“Huh?” said the older woman next to me as we walked into the small, previously unoccupied Tennant Gallery of the Royal Academy of Arts. The gallery – in this case, more like a Salon – was filled with no more than 15 beautifully crafted, but quite folky, Victorian-style signs. Upon closer inspection these signs were advertising not bands or the navy but instead artists and the academy itself. The older woman, having stopped in front of the sign advertising Gainsborough’s head on a drum for a second, quickly turned around and left the gallery. Clearly she’d decided this was over her head. That’s the beauty and downfall of this show: it’s an inside joke.
Mark Hampson spent a year and a half in the archives of the Royal Academy, pouring over copious amounts of information on the Academy and its artists. Hampson learned the all the juicy gossip, interesting facts and mundane tidbits about these people and their institution. He knows more than almost everyone, other than the archivists themselves, about the history; hence, the joke is hard to get. Did you know that Gainsborough was not the often-portrayed soft-spoken romantic artist who deepest dilemma seemed to portraiture or landscape but instead was a arrogant cockney lad who was also an aspiring musician and writer? I didn’t. Does that mean I didn’t enjoy the show? Certainly not.
To enjoy this show you have to put aside the notion that you are going to get the joke entirely because you can’t. – in fact you aren’t even expected to. This show is definitely not for everyone, but I believe there is level of humour for everyone to grasp. How deep a level just depends on one thing: research.