AN ENGLISH CUBIST




WILLIAM ROBERTS:


The Council



This piece was first published in William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990). © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society.


The Grand Chantrey Stakes

The Grand Chantrey Stakes (pencil and watercolour), 1949
– a satire on Sir Alfred Munnings, PRA


It started in 1946 when I encountered Ruskin Spear in a dimly lighted corridor of the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Spear, like myself a visiting teacher at the school, had recently been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. He asked me if I would like my name proposed as a candidate for election to the Academy. I said I would. As neither of us carried notebooks or spare bits of paper, Spear wrote my name on the inside of his cigarette box. Following this meeting there was a long period of silence, until on March the first 1948 I received a letter from Sir Walter Lamb, the Secretary of the Royal Academy, informing me that my name had been put forward as a candidate, requesting at the same time the date of my birth.

For the next ten years my name was down for Associateship at the annual R A. elections, but without result. It was during the period of Sir Alfred Munnings' presidency that I first applied for membership, and this was unfortunate for me. Munnings and I had first met during the hanging of the Canadian War paintings at the Academy, in the winter of 1918. My large canvas of a gas attack at Ypres was laid out on the floor, and studying it was a tall man whose dress and large sombrero bespoke the artist. The art critic Paul Konody, who was standing close by, said to me 'Do you know Munnings? He would very much like to meet you.' But Munnings, as he moved away, said with a cynical grin, 'Whose leg are you pulling, Konody?' And in 1948, thirty years afterwards, he still remembered the incident.

When Munnings ceased to be President, Gerald Kelly took over, then following him, Richardson. This was altogether a long blank period for me. Until in 1956 Charles Wheeler came to occupy the Presidential chair. Two years after this event, with the aid of the President's casting vote, I became an A.R.A. On the 5th of May 1958, I received a letter from the Secretary of the R.A. Humphrey Brooke, informing me of my election to the Royal Academy, and that the President and Council would be pleased if I would be so good as to attend their next meeting on the 20th of May at 4.30 p.m. in order to sign the Roll of Institution, and receive my diploma as an Associate; stating further that tea would be served at 4.15 p.m. On the appointed day, the President, the Council and myself being all refreshed with tea and cake, I proceeded to sign the register, a very large book filled with the signatures of past and present members of the Academy.

On a gloomy Autumn evening several months later, I attended my first General Assembly meeting. However on this occasion no business was transacted, as there was only some half-dozen members present, and this was not sufficient to form a quorum. Wheeler said the meeting would have to be postponed until the Summer exhibition, when more members would be present, that being the period of the Luncheons.

Some time after my election as an Associate, I served – as is the custom – one year on the Council. This was followed, on my becoming an R.A. in 1965, by a further two-year period of service. At these sessions various matters would be discussed: scholarships and prizes for students; a farm in the South of France, given by the owner to the Academy to be used as a rest home for English and French art-students. As a diversion, on one occasion the Secretary read a letter from a reporter on the Star who wished to ply the President with a number of questions, such as: Was the Academy needed?

The Council decided that the Star man should be invited to send in his list of questions, and the President would do his best to answer them. However, the Press rarely let pass an opportunity to ridicule the Academy's Summer Exhibition. According to Sir Henry Rushbury the Newspaper men seldom go beyond the first room of the Gallery where the Refreshments are laid out for them.

Preparing the lists of invitations for the annual banquet is another of the Council's tasks, and they aim to include a number of accomplished orators among the guests. When the Duke of Gloucester was invited, he said he would accept only on condition that he would not be asked to come again in future. Menuhin the violinist came one year and made a long speech; afterwards he had it printed in pamphlet form, and circulated to the Academy members. The affair of the large Tarot cards and their sale caused a good deal of discussion. These cards were found on the death of Sir Henry Rushbury, in the studio he occupied at the Academy while he was Keeper of the Schools. Rushbury considered the cards of little value; nevertheless they were sold for several thousand pounds. A suggestion by a sculptor member of the Council, that Generals and Bishops be omitted from the lists of invitations to the banquet, was quickly dismissed with a look of scorn from the Secretary.

