Why you should see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy

Why you should see The Summer Exhibition at the RAThe Summer Exhibition  at the Royal Academy of Arts is one of the must-see events of a London summer. Held every year since 1769, it’s the largest and most popular open exhibition in the UK. Any living artist can submit works to be considered so you could find a piece by a complete unknown hung next to a Hockney.

Most of the works are for sale so it’s a great chance to pick up a first piece of art. Prices start at £50 and run into the tens of thousands for the most well-known artists. Over £50,000 prize money is awarded each year and past winners have included Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, David Hockney and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

I love the history of the exhibition. Artists like Gainsborough, Turner and Constable showed their works in these same galleries in the Summer Exhibitions of the past. I love the contrast between the contemporary art on the walls and the grand surroundings of 17th-century Burlington House.

Why you should see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy

© Stephen White

There are lots of traditions associated with the Summer Exhibition. ‘Varnishing Day’ used to be the artists’ last chance to put finishing touches to their paintings. In 1832, Turner upset Constable by adding an eye-catching red buoy to his seascape, thereby upstaging his rival’s work. Nowadays the artists do a procession down the street from Burlington House to St. James’ Church, walking to the sounds of a steel band.

Another bizarre tradition is the secret Beef Tea that the Academicians are given to drink while they’re hanging the exhibition. It’s believed to be a mixture of Bovril and sherry!

The show is always curated by artists and this year is the turn of the British sculptor, Richard Wilson. He’s chosen to highlight the work of two artists working as a pair so you’ll find work by artists like Eva & Adele, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Gilbert and George.

But the most fantastic thing about the Summer Exhibition is the sheer diversity of the exhibits. It’s a celebration of contemporary art in all of its forms so there are sculptures, architectural models, paintings, videos, photos and prints. This makes it a unique place to come and see a wide variety of art.

Perhaps this is why there is such an eclectic mix of visitors to the exhibition every year. On the Sunday afternoon I went I was struck by the sheer variety of the people looking at the art. Hip 20-something couples stood next to old men in cream linen suits, children gazed at sculptures alongside middle-aged women out for the day with their friends.

It’s a great exhibition for kids because there’s so much variety that you’re always going to find something to interest, entertain and fascinate them. My 16-year-old goddaughter loved it. “The art here is so much fun!” she exclaimed as she walked around. For her, it was a far cry from the staid atmosphere of some of the art exhibitions and museums she’d visited in the past.

The fun starts in the stunning courtyard of 17th-century Burlington House. In this space, the designer and architect, Ron Arad, has set up ‘Spyre’, a 16-metre high steel oval cone which twirls like a snake above visitors’ heads. It moves constantly, its elegant acrobatic postures recording live footage of what it sees from the camera in the eye at its tip.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RA“Normally we are looking at sculpture,” says Arad. “Now it is looking at us.”

The idea of being looked at is carried through into some of the other exhibits too. In some rooms it feels as if there are eyes everywhere, some looking at us from portraits, others gazing down from the ceiling.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RAIn ‘The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci’, Kutlug Ataman has created a shimmering blue carpet hanging in the air – it’s made up of 10,000 LCD panels like passport photos, each with the photo of someone who the Turkish philanthropist encountered before his death.

Then there’s the sinister new sculpture by the Chapman Brothers in which the eyeless mannequins are holding their eyes in their hands.

You need to look up, down and all around you or you’ll miss something, like the figure of the girl cowering being one of the entrances. She’s hiding her face in her hands so that we can’t see her properly. Even the sculptures of dogs are positioned to look up at the art on the walls.

At the Summer Exhibition you’ll find a bit of everything. Some things appear designed to shock; others to amuse, inspire or make us think about the world in which we’re living. There’s a video of a cat licking cream, a huge tyre made out of cardboard and an iridescent tapestry woven out of beaten bottle tops.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RAAono Fumiaki’s sculptures explore the theme of rebirth and healing after the devastating earthquake in Japan in 2011. He has gathered up household objects like books and sake bottles found at the scene and transformed them into sculptures.

The Royal Academy is running a series of creative family workshops over the school holidays inspired by the Summer Exhibition. The workshops last for two hours. Adults, £15; RA Friends, £5; children, £3. Booking is required.

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is on until 21st August. The Royal Academy is open every day from 10am until 6pm, until 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights. Adults, from £12; 16 to 18-year-olds, £10; under 16s, free.

For more ideas of art activities to do with children in London, take a look at The Ten Best Art Experiences for Kids in London

You’ll probably also enjoy Lego, Bicycles and Prison Cells: Why children should see Ai Weiwei

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22 thoughts on “Why you should see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy

  1. How fabulous. This art looks accessible for people of all ages and persuasions. Love that you took your god daughter along. I like the Gilbert and George piece and the curious dogs. How about that naughty Turner spoiling someone else’s work. What a scandal.

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  2. This sounds fascinating – I can’t quite believe how long I’ve lived in London without ever going (and only hearing about it relatively recently). The history is wonderful too, although I might draw the line at beef tea! It would be so interesting to go with my daughter, although possibly when she’s old enough not to grab at everything on display… that could work out expensive if I have to buy anything she picks up/damages! #citytripping

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  3. I love your photos. They are definitely making me want to visit. Such a diverse collection of artwork. You have also helped to make sense of the scene in Turner when he paints the bouy – I didn’t realise it was at this event. #citytripping

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    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth. They recreated that scene very well in the film, didn’t they? Although I have to say I wasn’t a massive fan of most of the film – far too much grunting!

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  4. I personally love art exhibits. But when I’m with the kids, I can only go for art exhibits that are interactive. It’s so hard to keep my curious boys’ hands off art exhibits! #CityTripping

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    • I do really love interactive art exhibits when I’m with my boys too. They enjoy the Summer Exhibition although I didn’t take them when they were toddlers. I didn’t take them this time but they’re both on at me to take them later in the summer so I’ll have to do that.

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  5. Enjoyed reading about your visit to the summer exhibition, Clare. Love the creative thinking behind ‘The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci’ and its portrait panels.

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