The decision of philanthropist, chairman of Reading Football Club and erstwhile Conservative Party benefactor John Madejski to give £3 million to the Royal Academy of Arts — and thereby funding the restoration of a suite of rooms in which the highlights of the RA’s permanent collection will be shown — can only be applauded. Similarly deserving of praise are the number of private donors who provided smaller, but still substantial contributions for the same purpose. The RA receives no state funding. More so than many of our cultural institutions, it depends on generosity of the sort that Mr Madejski and his fellow donors have so graciously provided. The urge to increase access to the RA’s treasure-trove of paintings, drawings, graphic work and sculpture is, finally, a sound and sensible one. These works have been hidden from general view since 1939 — not for any very obvious reason other than general lack of initiative — and it is good to have them back again.
Given, then, all the laudable generosity that has gone into the creation of the John Madejski Fine Rooms, it is with sadness that one has to say the unsayable: that these rooms are a bit of a mess, really, both in terms of their appearance and in their functional fitness to display the sort of art that is being shown in them. What, then, went wrong?
Let’s start with some background regarding the rooms themselves. Although Burlington House dates from 1664, the Madejski Rooms can trace back much of their appearance to a renovation carried out by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, soon after his return from two grand tours of Italy (1717 and 1722), where he had been comprehensively and enjoyably seduced by the architectural achievements of Andrea Palladio. To Burlington — and to architect Colen Campbell and the artist William Kent — we owe the two ceiling paintings, the coved ceiling in the Saloon and the enormous amount of ornament, both in carved wood and in plaster, all picked out in generous quantities of gold, that give these rooms their very real magnificence. Later, in 1815, a new owner of the house, Lord Cavendish, employed Samuel Ware to re-arrange the spaces within the building to provide better spaces for entertaining. To a large extent, his emendations — creating a long enfilade of rooms — also endure. Over the years that followed, of course, tastes changed and further renovations ensued, although it is perhaps worth remarking on how many important alterations occurred during the 1990s, including the introduction of Lord Foster’s pointlessly ugly lift (1991). But in the Madejski Rooms, then, what we see today is a Neo-Palladian design of 1717 rationalised to suit the needs of 1815 — and of 2004.
The marriage, alas, is not entirely a happy one. Some aspects of the rooms are extremely handsome. One has to admire the boldness of all that gilding, the obsessive attention to detail in the carved and moulded surfaces, and perhaps most of all the elegance of that long enfilade — an authentic touch of Roman grandeur in the midst of Piccadilly. It must also be said that the RA Surveyor’s Department have used the restoration of these rooms as an opportunity both to learn a good deal about Burlington House, and as a chance to reinstate elements of Ware’s scheme that have been lost in the years since its completion. All of that, obviously, is to the good.
But at the same time, the recent restoration has introduced some bizarrely hideous elements. We can forgive the RA the strange-looking ceiling in the Saloon, above which Kent’s coffered ceiling was recently discovered, hidden under layers of old paint, and behind which it is currently being conserved. But whose idea was that appalling lighting? The little brown spotlights detract violently from the elegance of the gilt cornices. Their highly arbitrary-looking placement only serves to draw attention to them and to pick a mindless argument with the Apollonian regularity of the decoration and architecture that characterise the rest of the room. The lighting effect they produce is also weird and unattractive. It mystifies me to think how an institution could have gone to so much work to restore these magnificent rooms and then have planted something so gratuitously ugly in the midst of them. Surely some better solution should be found — and soon?
And then there is the question of the floor. I have no idea what sort of floor existed in Ware’s version of these rooms, but I doubt that it looked like that plain, glaringly pale new oak flooring that has recently been installed. Yes, I know oak will darken with age, but at present, anyway, it injects a raw, thoroughly modern element into a space that ought, presumably, to have spoke of times that were anything but raw and modern. It looks too much like a ‘selling point’ in a Soho loft apartment, too little like the town house of a Regency aristocrat. Would it have been impossible to have a few carpets made for the occasion? There’s a painful recognition here that the past is being filtered rather aggressively through a contemporary aesthetic sensibility — inevitable, I suppose, but jarring all the same. And while we are on the subject of jarring discontinuity, why does the Tennant Room not have any gilding at all? Consciously or not, it somehow comes across as a reproach to this blameless and generous man, so needlessly persecuted in the recent past by a publicity-hungry New York City district attorney. Why not gild the Tennant Room, too, given that it has the same moulded and carved decorations as the other rooms, so as to make the rooms all match?
And finally we come to the issue of the windows. The John Madejski Fine Rooms look out over what we must learn to call the Annenberg Courtyard and its screen, and then out towards Piccadilly. It would, I suppose, be a rather marvellous view — integrating this gilded, other-worldly interior space not only with the architecture outside (important in itself) but with the bustling life of the courtyard, the weather, the sky and the varying effects of light. Strange to say, however, the view is denied to us — shut off beyond rather grim, featureless, matte-finish blinds.
