Author: Imogen Aldridge

The RA Summer Exhibition: An Artist's insight into Varnishing Day

Varnishing Day is a prestigious event for all artists that were invited to show their work at the Summer Exhibition. Traditionally held the day before the grand opening so artists can add final touches to their paintings, the day is now for artists to celebrate their accomplishments with their peers. But what really happens behind the closed doors of this memorable day? Printmaker Hooksmith Press gives the Art Republic community an insider's sneak peek into the events of Varnishing Day.

 

Can you talk us through how Varnishing Day went? What were the key moments of the day?

I had read up on the history of the Royal Academy of Arts’ Summer Exhibition, so was familiar with its significance and the longevity of this exhibition. There are many great stories about the show, and I particularly like the story of the rivalry between Turner and Constable at this exhibition in 1831.   

I was quite nervous on Varnishing Day if I am honest, as I had also read that you can make it through both of the selection phases only to find on Varnishing Day that your piece never quite made the wall (hopefully this is only on very rare occasions).

 

Hooksmith Press in front of his print 'Hackneyed'

Can you give us a rundown on what happens during the procession and Artists’ Service?

I arrived early and walked past the St James Church and saw not much going on, so went for a coffee. Luckily I was back in good time as people were actually gathering in the courtyard of the Royal Academy. From here, a steel-pan band along with dignitaries from the RA and the Church lead us out and down Piccadilly to St James's. There were no plus ones and I didn't know anyone else, so just kind of followed the herd. When we got to the church, we were standing in line and I spotted a black mulberry tree growing over the back of the church. This was strangely reassuring, as trees hold a lot of personal significance and seem to have a knack of finding me in the past 15 years I have lived in London.

Once inside and seated, the service started with a reading from The Revd Lucy Winkett Hon RA  Rector, St James's Piccadilly, mixed with hymns, prayers and a Reading from Rebecca Salter (President of the RA). I'm not a religious person, though I revelled in the pomp and ceremony, readings and did my best to join in with the singing (by some spell-binding choristers). I actually got 2/3rds of the way through the service and realised I was still wearing my cap - oops! Once the service finished, we marched our way back to the RA.

 

What was it like carrying out such a long withstanding tradition?

It was great taking part in a service with a history going back over 250 years. The weather was stunning and I was pleased I wore shorts! Most people looked very happy and quietly excited. Raised by an active forest conservationist/botanist father, I thought it a very fitting to be taking part in this show with a climate theme. 

 

What was your favourite moment during the day?

My favourite moment, I cannot lie, was seeing my piece on the wall. Having kept my lips sealed for so long and trying not to get prematurely excited, I could now tell my wife, family and a few close friends. 

 

Do you have a favourite artwork in the exhibition, aside from your own?

There are so many great pieces. A large painting of a body of water with tall podocarp forest behind (almost sepia like) was one of the first pieces I saw, which seemed to welcome and reminded me of my West Coast Home in NZ. I think it’s called 'Primeval Growth' by Robyn Litchfield. I also really like the sculptural piece of the be-jewelled rotten lemon which is the icon piece for the whole exhibition.

 

How did you decide what artwork of yours to enter into the show?

As the show's theme is Climate, I decided to enter 'Plant More Trees', a lovely typographical piece, with careful hand-inking and a very rare Victorian ornamented 2-colour wooden type. This piece was not selected.

'Hackneyed', which is a much more vivid and bolder piece, was more of a wild-card entry. It seems to have struck a chord with Grayson Perry as he curated the print galleries this year.  The literal sense of the word Hackneyed means ‘worn out’, and the environment certainly is presently, so I guess it does still work in a show with a Climate theme. The work also has a bit of a funny autobiographical twist, in that I found out one of my great grandfathers came from Bethnal Green and was a Hackney Carriages driver.   

 

How important is the Summer exhibition to you? What does it mean to you to be selected? 

Having a piece of work selected for the Summer exhibition is really important, as it allows me to show my work to a greater audience. I also feel it is an endorsement of my art which I can be proud of - turns out 'suffering for your art' is worth it. As a keen fly fisherman, I see it as another feather in my cap.  

 

A glimpse into the hustle and bustle of Varnishing Day

How did it feel seeing your artwork on the yellow wall for the first time?

Seeing my work on the yellow wall was definitely a hoot and a great relief. I thought of my former art teacher in New Plymouth, Taranaki - the late and great NZ artist Tim Chadwick and how chuffed I think he would have been. I also couldn't wait to bring and show my wife and daughter.

While you're here, take a look at Hooksmith Press' collection of stunning Letterpress Prints. Are you planning a visit to the Summer Exhibition? Make sure to tag us in your social media posts @artrepublic.

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