THE ACADEMY, AND ITS REFORM.
THE complaints against the administration of the Academy which have been of late years gathering volume, though they have received little attention from the public at large, have at last taken a shape in which they threaten (or promise) to become practically effective, for they have passed from the mere vehement recapitulation of individual acts of injustice, to a challenge of the whole conduct of the institution, and a demand that it should be in the future governed with a view to the in- terests of fine art generally, and the whole body of art-workers, rather than, as it has been, in favour of a small, self-selected body of painters, who have used their privileges, it is asserted, mainly for their own pecuniary and social advantage.
The matter is one of great public interest, affecting directly, as it does, not only the development of one great branch of national education, and the livelihood of about twenty thousand artists, but being concerned indirectly with even wider eines- tions,—those which maintain that institutions of this nature are matters of public, not private concern, and must be administered for public, and not private benefit. It is thus imperative on every one who cares for Art to examine this question carefully, and not to shrink from the duty of demanding an alteration in the existing state of things, if such is proved to be necessary. In this short article I do not attempt to do more than suggest a few of the more evident shortcomings of the Academy government, such as belong to the region of admitted fact rather than controversy. It will be open to any one to show, if they can, that by the nature of things such evils are inevitable; but it will be, in my opinion, a most difficult task ; and if that cannot be done, as the exist- ence of these shortcomings can be most easily proved, and, indeed, for the most part will not even be denied, the case for reform will be proved to demonstration. For the shortcomings which I propose to mention are not small matters of incidental injustice, negligence, or favouritism, but are matters of essential moment, relating to the whole development of English art, and the whole well-being of English artists.
No liking for individuals, no esteem for the public spirit and courtesy of special officials, such as, for instance, the President, Sir Frederick Leighton, should avail to justify or excuse the continued maladministration of a great national institution, if such can once be effectually proved. It must be remembered that the Academy is not for the first time upon its trial now; so early as 1863 the abuses in its government were thought sufficiently serious to demand a Royal Commission, and the obtaining of the site on which the present building stands, was made possible on the understanding that the recommendations of that Commission were carried out. But though this is the case, and though twenty-three years have elapsed, matters are practically where they were, and none of what may be called the vital suggestions of the Commission, even those to which the Academy explicitly assented, have been put in force. But we must not spare space here to dwell upon this point, but state as briefly as possible some of the grounds upon which the Royal Academy is now being challenged.
They are, broadly speaking, the following :—(1.) Neglect of the interests of the fine arts. (2.) Administration of the Academic funds and offices to personal rather than public advantage. (3.) Inefficient teaching of fine art, both in quality and quantity. (4 ) Insufficient care for the outside artists, and frequent favouritism as to those who are elected.
The first point is too long to dwell on here, as it includes the conduct of the Academy with regard to water-colour painting, sculpture, the decorative arts, and all the various kinds of engraving, &c. ; but the facts with regard to this are briefly as follows. There is no school of water-colour founded by the Academy. There is no election of water-colour painters, and the greatest water-colour artists we have ever had have not been members of the Academy. There is but one room provided for the exhibition of water-colour work. No recognition has ever been given of water-colour as a serious art by the Academy. Under this regime, the national school of landscape-painting in pure water-colours has gradually declined, and is at the present time almost non-existent.
All the decorative arts are ignored in the Academy, within its schools, and in its exhibitions. The whole art movement in decoration of the last thirty years (amounting to a revolution) has been carried out in despite of the Academy, which has shown no approval, recognition, or interest whatever in the work which has been done. These decorative arts, so neglected, are more closely connected with the life of the people than any other branches of fine art, and the examples of them which have been produced of late years include some of the loveliest decorative work in the world,—as, for instance, the stained glass by Mune Jones ; the lustred pottery of De Morgan ; the sculpture, domestic and heroic, of Alfred Stevens (he designed, amongst other things, our finest monument, the Wellington Memorial); the designs for tapestry and wall decoration by W. Morris. We omit all reference to the other decorative arts, to the neglect of etching (which has been revived in spite of the Academy, and no artist in which has ever been elected), and to the gradual way in which line engraving has been allowed to die.
It may perhaps be said in answer to these charges that the "Royal Academy of Arts" (of "Arts," mind you, not of painting or any other one art) should not be concerned with the matters we have mentioned; that it cannot be expected to do everything; and that if it looks after the interests of oil painting and painters only, we ought to be satisfied. And though such a contention appears to us to be manifestly unsustainable, we will assume it for the sake of argument.