However, the chief subject of discussion at these Council meetings was the serious state of the Academy's finances. Of the various ways suggested to remedy the situation, the sale of the Leonardo da Vinci Cartoon was considered the best. Humphrey Brooke said that an acquaintance, a member of Sotheby's, had told him that the Leonardo Cartoon would sell for £1.000.000. An offer by Charles Clore the property developer to buy the Academy was not taken seriously, and the Council decided to go ahead with the sale of the Leonardo. The National Arts Collection Fund offered a contribution, proposing at the same time that they should manage the sale. The President agreed to this suggestion, although a little reluctantly at first. However the eventual price obtained for the Cartoon was far below the sum forecast by Humphrey's friend at Sotheby's.

At this period Humphrey was the moving spirit at these Council meetings; for, the President being elected annually by the members, it seemed to me that the Secretary had the more permanent post, and drew his authority from some higher source, Buckingham Palace, perhaps. It came as a surprise, when later on I learned that he was second in command to the President. I can remember only one occasion when the Secretary was over-ruled by the President. Humphrey had read a letter in the Times by Yvon Hitchens, a former student of the Royal Academy Schools, defending the Academy in some matter. Humphrey was so moved by it, that he proposed at a General Assembly meeting that Hitchens be elected an Associate by a show of hands; most members seemed to accept this proposal, and hands began to shoot up, but the President vetoed the suggestion, saying it was against the Academy's laws to elect in that way.

With so many luncheons, dinners and banquets taking place at the R A., it would not be surprising to find some connoisseurs of good wines among the members. I was confirmed in this when I overheard, at an Academy luncheon, Humphrey telling Sir Basil Spence that he had 'Laid Down' some bottles of fine old claret; Sir Basil replied that he had sampled a Bordeaux he had seen advertised and liked it so much that he made a journey to the producers in France, with the result that he decided to 'Lay Down' a hundred bottles of this wine.

Following a proposal by Humphrey, the Council decided to employ a public relations firm for one year at a fee of £4.000, to publicise the activities of the Academy. The R A. seemed to get very little for its money: the interviewers and their television team concentrated all their attention on the students. Their president when interviewed made some scathing remarks about the Academy members. During a meeting of the Council for the selection of works for the summer exhibition, a crowd of T.V. men invaded the Gallery carrying cameras of various sizes. They filmed and photographed everything within sight; finally climbing behind the tall screens, against which the selectors sit, to film the tops of their heads. Humphrey had a fondness for Press photographers; a man from the Times spent several days wandering around the galleries photographing the Members, and the picture-handlers. He stayed, on Humphrey's invitation, to lunch, twice; at the last of these, Humphrey stood up and gave the Times man a toast, to which he replied with a speech.

In March the selection of works sent in for the Summer Exhibition begins. A good deal of carrying and handling is needed to bring the pictures before the Selecting Committee, who are seated comfortably in armchairs, and by raising their hands signal that a painting is accepted. When the hanging of the exhibits starts, the Members are advised not to handle the works, but to leave this to the men specially engaged for the job. One year Secretary Humphrey Brooke employed a team of Undergrads from Balliol College to do the fetching and carrying of the several thousand pictures sent in; this, over a period of a week or more, can be very hard work. James Fitton, R.A., ignored the warning, and ruptured himself as a result of his misplaced exertions.

In 1966 Sir Charles Wheeler announced his resignation from the Presidency. The following year was also to be the last of my three years as a Councillor. On the evening when the voting was to take place for the new' President, the Treasurer Marshal Sisson said to me: 'We are all voting for Tom Monnington,' adding 'He is a very good business man, so give your vote to Monnington.' However, as this contender for the Presidency was practically unknown to me at that time, I voted instead for Carel Weight, who had been a more frequent speaker at the General Assemblies. Nevertheless Monnington was the successful candidate. After being announced the victor, amid applause from the members and smiling Secretary Brooke, he came forward and took his seat in a comfortable armchair placed ready for him. Wheeler then hung the chain of office around the neck of the new President. Relaxed in his chair and with hands clasped, Monnington addressing the Members said: 'Well, now I suppose you are all waiting to see me make a fool of myself.' But I rather think that what they were really waiting for, was the moment when they would be able to get to the Presidential dinner, laid out for them in the adjoining room.

