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Overview

For hundreds of years, The Royal Academy of Arts has provided a school of art and facilities for an annual summer exhibition. The prestigious summer exhibition has brought the academy an international reputation with approximately 1,300 works displayed every year from over 10,000 submissions. More than 250,000 paintings have been displayed since 1769, representing a wide cross-section of British art.

The impetus for the founding of the academy in 1768 arose from a struggle between two architects, Sir William Chambers and James Paine, over control of The Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain. As a result, Chambers made a proposal for an art academy to King George III, who gave his approval.

The school's overriding purpose was to provide a means for leading artists to raise their status by developing a system of training, arranging a free exhibition of works, and establishing standards for critique of the arts. These artists believed they could achieve such goals by fostering a national school of art and encouraging public appreciation.

Membership was originally set at 40 academicians, which still stands today. Thirty-six were assigned to the Instrument of Foundation, a group that set up the schools of design; professorships of anatomy, architecture, painting, and perspective and geometry; an annual exhibition of paintings, sculpture, and designs; and a library of books on architecture, sculpture, painting, and all related sciences, as well as prints of many art forms.

The first president of the academy was Sir Joshua Reynolds, who formulated the basic concept of the organization as a body of professional men who would form "a repository for the great examples of the Art." The latter function was important, since no other repository of art existed until 1824, when the National Gallery was founded.

Many of Great Britain's leading artists were students at the Academy--for example, Sir Thomas Lawrence (who later became president of the academy), John Constable, and Joseph Turner.

The collection contains The Council and General Assembly Minute Books from the Royal Academy (1769-1950) and Royal Academy Extra-Illustrated Catalogues (1769-1940). The Minute Books contain the following:

  • details of the policy decisions, administration, and internal politics of the Royal Academy
  • details concerning acquisitions policy, exhibitions, recommendations and "rules" for teaching, finances, Crown patronage, criticisms, and other topics
  • references to noted officers of the academy: Boswell, Baretti, Turner, Samuel Johnson, Fuseli, Chambers, West, and Reynolds

The academy has possibly the only complete set of its own exhibition catalogs, providing a unique source for material on two centuries of British art. These catalogs are the academy library's most frequently requested resource.

The catalogs contain:

  • black-and-white illustrations pasted into the catalog volumes, numbered and captioned
  • pictures of paintings that no longer exist or are unavailable to researchers

This collection will serve as a valuable resource for art historians studying the origins of artistic movements in 18th, l9th, and 20th-century Great Britain. It will also help historians to determine the amount of influence the institution has had on British art.

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