Now there is one vital fact which condemns the Academy painting, and that is that it has no standard at all ! This is its unpardonable sin, which takes away at one fell blow all its pretensions ; for how can we obey an authority which issues not one but a hundred opposing mandates, which, like a raw subaltern, sets its men in motion, but cannot stop or turn them ? I defy a student of painting to make head or tail of what the Academy offers to him as good painting. I defy any one with the slightest knowledge of the subject, to deny that a great pro- portion of it is extremely bad painting (I am speaking of the
actual brushwork), an 1 painting which is opposed to the great work of all former ages, and will be opposed to the great work of all future times.
The plain truth is wanted in this matter. Will Sir Frederick Leighton tell us if he seriously maintains that, for instance, the large landscapes of the Scotch school (for obvious reasons, I do not particularise) are worthy of Academic recognition ? Will he deny that the school in question errs against the first principles of fine art, in that it is not fine—is not delicate, that is to say—that it can be justified by no previous good art which the world has ever seen P But it is this Scotch school of landscape-painting with which the Academy have identified themselves ; it is the members of this school who receive their honour, even down to the youngest pupil; and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that, if one finds a big landscape on the line, the ' odds' are that we find also a " Mac " before its artist's name. No wonder that such landscape-painters as Alfred Hunt and Albert Goodwin are hung above the line or not at all, when the Scotch cohort set the fashion in landscape-painting, in pictures which cannot be properly seen till one is a quarter of a mile or so away from them, so thick are the slobs and dobs of paint upon their surface. If this is what we are to consider fine art and good painting, why do we not burn our National Gallery, and fling Titian and Raphael to the dogs at once ? Ah ! and we must not stop there, but get rid, too, of all our Wilkies and Gains- boroughs, and give the Hogarths to the cook for kitchen decora- tion. For if these are right, or rather were right, in their painting, and their efforts after painting, these others are wrong in the reckless smudging with which they libel Nature, and daub their way, as Ruskin once finely said, " to emolument and oblivion." And bear in mind that it is in these matters that the public look to be guided by the Academy ; it is one of the main purposes for which an Academy should exist, to keep up the standard of good handicraft, and discourage all that is likely to lower it.
One word before I conclude this desultory letter, on the much vexed and more vexing subject of favouritism. That there has been an enormous deal of this, and that it is favoured by the present system, it is impossible to doubt,—that the system which could keep out Linnell and Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Madox Brown, and elect Eyre Crowe, Horsley, Sant, and Solomon Hartson, must have either been administered with great injustice, or have been radically bad throughout, needs no demonstration. And perhaps no omission is really so great a proof of the favouritism which has been shown, as the election, at a late period in life, of Mr. Burne Jones, who had been painting for thirty years or so without recognition. But the case of Madox Brown is in many ways a still more flagrant one ; for this is a man who is not only the best, but almost the only, historical painter in England,—one who has been a great artist for forty years, from whom Rossetti and Hunt received instruc- tion and help more than thirty years ago !
Could there be a finer sight, from any true artistic point of view, than this old man of whom I am speaking, painting away for half-a-dozen years at his great frescoes in the Manchester Town Hall,* without the slightest recognition from any of those who are set to guard the arts for our country ? The last time I saw him, he talked of only one wish he had,—to get the commission to fill the vacant spaces still left for frescoes in the Houses of Parliament. "I'm quite strong enough yet," he said, " if I could only begin soon ; and I'd do them for the mere cost of my time." This is the sort of great artist whom the Academy have deemed unworthy of their notice for forty years, who might not unlace the latchet of young Dicksee's shoe, or tie up the frills of Phil Morris's babies. Who can wonder after this that Alfred Stevens was considered too inferior a sculptor to belong to the company whom Birch and Brock adorned ; that Gow, who paints breeches and boots very well, and men-at-arms fairly, was elected at twenty-five, and Burne Jones at fifty ; that great foreign artists who send works are often either skied or rejected altogether ; that even the long-suffering poorer brethren of the brush, are beginning (at the risk of their livelihood) to murmur deeply at the caprice and injustice they have long experienced ? These, and many another selfishness and injustice, are the marks of the maladministration of the Academy, which has made its walls a jest, its honour a scandal, and its neglect a tribute, amongst artists and lovers of art throughout the world.
• " I've got two hundred figures in the one I'm at work at now," be aa:d to me whertI was down at Manchester a few weeks ago.—H. Q.