ruddy, a Yorkshire-based artist (with Irish roots, he proclaimed) and who has been here before. He seems so cool and relaxed, detached even. As I normally have a camera with me, I snap away.
We are then gently called to order and led by the ‘great and the good’ of the RA world to an age-old ceremonial of thanksgiving. This is a brief moment where a main London thoroughfare, Piccadilly falls silent for artists as we march proudly to St. James’s Church nearby. The tone for the service and also for the Summer Exhibition is set with an uplifting but warm atmosphere bolstered by a gentle reading from Sir Nicholas as above, some superb choral music and a riveting sermon from Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University who forcefully says that art has direct relevance for us today quoting the poignant account of an ill-timed delivery of lipstick to a Nazi concentration camp at the moment of its liberation by the Allies in 1945 and how the former inmates then used this item of make-up to strike an artistic blow against the depravity of their inhuman surroundings. Not one for emotional display, even I felt moved and dare I say it, tearful, at this point.
After the service, we all trooped back to the Academy for champagne plus canapés and naturally to see our own work on display. For the record, my photograph with an Irish theme, Four Courts Dublin was eventually located by a member of the Academy staff in the Porter Gallery (Room X) near to the exit high up on the wall. While milling around in one of the galleries where mutual congratulations are being exchanged, the sound of a bell is heard and someone says that a speech is being given. We make a move to the Central Hall where the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Nicholas himself was discoursing on the high number of entrants to the Exhibition and the challenge of choosing the final successful supplicants with this year’s focus on ‘raw’ in mind. Sir Nicholas then introduced a coterie of fellow Academicians who went on to make a number of awards to the winners of various creative categories.
I bump into Austin again and as he recalls I have a camera, he requests that I take a picture of his painting in the Small Weston Room. ‘No problem’, I say but as it is quite high up, getting a decent angle on it would be a dilemma. Unperturbed, Austin turns around and sees a fancy bright red step ladder – presumably placed there conveniently and with some forethought to enable us artists to touch up or varnish our works on this very day – after all, it is Varnishing Day. Austin and I haul the piece of equipment near to his painting and he offers to hold the ladder securely as I mount it; I notice that we have become comrades-in-arms by now. No worries as I leapt up the contraption like a ferret after its prey. Very conveniently the restraining bar at the top is at just the right height to balance my camera on and I take two snaps of Mr Ruddy’s painting. At that moment, a polite kerfuffle beneath me ensues – I guess all such encounters at the RA are conducted with such finesse – where Austin is now locked in an exchange with an official who warns of the dangers associated with our actions and that health and safety is being infringed. As I feel confident about the pictures just taken, I decide to descend the ladder and meekly comply with this jobsworth’s ruling. Just at that moment, a young lady barred my path downwards with false bonhomie, asking mysteriously: “Is that a G9?” while pointing at my camera. Fortunately we photographers are switched on to such exciting developments in our lives and I immediately clicked into ‘techie mode’ recognising her rather impudent inquiry about my equipment. I crisply replied: “No, actually it’s a G10” showing my camera to her as best I could as I endeavoured to evade the steely glare of the gallery apparatchik who was by this time tugging at the step ladder to wrest it from Austin’s grasp lest we use it again. The impetuous camera lady then melted back into the crowd. As an Irishman abroad, I noticed that the fuss with Academy officialdom was amicably concluded in that quintessential English manner but this little vignette of an episode is emblematic of how a modern Britain is seized with a new tyranny: that the infantilising dogma of health and safety abuts awkwardly against certain well-oiled artistic practices of the past. But I digress.
Later on, when the throng had departed I walked around undistracted gazing in wonder at the inventiveness and creative skill exhibited. It was truly exciting but let me give you a very brief flavour of what is on show: David Mach and his striking collage, Babel Towers next to his incredible sculpture, Silver Streak (think of King Kong) made entirely of coat hangers; Bill Jacklin’s intriguing inkjet print, Wollman Rink 1; Norman Ackroyd and his enchanting etching on stainless steel, Gallapagos; The Crown of Esfahan: Mosque of the Sun, an entrancing and intricate creation of brass, paper and ink by Sara Shaffei and Ben Cowd. The whimsical but telling message contained in the topical sculpture, Crash Willy by Yinka Shonibare – winner of the coveted Wollaston Prize plus a cheque for £25,000; take note of the vehicle registration, if you can.
Irish artists are well represented and indeed triumphant with Elizabeth Magill’s large oil painting with a mysterious feel to it, Blue Hold which earned her the Sunny Dupree Family Award for a woman artist and Paul Murphy’s award-winning Untitled, a c-type photographic print. Other artists on show with Irish connections are: Carey Clarke, Francis Matthews, Terry McAllister Padraig MacMiadhachain, Séan Scully and Hughie O’Donoghue. The Exhibition is on until 22nd August.
No doubt there will be rumbustious critics who will lambast this artistic extravaganza with well-chosen bon mots based on entrenched prejudices fossilised sometime in the Kensington or Soho ateliers of the 1950s and who then enter into this post-modern world of wonder and inspiration sometimes verging on the anarchic only to weald an axe of destructive blithering ignorance. But I digress, again.
As a photographer, I should confess to a certain bias but Room X did have a number of striking images many of which were produced with the help of a camera rather than a brush, palette knife or chisel, such as Suzanne Moxhay’s Cablecar and Swarm, both archival digital prints with an indefinable eeriness about them. Also, Allen Jones’ Undressed Hatstand, a black and white silver print; Substrate Shadow, an archival digital print by Barton Hargreaves and Nicola Walsh’s Envelopes, a c-type digital print; all these images spectacularly observed the official remit of ‘raw’ for the Summer Exhibition. I was further heartened when chatting to Sir Nicholas Grimshaw towards the end of Varnishing Day when he voiced strong support for the photographic element of this event. This positive attitude should send out a welcoming signal to photographers that their images are now being taken seriously by the arts world; the Royal Academy has accepted photographs at the Summer Exhibition since 2006.
As a newbie, this magical day was coming to an end and I savoured it to the last knowing that for a very brief moment I had been privileged to play a small part in this world-class artistic occasion. It may never happen again but now that the lotus flower of the Summer Exhibition has been tasted ...............
©Nicholas Mackey 2010