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Wednesday, August 15

The Royal Academy at Somerset House

During Jane Austen's time, a trip to London would have most likely included a visit to the great painting exhibitions of the Royal Academy. This august selection of painters, sculptors, and architects moved from their location in Pall Mall to Somerset House in 1768. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president, presided over forty members.

View of Somerset House from the Thames

The steep curved Nelson Steps in Somerset House took visitors up to the Great Room, a domed area roughly 53 x 43 feet and 32 feet high, where the oil paintings were hung.

Rowlandson, whose satiric illustration of the Nelson Steps was shown on a previous post on this blog, drew a crowd "Viewing Art" in the illustration above. The exhibits increased from 547 paintings and sculptures in 1781, to1,037 in 1801, and 1,165 in 1821. Eventually the paintings were hung from floor to ceiling, and according to the order of "importance," the best were hung nearest the midline of the room.

The purchase of catalogues became mandatory in 1761 in order to view an Academy exhibition. Their cost was one shilling, which would prevent a certain class of visitors from attending academy shows. As with today's audio and visual museum guides, these catalogues would direct museum goers to certain paintings and sculptures, thereby directing the movement of the crowd.

Dr. Samuel Johnson noted in his diary about the first pre-exhibition banquet: The Exhibition! how will you do either to see or not to see? The Exhibition is eminently splendid. There is contour and keeping and grace and expression, and all the varieties of artificial excellence.

The apartments were truly very noble. The pictures for the sake of the skylight are at the top of the house: there we dined and I sat over against the Archbishop of York.

The Academy moved to new quarters in Trafalgar Square, and the last academy exhibition at Somerset House was held in 1836.

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