Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

 An Age of Unknowns

The known and the unknown, by long tradition, hang together in the Royal Academy  Summer Exhibition. On the wall of Room II, amid nearly 1,200 paintings and sculptures in this vast  grab-bag of a show,  with a 247-year tradition behind it, a certain familiar mug stands out.

Simon Cowell Royal Academy

Simon’s cheery grin.

In Simon, by Jean Samtula, the face of Simon Cowell jumps out across the room. The picture in acrylic,  is  as appropriately banal and superficial as the man and his trade.

Samtula’s work has won favourable mentions in several reviews.  The retired British-Caribbean bank manager, apparently with a taste for painting celebrity portraits, is about to get the documentary treatment in a BBC programme.    The artist and her creation, then, becoming what Donald Rumsfeld might call a ‘known unknown’.

The Royal Academy bills the Summer Exhibition, nominally open to any artist who makes the cut but also as a showcase for academy members,  as the oldest running exhibition in the world; it will soon celebrate its 250th anniversary.     This year there were more than 12,000 works submitted digitally from round the world; final selections of a vastly smaller number are made from the artists invited to send the physical work.

Work No. 1, by Conrad Shawcross,  The Dappled Light of the Sun,  dominates the central courtyard of the Royal Academy.  The structures described in the literature as “clouds” with “branching forms”, fanning out six metres high on sturdy metal poles; walking through this forest of five-tonne metal trees requires a certain faith in the welding.


Conrad Shawcross

The Dappled Light of the Sun, weathering steel, Conrad Shawcross

The branches turn upward, reaching rusted for the sky like clusters of fingers curling up from clenched hands.   As this is above all a selling show, there’s a limited edition of 250 mini-sculptures by artist to go with them, tetrahedrons of weathered steel.

Shawcross is the youngest member of the academy.  But  youth is not the theme of this year’s show, if there is one,  it’s age.    For the 1,131 featured works  the exhibition coordinator, the artist Michael Craig-Martin,  73,  restricted his own guest artists to those over 65, and many are considerably older.

Many were building careers when “there wasn’t such an interest in contemporary art as there is today,” he said. “They have missed out. It’s like football players,” with older stars paid meagre sums in their golden years compared to the vast figures sloshing around  today.  He wanted to remind visitors that they are “extraordinarily good artists”.

Different generations followed different trends, he notes; the group that Craig-Martin features in Room II of the exhibition grew up with abstract. “For people who are out of the public eye, I want to direct attention to them,”  he said.   They still producing busily – all works in the exhibition must be done within the last three years – but they are out of the running for the Turner Prize, restricted to artists over 50.

One example is Tim Head, born in 1946, with his curiously mesmerising interlocking circles of soft, artificial pastel colours, Fictions 3 (Invisible Cities), an inkjet print; it appears on the cover of the exhibition’s list of works.   Priced at £20,000, it features below, behind Sir Anish Kapoor’s untitled work, an elusive glittering shape in glass that was getting a great deal of attention from photographers.

Untiled, by Anish Kapoor; Tim Head's Fiction 3

Untiled, by Anish Kapoor; Tim Head’s Fiction 3

There are four works by a personal favourite, Philip Sutton by my count  86; I have lived with and loved one of his large works, a rich and brilliant blue painting of an acacia tree, for thirty years. .

The works are densely hung in the Academy’s soaring spaces which Craig-Martin has had painted this year in startling pinks and magentas.  It makes for the a demanding experience, but there’s shopping to be done;  listed prices run from £165 to £90,000, and the exhibition’s historic purpose is to raise money for the Academy’s art school.  There are many gems, but enough ho-hummery to single out favourites.

The artist Stephen Chambers has two works in the show that were wonderfully light and amusing; the large scale A Painting of three Stories in Room IX (971, £48,000), standing out for its humorous colours and artistry in a room mostly devoted to photography. Stephen Chambers Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

A Painting of Three Stories, Stephen Chambers

Room II was curated by the  Paisley-born landscape artist Jock McFadyen,  a relatively new member of the academy.  He initially set out to create a roomful of ‘radical landscapes’, featuring the Boyle family, say, or Richard Long, mixing photographs with off-beat aerial landscapes and more conventional paintings.

“That changed because you could only work with what you have got.  My agenda, remit, shifted towards a sort of ‘this is Britain’ thing,” he said.   So amid the landscapes, the eye is quickly drawn to a witty little section of portraits, with a celebrity twist, including Simon.

Portrait medley

Portrait medley

Simon hangs with Grayson and Measles, by Una Stubbs  (£400) – that’s Grayson Perry and his best friend and teddy bear Measles – and Damien Hirst by Harry Hill (£2,000).   (McFadyen and Hill, the comedian, both showed work at the 2012 Edinburgh Art Festival.)   Dominating this celebrity gathering, however, was the striking portrait of a very masculine Glasgow woman contemplating the city’s past games in Changed Times, by the Perthshire-born Errol Neill.    This work – again by an unfamiliar name – has already been snapped up by a leading private collector, McFadyen said, at a cost of £3,200.

Like the Royal Scottish Academy, the Royal Academy is moving in this exhibition from a free-for-all in its vast spaces towards a much more curated approach.   Both institutions, one suspect, will have a problem vetting open digital submissions, if they want a British or Scottish focus for their work.

On Craig-Martin’s focus on older artists, said McFadyen, “one may not have shared his choices, but I have certainly shared his gesture, because for twenty or thirty years now everything has been on young and emerging artists, so if you hadn’t made the Venice biennale buy the time you were thirty you might as well have given up. The thing has changed it’s course and this is a way of celebrating that. ”

As well as new or unseen works by veterans like Kapoor, Jasper Johns, and William Kentridge in the exhibition, one of the most mesmerising pieces is the classically inspired statue by Matthew Derbyshire, of Saatchi Gallery fame, another younger artist.

Scottish artists make their mark this year, though I’m not sure it follows the Barnett formula.   Jim Lambie  is on the grand steps, with Zobop, work no. 2 in the show.

For the art shopper both the two rooms devoted to prints and the room for small works (though dominated by a giant Grayson Perry tapestry) will yield trophies. Chris Orr’s four prints (nos 832 to 835) are both amusing and reflective including London’s Burning, A Dance through Time 1666, 1940, 2011, and Moonlight Sonata, While the Mice Are Away the Cats Will Play.   You can quibble with prints as an investment, but sales of them  are critical to the exhibition’s financial success.


Particular personal favourites, though at high-end prices,  included Noon Fishing, by Mick Moon, with its use of the wood grain in this delicate, evocative piece;  and Jasmine Flowers Provence, Turkish Bowl V&A by Leonard McComb.

In the room for small works, is a quite large and magnificent piece by Henry Kondracki (179) with one of the best works by him I’ve ever seen; a lovely straightforward painting of an Edinburgh sunset, titled Edinburgh Lovers, I’d venture to say deserves a place in a city collection from an artist who loves the place and has clearly put his all into this work.

  • Jim Lambie
    Jim Lambie's Zobop (with unknown man).


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