A visit to the degree show at the Royal Academy Schools got me thinking about the history of art education for women, and the Royal Academy and the position of women within it.
The Schools are tucked in behind the grandeur of the main RA building – the studio skylights look like a series of sheds that have been tacked on.
Inside, the corridor is dark, cluttered and a few centuries old. Most of the statues have bits missing (not always just the naughty bits). This place has seen heavy use since the RA moved to Burlington House in 1868.
The bare bones of the life drawing studio, and the collection of casts, look pretty much as it always has, and tucked in along the hallways are other necessities.
The Schools were founded in 1768 as part of an institution with a mission: “to promote the arts of design in Britain through education and exhibition.” The Royal Academy went on to dominate the art scene of the 18th and 19th centuries, but along the way it somehow lost its women members… first by attrition, and then, says the RA website, “In 1879, the Council of the day came to the conclusion that our original Instrument of Foundation did not allow for women RAs. Eventually, they relented and passed a resolution to make women eligible, but only on the condition of restricted privileges.”
For a long time the RA Schools was the only established art school in Britain. (Why “Schools”? – because when the RA was first founded, students were required to master a number of different artistic elements in a particular order – eg, drawing from casts before moving on to life drawing. Each element was known as a separate ‘School’.)
Other art education was through private schools and tutelage, which is how any women in Britain who aspired to be an artist got training, unless she went abroad to study. In 1860 the RA started admitting women students – almost by mistake. Selection was by submitted drawings, and when L. Herford turned up, what was assumed to be a Lawrence turned out to be a Laura.
By 1862 there were seven women among an intake of about 25 students a year, and before long they outnumbered the male students – who had migrated to Paris, where the drawing instruction was superior (says Stuart Macdonald in The History and Philosophy of Art Education, 1969) . All students at the RA Schools “spent five or more years in tedious imitation” – and women were banned from life drawing until 1893.
By the beginning of the 20th century the RA Schools had further competition in the form of the Slade and the Royal College of Art, and the quality of its students declined. Attempts to widen the curriculum to include decorative art got nowhere – it was confined to life-sized painting from the head, and painting and drawing from the nude figure.
The course lasted up to 10 years before 1853; it runs for three years now, and there are about 60 students in the Schools at a time, doing this postgraduate course. In 1769, 70 students were admitted; then as now, they do not pay fees.
Two women, Angelika Kauffmann and Mary Moser, were among the 36 founding members of the RA, but for a long time (until Annie Swynnerton became an associate in 1922, and Laura Knight a full member in 1936) there were no women academicians. Up to 80 practising artists are elected to be academicians ; these currently include 26 women.
Academicians are involved in teaching in the Schools and give lectures as part of the RA’s education programme. In 2011 Tracy Emin and Fiona Rae were the first women to be appointed professors, of drawing and painting respectively.
And now, some work from the current graduates. They’ve had three years with free tuition … but first had to be chosen from some 1000 applicants!
Up the stairs and you’re in the public part of the RA’s grand building … a different place.