A secret collection of masterpieces by some of Britain's finest artists is to be put on public display for the first time in years in a small, new gallery in London.
Works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner, Constable and Hockney will be among 850 paintings that will adorn the walls of the Royal Academy's Fine Rooms - previously used for internal meetings and corporate functions - at its headquarters. Burlington House in Piccadilly has been restored for the purpose at a cost of £6m. Entrance to the collection will be free.
The paintings span the 235-year history of the London institution and will be will be set beside 350 sculptures and 15,000 prints and drawings.
All of the artists donated their works to the RA when they were elected Royal Academicians. Since the institution dates back to 1768 - its first president was Sir Joshua Reynolds - and RA membership is restricted to the greatest names in contemporary art, these "joining fees" represent a cross-section of the greatest art of the past two and a half centuries.
Mary Anne Stephens, the curator, said: "The collection has been a well-guarded secret, mostly by benign neglect rather than intent. The last catalogue was back in the 1930s.
"But the collections are the story of the Royal Academy because they are given by the members of the Royal Academy who donate works to the institution. If you want to know the history of the institution, you need to know the collections."
Until now, a lack of space has meant that most of the paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings have remained in storage. But from March, highlights of the collection will be presented to the public in a revolving exhibition.
The first selection will feature works by Stanley Spencer and David Hockney and self-portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. One room will show the academy's 18 works by John Constable, including The Leaping Horse, once described by Lucian Freud as the greatest painting in the world.
Another room will be devoted to a selection of prints by JMW Turner from his Liber Studiorum, one of the best collections of his prints in existence.
The quality of the works is due to the exclusivity of RA membership. At any one time, there are no more than 80 Royal Academicians. Vacancies only arise upon the death of an RA or his or her 75th birthday, when the artist becomes a "senior academician" and is replaced by fresh blood.
This continual injection of youth enables the RA to claim - albeit not with universal agreement - that it represents the greatest names in contemporary British art.
All RAs must still be producing art, and spend at least part of their working year in Britain. Of the 80 RAs, roughly half are painters - the rest come from the worlds of sculpture, architecture, engraving or printmaking.
Tim Marlow, the director of exhibitions at the modernist White Cube gallery in London who presented a BBC documentary on Turner last year, said he was "excited" by the prospect of seeing the various RA artists' joining pictures.
"It is the first 50 years of the RA that really excite me. They are the bedrock; Reynolds and Gainsborough, in particular.
"There is a broadening of interest in British art at the moment," he said. "Though the perception has been that Tate Modern has overshadowed Tate Britain, it seems to me that there is a growing revisionist movement behind historic British art, and this project will reinforce that."
But the Royal Academy, which is famous for blockbuster shows such as Sensation and for its Summer Exhibition and is currently exhibiting a retrospective of the work of the fashion designer Giorgio Armani, also attracts ire from some quarters of the art world.
Matthew Collings, a critic and presenter of Matt's Old Masters on Channel 4, which began last night, said that though membership of the Royal Academy had encompassed some of Britain's greatest artists some of the most creative people had rightly spurned the institution.
He described it as a "Barnum and Bailey" institution driven not by a cohesive artistic mission but by an audience-chasing populism.
"There have been great names at the Royal Academy - but it has also had great enemies. Hogarth and William Blake, a realist and a poetic visionary, both thought it was a place of fake power and pomposity. Though it no longer suffers from pomposity, I would say that it is still a place of fake power. There is no authenticity there. That is why it cannot be seen as cutting edge.
"The Royal Academy has no currency whatsoever. It is just about ratings."
The RA took up residence in Burlington House in the 19th century. The house has an extraordinary history. Built as a private town-house for the 1st Earl of Burlington in the 1660s, it was remodelled in the early 18th century by Colen Campbell for the 3rd Lord Burlington as the first and pre-eminent example of the neo-Palladian style.
The programme to restore the rooms began four years ago and will be completed in March when they will be renamed the John Madejski Fine Rooms, in honour of the businessman and chairman of Reading Football Club who donated £3m towards the work.
SECRET TREASURES FIND A FITTING HOME
The Royal Academy of Arts, founded in 1768, is Britain's oldest art institution. It is run by its members - Royal Academicians - who are drawn from "the greatest names in contemporary British art". At any one time, there are can be no more than 80 RAs; all are painters, engravers, architects, or sculptors.
Among the more prominent names on the membership list are Peter Blake, David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, R B Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi, Norman Foster and Craigie Aitchison. Past members include Constable, Turner and Gainsborough.
There have been one or two "refuseniks" in the past however: the sculptor Rachel Whiteread was elected to membership a few years ago but turned it down.
Less recently, William Blake refused to join, as did Sir Henry Moore. Stanley Spencer resigned from the RA, but later rejoined.
There have been criticisms recently that the RA has been tempted by populism.
Its "Sensation" exhibition of 1997 featured Damien Hirst's pickled sharks and Tracey Emin's "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With" tent. Currently, the RA is displaying the art collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber and a retrospective of the fashion designer Giorgio Armani.Reuse content