School of Genius by James Fenton

Attacking Picasso wasn't a good idea

Gibbon memorably observed in his autobiography that "Solitude is the school of genius", which makes James Fenton's title for his history of the Royal Academy an odd one since, apart from the common professional aim of creativity, the purpose of the Academy, like so many other trade associations, is also that of a club or college where the like-minded can associate, help each other and, generally, have a good time.

Although there were various loose associations of artists in England before the RA, led by the principal artist of the day such as Van Dyck, Lely or Kneller, with names like the Virtuosi of St Luke (patron saint of painters) or the Rose and Crown club, there was no formal Academy until 1711, in Great Queen Street. When Sir James Thornhill became the boss he moved to his own house in Covent Garden. Hogarth, Thornhill's son- in-law, was in fact a vigorous opponent of the very concept of an Academy but supported Captain Coram's Foundling Hospital by donating his portrait of Coram, and soon the Hospital became a focal gathering point for artists and musicians out of which, ultimately, the RA was formed. The splendid John Wilkes effectively manipulated the election of Joshua Reynolds as its first President when, eventually, George III put his signature to the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts on 10 December 1768.

Given a roll call of its early members it is easy to see the triumph of the RA as the premier teaching, exhibiting and selling institution for the visual arts in England. It not only had Royal patronage when such a thing was both meaningful and valuable but, if you were a leading artist of the day, from 1768 to about the first third of the last century, you were a member. Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Fuseli, Blake, Ramsay, Benjamin West, Thomas Lawrence and architects such as William Chambers (who ensured that his rival Robert Adams was never elected RA), plus the leading sculptors, became members. But from the 1930s onwards, the best artists stayed away. After 1945, when we think of our major artists, they rarely joined, even when offered membership. Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and many more would have nothing to do with the Academy. Fenton deals with this subject in his introduction and reproduces a letter of resignation from Sickert in 1935 and letters declining membership from John Piper, Howard Hodgkin and Bacon in the 1980s. He does not dwell on the subject in general, presumably because it is too painful for the institution which, together with sponsors, has financed this handsome tribute to itself.

To be fair, Fenton does not spare, in later chapters, the villains of the piece who, largely, contributed to the RA's intellectual decline as an elite body. Yet, thanks to its ebullient Exhibitions Secretary, my unrelated namesake Norman Rosenthal, and shrewd commercialisation of its assets, it rose again as a leading showcase for some of London's best exhibitions. To put the contemporary RA into intellectual perspective one has to ask whether any British scientist of note would decline a Fellowship of the Royal Society or a humanist that of the British Academy.

The RA moved house a lot, from Pall Mall to New Somerset House to Trafalgar Square (where it shared premises with the National Gallery), until finally it moved to its present home in Burlington House, Piccadilly in 1874, having resisted Queen Victoria's suggestion that they move to Kensington Gore and her beloved Albertopolis.

Until its authority as the art Establishment began to wane in the last century, the RA was indubitably a force for good and a rich source of anecdote and, frequently, controversy since, clubby as it was, it was not always a band of brothers. (Although there were two women among the founders, there were no more women elected until Annie Swynnerton in 1922 and Laura Knight in 1927, both as Associates, with Knight progressing to full membership in 1936.) Blake took against Reynolds and his notes and marginalia in his copy of Reynolds's Discourses are pungently splenetic. The poet Fenton quotes with approval Blake's quatrain:

When Sr Joshua Reynolds died
All nature was degraded;
The King drop'd a tear into the Queen's Ear,
And all his pictures faded.

Fenton also goes behind the green baize door and has an engaging chapter on the RA's models where, unusually for the time, the women were paid more than the men. But he also points out that many of the female models were prostitutes. Some of the Academicians were odd to the point of eccentricity or even madness, and Fenton brings to life the prodigiously gifted but quite impossible Benjamin Robert Haydon and the contumacious Irishman James Barry. He is also unsparing in his reporting of some of the fairly dreadful 20th-century Presidents. The indifferent sculptor Charles Wheeler, aided and abetted by the manic-depressive Secretary Humphrey Brooke, behaved shabbily over the sale of the Leonardo Cartoon. However, the worst ever PRA, the one who did so much to alienate the most gifted artists of the post-war period, was the appalling Sir Alfred Munnings, regarded as a great horse painter by the gentry of the shires who wouldn't recognise a masterpiece by George Stubbs if it bit them. He launched, at the annual dinner, a drunken attack on Picasso, Matisse and Modernism which rebounded with terrible effect, and also tried to enlist the support of Winston Churchill in his lunatic crusade. This earned him an appropriately Churchillian rebuke.

Munnings also, quite unforgivably, set the police on to his fellow Academician Stanley Spencer over what he, quite mistakenly, perceived to be some obscene pictures. Happily, the police and DPP were better art critics than Munnings and refused to prosecute.

This is as stylishly written as one might expect from a poet of Fenton's stature and the book is immaculately designed and produced with plenty of colour to make it excellent value - as a subsidised book should be - although one can quibble with some of the choices of illustration; three by Turner and seven by Millais seems a little out of kilter. But rarely can a "house history" have been so aesthetically pleasing and so entertaining.