At the first Council Luncheon presided over by Monnington, homemade apple pie and cream was served for dessert. Sir Charles Wheeler, the guest of honour, remarked 'We never had apple pie when I was President.' However the reason it was served on this occasion was because a new head porter had been appointed, and it was the rule that his wife should prepare the Council's meals. To help her at the start a professional cook had been engaged, to whose skill we owed the pie. Perhaps it will console Sir Charles to know that apple pie never appeared again at the luncheon table: from that day it was raw apples only, minus crust and cream.

With the first Council meetings under the new President we began to experience his talent for business; we had committees for this and sub-committees for that. From among the Council a 'Policy Advisory Committee' was formed; there was also a 'Ways and Means' sub-committee and a sub-committee on Salaries and Fees; there was besides, a sub-committee of two Members, for the purchase of drawings and water-colours from the Summer show. The Publications Department too had its 'Subcommittee.' From time to time, small private luncheons and dinner-parties were arranged, to which were invited the Academy's bankers, its Solicitors, or its Accountants, in turn, to enable the President to discuss with them the business of the R A.

One of the first matters the President and Council had to deal with, was to find a temporary home for the Michael Angelo Tondo, a large circular relief in marble of the Madonna and Child, while the room in which it hung was being redecorated. It was offered on loan to the National Gallery, but they refused it. After several other unsuccessful attempts to get it exhibited elsewhere, the plan for its removal was abandoned.

Quite early on it began to be evident to the Council, that for some reason there was a lack of harmony between Sir Thomas and the Secretary Humphrey Brooke. On the occasion of a Members Diners' Club meeting, Humphrey got up and made a speech criticising Monnington. Shortly afterwards at a Council meeting he stood up and asked for permission to speak; Monnington granted the request, and immediately left the Presidential chair, moving to an empty seat next to me, saying as he did so 'I shall go and sit beside Roberts.' I think he felt that in this way, by adopting the status of an ordinary member, he avoided criticism of his Office in any remarks made by the Secretary. It was significant that Humphrey no longer occupied a chair beside the President as he had always done in Wheeler's time, but some distance away on the opposite side of the table. I do not remember if Brooke's speech had any disturbing effect on our lunch that day.

There was further cause for dissension between President and Secretary, over the Vincent Harris legacy. Harris, a rich architect and friend of Monnington, had bequeathed his house in Knightsbridge, together with his Rolls-Royce, to the Academy. Sir Thomas claimed that he should have the use of the Rolls, because, he said, 'It was Infra Dig when he represented the R A. at important functions, to have to call a taxi on leaving, while other guests were chauffeur-driven, or else drove away in their own cars.' During the discussion some Council Members were of the opinion that it would not be wise to use the Rolls, as they were expensive to run. Architect Sir Basil Spence said that he had once had a Rolls and that replacement parts were very difficult to obtain, so gave it up and now used a Mini-Morris instead, which he found much more serviceable. At this the President reluctantly agreed that 'perhaps after all it would be better to sell the Rolls.'

The Gift House too produced differences of opinion among the Council Members. Humphrey was against accepting it, saying that it was decrepit and in a filthy state, that it would cost more than it was worth to put the building into proper condition. He was very prejudiced against Vincent Harris and referred to him in disparaging terms. His chief complaint being, that Harris had bullied one of the R A. porters. Monnington, who was in favour of accepting the bequest, began to lose patience, and told Brooke not to call people names.

About this time Sir Basil Spence was anxious to get the Council to grant the Sunday Mirror permission to hold an exhibition of 'Child Art' at the Academy for a fee of £2.000. When the Council came to vote upon the proposal by a show of hands, two were raised against: Henry Carr's and mine. This caused the decision to be postponed, much to Sir Basil's annoyance. The effect of his displeasure I was to experience later. In the meantime Spence continued to press for this 'Child Art' show with such persistence that it caused the President to remark 'Sir Basil seems to be getting all hot under the collar.'

Another subject for the Council's consideration was the suitability for exhibition of a large piece of sculpture representing the figure of Christ, sent in by a young Scottish sculptor. The trouble here was, that the figure had a protruding penis that stuck out horizontally. Gwynne-Jones was very opposed to its exhibition, referring to the figure repeatedly as the 'Cock,' and insisted that the 'Cock' must be kept out of the show. There was however one member who defended it, sculptor David McFall. He said he knew the contributor, a very sincere young man, who could ill afford to send this work all the way from Scotland, and not have it accepted. McFall proposed that if the Christ was rejected, the Council should award the sculptor a sum of money, a kind of consolation prize. The President rejected this, but agreed to pay the cost of the Christ's journey back to Scotland.

