Smith investigates institutional memory

Smith’s new book “The Company of Artists” analyzes the origins of the Royal Academy of London.
Smith’s new book “The Company of Artists” analyzes the origins of the Royal Academy of London. Photo by Vivienne Jiao Zhang.

Figuring out how and why institutions came into being can deliver substantial insight about their modern purpose.

This is the driving principle behind Charles Saumarez Smith’s new book, “The Company of Artists: The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London,” which covers the final days leading up to the establishment of the Academy in 1768 into its official first days during early December of that year. On Monday, Smith — the secretary and chief executive of the Academy — spoke to an audience of roughly 150 Yale community members about how the institution’s history still affects how it operates today. Since Smith has already released his book, he said that his purpose at yesterday’s talk was to explain the motivations behind his writing than the book’s insights themselves.

Smith emphasized throughout the lecture that histories such as his have great worth, joking that while some told him his book project seemed boring, he was motivated to continue working on it to help the Academy understand itself and its cultural role. He stressed that despite the Academy’s humble origins, it has managed to thrive for close to 250 years. To illustrate his point, Smith projected two contrasting images, one a caricature of young drunken men carousing and the other of a genteel group deliberating.

“[It was] a motley group of artists who managed to establish [this] organization,” he said.

Smith said the idea for his book was sparked by his own experience with the Academy as secretary, a role for which the institution’s other members held high expectations. When he came to the position in 2007, he was supposed to know the minutae of the Academy’s laws well enough to “be the guardian of the process, quote precedent and adjudicate.” This made him wonder how such laws, which he described as “byzantine,” had come about in the first place.

His resulting explanation focused on the artistic environment of the time. He described struggles between the older, more established artists and their younger, ambitious counterparts who felt they were being robbed of their share of limelight. The younger set of artists would ultimately compose the small conglomerate that supplicated King George III for the establishment of an Academy under the direct authority of the monarch.

Christian Soler ’16, the freshman representative of The Elihu Athenaeum: The Yale Undergraduate Society of Art Historians, said he came to hear Smith to get a preview of the book. He added that he considers Smith to be very prominent in the British art world.

“I thought the lecture was concise enough to understand what the book was about without reading it,” Soler said.

Yanbo Li ’16 said he came to hear the perspective of someone who has been in the field of art history for such a long time.

“It gave me a different perspective on the impact of seemingly arbitrary interpersonal relationships,” said Li, who added he was intrigued by the fact that they are being studied and written about so many years after their creation.

Smith said that the university is an appropriate venue for his lecture, adding that he also believes Yale was the root of much of the Academy’s early scholarship.

He has previously worked at and written institutional history books about both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery.

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