J H Ramberg, Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1787. Detail
J H Ramberg, Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1787. Detail

  From October 2001 through January 2002, the Courtauld Gallery will host a major loan exhibition that aims to recreate the British experience of modern art during the late Hanoverian era.

Between 1780 and 1836, the north block of Somerset House served as the headquarters of the Royal Academy, the central institution of the national art world. Its summer exhibitions then constituted the key event in Britain's artistic calendar, the annual arena where reputations were made and lost, where professional rivalries found public expression, and where portrayals of the great events and celebrities of the day came under close critical scrutiny from tens of thousands of discerning viewers. Hereall the major painters of the period had to make their mark, from Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough to J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. This was the place to see modern art, and to be seen among the visitors to one of the most fashionable public events in the London season. The people who in their thousands ascended to the top þoor were rewarded by the breathtaking sight of the Great Room, its walls covered from þoor to ceiling with several hundred vividly coloured and highly varnished canvases in bright gilt frames, hung so close to one another that they almost touched. The exhibited paintings formed a richly varied patchwork of forms and tints that constituted a spectacle of unrivalled opulence and splendour. This is the experience that A Rage for Exhibitions will seek to reconstruct. By so doing, we hope to forge a new acquaintance between twenty-first-century viewers and one of the most dynamic periods of historic British art - to enable our visitors to see that art in the very circumstances for which it was originally produced and, in so doing, to recapture its modernity and to reassess our own.

To achieve our goals we shall be assembling some three hundred works in various media - including miniatures, watercolours, prints, and architectural drawings, in addition to paintings and sculptures - all of which first went on public view in the Somerset House Royal Academy shows; these will be displayed in conditions as similar as possible to those in which they were originally shown. The objects will be borrowed from a host of public and private collections at home and abroad, including that of Her Majesty the Queen, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art, and the National Trust. A Rage for Exhibitions will be curated by David Solkin, who will also be editing an accompanying collection of essays by an international team of scholars. This volume will be published by Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The Mellon Centre has also generously sponsored a three year curatorial research fellowship, held by Anne Puetz, in support of this major project.