‘Exhibition Room, Somerset House,’ Thomas Rowlandson, 1808
When the Royal Academy was first established in 1768, it occupied some small rooms in Pall Mall, but in 1771 William Chambers (a founder) obtained permission from King George to use seven state rooms in Somerset House to house the academy’s exhibition room, school, and studios.
The most important part of the building for the Royal Academy was its Exhibition Room. Situated at the top of the steep, winding staircase, it was roughly 53 x 43 feet and 32 feet high including the lantern, and was described by Joseph Baretti as, ‘undoubtedly at that date the finest gallery for displaying pictures so far built.’ It was here that George III was given a preview of the first Royal Academy Exhibition held at his command in 1780.
It wasn’t just the building that drew praise… Dr Johnson, writing in his diary described the first pre-exhibition banquet: ‘The Exhibition! how will you do either to see or not to see? The Exhibition is eminently splendid. There is contour and keeping and grace and expression, and all the varieties of artificial excellence. The apartments were truly very noble. The pictures for the sake of the skylight are at the top of the house: there we dined and I sat over against the Archbishop of York.’
Year by year, the exhibits increased. There were 547 in 1781, 1,037 in 1801, and 1,165 in 1821, so that the pictures had to be hung almost from floor to ceiling and with the frames touching one another.
From 1832 onwards there was talk of the Royal Academy moving to more spacious rooms in what is now the National Gallery, which was being built at the north end of Trafalgar Square. Accordingly, the last exhibition at Somerset House was held in 1836.
When the Academy moved, the most valuable decorations were taken down and reused in their new quarters. Later they were moved to Burlington House, the Royal Academy’s present home, where the ceiling paintings by Benjamin West and Angelica Kauffmann can now be seen in the entrance hall.
The Academy’s old rooms at Somerset House were occupied by the Department of Practical Art, or Government School of Design. (x)