The Royal Academy is one of London’s unmissable cultural destinations – its groundbreaking exhibitions of seminal British artists (such as David Hockney and Sir Joshua Reynolds) have put it on most visitors’ to-do lists. Best of all, it’s located near to The Chesterfield Mayfair, making those culture vulture excursions all the more accessible. We caught up with President of the Royal Academy Christopher Le Brun to learn more about this London landmark and for some insider tips on his favourite London spots…
1. Why is the Royal Academy such an important institution in London?
The Royal Academy is one of London’s “Big Five” institutions alongside the V&A, National Gallery, British Museum and the Tate. What is so different about the Royal Academy is that firstly, the artists and architects who are elected academicians run the institution. Secondly, the RA is the only one of these major institutions to be independently funded, this means we take no money at all from the government, which allows us our total autonomy. Finally, we have the Royal Academy Schools, not only the oldest art school in the country, but also it offers a totally free three-year post-graduate art course.
2. The Summer Exhibition gives artists from world-renowned names to part-time painters the chance to show, and sell, their works – why is this so important to the Royal Academy?
The Summer Exhibition was set up 245 years ago and is at the centre of what the Royal Academy does, and that is the funding of our schools and the students. A proportion of every piece sold goes towards the schools programme, anything above and beyond that will go into helping fund other exhibitions. Every year we receive around 12,000 submissions that the jury then need to sort through, of these roughly 1,200 to 1,300 works are chosen and of these around 900 are actually hung.
3. You are about to undergo major renovation and expansion works – what will be the outcome at the end?
Several years ago the RA acquired the site at Burlington Gardens, the old Museum of Mankind behind our present galleries. The plan is to unite the whole two and a half acre site to create a world-class educational and gallery offering. There will be a double height lecture theatre, which will be the most impressive one of its kind in London, if not the country; there will also be new display galleries, a learning studio and space to show our own collection. Over the years every new Royal Academician has donated a piece of work to the Royal Academy, so works from Reynolds to Hockney chart the history of the institution. We also have teaching aids that are copies of great works, for example, there is our copy of The Last Supper, produced by Da Vinci’s studio. Some of these will find a space in the new extension.
4. As a painter yourself, what impression has the Royal Academy made on you throughout your career?
When I was a young artist the Royal Academy made little impression on me. It was only after I became an elected Academician in 1996 that the RA began to change. Suddenly the RA was snapping up the most talented artists and architects of the generation – it all really started with the election of the Pop artists: David Hockney, R B Kitaj, Allen Jones and Peter Blake – these were artists that the world looked up to and suddenly everyone wanted to be part of it. Up until the late 1980s serious artists would sometimes think twice when invited to be an Academician, but no longer. The list of Academicians is now a who’s who of the finest artists and architects working in Britain today.
5. Who have has recently been elected to be a Royal Academician?
We have a really exciting group of younger artists who are joining the ranks; in the last few months we have elected the sculptor Conrad Shawcross, the designer Thomas Heatherwick and the painter Chantal Joffe. They have all been doing exceptional things within their respective disciplines and it is a measure of this that led us to their election.
6. You live in London, where do you spend your time when not at the Royal Academy?
Rather predictably if I am not at the Royal Academy, which takes up a lot of my time, I can be found in my studio in Camberwell.
7. What are London’s ‘hidden cultural gems’ that a visitor to the city should search out?
I would have to recommend the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it was the first purpose built picture gallery in the country, designed by Sir John Soane to hold an amazing permanent collection of Old Masters ranging from Rembrandt and Rubens to Reynolds and Gainsborough. They also have a series of exceptionally strong temporary exhibitions.
8. Where are your favourite places to pop out for lunch or grab a drink close to the Royal Academy?
I occasionally go to The Wolseley, on the other side of Piccadilly, which is perfect for breakfasts and lunches.