Thomas Houseago’s playful sculptures
Before visitors even reach the front door of the Royal Academy, a parade of unsettling, larger-than-life figures, fossicked as if from the tar of British artist Thomas Houseago’s unconscious, will accost them in the Annenberg Courtyard. Occupying a privileged position in the blueprint of the show – a space occupied last year by Anish Kapoor RA – and standing alongside Alfred Drury’s iconic sculpture of Joshua Reynolds PRA, Houseago’s bronze, plaster and wood statues will be an arresting blend of classical heft and postmodern playfulness. His five 15-foot-tall faces recently drew crowds at New York’s Rockefeller Center; his works for the RA will attract passersby from Piccadilly to the piazza in front of the Academy. Strange hybrid forms, melding historic and contemporary references, Houseago’s sculptures will acclimatise visitors to the range of creative vision on show inside. The artist’s tendency to leave his surfaces unfinished should also set an enticing tone of rawness and intensity.
Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723 – 1792)
RA Collection: People and Organisations
The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds, was considered the leading portrait painter of his day and a key figure in the Academy. Still in print today, and widely translated, his groundbreaking Discourses in Art were hugely influential on the development of British art.
The son of a Devonshire reverend and schoolmaster, Reynolds received a comprehensive education before being apprenticed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson aged 17. In 1749, he was invited to join the HMS Centurion on a voyage to the Mediterranean; Reynolds disembarked in Rome and stayed there for two years, studying the Old Masters. While in Rome he suffered from a bad cold which left him partially deaf so that he often carried an ear trumpet round with him, and was often depicted carrying the trumpet.
Soon after his return, Reynolds set up a studio in London and quickly established himself as a sought-after portrait painter, making important aristocratic connections in the process. His circle of friends included 18th-century notables such as the writer Dr Samuel Johnson, actor and playwright David Garrick and statesman Edmund Burke. He painted memorable portraits of all of them.
Reynolds played a central role in organising the group of 34 artists and architects who signed a petition to found a Royal Academy of Arts, which was to hold annual exhibitions of living artists’ work (now known as the Summer Exhibition) and establish a free art school. After King George III approved the petition, Reynolds was unanimously elected the Academy’s President and knighted the following year. However, Reynolds was not a court favourite and painted the King only once, in a commission for the opening of the Royal Academy’s first official home at Somerset House in 1780.
Between 1769 and 1790, Reynolds set out his theories on art in a series of fifteen lectures in the Royal Academy Schools, published as Discourses on Art. He argued that painters should look to classical and Renaissance art as their model and should seek to idealise nature rather than copy it, setting out what would become known as the “grand manner” of painting. Reynolds positioned paintings of epic, historic scenes as the highest genre of art, despite the fact that high demand for his portraits meant that he rarely painted them himself.
Reynolds used his knowledge of the Old Masters to invigorate many of his portraits. His full-length portrait of Captain Keppel depicting the naval commander energetically striding forward is actually based on the classical statue of the Apollo Belvedere. Some artists such as Nathanial Hone felt he was too reliant of Old Masters and painted a picture titled The Conjurer in which prints of Old Masters whirl around the conjurer which was a veiled reference to his practice. Another Royal Academician, Thomas Gainsborough, fell out with Reynolds for years before seeking reconciliation on his deathbed, writing that he had always “admired and sincerely loved Sir Joshua Reynolds”.
Reynolds’s death was greatly mourned. When he died in 1792, Edmund Burke’s eulogy honoured him as “the first Englishman who added the praise of the elegant arts to the other glories of his country”. His body lay in the Royal Academy before being moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the procession included ninety one carriages carrying many distinguished persons, and was followed by all the Academicians and students from the RA Schools. There is a statue by Alfred Drury, installed in 1931 and around this statue which still greets visitors to the Royal Academy today. The fountains and lights arranged around the statue reflect the alignment of planets, the moon and stars at midnight on the night of Reynolds’s birth
Anish Kapoor studied at Hornsey College of Art, London from 1973 to 1977 and at Chelsea School of Art, London from 1977 to 1978. He went on to teach at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1979 and in 1982 was Artist in Residence at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Kapoor’s first solo exhibition was held at Patrice Alexandre, Paris in 1980. His international reputation was quickly established, with a string of solo shows being held annually in countries around the world. He represented Britain, along with Stephen Farthing and Bill Woodrow, in the Paris Biennale in 1982, and again in 1990 at the Venice Biennale, for which he was awarded Premio Duemila. The following year he won the Turner Prize Award. Kapoor’s work has also been included in many key international group exhibitions since 1974.
Anish Kapoor was elected Royal Academician in 1999 and has been awarded Honorary Fellowships by the London Institute and Leeds University (1997), University of Wolverhampton (1999) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (2001). He lives and works in London.
Image: sculptures by Thomas Houseago installed at the Annenberg Courtyard, showing Sun & Moon Mask in the foreground. Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts / David Parry. Artwork: Courtesy the Artist, Gagosian and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.