At one level this decision to cover the windows is a gross abuse of the Neo-Palladian thinking behind the architecture. If, for instance, the Saloon is meant to resemble a loggia, surely cutting off any contact with the outside world does brutal violence to the whole meaning of the room? But it does nothing for the carved and moulded decoration, either, or even for the very pale grey paint and the omnipresent gilding — all of which would benefit enormously from the play of a bit of natural light. And yes, I know what the RA would probably say to this — that letting in natural light would destroy all their careful conservation efforts, bleaching paintings and leading to terrible temperature fluctuations. To which I would simply say, there is nothing very difficult about controlling those temperature fluctuations, and the paintings won’t bleach noticeably unless they are placed in direct sunlight, which no one is going to do anyway. Otherwise, why do galleries including the Louvre, Pitti Palace, Uffizi, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Vatican Museums and so forth allow the free flow of reflected natural light over what are, frankly, far superior masterpieces? But there’s also an issue of principle at stake. Either the context in which art is shown really matters, in which it is worth spending money to recreate the beautiful spaces of the past, or it doesn’t matter, in which all art can simply be shown in something like the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Regular readers will already know which of these options appeals to me. Meanwhile, I find the RA’s apparent stance on this issue absolutely baffling.
But as far as that goes, the way in which art was being shown in the renovated rooms was not entirely satisfactory, either. There are, it must be said, some marvellous and important works exhibited in these rooms. Some were the so-called ‘diploma works’, on which aspiring Academicians were judged by the RA committee. Others were gifts, either by the artists themselves or by their descendents. In the latter category are a several of the stunning, endlessly worthwhile Constable oil sketches located in the old Council Room. If there were nothing else on show in these rooms, the Constable sketches would, in themselves, make the rooms worth seeing. But there are also other works, laid out in a broadly chronological scheme, ranging from some handsome portraits and self-portraits of early Academicians — notably, a brilliant self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds — to works by more recent painters such as Carel Weight, Stanley Spencer and David Hockney. Prints from Turner’s Liber Studiorum are displayed nearby. The Royal Academy has, from the time of its creation, existed to foster British art — through all its crises of self-doubt and mindless boosterism, in every phase of its turbulent relationship with the art of continental Europe and beyond — and its collection ought to tell that story, in which the work of second-rate painters may be even more interesting than that of their more famous colleagues. This should, by rights, be a fascinating exhibition.
Yet it misses, somehow. The paintings are hung at odd heights and in odd bunches, with little sign of thought for fruitful juxtapositions, the overall appearance of the rooms, or even for art-historical narrative-making. The effect is gappy and episodic. Why, for instance, not turn over the old Ballroom to a temporary display of, say, the realist painting of the 1940-60s, giving Spencer and Weight — with their quirky urban mysticism and frequent tumbles into outright whimsy — their proper context, and incidentally making a real contribution to public understanding of this subject? And why, for that matter, not hang the paintings a bit more densely — not necessarily the floor-to-ceiling fantasia of the recent Somerset House reconstruction, perhaps, but at least in a manner more suited to the conventions of the time in which the rooms were designed? Meanwhile, the Hockey painting is so absolutely wretched as to constitute an embarrassment — even at the Summer Exhibition it would have looked coarse, lurid and talentless. The Degas Dancer, kindly loaned by Mr Madejski, is a pretty enough work but completely out of place amid a bunch of 20th century British paintings and completely out of sympathy with the room in which it is being shown. Finally, the prints from Liber Studiorum are themselves very dark and atmospheric — meaning that the decision to keep the room in which they are shown pitch-black (presumably, for ‘conservation reasons’) — simply meant that it was impossible to make out anything about any of them. Elsewhere, the omnipresent glazing and those terrible lamps ensured that many works were more or less obscured by glare. During the hanging of these pictures, someone should simply have stood back and spared a moment to see how it all looked. As it is, one left the Madejski Fine Rooms with a slightly dyspeptic sense of regret for the wasted opportunities here.
The good news, though, is that virtually all the mistakes in the redevelopment of these rooms could be put right fairly easily. The pictures could be re-selected and re-hung — perhaps with a more focused emphasis on the history of the RA, the contributions its members have made and the controversies that have buzzed around it, which in turn could constitute a useful if oblique examination of several centuries of British art. The lighting could be improved. Someone could purchase a few carpets. Most importantly, those terrible blinds could be carted away, letting in some enlivening natural light, infusing energy into spaces that currently come across as cold and sterile, and generally reconnecting Burlington House with the world outside it. Such changes would probably need to be underpinned by a somewhat clearer understanding of what the rooms are for, rather than trying to be several things at once and not getting any of them absolutely right. In the meantime, we should all be grateful to the RA’s present-day benefactors for braving a punitive tax regime and a culture more keen on asserting ‘rights’ than soliciting patronage in order to restore these handsome rooms to public view.
The John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy are now open. Admission is free.