With its curious rules and frequent fallings out among members, the Royal Academy sometimes seem ill at ease with contemporary society in London.
So it was anyone's guess what might result when six royal academicians were invited to visit the fast-paced and populous towns and cities of the new global superpower, China.
What they found astounded, fascinated and inspired them, according to a new exhibition of work inspired by the visit now on show at the Royal Academy in London. "I didn't realise what it would be like," Paul Huxley, 67, one of the six, said yesterday. "I've been to Communist countries before and I went to China thinking, 'This is a Communist country and the mood in the streets is going to be similar to what I've found elsewhere,' so it was a huge shock to me.
"If I'd done my research I would have known that - about the whole private-enterprise capitalist energy, streets of neon that would throw Times Square into shadow. But it was probably good for my work that I hadn't."
Huxley, like his fellow artists, John Bellany, 63, Allen Jones, 68, David Mach, 49, Ian McKeever, 59, and Chris Orr, 62, made their trip under the auspices of the Red Mansion Foundation, set up in London in 1999 by Nicolette Kwok to foster understanding between East and West by providing opportunities for artists to meet and exchange ideas.
Ms Kwok said she had been struck by how little the West understood the emerging power of China while its citizens knew much about us. "There is so much misunderstanding here about what China is like, whereas the Chinese are very well informed. They know about the Old Masters and about the Young British Artists. They are very clued up, but Westerners have no idea that China has changed so much." Art seemed an ideal, non-political way of breaking down the barriers, she said.
And while the foundation most often works with younger artists, the plan for a high-profile exchange required the status of a revered institution such as the Royal Academy, she said.
"Most of the Chinese artists would rather have seen Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, but they like these artists very much because they're genial. They have a lot of respect for the older generations. And it was a diplomatic decision to choose the Royal Academy because anything royal goes down well in China. We wanted to do this with an official institution in China and it was easier to persuade everybody if we did it with the Royal Academy because it's very well respected in China."
All the artists visited China for several weeks and returned to exhibit their work at the China National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing and at the Art Museum in Shanghai last April.
David Mach described Beijing as "a feast for my eyes" while John Bellany said that the experience had been "profound... everywhere the contrast between ancient and modern in art".
There were some hiccups along the way. Huxley was smitten by a particularly elegant piece of calligraphy in blue, on white walls, that he saw in several towns he visited. But he was disappointed by the translation: "Buy our pig food - it's got more hormones in it."
Royal Academicians in China is in the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy until 20 January.Reuse content