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Finding a masterpiece in the jumble

Humphrey Ocean RA is a curator of the Royal Academy's Summer Show which has just opened. Ocean admits -

‘One of the complaints about the Summer Show is that it’s a jumble, because we’re used to beautifully hung, beautifully curated exhibitions elsewhere. So it is more dangerous to curate the Summer Show, and that’s why it can be considered unattractive. But what I love about it is that visitors have to make up their own minds about what’s important in the exhibition. I remember once, Tom Phillips RA took me aside at the opening and said: “Every year, there are five masterpieces in the Summer Show – the challenge is to find them!”’

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the largest open contemporary art exhibition in the world, drawing together a wide range of new work by both established and unknown living artists. Now in its 240th year, the exhibition includes around 1,200 works and the majority of works are for sale.

The Academy's collections are full of masterpieces, though some of them went unrecognized at the time of their creation.


Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right
Oil on paper, approx. 9 x 11 inches, 11 September 1821
Given by Isabel Constable, 1888

Constable submitted many small paintings to the Royal Academy in the hope he would be voted an associate, a seal of approval that would make selling paintings and supporting his family easier. For years he had no luck. In 1819 he made an unprecedented development in his working methods, and submitted his first "six-footer", the six by four-foot White Horse, which bowled the Academy over.

He based his scenic six-footers on thousands of studies - such as the one above. Its fragmentary mystery is very appealing. If a painting like this were hanging in the summer show, I would take it home.

We have a page on Constable's wonderful paintings and gritty fortitude here.