A First Time Visitor’s Guide to the RA Summer Exhibition

The RA Summer Exhibition is the largest open submission exhibition in the world.  Each year sees the gallery jam packed with contemporary art by world renowned artists and emerging new talent.

Having been established in 1769 it’s also the longest continuously staged exhibition of contemporary art in the world.

Whilst this year is the 251st year the Summer Exhibition has run for, it’s actually the first year I’ve managed to attend so I thought I’d put together a guide for other first timers.


Open to all artists

When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768 one of its key objectives was to establish an annual exhibition, open to all artists of merit, which could be visited by the public.

Artists regardless of whether they are professional or amateur can submit up to two works of art via uploading photographs of their work along with their entrance fee. Following the digital images round  the judges will shortlist up to 4,000 entries to be delivered to the Academy for the final round where the coordinator and the selection committee will decide which artists will be displayed in the show.

In addition to those works selected by the committee, all of the current Academicians are entitled to show their artwork  in the exhibition.

If you want to find out more about this year’s selection process this BBC behind the scenes programme presented by Kirsty Wark and Brenda Emmanus is worth a watch, you can find it here.

Art everywhere

From the moment you enter the courtyard you’re greeted by Thomas Houseago’s large scale sculptures surrounding the first RA President Sir Joshua Reynolds.

As you head up the stairs to the exhibition you’re greeted by one of the show’s star attractions Leonard McComb’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ Standing, which is also known as the Golden Man.

With over 1500 works on display both on the walls and on the floor space there’s art as far as the eye can see.

As there’s so many artworks on show it’s can be difficult to take in everything so it’s worth getting the illustrated catalogue from the RA shop. or going online to see what you missed/ revist favourites.  I would’ve liked to have seen  Cornelia Parker’s ‘Poison and Antidote’ drawing which was made using rattlesnake venom and anti venom. 

I also missed Joe Tilson’s ‘Finestra Venezia’ which won this year’s Charles Wollaston Award which is presented to the “most distinguished work” in the exhibition.


Curated by artists

Every Summer Exhibition is coordinated by a member of the RA, this year saw acclaimed painter Jock McFadyen take over the reigns from Grayson Perry.

Assisting McFayden was this year’s selecting and hanging committee – Stephen Chambers, Spencer de Grey, Anne Desmet, Timothy Hyman, Hughie O’Donoghue, Barbara Rae, Bob & Roberta Smith, Jane & Louise Wilson and Richard Wilson.

There’s a quote from Norman Ackroyd who was the 2013 coordinator which I read on the RA’s website which I feel best describes the Summer Exhibition using artists for the selection process rather than curators – “It’s an exhibition selected by artists, hung by artists… we just choose the best art, and try to make sense of it on the walls. It is a truly democratic exhibition.”

In the past there were particular themes however since 2011 the selection committee decided not to have specific themes. 

Walking round the 2019 Summer Exhibition the animal kingdom, environment issues and Brexit were some of the themes that stood out.



Spot the leading artists

Walking round the galleries you’ll notice that all of artworks have been allocated a number rather than the name of the artist.

We found it easy to spot work by Banksy, Polly Morgan, Sir Michael Craig-Martin, Paula Rego and Huw Locke. Other big names that caught our attention were Anselm Kiefer and David Hepher.




Guess the price

We enjoyed pretending to be art collectors walking round picking out our favourite pieces before looking their number up in the book to see who the artist was.

As you wander round the galleries you’ll notice that some of the artwork sporting reds dots which indicates es a sale. The majority of the exhibition is for sale with proceeds helping to fund the Academy’s non-profit-making activities.

Cornelia Parker has even incorporated the red dots into one of her pieces Stolen Thunder’  which returns for the final time.



Here’s a few of our highlights from the 2019 RA Summer Exhibition:

Marcus Harvey – Best known for his controversial ‘Myra’ artwork Harvey’s ‘Victory’ reimagines Nelson’s flagship with a naked woman’s body emblazoned on the sails. 

Janet Mullarney ‘Dancer’   sculpture looks like she could come alive at any moment and perform for us.

John Davies’ group of haunting, figurative sculptures entitled  ‘My Ghosts’  were a standout collection.

Mach Brother’s – ‘Easy Tiger’, I’d dubbed this the Tunnocks Tiger but it’s actually M & S foil wrappers.  This I think will be all over  Instagram no doubt with captions such as this isn’t just any tiger… it’s an M & S tiger

Ishbel Myerscough’s portrait of mixed race couple  ‘Lily and Quaye’ particularly caught my  eye.

I was drawn to the figure who appears to be filming/ taking a photo in their smartphone in Luca Padroni’s I Valori Personali (Personal Values)

I loved the luminous quality of Emily Allchurch’s ‘Babel Britain (After Verhaect)’

If you’ve been inspired by this post to visit this year’s Summer Exhibition you’ve got until 12 August 2019 to check it out.

For more information, visit the RA Website. 



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