The problem of the Christ having been disposed of, one not concerned with aesthetic niceties but with staff discipline, had to be dealt with. It had been noticed by some members of the Council, that certain of the porters were showing too great an interest in the 'Bottle'; the question was how best to treat the matter. The Secretary said that Sir Robin Darwin, the Principal of the Royal College of Art, had told him that his method, when faced with a similar case, was to 'Sack One'; this had an immediate sobering-up effect on the others. But whether Humphrey took Sir Robin's advice and 'Sacked One' I never discovered.

However, interest in the wine-bibbing porters had become diverted to the more serious situation in which Humphrey was beginning to find himself in the Council. During the selection of works for purchase from the Academy's funds he attempted several times to over-ride the Committee's choice; until told by Monnington to get back to his Office and apply himself to his secretarial duties. There was a scene at a meeting of Councillors when the Secretary while speaking was interrupted by a remark from Andrew Freeth. Humphrey promptly told him to 'Shut up.' Freeth in a voice scarcely above a whisper muttered: 'I'll speak if I want to.' Humphrey was still addressing the Council, when Sir Basil Spence interjected a comment; Humphrey again snapped a loud 'Shut up.' Sir Basil's reaction was explosive. Raising himself from his chair, he leant across the table and yelled at Brooke 'Don't you tell me to 'Shut up'.' At this Humphrey, covering his face with his hands, broke down and wept. Immediately one temperamental member jumped up and hurried from the room, while the rest of us sat in embarrassed silence. As the meeting dispersed I noticed in an outer room the President and Sir Basil standing over a huddled and very dejected Humphrey seated upon a settee. Monnington was saying 'I warned you what would happen.'

Finally it was decided by the President and some others on the Council to call a meeting to decide what action to take with regard to the Secretary. But preparatory to this, and no doubt to inform her as to what was pending, Sir Thomas paid a visit to Mrs. Brooke. On the morning of the appointed day, Monnington phoned me and said we were to meet, not at the Academy but at the Canonbury house of Sir Basil Spence, and he promised to phone me later to let me know the exact time. However no further call came from the President. Doubtless Sir Basil remembered my opposing vote in the affair of the Sunday Mirror's Child Art show, and was taking no chances this time. As a consequence of this meeting, there followed Secretary Humphrey Brooke's resignation. I have often wondered since, whether the decision should not have been taken at a full meeting of the Council, held at the Academy, and not in the private house of one of the members.

Soon after this event I became a Senior Academician, and therefore no longer eligible to sit on the Council, able only to attend the General Assembly where members can stand up and air their opinions, which have little effect on the running of the Academy. I have attended many General Assemblies, at which were discussed such matters as the sale of the Leonardo cartoon, the loan of the Michael Angelo Tondo, and the finding of the Tarot cards. But the debate that took place on the last evening had more to do with housing and plumbing than Art or Artists. It appeared that the office staff needed larger and more concentrated quarters, as its twelve members were dispersed in different parts of the building, making communication between them difficult; also there was a need of more lavatory accommodation, as at present there is only one for the use of the whole staff. Various schemes to improve these conditions were suggested. Three architect Members had put forward a proposal whereby the Staff would have more room and be together. The architects' plan was to construct in the small south gallery a floor that would divide the room into a lower and an upper part: the bottom part would continue to be used as a picture gallery, while the top portion would become the new offices for the administrative staff. To show how this could be done, a large sketch was made upon a blackboard by one of the architects.

Besides this, further plans were considered. The new Secretary proposed that a piece of vacant ground situated at the rear of the main gallery could be used to erect a building of several stories. But the President said 'that would need a good deal of money, and we haven't any.' A gentleman who seemed to have got into the meeting by chance and appeared to be slightly inebriated, asked why we didn't build something in the Academy's forecourt. 'Because,' replied Sir Thomas, 'It doesn't belong to us.' There followed a good many suggestions from various members, until the hour of the R A. Dining Club's dinner was announced. This was the signal for me to take my departure from the General Assembly meeting. However, I imagine that besides the usual table talk about art and artists that would take place during the meal, the subject of the Staff offices and lavatories would be further examined over coffee and cigars.



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