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OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY, AND OF THE EFFECTS OF ACADEMIES
IN GENERAL ON THE PROGRESS OF THE ARTS.
Regret has been already expressed (in speaking of free exhibition) that this important question concerning academies and their effects should have been so much mixed up with other matters really foreign to it, and of a character which has led to ill feeling and angry discussion on both sides.
It is still more to be regretted that in all the enquiries, both individual and official, which have been instituted into this subject, the Academy which we are most concerned with has been exclusively regarded in its concrete nature, and with all the casual and accidental imperfections which have attached to it in progress of time. Yet never, perhaps, did institution take its origin under circumstances more unfavorable, or grow up surrounded by more temptations to abuse, than did the Royal Academy of England.
The charges recently brought against the Academy have been made without the slightest discrimination. It has been accused of being wholly corrupt and without a single redeeming trait in its character. And while no regard has been paid to the various and distinct objects of the Academy, whether as school, as exhibition, or as assembly of honour, the sole panacea has been
loudly proclaimed to be "free trade in art, as in coinmerce."
It has been further said that the abuses of the Academy are but the common results which have ever attended similar institutions in all countries; although it is quite certain that, since the first establishment of such institutions, not only have the arts passed through nearly all their various phases, and effects of a widely different character been found to result from academic establishments when known only as associations of honour, and when known as schools of instruction in art; but also that effects different from both have resulted when academies have become further known as the media for exhibiting the works of their members to the public of the day. It is therefore of the first importance to keep these several objects (casually combined) in that distinctness of view which is proper to their individual nature.
The principle of free trade in art (a phrase so repeatedly used by some of the witnesses before Mr. Ewart's committee) may be very applicable to exhibitions; it may or may not be equally applicable to schools of instruction; but to talk of it in connexion with the distinctive honours of one of the highest of the liberal professions is obviously ludicrous. For what sort of an honour would that be in which the suffrage of the veriest tyro, just able to execute an exhibitable drawing, has equal weight with the suffrage of the most celebrated veteran in art?
That academies, even when considered simply as assemblies of honour, have frequently been found liable to serious abuses is undoubted. Nor is it probable that our own has escaped all taint. But what have been usually the causes of these abuses ?
I imagine that the following are among the most considerable: a fixed limitation of the number of members; election of the official members to their respective offices for life;that spirit of exclusiveness which has so often
Academies considered as assemblies of honour.
led to a tacit, if not avowed, assumption of all-comprehensiveness; and, in some cases, a far too close connexion with the ruling political authorities of the day.
To select an example from a literary body of this character, were not these, I would ask, the causes which entrained the corruption of the French Academy founded by Richelieu? The first three led to the most miserable intrigues, to the most absurd pretensions, and to the bitterest quarrels which ever disgraced the history of literature; the last to that vile spirit of adulation towards the ruling power, which achieved a triumph over the most prostrate court that was ever seen in Europe. For it was reserved to this learned academy by the official reading of one of its academic questions* to raise an involuntary blush on the cheek of a monarch accustomed to almost divine honours, and who had been for more than a quarter of a century the very spoiled child of fortune. The court so outvied was the court of France; the monarch so outshamed was Louis the Fourteenth! But the French Academy, not satisfied with having outstripped all its competitors in adulation, soon after outdid itself, by erasing from its roll the name of Saint-Pierre for daring, when that pompous reign had closed, to bring its boasted pretensions to the bar of a sober judgment; and by that one deliberate act did all that in it lay to eternalize the slavery of its country!+
Laquelle des vertus du Roi est la plus digne d'admiration ? Question proposée par
l'Académie. † It was the same learned body which solemnly enunciated the significant doctrine that governments must watch over the progress of knowledge in order to prevent it from injuring the mental vision of the people by its quantity and its rapidity. “Parmi les verités importantes que les gouvernemens ont besoin à accrediter, il en est qu'il leur importe de ne répandre la lumière que peu à peu et comme par transpiration insensible.” And the
Academy eds to express its view of its own utility in this ect: “Un pareil corps, également instruit et sage, organe de la raison par devoir et
But what sort of reasoning would that be which should propose to abolish all academic distinctions in letters because such have been most grievously abused ?
Of abuse so profligate as that which has been instanced there is happily no example in any academy of Art; and least of all do we find it in the Royal Academy of England, whatever the other faults of that body. In this case indeed there has been rather too little than too much of connexion with the powers of the State. Yet, if I mistake not, the evil results of limited numbers; -offices for life;—and (especially in past time) of a somewhat grasping and exclusive spirit, are plainly to be detected in this institution, even as in so many others. The remedy is to reform, not to destroy.
1. Limitation of number.
Sir Martin Shee, the eminent president of the Academy, has defended the limitation of number on the ground that there neither are, nor are likely to be, at any one time more than forty artists capable of “transmitting their names to posterity.” (Evid. 1989.) But this, I submit, is rather a reason for having no fixed number at all. The academic roll has at least as much bearing upon the present as upon the future: and in either case its fit numbers must of necessity depend upon the fluctuating number of eminent artists. Hence the limitation is obviously unjust, and ought therefore to cease.
2. Duration of office.
There is, I think, evidence enough in the experience of other institutions, to induce the conclusion that much good might result, were the chief offices and professor
de la prudence par état, ne fera entrer de lumière dans les yeur des peuples que ce qu'il en faudra pour les éclairer peu à peu: sans blesser les
des peuples.” – Préface des éloges de l'Acad. Franç. Ton. 1, p. 18.
ships in the Academy made elective for lesser periods than life.
The present functionaries justly command the highest respect of all those who are familiar with the working of the Academy,(regard being had to its very limited means,) under their management. And there are many reasons why re-eligibility should be provided for, in several cases. But still, election for a limited period is a sounder principle than election for life.* On this point it is scarcely necessary to enlarge.
Little doubt can be entertained that the removal of
3. Excluthe limitation of number would of itself do much towards siveness of
spiritthe removal of that exclusiveness of spirit which has how rebeen complained of. And the abolition of that regulation movable. of the Royal Academy which prevents a member from belonging to any other society of artists in London (which, I believe, everybody has ceased to defend,) will do more in the same direction, But it is to the enlarged liberality of feeling which may be expected to result from a fair and full reform of the establishment in all its features, that we must chiefly trust. Of this reform three particulars appear to be of special importance in relation to the Academy as an assembly of honour; the first, the abolition of the class of associates; the second, that engravers, so long and so unjustly excluded, be admitted to form part of it, as full and equal members; and the third, that the Academy be made perfectly independent, in a pecuniary sense, of the profits of the annual exhibition.
* I am glad to hear by a letter from London, received wbile revising these sheets for the press, that the Royal Society are about to adopt this principle in relation to their president, that office being now vacant by the universally-lamented resignation of the Duke of Sussex.