Ah, the Summer Exhibition, as much a regular fixture of English summer as Wimbledon, picnics, stripy deckchairs and Pimms and lemonade. Except unlike all of those things, it is perfect on a rainy day.
The Summer Exhibition’s heritage is impressive, it has been held every year since 1769 without exception, meaning it actually predates the inaugural Wimbledon Championship by an incredible 118 years.
But just because it is old doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging. It is the world’s largest open submission exhibition, and provides a unique platform for artists from across the world to exhibit their works in one of the most revered arts institutions.
The 2014 exhibition, which opens today brings together over 1,200 artworks, whittled down from over 12,000 entries.
The huge number of artworks means there is a vast amount on offer – plenty to please, enrage, confuse or simply laugh at.
The identification system the exhibition has adopted is to hand out a booklet cataloguing all the works, in which you match the number alongside the painting to the number in the booklet to find the name of the artist, the name of the work, and its price.
The vast majority of the paintings are for sale, and part of the fun is guessing whether you’re looking at a work by a Royal Academician, with prices stretching into the stratosphere, or a completely unknown artist, with prices as low (in one instance) as £3.50.
The layout is stimulating; vast rooms with large works give way to smaller rooms stuffed from floor to ceiling with paintings. The sculptor, Cornelia Parker RA, has curated a striking room focusing on the theme of black and white, including works by other Royal Academicians including Tacita Dean, Michael Landy, Richard Deacon and Michael Craig-Martin. Also in the same room are pieces by high-profile artists including Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley.
Other great finds are Una Stubbs little watercolours depicting Sherlock stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, William Bowyer’s scintillating landscape works, and the vertiginous Cake Man (II) sculpture by Yinka Shonibare, a sculpture of a brightly clad figure balancing a mighty pile of cakes on his back, which is, frankly, hard to miss.
The challenge for visitors is undoubtedly the exhibition’s size. With so much on offer, maintaining energy is an essential aspect of navigating these huge rooms.