Selecting Committee, Royal Academy, circa 1892

Selecting Committee, Royal Academy, circa 1892, by Reginald Cleaver, circa 1892 -NPG 4245 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Selecting Committee, Royal Academy, circa 1892

by Reginald Cleaver
Pen and ink with traces of pencil on paper, circa 1892
11 1/4 in. x 10 in. (286 mm x 254 mm)
NPG 4245

Inscriptionback to top

Signed lower left: ‘Reginald Cleaver’;
inscr. below with names of eleven sitters.

This portraitback to top

In this scene, a jury of Royal Academicians examine a picture submitted for potential inclusion in the annual ‘Exhibition of the Works of Living Artists’, generally known as the Summer Exhibition. Every year two different committees were responsible for organizing the event, which opened in early May. Marion Harry Spielmann, in an article for the Graphic, records in detail the preparations for the exhibition. A passage entitled ‘The Selecting Committee and its Ways’ effectively sets the scene:

The court is held in the largest gallery, known as No.III., and there they form a semi-circle … As soon as the members are settled in their places […] the porters bring in the pictures one by one, standing four or five yards away … A glance usually suffices to determine the verdict, and ‘No!’ ‘No!’ ‘No!’ is the constant cry. A ‘cross’ (X) is marked on the back of the rejected picture … and it is dispatched to the cellars – the Hell of the Royal Academy. The picture which is thought to be undeserving of this summary jurisdiction, or that which, on the other hand, is not good enough to merit outright acceptance, is allowed to pass conditionally, with a D, standing for ‘Doubtful’ – a sort of ‘decree nisi’ – marked upon it. [1]

In the following section of the article Spielmann clearly distinguishes between this and the practices of the Hanging Committee. He describes the latter’s more physical role whereby the accepted works, and a selection of the ‘Doubtful’ pictures, are arranged for hanging:

Starting off, each with an attendant carpenter, the members go straight for the accepted works … they fall to with surprising energy, and, chalk and measure in hand, commence the temporary placing of the pictures … Then come the ‘D’s’ from which numerous class the rest of the exhibition is made up. By this time the carpenters are all fully occupied in nailing pictures to the walls, so that energetic and zealous members … dispense with their services as porters, and are content to do the heavy work themselves. [2]

NPG 4245 was formerly titled The Hanging Committee but in the light of these accounts it seems that Cleaver almost certainly depicts the larger Selecting Committee. This supposition is strengthened by comparison with reproductions of the drawings by Charles-Paul Renouard that served as illustrations to Spielmann’s article. In particular, The Opening of the Royal Academy: The Selecting Committee at Work bears a very strong resemblance to Cleaver’s composition. [3] In Renouard’s drawing, Academicians are similarly grouped against an end wall of the gallery, with a large door just behind them to the left-hand side. Through this, the further spaces of the Academy can just be glimpsed. Frederic Leighton sits at a small round table covered by a cloth in the middle of the committee; his hat rests, upturned, upon the surface. As one porter holds a canvas to be examined, another stands ready to move the next into position and Frederick Eaton – the Academy Secretary – takes notes upon a rectangular square desk in the foreground. An earlier painting by Charles West Cope, entitled The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875 (1876), is also like NPG 4245 in composition. The scene is reversed so that Academicians sit against a temporary wall to the left-hand side, but in an obvious semi-circle, studying a work held up in front of them; the porter to the front holds a piece of chalk aloft, ready to mark the frame of the picture with the committee’s decision. [4] In contrast, another drawing by Renouard depicting the 1887 Hanging Committee describes a small and less formal grouping of Academicians, and the title suggests that the size of pictures was given precedence over artistic merit: Searching the ‘Doubtfuls’ for one to fit. [5]

The ten members of the Council of the Royal Academy would sit on the Selecting Committee. Academicians were appointed to the Council for two-year periods, on a rotation system; each year five members would join the Council, five would leave and five would retain their places from the previous year. The smaller Hanging Committee consisted of eight Academicians nominated by the Council. In some cases, individuals sat on both panels for the same year. Contemporary references to the actions of the two committees, and even more recent accounts, are often slightly confused in terms of carving out distinctions between the two. Some sources refer to them as one and the same in terms of character and function. It is quite probable that an incorrect title was ascribed to Cleaver’s work, if not by the artist himself, then at some point between c.1892 and its acquisition by the National Portrait Gallery in 1961. [6] Consultation of the Royal Academy Annual Report for the year 1892 – and the years on either side – proves that the particular selection of Academicians depicted did not sit on the same committee for any one year. Each was appointed to the Council – and hence served on the selecting panel – at some point during this period but not all at the same time. [7] Additionally, Cleaver has incorrectly depicted only nine members of the Council in NPG 4245, the president as ex-officio member and the secretary being exempt from the rotation system and permanent fixtures on the committee.

It is therefore possible that the drawing was intended to illustrate a typical Royal Academy scene, rather than to record a specific event. [8] Indeed, these inaccuracies suggest that the drawing was not intended for publication as documentary evidence, and the motivation for producing the sketch remains unclear. Reginald Thomas Cleaver was a black-and-white artist who was on the staff of the Graphic and later the Daily Graphic from c.1893 to 1910. [9] He also produced a number of sharply observed sketches for Punch. In 1892, however, Cleaver was not working for any of these publications and there is no evidence that this drawing was published. Moreover, information regarding the process of executing the drawing, or from the artist himself, is unfortunately wanting. As it is unlikely that the artist would have been permitted access to record the actual Selecting Committee undertaking their labour, he perhaps consulted earlier published illustrations (potentially Renouard’s 1887 engraving in the Graphic) for ideas regarding the composition and referred to photographs in order to capture specific likenesses. For example, the appearance of Leighton in the middle of the scene shares strong similarities with a photograph of the artist taken by W. & D. Downey (c.1890). [10] The profile pose, showing Leighton leaning backwards slightly with his left arm resting upon the arm of the chair and his head gently tilted upwards, is almost identical.

