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Review: Brimming with Art at Burlington House (The Summer Exhibition and more)

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition lives up to its reputation displaying a panoply of contemporary art with some glorious nods to the past, while the Society of Antiquaries welcomes visitors for one month only to see its remarkable portrait collection in its exhibition ‘Portraying the Past’. 

The Summer Exhibition appears to have changed in recent years. I have been going every year since childhood, but for various reasons I hadn’t been since about 2012. The present exhibition seems really ‘curated’ by the Royal Academicians (RAs) who are put in charge of each room. I enjoyed this and more than ever before it felt like an academic exhibition rather than just a pure splurge of everything and anything contemporary, wonderful though that is. I found myself wandering around reading the exhibition information panels in each room to find out the RAs’ unique visions for each room.

I particularly liked the different and dynamic voices in this year’s show. Bob and Roberta Smith’s vitriolic paean aimed at Michael Gove and his proposed policies towards teaching of art in schools appeared particularly prescient following the reshuffle and I found myself absorbed by the huge painted board. In fact I got so absorbed I almost walked into the microphone stand tactically placed in front of the board as if for a political speech- holding instead of a microphone, a hairbrush. The political relevance of this piece and others definitely gave the impression of the show having its finger on the pulse of the present.


The large exhibition hall contained large scale contemporary oil paintings- an interesting nod to the past when the main room would traditionally be hung with huge history paintings. I discovered that this monumental looking room was dedicated to recently deceased artists, including Alan Davie RA, whose works made a recent appearance at Masterpiece London 2014 with Alan Wheatley Art. Interestingly, however, a large orange oil canvas called ‘In London schritt fur schritt’ by one of the non-deceased artists of the room, George Baselitz Hon RA, was the most expensive work (valued at £370, 000).

To me, two surprising discoveries occurred- firstly that I was utterly grabbed by something in the architectural model room. Now, as glorious as these intricate models are, they don’t normally grab me for longer than average time. However, I was fascinated by the model and video provided this year by architects Foster and Partners. They appear to be making a rocket containing an igloo type structure which will enable scientists to actually live on the moon. The clever video took us through the whole process, from involving moon cars and diggers, 3D printers creating the exterior of the igloo out of compressed moon dust, and more.  Here’s a picture. What do we think? A lunar hobbit house, or a classy cave for a Klingon? Quite out of this world…

Another surprise came to me in the form of a sculpture. I thought the aesthetic effect of this large yet spidery structure, reminiscent of a kind of flimsy scaffolding, was quite striking as a form. Its wood and metal mix and lightness of form fitted perfectly in perfectly with the RA’s light and airy exhibition hall. It actually seemed like a visual enhancement to the room, which was great to see, as I feel contemporary sculpture is often so aesthetically at odds with its ‘grand salon style’ exhibition setting in galleries and often much better suits being outdoors or in contemporary spaces.  Moving closer to the object, it was a curious mix of everyday objects soldered together into one big structure- at one end there were crates and wood slats,  and at the other, old jam jar-like glasses.

Still, as much as the RA showcases contemporary art from the present day, I was also surprised to see so many nods to historic art in this show. From Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’ humorously reinterpreted to a couple on their phones, to a historic printed map which on closer inspection turned out to be a map of present day Soho Square with all its many inhabitants, from hipsters and trendy artists to actors and ‘old school journos’. This piece, in the room dedicated to printmaking, had been very popular, with a necklace of red dots at the bottom. I couldn’t help but think Daniel Crouch Rare Books would love a work like this, which would hang superlatively next to their historic London maps by John Rocque, Richard Horwood and more.

The show is on for another few weeks, so be sure to check it out. While you’re at Burlington House, don’t forget another artistic treasure trove literally on the doorstep, which has unbolted its hatches for one month only.

The Society of Antiquaries, founded in 1707,  has opened its doors to the public until August 1st with ‘Portraying the Past’- a glorious opportunity for the public to see its national portrait treasures entirely for free. They have also laid on a full talks schedule, alongside their diverse public lecture series. It has many important medieval and early modern works including unique portraits of early Kings and Queens. This includes the original portrait of Mary I by Hans Eworth, a formidable, impressive work. It also includes a matching pair of 15th-century portraits depicting brothers Edward IV and Richard III, the ill-reputed king whose remains were recently found under a Leicestershire car park. Moving into the Georgian period, the show also includes a work by Jonathan Richardson the Elder from 1718 of Martin Folkes (1690-1754), an ex-Society President who looks resplendent in a lapis lazuli period costume.

If you don’t have time to catch the show, take a look at the Society’s paintings here:


Royal Academy’s ‘Summer Exhibition’ (19th June- 17th August 2014)

Society of Antiquaries’ ‘Portraying the Past’ (30th June- 1st August 2014)

‘Portraying the Past’ talks (30 mins, 2-2.30pm)

22nd July ‘The Last Days of Richard III’ by John Ashdown-Hill FSA

24th July Dynasty and Diplomacy: Portrait Sets of Kings and Queens’ by Catherine Daunt

29th July ‘Making History: Antiquaries in Britain’ by Heather Rowland, Head of Library and Collections

The Society’s diverse Public Lecture series:


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