The Company of Artists – book review

The Company of Artists: The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London by Charles Saumarez Smith – a review by Sinead Fitzgibbon

It is late in the afternoon of 28 November 1768, a Monday.  A small group of men – three artists and an architect – converge on St James’s Palace for an audience with the King, George III.  There was but one thing on their minds – to secure the monarch’s support for the establishment of ‘a well regulated School or Academy of Design’ which, they hoped, would be the British equivalent to similar, well-regarded institutions on the Continent.

This is the setting used by Charles Saumarez Smith to introduce his engaging account of the origins of the Royal Academy of Arts.  It soon becomes apparent, however, that this rather decorous opening scene is entirely misleading.  As the author recounts the background to this historic meeting at St James’s Palace – the endless infighting between various artists, the rebellion against the Directors of the Academy’s predecessor, the Society of Artists – the reader soon realises that the establishment of this venerable institution was far from uncontroversial, and the behaviour of those involved was sometimes quite removed from the high-minded ideals they espoused.

Neatly divided in six easily digestible chapters, The Company of Artists is an accessible day-by-day account of the events which culminated, on 10 December 1768, in the signing Academy’s Instrument of Foundation by George III. It also provides insightful analysis of the challenges which faced the fledgling institution during its first three years in existence.  It is the story of high passions, competing artistic philosophies, the clashing of great egos, and divided loyalties.  It explains how, out of this incendiary mix, a system of governance emerged which, for the most part, continues to guide the Academy to this very day.

With a cast of characters which includes Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and William Chambers (to name but a few), and with appearances by Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole (whose commentary on the Academy’s first exhibitions is a welcome addition to the book), The Company of Artists will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in 18th century British art.

A fascinating read, which is superbly illustrated throughout.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

The Company of Artists: The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London is published by the Modern Art Press on 15 October 2012.

Charles Saumarez Smith has served as Director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery.  He is currently Chief Executive and Secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Sinead Fitzgibbon is the author of two available and two forthcoming History In An Hour titles: The Titanic, The Queen, The Gunpowder Plot and JFK.