Royal Academy of Arts Varnishing Day

Every year St James’s takes a central role in the launch of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. As part of its ‘Varnishing Day’ celebrations artists and members of the Academy process from the RA to the church led by a steel band and representatives of St James’s. Creative Director Richard Parry reflects on the history and resonance of this fascinating and unique tradition that plays a prominent role in both institutions’ calendars.

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Church Window Mask

The North American modernist painter Barnett Newman once proclaimed that a finished painting is a dead painting, and as I arrived at the Royal Academy’s annual ‘Varnishing Day’ ceremony on Monday this thought found itself percolating in the back of my mind. The Varnishing Day Service has been undertaken jointly between St James’s Church and our neighbours the Royal Academy for years. The relationship between the two organisations is long and deep. Many of the past Presidents of the Royal Academy are buried here and artworks by Academicians have been and are shown on site. The Rector of the church, today the Reverend Lucy Winkett, is the Chaplain to the RA.

The ceremony begins in the courtyard of the Academy. At a certain point, people involved gather. At the head of the procession is a steel band, closely followed by members of the clergy and lay folk of the church, hoisting aloft a cross, and after them the exhibiting artists and people from the Academy involved in staging the exhibition. The procession slowly moves down Piccadilly, past Fortnum and Mason, coming down through the courtyard before arriving into the church. A full service follows – a blessing of all involved – accompanied by hymns, readings, a choral recital and a sermon. At the close of the service the artists head back to the Academy to view their work, see the exhibition and gather to chatter, critique and speculate.

Although my cursory research into the origins of the ceremony has not landed on a definitive answer of when it began what we do know is that the Summer Exhibition has been happening every year since 1769 and the church has been undertaking services of one kind or another since it first opened its doors in 1684. The Varnishing Day service itself has certainly been taking place for tens if not hundreds of years.

The hubbub and excitement of the morning is palpable. Artists selected for the exhibition are yet to see their work in the space and so all the questions of how, where and next to whom their work has been hung are lingering in the air.

The day is called ‘Varnishing Day’ because traditionally it is the point at which paintings were finished off with varnish and then were deemed complete and ready for public viewing. It is from this that we have the word vernissage (which literally means varnishing) to mark the opening of an exhibition. The term has stuck and is commonly used on the continent but also here in the UK too.

The moment of varnishing was one of inherent drama. Some painters would arrive in the church with varnish pot in hand. The significance and indeed performance of this day are captured in the famous account from the 1832 Varnishing Day when William Mallard Turner, riled by the flags and colours of John Constable’s painting Opening of Waterloo Bridge, smeared a small red dot to his seascape Helvoetsluys to add a buoy to the foreground, sealing in the flourish with a touch of varnish. “He has been here and fired a gun” Constable is reported to have said.

But besides recalling anecdotes from the annals and canons of art history, what is the meaning and resonance of the Varnishing Day service and procession today? It is striking to have the church so front and centre in this moment in the art calendar today. How are we to interpret this now? And what might this strange and unlikely ceremony, an echo from a past age, mean to us and offer today?

Lucy in her sermon, commented on what it means to convene and celebrate the voice of artists, after the isolation of the pandemic. The poem Caged Bird by Maya Angelou was read and reflected on, speaking of a voice in confinement, singing of freedom. Lucy also recalled William Blake, baptised at the church and who spoke of “mind-forg’d manacles” – the limits and constraints that we construct for ourselves and how the artist’s imagination can break these manacles. The question is raised of what is the cost of freedom? Might constraints and limits be a helpful, indeed necessary thing? I couldn’t help but reflect on whether some people are in a better position than others to have the space to enact the freedom of the imagination. If the artist creates a singular space for imaginative freedom through personal expression, they are also always subject to the responsibilities of society – they cannot simply act in a world of their own.

It is important and significant that for St James’s creativity, art and music is core to its work and has been for many years. It has a long and rich cultural history. Services like the Varnishing Day ceremony are moments when convictions about the importance of human expression find voice and connect with a wider public. But it is also a celebration of the value of expression within society and that, whilst each of us has the capacity for personal expression, we are ultimately part of something bigger than ourselves. It is an invitation to consider our gifts, what has been gifted to us, and what (and how) we might gift to others.

As I left the service I began to wonder whether, rather than a ‘Varnishing’ ceremony, it might be better to consider what an ‘Unvarnishing’ ceremony might entail. In a literal sense there has been a movement towards ‘deskilling’ over the past sixty years or so in art, with many artists moving away from producing highly polished and completed paintings encased in varnish to embrace many more materials and create something that, recalling Barnett Newman, is unfinished and porous to the world and its fluctuations and changes. It is important to consider that not only have the practices and media employed by artists diversified considerably from paint and varnish, so too the artists involved today represent a society where fewer people identify as being of faith and where for those who do many will practice this outside Christianity. What I discerned on Monday is that, whilst these are vital points to consider and act on, the intrinsic value of holding this ceremony in a space devoted to something beyond the gallery at this moment of launching an exhibition has a power and significance that invites a different kind of consideration and courage.

Richard Parry, Creative Director at St James’

Procession to St James’s