The Selecting and Hanging Committees were the second and third stages in the preparation for the Summer Exhibition, which began in the last week of March. During this week there were a number of ‘Receiving Days’ at Burlington House, where hopeful candidates would submit their works to be lodged in Gallery III before being assessed by the panel. Generally by the third week in April, the selecting and hanging were complete and the successful artists were invited to attend ‘Varnishing Day’, when the finishing touches could be added to their pictures where they hung upon the walls. On the day preceding this, notice of rejection or of being ‘crowded out’ was announced. [11] In his parody of the institution (1890), Harry Furniss presents his less than favourable view of the proceedings:

It is only of late years that the Royal Academy has had the politeness to send by post the notification to the artists about the fate of their pictures. This considerate body used to ignore out-siders’ interests and feelings altogether, and on a certain day all outsiders had to crowd to the Academy, and scramble to find out from the ‘Book of Fate’ in the Hall whether their work was in or out. [12]

Indeed, even if an artist’s work was chosen from among the ‘Doubtful’ entries, this was no guarantee that a space would be found for it. Submitted works would often trickle back to an artist after a number of weeks at the Academy. It is therefore not surprising that a somewhat hostile reaction to these practices arose in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, particularly amongst those artists who had missed out on places within the exhibition. An increasing number began speaking out against the effectiveness of the jury as a system for judging the merit of submissions. An infamous pamphlet, said to have been written by painter J.E. Soden in 1875, is entitled A Rap at the R.A:

The toil of months, experience of years,
Before the dreaded Council now appears:-
It’s left their view almost as soon as its in it.-
They damn them at a rate of three a minute.-
Scarce time for even faults to be detected,
The cross is chalked:- ‘tis flung aside ‘REJECTED’.
Shame! that they, Artists, should such pain have given
To those who struggle, as they have striven! [13]

Furniss is slightly more sympathetic to the pressures put on the jury, whilst also making clear his dissatisfaction with the system:

I sincerely sympathise with the Royal Academicians whose lot it is to ‘do their duty to their house and country’ in these committees. The fact is, they have too much to do. Nearly 12,000 works of art pass before them for their careful judgement in about twelve days; this is at the rate of much over a hundred an hour. Why, the incessant stream of Gilt frames and painting would daze a lizard, and after a time colour-blindness must ensue, and injustice, unintentional, must occur. [14]

Despite such complaints, the system for selecting works for the Summer Exhibition remained intact, and a single Selection and Hanging Committee continues to operate at the Academy today.

Elizabeth Heath

Footnotesback to top

1) Spielmann 1887, p.486,‘The Selecting Committee and its Ways’.
2) Spielmann 1887, p.486, ‘Hanging, and the Hanging Committee’.
3) Spielmann 1887, pp.476–7 (double-page spread). The Council accorded Renouard a free pass on Receiving Day at the Academy, ‘whereby he was permitted to be present for the whole period from the delivery of the works to the completion of the hanging’ (p.477).
4) RA, London, 03/1288. An earlier published etching by H. Woods of the same subject bears a striking resemblance to Cope’s picture: Graphic, 4 May 1870, pp.450–51.
5) Spielmann 1887, p.486.
6) NPG 4245 was purchased by L. Hack in December 1961 for £3 3s. It is the only work by the artist in the NPG’s collection. See also NPG Report of the Trustees 1961, p.17, NPG Archive.
7) Royal Academy Annual Reports, 1881–1896 (bound in one volume), RA Library and Archive, Burlington House, London.
8) Unfortunately, this means that the date ascribed to the work cannot be validated. However, John Pettie died 21 Feb. 1893 and it is unlikely that Cleaver would have represented an artist in this manner after his death. For this reason, one can claim with some certainty that the sketch was executed before this date.
9) Houfe 1978, p.262. Not to be confused with Ralph Cleaver (fl.1893–1926), another black-and-white artist who also worked on the Graphic and the Daily Graphic.
10) NPG Ax14752 and NPG x6154.
11) Spielmann 1887, p.486.
12) Furniss 1890, p.52.
13) Priv. publ., London, p.21; repr. Hutchinson 1986, p.21.
14) Furniss 1890, p.49.

Referenceback to top

Furniss 1890b
Furniss, H., Royal Academy Antics, London, 1890.

Houfe 1978
Houfe, S., Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists 1800–1914, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1978.

Hutchinson 1986
Hutchinson, S.C., The History of the Royal Academy, 1768–1968, London, 1986.

Jones et al. 1996
Jones, S., and others, Frederic Leighton 1830–1896, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 1996.

Spielmann 1887
Spielmann, M.H., ‘The Royal Academy’, Graphic, 7 May 1887, pp.486–7.

Swanson 1990
Swanson, V.G., The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, London, 1990.

Walkley 1994
Walkley, G., Artists’ Houses in London 1764–1914, Aldershot, 1994.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1981.

Provenanceback to top

Purchased by NPG from Mr. L. Hack, 1961.

Exhibitionsback to top

Artists at Work, NPG travelling exh., Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery, 1981; Wolverhampton Art Gallery & Museum, 1981–2; Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 1982; Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, 1982; NPG, London, 1982 (38).

Reproductionsback to top

L. Ormond, ‘Leighton and the Royal Academy’ in Jones et al. 1996, p.18, fig.4.

Swanson 1977, p.25.

Walkley 1994, p.193, fig.156.

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