by Lottie Clark, Art Curator and Emma Philip, Fine Art Curator

We’re marking the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy (RA) this autumn, otherwise known as RA250. Today’s post by two of the Curators from our Art Department explores it founding principles and one of its most significant founding members.


Print by William Hamilton

Print by William Hamilton © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives).

When the Royal Academy was established in December 1768, one of its founding principles was to develop the training and teaching of art alongside the day-to-day study and practice of it, writes Lottie Clark.

Like many of the European academies that had gone before it, the RA set out to discuss and debate the many facets of art and art practice, provide analysis and new voices through visiting speakers and teachers. Its aim was to keep practice current and fresh, and embrace the changes and opinions that fuelled the art world – and the artists it housed.

When the Instrument of Foundation was signed by King George III on December 10, 1768, it detailed how the Academy would be run, including the appointment of its officer posts, council and financing, as well as its intention to establish the Schools of Design. These schools would be managed by a Keeper. Lessons would be delivered by nine Academicians or ‘Visitors’, who would rotate on a monthly basis. Most importantly, they would be “free to all Students qualified to receive Advantages from such studies.”

The RA admitted its first students on January 30, 1769. Among them were Joseph Strutt (1749-1802) who would go on to be a skilled engraver and writer, and William Hamilton (1751-1801), a painter and illustrator. The image on the right is a print from our collections by Hamilton.

The principles the RA was established with are exactly the same as those that are followed today.

Current Keeper, Rebecca Salter RA, is one of only two women to hold this post. Her predecessor Eileen Cooper RA was the first in 2011. Salter previously taught at the RA Schools. As the RA marks 250 years, she states: “We are looking back at our founding remit and our charitable purpose and saying, we still fit this. This was a fantastic idea in 1768 and it’s still pretty brilliant in 2018.”

After its first year in operation, founding President, Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA said the following during his second Discourse or annual lecture: “You must have no dependence on your own genius. If you have great talents, industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency. Nothing is denied to well directed labour; nothing is to be obtained without it.”

You can see a copy of Reynolds’ ‘Discourses’ in the ‘Great Artists | Great Teachers’ exhibition currently on display in the Levinsky Gallery at the University of Plymouth. This, along with some loans that are on display at Saltram House, are two of the partnership projects we’ve worked on for RA250. Watch this short video to find out more.

Other collection highlights with a link to the RA Schools include ‘Study for Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais (1829-1896). He was the youngest-ever student to be admitted to the RA Schools at the tender age of 10. He became President in 1896 but passed away six months later. We also have ‘To Tell Them Where It’s Got To’, an oil on canvas by Turner Prize nominee Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977). She attended the RA Schools from 2000-2003 and was chosen to exhibit in the coveted staircase space that opened the 2017 Summer Exhibition.

RA Schools Collage

L: ‘Study for Ophelia’ (detail) by John Everett Millais © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives). R: ‘To Tell Them Where It’s Got To’ by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye © The Artist. Courtesy Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery.


The works you can see on display at Saltram House until late October are by Swiss painter, Maria Anna Angelika (or Angelica) Kauffman.

Upon the foundation of the RA she was one of the first cohort of 34 members, writes Emma Philip. They were an international group of artists from across Europe.

Kauffman spoke fluent German, Italian, French and English. She was a childhood prodigy who’d been trained to paint by her father, and quickly became a skilled history painter with a great talent for portraits.

In the early 1760s she was often in Rome, where she became a fashionable choice for Grand Tour portraits of the visiting British aristocracy. Through these contacts she was convinced to go to London. Once there she fell in with the RA founders and was one of the original signatories on the letter petitioning the King for his patronage of the RA.

Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of her greatest advocates and firmest friends. In his pocket book diaries from that time, he abbreviates her name fondly to ‘Miss Angel’. As a token of their friendship they exchanged portraits of each other. Kauffman’s warm picture of Reynolds was purchased by his friends the Parkers of Saltram.

We are proud to have several examples of Kauffman’s work in our collections. These two circular oil paintings were purchased by the art collector Charles Rogers in the late 1700s. They are allegories or metaphors, where virtues take human form. Between the two canvases a story unfolds; Beauty unwisely ignores Prudence’s advice and gives in to the temptations of Love.

Kauffman Collage

L: ‘Beauty Tempted by Love, Counselled by Prudence’ (detail) and R: ‘Beauty Yielded to Love and Quitted By Prudence’ (detail) by Angelica Kauffman © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives).

As an acknowledged beauty herself and a woman about whom rumours often circulated, it’s possible there’s a trace of autobiography in these paintings.

Like Reynolds, Kauffman understood the importance of getting her work into print to ensure it was widely seen, and we hold several engravings after Kauffman. History painting was the most widely esteemed form of art at the time, requiring both knowledge of classical texts and anatomical expertise.

For a woman to succeed in such a field was truly remarkable. Kauffman was a woman in a man’s world, and according to her friend and client the famous philosopher Goethe, she worked harder than any other artist he knew.

Find out more about Saltram’s opening hours and dates here.

Read a further article about Kauffman and Reynolds written by National Trust Curator, Alison Cooper here. Alison was previously one of our Art Curators!

Find out about our RA250 events here.