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February 19, 2013updated 09 May 2016 2:23pm

Digitised Royal Academy Winter Exhibition Catalogues Open Up a Lost World of Art and Philanthropy

By Spear's

The news that the catalogues of the Royal Academy’s Winter Exhibitions from 1870-1939 had been digitised sent me into spasms of geekdom

I’M AN ARCHIVES man at heart. Rooting around in old exhibition catalogues for how we used to think about art is fascinating to me, and so the news that the catalogues of the Royal Academy’s Winter Exhibitions from 1870-1939 have been digitised sent me into spasms of geekdom.

(We should thank the Samuel H Kress Foundation for stumping up the cash for this.)

As opposed to the Summer Exhibition, with its work hardly even dry, the Winter Exhibition was for loans of Old Masters and ‘deceased masters of the British School’ to start with, before covering international modern painting after World War I.

Before you get too excited and expect some sort of 1913-Armory-Show-style revolution in Modern art, definitions of modern clearly differ.

Take the 1920-1 catalogue (pictured below), which has a focus on modern (post-Goya) Spanish painters. One doodler notable by his absence is Pablo Picasso, who, one may concede, had done little by this point except overturn thousands of years of Western art.

So we’re in the traditional mode, which is fine; the Royal Academy is making up for it now.
ONE OF THE things I found most fascinating from my cursory browse is, in the first catalogue, that the names of the paintings and artists are suffixed with the names of those who lent them for the show: Baroness Gray lent a Rubens, the Earl of Suffolk a Caracci, the Marquis of Westminster a Velazquez – and that’s only on the first page.

If you’ve followed our recent exhibition, The Money Shot, you’ll know I have a particular interest in philanthropy and who gives what and how we record those gifts. The Money Shot featured photos of donor boards from London’s top museums and galleries.

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Clearly – unlike today, where a code of omerta prevails over who owns or loans what, who’s at the end of the telephone in the Sotheby’s sale room – there was a pride in sharing your collection. Today, I suspect, people fear jealousy or catty remarks if they show what they own: back then, there was a seigneurial if patronising noblesse oblige.

For anyone with the time and inclination – or the right digital software – some sort of analysis of the donors, how many paintings they had and how often they lent them, might generate revealing social, cultural and historical insights. Perhaps Samuel H Kress has some spare change down the back of his sofa for this one.

Click here to browse the digitised catalogues

Click here to read more on art from Spear’s

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