Getting my Painting into the RA Summer Exhibition!

7 mn read

‘I am a fan of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As a younger man, I thought it a bit jumble sale-like. It’s not, and the mix of a piece by a premier league contemporary artist hanging next to a piece by a ‘Sunday painter’ is one of its great appeals…I submitted two pieces to the 2017 exhibition. Neither was selected. I submitted two pieces to the 2018 exhibition. One WAS selected’   Bob Deakin

I went to art school in the late 1970s. One year at Winchester and three years at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham. I remember prospectuses for courses typically described them using the word; peripatetic. I applied – and was accepted – having no idea what this meant. Only quite recently did I appreciate it means something like walk around or roaming.

With some help from staff about where I could find things that interested me, my experience at Art School had some fascinating experiences and some exciting consequences. It provided very little in the way of technical training. I did learn how to take and print photographs because I wanted to incorporate these into what I was making. Things like life drawing were not done; it was not hip.

The place of contemporary art in the world then was very different to how it is now. I recall the Tate’s purchase of Carl Andre’s bricks being front cover news on the Red Tops. And not in a good way. It was reported as a scandalous waste of money. I recall being called upon to justify it by aunts and uncles at a family gathering. I doubt I made a good job of this. Thankfully my parents were very supportive, including never asking ‘what’s it about?’ type questions when they visited my degree show. My work then included some visual punning so they would have ‘got it’ anyway.

Towards the end of my degree course, I applied for a place on post-graduate courses. I got as far as interview for two. Both suggested I go away for one year, continue making work, get some experience and apply again in 12 months’ time. I went away. I got a job. One that had nothing to do with my art education, but was fun, paid cash on a Friday afternoon and didn’t require me to think of work if I wasn’t AT work. I often spent much of the cash I received on a Friday afternoon on the same Friday evening.

My father was struck by an illness from which he died. I supported my mother through the initial months of her grieving. I got a dilapidated flat near to the Oval cricket ground. I fixed it up using skills I’d peripatetically acquired at art school and also learned from my DIY enthusiast father. Would he be pleased? I think so.

My fixing-up skills helped with my appointment to the job of Display Carpenter at Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge. It was an exceptional job. I loved it and I learned so much in my time there. It was also where I met Rachel. We fell in love and were together for 27 years. We have two children. We separated in 2009.

Rebuilding my life as a single man was a challenge. It was sometimes delightful, sometimes not. I started going to art galleries again. When I did I appreciated how much I had completely suspended this driving interest.

I experienced visual art differently from how I had as a student. I didn’t feel compelled to understand it as I once had. My responses were more; ‘Do I like this?’ ‘How did the artist do that?’. ‘I can see the artist’s hand in this’.

Sometimes I’d be looking at the work of a contemporary, practising artist, sometimes a Michelangelo or a Leonardo. At moments during my visits I cause concern to gallery attendants. I have no intention of touching but I like to be inches from the surface to see the evidence of the MAKING of this thing.

The single-man Bob started to think about acquiring some of the technical skills his art school education didn’t provide. I signed up for evening classes. I did lots of life drawing, also etching, silk-screen printing and recently portrait painting.

On a 1 week and then a 2-week summer school course, I experience rigorous training in drawing. At times I imagine my experiences to be like those of an apprentice to a Renaissance artist in 15th century Italy. I doubt there was much peripatetic about their learning. There was nothing peripatetic about mine on these two courses.

At a portrait painting evening class in 2017, I set myself the task of producing 12 portraits within the 2.5-hour class. I think I got 7 or 8 done. If you knew how possible it is for me to labour obsessively over getting things ’right’ you’d appreciate the potential liberation associated with this intention.

This is one of my paintings from that evening: I thought it to be of little merit. The tutor and some other students thought different. I took it home and it grew on me. People who know me well have made comments about it that I recognise are deep-rooted aspects of me.

I am a fan of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As a younger man, I thought it a bit jumble sale-like. It’s not, and the mix of a piece by a premier league contemporary artist hanging next to a piece by a ‘Sunday painter’ is one of its great appeals.

