Minnie knows her onions

It's not exactly cutting edge, but for many gallery-goers - and exhibitors - the RA's Summer Exhibition is the high-point of the year. Peter Guttridge enjoys a modern English ritual
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The Independent Culture
At 11 in the morning in the smallest exhibition room in the Royal Academy a middle-aged woman is swaying precariously on top of a large stepladder. It's the week before the opening of the Summer Exhibition and Elizabeth Heaven is among hundreds of artists here for Varnishing Day, when, traditionally, oil painters varnish their work for the show. She's not here to varnish - hardly anyone is these days. She's here to meet old friends and get a photograph of her small oil, Mizen Farm Co Cork (price pounds 500), in situ some twelve feet up the wall.

The Summer Exhibition is the largest open contemporary art exhibition in the world. Sir Philip Dowson, President of the RA, says: "I think it's marvellous that painters, sculptors, printmakers and architects, some of whom have never exhibited before, are given the opportunity to show their work alongside that of internationally acclaimed artists. Professional artists and very gifted lay people exhibit together."

This year, with over pounds 56,000 worth of prizes, there were 11,000 entries, of which 1,166 were selected. "It's as difficult as winning the lottery," Elizabeth Heaven's friend Minnie Wills says with understandable exaggeration as she stands in front of her two entries so that Mrs Heaven can photograph her. Actually Minnie only wants to admit to one entry, a still-life of a bowl of onions, priced at pounds 450. The other is a self-portrait, a snip at pounds 350. "It was one of my funny days I think," she says with a little shudder. "It was a very quick work." How quick? She looks around to see if anyone from the Academy might be listening. "An hour," she murmurs out of the side of her mouth.

Minnie likes the way this room is crammed with pictures - over 200 of them. "Cheek by jowl, floor to ceiling. They've tried to get as many of the artists' works up there. I like to see them all bunged up on the walls - in the loo as well if possible."

The main gallery is overrun with caterers setting up for the buffet lunch. Elsewhere, technicians on scaffolding towers are still adjusting lights - building works mean some of the galleries are quite poorly lit - and a handful of artists are fussing with their work.

In a room devoted almost entirely to sculpture, York-based Michael Lyons, Vice President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, is painstakingly wiping down his striking piece, Dialogue of Alligators, made from jagged lengths of steel. Since the steel is quite rusty - he's had some of the lengths 15 years - this might seem unnecessarily fastidious, but then it is his debut entry in the Summer Exhibition. It's priced at pounds 20,210. Will it sell? "I hope so, though that's not the principal reason to exhibit here. I like the idea that so many people will see it."

The galleries are mostly devoid of artists, but about 200 of them are milling around in the courtyard in their Sunday best. At 11.30am, the Rector of St James, the Reverend Donald Reeves, resplendent in yellow, leads them in a traffic-stopping procession down Piccadilly to St James's Church for the annual Service for Artists. Actually, ahead of the clergy is a four-man steel band in straw hats and bright shirts. It is playing the old Scouting song "I Love to Go A Wandering".

The tune changes at the gates of the church to "When the Saints Go Marching In" - which frankly must be pushing it a bit with a bunch of artists, however august they look. A cynic might assume some are here only to pray that their pictures sell.

There are well-known names at the buffet lunch. Eduardo Paolozzi, whose huge Newton after Blake, destined for the British Library, dominates the Central Hall; and Patrick Caulfield, mooching beside the Dialogue of Alligators. And is that a pale-faced John Hoyland in Fifties Teddy boy drape suit and brothel creepers?

But in the absence of paintbrushes stuck behind ears and clay under the fingernails it's hard in this crowd to spot an artist by looks alone. The likely ones dressed in bohemian chic turn out to be either architects or corporate sponsors. The only ones recognisable straight off are those sitting protectively by their own works, glaring at people who come too near with over-full food plates and tilting wine glasses.

Edmund Fairfax-Lucy, a graduate of the Royal Academy's school, is ignoring the strawberries and meringue so he can, er, finish painting one of his pictures. "All my works this year [he has three in the show] are works in progress," he says, paintbrush in hand. "When you see your picture again in a different situation you say, why did I do that? So I'm touching this one up a bit. One year I took a razor blade to a painting. A friend of mine told a reporter who was watching: 'It's not even his own picture'." Fairfax-Lucy likes the "mish-mash" of artists on show at the exhibition.

Abstract artist and Fifties enfant terrible William Gear, at 80 a newly- elected Senior Academician, likes it too. "Before, the younger avant-garde wouldn't be seen dead in the place because modern or abstract art wasn't allowed in. But in recent years it has been open to works of quality whatever the kind."

The younger avant-garde are in evidence during the good-hearted but slightly shambolic prize-giving ceremony which follows lunch in the main gallery. The podium is slightly too high to step on to easily. As sponsors and prize-winners haul themselves on and off it, the ceremony takes on the qualities of a surreal step aerobics class.

Some prize-winners aren't here. Some prizes aren't. Thom Winterbourne, the winner of the Guinness prize for the best work by a first-time exhibitor, comes away bemused and empty-handed from the podium because Guinness - the Summer Exhibition's main sponsor - seems to be the only prize sponsor not to have brought its cheque book along.

In the two days of previews later in the week, cheque books are much in evidence. By the time the Exhibition opens to the public on Sunday, 1,383 works (including multiple sales of prints) valued at pounds 706, 638 have been sold. Fewer works but more money than last year, which had the best sales for a decade.

By Sunday lunchtime, a steady stream of people is passing through. A woman in pearls and court shoes leads her husband, dressed for the City, from picture to picture. Frankly she'd prefer the avant-garde still to be excluded. He looks sheepish when she says loudly of the Lichtenstein, hung at the invitation of the Academy and not for sale: "There's no price on this thing in the catalogue - I suppose they're too embarrassed to price it."

Lisa and John Steering from Tulsa, Oklahoma are in London for a holiday and are looking for a picture to take back. As long as it will fit into their suitcase. So Dialogue of Alligators is out, though it is still available. There isn't much without an orange (sold) sticker in the south room full of the smaller pictures though. "Here's one with a green sticker," Lisa says, looking at a lovely Fairfax-Lucy oil of a church interior. She seems suspicious of the picture and is relieved to find it's not for sale.

John likes Elizabeth Heaven's picture but that's been sold. When it's pointed out to her, Lisa likes Minnie's still-life of onions but that's sold. The Steerings leave empty-handed. But then Minnie's self-portrait has gone too.

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