The centenary year of any institution is a momentous occasion, but I am particularly excited for the RWA as it is one hundred years since George V agreed to be patron. October 7th 2013 will be a typical day for anyone else, whereas I will always think fondly of the RWA.
Initially starting the exhibition was a little bit overwhelming. Although there have been exhibitions of the RWA permanent collection before, this exhibition was to specifically focus on the centenary, an anniversary of being recongised by royalty. For me, that equated as being recognised by a national collection.
I wanted to borrow works from the Royal Collection as a representation of the RWA’s success. I broke the exhibition down into rough chronological sections. I didn’t want people to be forced to move around the space in any specific order. For visitors to see the significance of the Academy I realised it was best to focus on the artists themselves and their role in the establishment of the RWA. I wanted every visitor to look at a piece of art in the exhibition and wonder how its creator contributed to the Academy. The success of the artists is then portrayed in their displayed Royal Collection work, a collection established for hundreds of years and world renowned. I also wanted to choose works by the same artists of similar techniques and styles at similar periods to show visual connections between the collections.
As my research began, it dawned on me that although significant figures, such as Past Presidents, have been recognised before. I wanted to include those less appreciated who taught and worked at the Academy to achieve its status in 1913. This led me to choose works by individuals who are represented in the Royal Collection and the RWA permanent collection. I felt it was important to draw out items that are rarely displayed or less likely to be exhibited in Bristol. Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, for example, is on permanent display at Windsor Castle so the miniatures are not often displayed unless requested for loan. As the miniatures are so small (naturally) I decided it was best to have reproductions printed to ensure visitors could appreciate all their detail. Admittedly there is a lot of text in the exhibition, the need to give a lot of background to each artist and period, but I also chose works that are aesthetically pleasing. People can enjoy looking at them and ask questions without feeling the need to have to read every single panel.
Deciding the works to hang was a bit of a challenge. The space, the different walls, and the shear variation in mediums and sizes did cause quite a lot of negotiations. But eventually it came down to the fact that I wanted works to be presented in pairs where possible. The only exception for this is in ‘Present Day’ [section three of the exhibition] where there was no Royal Collection works on display. This is because the there have been no contributions by the RWA Academicians to the Royal Collection in the last decade. But glorious news! This is being resolved by the current Academicians creating a gift to present to the Royal Collection, which would be a fantastic exhibition in another decade for the RWA.
My favorite piece in the exhibition is Ernest Board’s Cupid and Campaspe. In the miniature from Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, Cupid is pictured playing cards with Campaspe, based on Peter Lyly’s comedy Campaspe (1584) which described that when playing cards she kept winning the qualities of Cupid, until eventually stripping him entirely of his powers. I think it is a beautiful miniature with such vivid and impacting colours.
After a year of creating 3D layouts of my computer, it was bizarre and thrilling to see all of the works on the walls. With the exhibition complete I was concerned that would be it, but I am so pleased that people are engaging and asking me so many questions. I want people to ask about what the RWA still has to hold even one hundred years on. If you want to explore the exhibition with me, an opportunity to ask plenty of questions, please join my curators tour on October 5th.
Curator: One Hundred Years: One Hundred Works
Photo: © Alice Hendy