The strange birth of the Royal Academy


On my summer holiday last year, I had rather more time than usual to consider a problem which has long perplexed me: that is, how was it that, on Monday 28 November 1768, a small group of artists, including an architect, went to see King George III about the idea of establishing a Royal Academy; and, less than two weeks later, 28 of them returned to St James's Palace to celebrate the so-called Instrument of Foundation, which was a set of rules and laws which still govern the Royal Academy today.

How on Earth could someone (or was it a group?) devise an organisation and system of such magnificent complexity in such a short space of time ? In what began as no more than a parlour game, a way of passing the time as I looked out of the window at a distant view of Snowdon, I wrote down exactly what happened that day– who went to meet the King and what they are likely to have said (as always in the writing of history, the sources seldom tell the answer to what one would like to know).

Then I wrote what happened the following day. Luckily, Thomas Jones, a Welsh artist, wrote a memoir which recorded exactly what was said at a meeting in the Turk's Head Tavern in Gerrard Street, including a statement from Joshua Reynolds that he would not countenance exhibiting with the new Academy.

By the time I got to describing what happened on Saturday, 10 December, 1768, the day of the founding of the Royal Academy, I had discovered that it is possible to reconstruct to a surprising extent exactly what was happening very nearly day-by-day: who was meeting who in the pub, who was part of the plan, when it was that Reynolds was co-opted (slightly against his will) to be president, and much more than I had previously known about the first Academicians. They were a motley crew, including a number who have remained extremely well-known, like Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, and a number who were not, like Peter Toms, who was Reynolds's drapery painter, and John Baker, who painted flowers.

By now I was enjoying myself. I had realised that, by reconstructing in detail exactly what was happening, I was able to obtain a much more minute view of the politics and personalities involved in the establishment of the Royal Academy, what motivated them, the origins of their ideas, what they hoped to achieve. By the end of the holiday, I had what I thought was the making of a book, a short jeu d'esprit describing what the Royal Academy was like long ago. The answer is that, to a surprising extent, it was as it is today.

'The Company of Artists: The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London' is published by Modern Art Press and Bloomsbury on 15 October. Charles Saumarez Smith is chief executive of the Royal Academy