From founders' feuds to commercial controversies, Charles Saumarez Smith delights in a colourful institutional portrait
It might be expected that an official history of the Royal Academy, commissioned by the institution itself, sponsored by entrepreneur John Madejski and published at a time when the academy has been having a spot of bad publicity, would be deathly dull. On the contrary, the decision to give the task to James Fenton - poet, polymath and infinitely curious about all manner of arts - has ensured a history that is lively, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, as well as being beautifully illustrated. Fenton writes in a way that is wry and not too academic, peppers his text with illuminating quotations and is an admirer of the institution but not part of it, which enables him to be detached.
The history of the RA is, in many ways, the history of the arts in Britain, beginning with the arrival of Van Dyck, who was knighted by Charles I, and Peter Lely's establishment of an informal group of artists that grew into the so-called Virtuosi of St Luke, which met in pubs to eat Westphalian ham and admire the landscapes of Salvator Rosa. Fenton reproduces as representative of the style of drawing cultivated in Godfrey Kneller's academy in Great Queen Street a rather amazing drawing by Jonathan Richardson the Elder, not normally remembered as a particularly good artist, of James Figg, a pugilist, who was presumably used as a model.
Hogarth hated the idea of an academy, believing it was bound to be an instrument of pomposity. He may well have been right. But he was still happy to be involved with an academy for drawing in St Martin's Lane, which has traditionally been regarded as the place where the rococo was introduced to England. Again, Fenton reproduces a wonderful painting - which may or may not be of the St Martin's Lane academy - showing the drawing master George Moser, looking out at the spectator while most of the other sitters are occupied in the task at hand, a moving and unexpectedly informal composition for the date.
When the RA itself was founded in 1768, with Reynolds as its president, it might well have led to the foundation of a National Gallery as a means of inspiring its students. This certainly seems to have been the intention of Reynolds, who offered to sell his collection at a knockdown price, but was refused, and of James Barry, the second professor of painting, who thought that works of Old Master painting might improve the style of the academicians, whom he tactlessly described as "this most odious of all Jacobinical conspiracies, where mere scum and offal direct and govern".
Even if they failed to establish a proper gallery of teaching examples, they did, apparently by accident, acquire the Leonardo Cartoon, which is thought to have come to them by way of the collection of Robert Udney, brother to the British Consul in Venice.
Those involved in the foundation of the RA were depicted by Zoffany in a fictional life class, now owned by the Royal Collection. They were a rum bunch, presided over by Reynolds wearing black velvet and listening to Francis Newton with a silver ear trumpet - on the left side is Nollekens, just back from Rome, and, on the right, Richard Cosway, who looks, and almost certainly was, absurdly pleased with himself. In the background is Richard Wilson, gloomy and rubicund, who acted as the academy's librarian, probably only to give him an income.
Perhaps inevitably, the academy was riven with quarrels. Chambers did not like Reynolds. Barry did not like anyone. Reynolds resigned in a huff.
Barry was expelled. Constable was not made an RA till late in life because Thomas Lawrence did not admire landscape painting. Only Turner loved everything about the academy and gave a speech to aspirant members in which he implored that "when you become members of this institution you must fight in a phalanx - no splits - no quarrelling - one mind - one object - the good of the Arts and the Royal Academy."
Once one gets to the grandees of the late Victorian art world, with their huge houses in Kensington Gate and their studios open to the public, one senses that Fenton's interest wanes and that he much prefers the foibles and peccadilloes of the 18th-century RA. Indeed, his interest seems to shift from the RA as a public institution towards the lives of the individual artists associated with it just at the moment when it was most obviously at the heart of the practice of art, when northern industrialists and town councillors would come to the summer exhibition to stock their new museums and when the speech at the annual dinner would be given by the prime minister of the day.
Equally, when it comes to the 20th century, a pretty active disapproval creeps in. Admittedly, Sir Alfred Munnings was a ludicrous figure who brought the RA into disrepute with his drunken speech against Picasso at the 1949 annual dinner. But one has to remember that hostility to modernism was deeply entrenched in Britain in the postwar period. Likewise, Sir Albert Richardson was a conservative classicist but he had, in his day, been a powerful architect, and his conservatism was representative only of a mood of postwar nostalgia.
When it comes to recent history, Fenton treads surprisingly lightly over the tensions. I can understand why. The RA would probably prefer its historian not to delve too deeply into the differences of opinion and occasional financial impropriety that have rendered its management so difficult. But its history is intriguing for anyone working in the arts and deserves analysis.
As I understand it, Hugh Casson was an effective and charming moderniser who brought in Piers Rodgers as secretary - an old Etonian ex-merchant banker who is mysteriously unmentioned - and Norman Rosenthal as the flamboyant exhibitions secretary. Rosenthal then turned the RA into a high-profile and internationally well-regarded machine for major exhibitions, including the "New Spirit of Painting" in 1982.
But the academicians resented the transformation of their professional association (and club) into what increasingly became, of necessity, a business. This tension has underlain all the recent power struggles. Philip Dowson recruited David Gordon from ITN to instil effective management systems into the academy's procedures. The academicians then elected Phillip King to represent their interests. Lawton Fitt came from Goldman Sachs to professionalise the operation and tried, unsuccessfully, to sack Rosenthal. It can be viewed either as a soap opera or as a case study of how one resolves the tensions in a creative business between high-risk and necessarily expensive international exhibitions and the need to have robust financial management.
I spent the summer reading Jonathan Conlin's forthcoming history of the National Gallery and the manuscript of David Cannadine's history of the National Portrait Gallery. Both raise the question of how best to write an institutional history. What Fenton demonstrates is that it is possible to write the history of a public institution in a way that is readable, intelligent and entertaining, with an especially good chapter on late 18th-century artists' models.
Charles Saumarez Smith is director of the National Gallery.
School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts
Author - James Fenton
Publisher - Royal Academy of Arts
Pages - 319
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 1 903973 20 1