‘I approve of this Plan, let it be put into execution.’ With these words, scrawled in December 1768 at the foot of a document that was little more than a set of institutional rules, George III launched the Royal Academy of Arts, a private organisation run by and for artists that was to exercise an incalculable influence on British art. About time too, many would have said: an Académie Royale had been founded in Paris in 1648 and the lack of a comparable institution in Britain had begun to be embarrassing. Belated it might have been, but the Royal Academy was a resounding success. This professional forum raised the status of British artists, its high-minded values acting as a counterweight to the demands of the market. For decades afterwards, most young men serious about art as a profession passed through the Academy’s Schools and, once established as artists, hoped to have the honour of being elected as Associates or, better, full Academicians. In later years the Academy often found itself in an embattled state when other organisations encroached on its territory, or when entrenched conservatism put it on the wrong side of the argument. But somehow it always got back on the road, even when its wheels seemed to be spinning hopelessly. Its longevity has to do with its combination of roles: as well as being governed by a diverse professional body of Academicians, it has always been both a teaching institution and an exhibition venue, with an unbroken tradition of summer exhibitions dating back to 1769.
Books have been written about the Royal Academy before, but none with the scope, ambition and sheer heft of this one. It could, in fact, be described as a cultural history in that it approaches its subject largely through the prism of material things: the buildings it has