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A place to train the next generation: “The Academicians of the Royal Academy” (1771-72) by Johann Zoffany

I spent my summer holiday last year in our cottage in Anglesey off the north coast of Wales. Because our children are now grown up and we have visited the local castles many times, I had slightly more time than I normally do to think about aspects of the history of the Royal Academy, which have interested and puzzled me.

Although I think I have pretty much read the standard histories of the Royal Academy, including the recent histories by Holger Hoock, now a Professor of British History in Pittsburgh, entitled The King’s Artists, and by James Fenton, the poet and Royal Academy’s Antiquary, I had been slightly confused and perplexed as to the precise chronology of its foundation and the respective role of the various protagonists involved in it. I knew that the architect, William Chambers, had been closely involved and that there was a suggestion, put forward by the Royal Academy’s current librarian, Nick Savage, that Chambers was actually much more significant to the foundation than Joshua Reynolds. But, more especially, I was preoccupied by a set of problems and issues relating to the founding of the Royal Academy which have engaged me since becoming its Secretary and Chief Executive in 2007 and which are perhaps particular to my role as Secretary.

One of the things I discovered when I joined the Royal Academy was that a number of the Academicians are extraordinarily interested in, and knowledgeable about, the so-called Laws of the Royal Academy, those rules which govern its procedures and which were first published in a small volume, of which only a single copy is known to exist, in March 1769. These Laws are believed to vest the ultimate authority for the running of the institution in the members of the Royal Academy—the Royal Academicians—through the meetings of the so-called General Assembly, which consists of as many of the Academicians as can attend all gathered together (I assume based on the Greek idea that democracy takes place in the αγορα). They think of it as their parliament and, as in parliament, they regard it as their responsibility to comment on, and criticise, the actions of the executive. I confess that I do not regard my greatest forte as being knowledge and understanding of, or even a particular interest in, the niceties of bureaucratic procedure. I am not one of those people who, in attending meetings of committees, feel that it is my moral responsibility to hold the chairman to account on grounds of protocol. Yet, when I arrived at the Royal Academy as its Secretary, I discovered that I was expected to know the so-called Laws by heart and to understand the minutiae of their operation. I was encouraged to keep them by my bed and to read them every night before going to sleep. I was expected, following the historic expectations of the role of Secretary, to be the guardian of process, the person who could quote precedent, and adjudicate on different interpretations of the Laws.

A long time ago, I was trained and worked as an 18th-century historian at the Warburg Institute. I became interested in the question: who on earth could have written these Laws? Who, in the mid-18th century, at the high noon of the Enlightenment, in a circle of people which included the great political philosopher, Edmund Burke, could have devised an organisation of such magnificent, nearly Byzantine complexity, in which there is such a nice view of the appropriate balance of authority that it is not clear, and has not been for nearly 250 years, whether or not the authority for decision-making lies with the organisation’s Council or its General Assembly and where there is such a clear and obvious determination to avoid the abrogation of power in the hands of a single person, so that power is neatly distributed in nearly equal fashion between four so-called officers: the President, who is the source of ultimate authority but who has to submit himself to annual election in order to be held directly answerable to the organisation’s electorate; the Treasurer, who holds the purse strings and whom Reynolds used to describe as the Viceroy, because William Chambers, the first Treasurer, was the person who had direct access to the King; the Keeper, who is in charge of the Royal Academy Schools, an important part of the organisation and who, in the early days, was responsible for looking after the day-to-day running of the establishment (not just the Schools); and the Secretary, who is expected to be the guardian of due process.

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