I submitted two pieces to the 2017 exhibition. Neither was selected. I submitted two pieces to the 2018 exhibition. One WAS selected – the image above. (I’m excited and emotional just typing this.)

One of the privileges of exhibitors is the invite to Varnishing Day. Here’s my story of that joyful day:

Exhibitors meet in the RA courtyard for the procession to St James’s Church.

On the walk, I strike up a conversation with Eleanor, also a first-time exhibitor. We discover that we both studied at the Art Academy on Borough High Street, me evening classes, she a five-year part-time course. We had both been taught by Carl Randall. Carl was responsible for suggesting to me that my piece in this year’s exhibition had some merit.

The church is gorgeous, the service lovely. I am struck by how the voices of the small 8 piece choir fill the space of the church. I think there must be more than two hundred of us in the congregation. I picture the 200+ beating hearts and creative brains. I am aware of mine being one of these.

I walk back to the RA with Eleanor. We express our mounting excitement about seeing our respective works in the galleries. I don’t remember when I last felt like this. I am at a loss to describe the feeling; this is a first-time experience.

Back at the RA now, and at the entrance to the galleries, we are given the ‘List of Works’ book and a glass of sparkling wine. None of us knows where we’ve been hung. I look me up; I’m in room IV. Eleanor is in another room and we part saying we’ll catch up later.

I walk straight to Room IV and see my painting across the room from the door. I’m in a great place. I take photos as I walk towards it. These are blurred. Is this due to my excitement? I take more, this time closer and in focus.

This is such a thrill.

Looking up to the right from mine I think I recognise the work of an artist. I look it up in the List of Works. It is the work of my art-school tutor Gerard Hemsworth.

I haven’t exhibited anything since my degree show in 1979 when Gerard was my tutor. Our paintings are hung about 2.0 metres apart. First I’ve met Eleanor with whom I have Carl in common, now I’m this close to Gerard, who was influential in my art education and for whom I’ve the greatest respect. I’ve seen his work at previous Summer Exhibitions.

I share this 2.0-metre proximity with other exhibitors, including Una Stubbs. Her painting and mine are 1.5 metres apart.

I walk to some other rooms but am compelled to return to mine to witness my painting seen by others. I am delighted to see that Gerard is there. He’s barely changed in the nearly 40 years since I last saw him. I say ‘Hello Gerard’. There’s the briefest moment of hesitation on his part until he smiles and we both do the ‘nice to see you, which room are you in?’ type exchange. I (like to) think he is as amused as I by the proximity of our work. We chat for some time.

I walk around once more. Then return to my painting. A painting very near mine is by a young artist. He’s maybe 11 years old and his mum is with him, taking photographs. I congratulate him on the inclusion of his work in the show. We both say it’s our first. I tell him he will surely have more.

A man in a flat cap joins our conversation. I ask him in which room his work is hung. He introduces himself as Humphrey Ocean, committee member of this year’s exhibition and hanger of Room IV.

He tells me he liked my painting from the first time he saw it and thinks it sits very well with those paintings he’s hung close to it. He tells me it also looks like the portrait of another exhibitor in Room IV. He subsequently introduces me to others as ‘my new friend Bob’, and tells me that Gerard was also his tutor back in the day.

 I am stopped in the courtyard on my way out. He introduces himself (I forget his name) as the creator of another piece in room IV. I recall the piece. He saw Humphrey and I talking, he knew which piece I’d painted. He said he liked it.

Humphrey has two paintings in this room. Gary Hume is hung here too. Looking at the List of Works this evening as I write this, I note that Lisa Milroy, David Batchelor, Jock McFadyen, Harry Hill and Basil Beattie, with Una Stubbs and others whose names I don’t recognise, are hung in this room. How remarkable that I’m showing alongside them. And Gerard.

I had the greatest of days today at the Summer Exhibition Varnishing Day. I’m thinking it was meant to be.

The RA Summer Show is on until 19th August.

More info here.

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