A visitor looks at a selection of paintings, at the press view for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2006, the world's largest open contemporary art exhibition showcasing work by unknown and emerging artists

    A visitor looks at a selection of paintings, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (Getty)

    How the Royal Academy is dramatically reinventing itself

    14 March 2017

    For 249 years, the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) has been at the pinnacle of the British art world. Founded in 1768, the first President was Joshua Reynolds; another founding member was Thomas Gainsborough. Right from the off, the RA represented the art establishment: its summer exhibition – held every year, without a break, since 1769 – has shown works by JMW Turner and John Constable. The list of presidents is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of creative dignitaries: Benjamin West, Lord Leighton, John Everett Millais, Edwin Lutyens.

    What all these men (the women, alas, are less well-remembered) had in common was a belief in art being a force for good in the everyday life of London. The Royal Academy was founded with the express purpose of promoting the creation, enjoyment and appreciation of the visual arts through exhibitions, education and debate. And it has done this, admirably, for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. John Ruskin and John Soane have lectured there; William Blake and Edwin Landseer attended the schools. In recent years, the RA has hosted blockbuster exhibitions showcasing work from everyone from the YBAs to Giovanni Battista Moroni. This year the Academy will show art by Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns, Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp to name just a few.

    You’d be forgiven for thinking that the RA is at the top of its game. But next year, to mark 250 years since its founding, it will get even better. An extensive redevelopment is planned which will bring to light the less familiar aspects of the institution.

    An artist's impression of the new Royal Academy art gallery in London

    The Royal Academy’s north-facing entrance, Burlington Gardens (Image: Hayes Davidson)

    The Royal Academy Schools have been an integral part of the establishment since the start – it was the first place in Britain to train artists for free. Yet they are totally unknown to most visitors, tucked away behind the grand façade of Burlington House on Piccadilly. The 60 or so artists studying for postgraduate degrees are now to be brought into the centre of the RA, as they once would have been. The schools will be integrated into the building so that visitors can see work by current students in a public exhibition space.

    It’s not only students who will be learning at the RA, though. Another aspect of the plan is the building of a new double-height lecture room to double the Academy’s events programme. There will also be a new Clore learning centre, as well as displays about the RA’s history.

    But to my mind the most exciting thing is the restoration of a permanent collection space. The RA has one of the most important collections of art in the country, but since 1939 there has only been one – small – room available to exhibit it. As of next year, there will be a grand collections gallery in the western wing of Burlington Gardens. And the magnificent surroundings will only just match up to the significance of the collections. One of the most important pieces – Michelangelo’s Virgin and Child with the Infant St John – will be central to the space. The Taddei Tondo, as it is known, was presented to the Academy in 1830 and is the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in the UK.

    The RA has plenty of other treasures which have been locked away for decades but may now be shown on rotation. There is JMW Turner’s travelling watercolour box, which he made himself – Turner was one of the first British artists to break away from working in the confines of the studio and paint en plein air. In a similar vein is Queen Victoria’s paintbox, given to her by her mother in the late 1830s. There is also work by Royal Academicians past and present, including John Constable’s vigorous, vibrant The Leaping Horse and studies by David Hockney. All RAs donate work to the institution – so you can count on pieces by Tracey Emin and Zaha Hadid, too.

    JMW Turner’s homemade watercolour box

    To join up all of these new aspects there will be link bridge connecting Burlington House and Burlington Gardens. Thus, visitors will be able to see the schools and permanent collections without having to purchase an exhibition ticket. The whole project is being masterminded by architect Sir David Chipperfield RA and Christopher Le Brun, the current president.

    ‘[This transformation] will enable us once again to be at the heart of art and architecture, not just here but also internationally,’ Le Brun told me. He is a practising artist himself, who has had three solo shows since he became president, and understands the artistic temperament innately. All the current Royal Academicians have helped with the project. ‘If there is any contribution I have made,’ says Le Brun, ‘it would be to somehow achieve consensus on vision and direction from a body of immensely distinguished… creative figures whose natural habitat (and I put this mildly) is not a world of cosy agreement.’ Yet despite any tussles – and Le Brun’s own occasional feeling of ‘what am I doing here [with my] suit, tie, medal, I should be in the studio’ – the plans are now well under way. The Royal Academy is set to be bigger and better than ever in 2018. See you there.

    For more information about the Royal Academy’s redevelopment project go here