Royal Academy and Joshua Reynolds

Our History of Art session on Friday 06 October 2023 covered the history of the Royal Academy, and the work of its first President, the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, FRS, FRSA.

We started with the story of how the Royal Academy had got started, largely at the instigation of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir William Chambers. Interestingly for the 18th Century, two women were also elected to the Royal Academy at its start, artists Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman. We also were able to examine the portrait of the first academicians painted in 1772 by Johann Zofany.

The Royal Academy was not always been in Burlington House in Piccadilly. It had started in 1768 in a room in Pall Mall, just 30ft in length with only 36 members, who came from several countries. An approach had been made to the King, George III, by Sir William Chambers, the architect, who tutored His Majesty on architecture, requesting a society promoting the design arts. The King agreed and signed a charter bringing the Royal Academy of Arts into existence. We then followed the several moves the Academy made, through Somerset House to the National Gallery and to Burlington House in 1867, with an annual rent at the bargain price of £1 for 999 years!

We then took a tour through the works of the first president. Sir Joshua Reynolds specialised in portraiture, and painted himself almost as many times as Rembrandt had painted himself (some of which are shown above). This year sees his 300th anniversary. Reynolds often created lasting friendships with the subjects of his paintings, and several had been painted at different ages too. Many of the paintings contain strong echoes of the classical painters of yore, and we were shown comparisons to Apollo Belvedere, Venus de Medici, the Death of Actaeon, and many more.

Towards the end of his career, Sir Joshua lost his hearing (his was pictured at the Royal Academy in 1772 with an ear trumpet) and then his worsening eye sight finally led wearing spectacles and then to blindness. His was a fascinating life, and Jennifer held us spellbound throughout.

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